Anita Loos retrospective
This article is from 2007.
Anita Loos was an intellectual brunette who wrote about dumb gold-diggers. As a major retrospective of her work hits the Festival, Paul Dale explores her legacy
Born in 1888 in California, Anita Loos was nearing her 40s when she penned her best-known book and became the doyenne of the jazz age. Written and released in 1926 her debut novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was to change her life forever. Up to that point, this daughter of committed West Coast newspaper man Richard Beers was best known for providing silent screen legends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks with their best written roles in satires The New York Hat and His Picture in the Paper, respectively.
It was her contributions to the subtitles of DW Griffiths’ only real masterpiece Intolerance in 1916 which were to bring her to New York for the first time, for the premiere. The city was to be the one true love affair of the second half of her life, the one that outlasted two overbearing husbands, licentious mentors and a million hangers on.
Though largely overshadowed by her jealous second husband, writer/director John Emerson, whose career is now largely forgotten, Loos’ contribution to cinema should not be underestimated. She started her writing career in 1912 by sending away scenarios to the Biograph Company in the early days of cinema. For her first scenario, The Road to Plainsdale, the story of a couple who move out to the country only to realise it was really much better in the city, she got $25 and the ignominy of never seeing the film make it to the screen.
More successful work followed, and by 1916 she received her first on-screen credit proper, which read: ‘Macbeth by William Shakespeare and Anita Loos’. Loos would later write that, ‘If I had asked [they] would have given me top billing.’
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s Loos continued to work on popular flapper comedies for the popular film star Constance ‘Dutch’ Talmadge with titles like The Love Expert and The Virtuous Vamp. It was also in this period that she began to travel and meet some of the most interesting people of the age, including the Sage of Baltimore himself, HL Mencken.
When Loos first met him, Mencken was one of the most respected critics working in America. Though initially attracted to him she noticed that this supposed great brain preferred dippy blondes over intellectual brunettes like herself. And so Lorelei Lee, the protagonist of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was born. Lorelei’s dumb gold-digging was an amalgam of many of the silent film actresses Loos had worked with since 1912, including Pickford, Lillian Gish and Lillian Lorraine (one of the most celebrated Ziegfield girls). An instant hit, the book was adapted as a silent in 1928 starring Ruth Taylor and Alice White in the roles that would later be made famous by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Sadly no print of the film remains.
This fascinating retrospective, the first at the EIFF to explore the work of a screenwriter, is a rare opportunity to drop into the prolific, dead witty, bob-haired world of one of the 20th century’s premiere writers, screenwriters and memoirists. Though disliked by many feminists (particularly the great Molly Haskell) for her ironic support of the idea that intelligent women should subjugate themselves for stupid, wealthy men, we can always love her for this quote: ‘I’ve had my best times when trailing a Mainbocher [1920’s couture designer] evening gown across a sawdust floor. I’ve always loved high style in low company.’
The Anita Loos retrospective is sponsored by The List. For full details go to www.edfilmfest.org.uk