This month for Female Film Pioneers, we look at the life of Anita Loos, a screenwriter, playwright and author best known for her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), which later became a star-vehicle for Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Her career as a writer began in 1912 and spanned seven decades. For more than thirty years, she was one of Hollywood’s most prolific and respected screenwriters. She covered a range of genres from comedy to romance and melodramas and her career bridged the silent and sound eras. Over the course of her long career she worked with many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Douglas Fairbanks and Clarke Gable to Audrey Hepburn and Jean Harlow. A highly intelligent woman, Loos helped to shape the careers of some of the silver screen’s most memorable stars, crafting their unforgettable on-screen personas. To the world, she presented a light and carefree air, but she was sharp as a whip, always with a witty comeback and one of America’s most accomplished writers for film even though you’ve probably never heard of her.
Anita Loos was born in 1888 and grew up in San Francisco where her father worked in a vaudeville theatre. As she got older, she became an avid watcher of the one-reel films that played between live acts at her father’s theatre and quickly noticed that those from Biograph were the best. She copied the address from the film can labels and sent off several story ideas to the studio. They liked her stories and sent her a check for $25.
The first story she sold, The New York Hat, gave Lional Barrymore his first starring role and starred Mary Pickford in her last role for D.W. Griffith. In 1914, she received an offer for a personal interview with Frank Dougherty, head of the Biograph story department. Upon her arrival at the studio with her mother, however, her mother was so shocked at the depravity she saw, that she promptly removed her 26-year-old daughter from the premises and forbade her from ever working in the film industry.
After her initial adventure into the world of film, Loos dabbled at being a gold digger, dating a string of wealthy men, but quickly grew bored with each of them. She continued to send scripts to Biograph, but kept her paychecks secret when she found that her boyfriends were threatened by her accomplishments. Due to the restraints society imposed on unmarried women, in 1915 Loos married Frank Pallma, which cleared the way for her to work in the movies. Her mother was now satisfied that she had lost her virginity in a respectable way and therefore saw not issue with her daughter moving to LA.
Loos began working for Griffith as a story editor and helped to write the titles for Intolerance (1916), widely considered to be one of the great American silent films. She then began to write the scenarios and titles for the films of Douglas Fairbanks, helping to create his on-screen persona and establishing him as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She began to work with director John Emerson who was responsible for initially bringing her work to Fairbanks. After making a few films together, Emerson began to claim credit as co-writer on Loos’ scripts.
Together the pair opened John Emerson—Anita Loos Productions. Loos, who was infatuated with Emerson, was happy to sit second fiddle to him even though she was the creative mind behind their work. They were married in 1919, by all accounts so Emerson could keep Loos close and continue to ride on her coattails, which she seemed more than content to let him do.
In 1925, Loos published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the novel that is Loos’ primary claim to fame. It has been reprinted in dozens of languages and elevated Loos to a new level of fame. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes established Loos as a star in her own right, separate from her husband. She became a bonfire star, her life followed with the same dedication as the biggest film stars. However, her achievements were quickly overshadowed by her husband who, angry that she had taken over the spotlight, did everything in his power to regain his dominance in the relationship.
In 1931, Loos was required to return to work to support her husband. She returned to Hollywood where talkies had become the norm. Due to her success in penning dialogue in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she was hired to write Red-Headed Woman for MGM after F. Scott Fitzgerald had proved unable to adapt the novel to the studio’s satisfaction. Due to her help in securing a director for the troubled project, Loos became one of the only writers with the privilege of being able to see their films through production.
Upon it’s release in 1932, Red-Headed Woman was met with an outraged outcry from the public for its sexual content and brought into question the effectiveness of the Hayes office in policing the content of film. This led to the creation of the Hayes Code (the era’s equivalent of a ratings system) that would rule the American film industry until Bonny and Clyde dismantled it in 1967.
At the time, Loos was one of MGM’s highest-paid writers, making $2,000 per week. She also served as a line producer on their films and was routinely asked to doctor others’ scripts, never receiving any on-screen and often no off-screen credit for her work. By the late 1930s, she was actively involved in publicity of her films, helping to write and edit their trailers.
However, her interest in the film world was beginning to wane. After the death of her long-time producer Irving Thalberg at MGM, her work was under constant scrutiny and constantly being questioned and rewritten by the producers and directors even after filming had started. In 1943, she was unceremoniously informed that her contract would not be renewed. As a result, Loos turned to the stage and moved to New York where she would spend the rest of her life.
Loos might have received a great deal of acknowledgement for her work during her life time, but unfortunately, history remembers her contributions to film largely through her “collaborations” with her husband or ignores her film work, instead focusing on the success of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Loos however was a talent in her own right and should stand in history on her own as one of cinema’s great writers.
Films You Should See:
Intolerance from 1916. It is rare that I would ever recommend one of Griffith’s films to anyone, but if you must sit through one of his silent epics, this is the one to brave largely due to the contributions made by Loos which make the film one of his most enjoyable.
The Red-Headed Woman from 1932. This was Loos’ first talkie and was a major factor in the establishment of the Hayes Code due to its highly sexual content and immoral behaviour of its lead played by Jean Harlow.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from 1953. Loos might not have been directly involved in the film, but the script was adapted from the musical written by Loos based on her book. I absolutely love this film. It’s great fun, full of fabulous musical numbers and witty dialogue that comes directly from Loos work.
Want to Know More?
Women Film Pioneers Project: Anita Loos’ Profile
Anita Loos Rediscovered Edited and Annotated by Cari Beauchamp & Mary Anita Loos
Anita Loos IMDb page.