Looking back on her career in 1977, Bette Davis remembered with pride, "Women owned Hollywood for twenty years." She had a point. Between 1930 and 1950, over 40% of film industry employees were women, 25% of all screenwriters were female, one woman ran MGM behind the scenes, over a dozen women worked as producers, a woman headed the Screen Writers Guild three times, and press claimed Hollywood was a generation or two ahead of the rest of the country in terms of gender equality and employment.
The first comprehensive history of Hollywood's high-flying career women during the studio era, Nobody's Girl Friday covers the impact of the executives, producers, editors, writers, agents, designers, directors, and actresses who shaped Hollywood film production and style, led their unions, climbed to the top during the war, and fought the blacklist.
Based on a decade of archival research, author J.E. Smyth uncovers a formidable generation working within the American film industry and brings their voices back into the history of Hollywood. Their achievements, struggles, and perspectives fundamentally challenge popular ideas about director-based auteurism, male dominance, and female disempowerment in the years between First and Second Wave Feminism.
Nobody's Girl Friday is a revisionist history, but it's also a deeply personal, collective account of hundreds of working women, the studios they worked for, and the films they helped to make. For many years, historians and critics have insisted that both American feminism and the power of women in Hollywood declined and virtually disappeared from the 1920s through the 1960s. But Smyth vindicates Bette Davis's claim. The story of the women who called the shots in studio-era Hollywood has never fully been told-until now.
Smyth (Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance) presents a timely study built on detailed research into Golden Age Hollywood. She examines women's roles in Hollywood from the 1920s up to 1960, challenging second wave feminist ideas of female disempowerment in the industry during this time. The book showcases women in a variety of positions, "from secretaries to stars," and Smyth argues that "the studio era remains the most important and empowering chapter in women's employment in the film industry." Smyth's effort to "name as many names as possible," at times creates a roll call effect, hindering reader engagement with the overarching argument. The strongest sections focus more intently on specific people, both famous ones, such as the "Fourth Warner Brother," Bette Davis, who fought both for better roles and for progressive causes like the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923, and lesser-known figures like Mary McCall, a screenwriter turned Screen Writers Guild head. Smyth reveals that McCall proved one of the union's most effective presidents, securing writers' rights, developing the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and negotiating pay increases during WWII. Smyth's work stands out as especially meaningful in the era of #MeToo and revived resistance of women in Hollywood to gender inequality. Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated Mary McCall was head of the Screen Actors Guild.