Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Behind the Typewriter: The Role of Women in the Development of the Screenwriting Profession
Maria Fosheim Lund, Livia Bloom, Daniela Bajar

Last modified: 2010-05-11


“He told me I’d better make my living with my brains [rather] than any beauty I thought I had,” writes Sada Louise Cowan in 1932 of her first interview with Cecil B. DeMille in 1920. Building on the work of many women before her, Cowan began working in the film industry at $25 per week. She would later earn a weekly salary of $1000 as one of America’s leading “photoplaywrights.” Gradually, screenwriting evolved into an independent profession, one that was unusually open to women practitioners. The number of women screenwriters would even come to equal the number of men in the field.

How did Cowan and women screenwriters of the silent era gain recognition as independent professionals and define their field within the filmmaking and literary worlds? Which roads lead women to the field? What were some of the important contributions women made in shaping the screenwriting profession?

    - The word “screenwriter” has different connotations today from what it meant during the silent era. We will start by defining what was expected from screenwriters during this period and articulate the function and evolution of the screenwriting department within the developing movie industry. The terminology used to describe and credit screenwriters was full of great variation--words like "photoplaywright," "scenarist," "story writer," "adapter," “story editor,” "source author," and "titler" all referred to various aspects of the screenwriting job. We will attempt to map out their differences and the way they overlapped.

    -By researching the publicity and celebrity of screenwriters in trade journals, fan magazines and general interest newspapers, we will study the way that screenwriting profession was viewed by the media. Screenwriters' clubs, guilds, and associations, including the Photoplaywright League of America and the Photoplay Authors’ League, will help us to trace the building of a screenwriting community and the growth of peer relationships within the field.

    - An entire field of little-known literature grew up around the teaching of the art of screenwriting. We will examine some of the many "How To" manuals published during this era, which capitalized on screenwriters and screenwriting's growing popularity.

    - To show some of the roads that lead women to the field we will examine the career trajectories and contributions of American women screenwriters, comparing those who came to screenwriting with established reputations to those who set out to enter the field in its infancy. We will also investigate the pragmatic concerns and slice-of-life routines of the working woman screenwriter; their daily work load, expectations and financial rewards.

With this paper, we hope to further illuminate the period during which the screenwriting profession came into its own, and the ways in which women actively shaped the profession in its earliest days.


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