The Early Hollywood Mogul Who Treated Women Fairly

The Early Hollywood Mogul Who Treated Women Fairly

German-American film pioneer Carl Laemmle and actress Norma Shearer at Laemmle's farewell banquet in Hollywood, 1936.

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Why you should care

Because Hollywood’s most inclusive studio arguably existed more than a century ago.

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In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the burgeoning #MeToo movement, there has been an understandable tendency to lament Hollywood’s record when it comes to the treatment and advancement of women. But not every example from Hollywood’s checkered history is a negative one. More than a century ago, there was at least one studio — and one top male Hollywood mogul — who was well ahead of the curve when it came to women working in the nascent film industry. In the early 1900s, Carl Laemmle’s Universal Studios embraced female directors, performers, writers and more, and in a way which is arguably still unmatched to this day.

The casting couch is in many ways Hollywood’s original sin. “The casting couch culture has been a problem as long as movies have been made — even the silent film actresses had to sleep with everybody,” says E.J. Fleming, author of several books on early Hollywood. “That was just how you got work in the movies. There was no way around it.”

It was not only a more inclusive strategy but also a profitable one.

As such, almost every woman seeking a job in Hollywood had to navigate a system riddled with sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination. The men who ran Hollywood’s first studios had nearly supreme power in their domains, and they took advantage of it. “Oftentimes we describe these studio heads as brilliant men who guided these studios,” says Anne Helen Petersen, author of Scandals of Classic Hollywood, “and they did that — but then they also wrecked a lot of people’s lives.”

Carl Laemmle, universally known as “Uncle Carl” around Universal Studios, had been a rebel and an outsider from the start of his influential time in Hollywood. The son of Jewish merchants in Germany, Laemmle immigrated at age 17 to America, where he started as an errand boy in New York and worked his way up to owning a chain of nickelodeons, which charged patrons a few pennies to see short films. Along with other film producers, he fought Thomas Edison’s growing monopoly on motion pictures, relocating his business to Hollywood in 1912 to escape Edison — and to take advantage of the low wages and sunny weather.

In 1915, he bought a 420-acre ranch in the San Fernando Valley, dubbing his new property Universal City. In the following years, Universal Studios produced some of Hollywood’s most iconic silent films, including monster movies like Dracula and Frankenstein. At first, though, business was far from booming. Laemmle needed to crank out as many cheap films as he could to make ends meet, but he could not afford to add many established directors to his payroll. And so, Laemmle, an elfin man with a cheery disposition who treated his employees like family, made a bold business decision: He gave many of his existing workers, which included actresses, costume designers and even seamstresses, a chance to direct and write new films.

One of those who jumped at the opportunity to direct was an actress named Cleo Madison, who began making successful films about women, including the powerful feminist melodrama Her Defiance (1916), which uses flashbacks and other innovative film techniques to tell the story of a pregnant woman, abandoned by her lover, who strikes out on her own and refuses to be kept by any man. “I had seen men with less brains than I had getting away with it and knew I could direct too,” Madison later told reporters.

Perhaps Universal’s most famous female director was Lois Weber, who helmed more than 100 films, including ones about controversial topics like abortion and divorce. Weber’s assistant, Frances Marion, also became a talented screenwriter with more than 130 films to her credit — and the official scriptwriter for Hollywood star Mary Pickford. All told, during the peak of Universal’s silent film dominance, Laemmle’s company had 30 female directors and 45 female screenwriters. And it was not only a more inclusive strategy but also a profitable one. As another Universal director, Ida May Park, observed, “Films are made for women, [who] compose the large majority of our fans.”

Laemmle’s innovative inclusiveness went beyond commissioning women to write and direct. He often gave female silent film stars like Pickford top billing, bolstering their prestige and earning potential. He even appointed a woman as Universal City’s chief of police.

Sadly, Universal Studios’ early enlightenment remained an outlier. As silent films gave way to talkies and the studio system consolidated, opportunities for women diminished, and the casting couch took on even more prominence in allocating those opportunities. “The casting couch problem never really went away,” says Fleming. “The men in authority in Hollywood … never stopped leveraging that position to have sex with the actresses.”

And women are still highly underrepresented as writers and directors in Hollywood. According to a recent study by the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only five of the top-grossing 100 films of 2016 were directed by women, and women received only 13 percent of the screenwriting credits.

As for Laemmle, he died of a heart attack in 1939 at age 72. His last years were spent trying to help save Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany — efforts so substantial that he is sometimes referred to as “Hollywood’s Oskar Schindler.” During the funeral service, two days after his death, every Hollywood studio came to a halt to observe five minutes of silence.

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