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A Woman’s Life – and a Story - Meant for the Movies

Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on prolific screenwriter and author Lorna Moon. Between her start as a Scottish author to her time as a Hollywood screenwriter Lorna Moon lived a life meant for the movies, yet no one has tackled her bio-pic yet.
Lorna Moon-Script

Between her start as a Scottish author to her time as a Hollywood screenwriter, Lorna Moon lived a life meant for the movies, yet no one has tackled her bio-pic yet. They should. It all starts with her birth to hotelier parents in Strichen, Scotland in (possibly) 1886. As Nora Helen Wilson Low she lived a life of reading and listening to political debates among her socialist father and his friends. Always a rebel, she married her first husband in 1907, moved to Canada, and had her first child. Six years later she divorced him and married the man whose name she would keep, (though she didn’t keep him). With Walter Moon, she had another child and became a journalist under the name Lorna Moon. She also took note of the new medium of film – and its lack of quality stories.

[Jeanie MacPherson - The Genius Behind DeMille]

By writing to director Cecil B. DeMille and berating him for that lack of quality, Moon earned the dare of coming to Hollywood to do better, a dare she quickly took though it meant leaving her daughter behind. That lead to the dissolution of that second marriage but also to the opportunity to write for some of the most famous actresses of the day from Greta Garbo to Gloria Swanson.

As with many early female screenwriters, Moon’s looks could have earned her a place in front of the camera but she recognized that writers held the real control over character, story, and theme. Her looks did lead to another relationship, this with the married director William DeMille, which lead to the birth of another child. Not wanting to contribute to further Hollywood scandals in the wake of the trials of Fatty Arbuckle and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, Moon quietly had the child adopted – by William’s brother, Cecil, so that both parents could watch him grow up.

Don't Tell Everything. Paramount Pictures Film Ad Card.

Don't Tell Everything. Paramount Pictures Film Ad Card.

As a screenwriter Moon began writing films at Famous Players Lasky and MGM that include The Affairs of Anatol (1921), Don't Tell Everything (1921), Her Husband's Trademark (1922), Too Much Wife (1922). However, bedridden by her first bout with tuberculosis, Moon supported herself by writing Doorways in Drumorty, a poetic and lyrical collection of short stories about her hometown, and the best-selling novel Dark Star, a tragic coming-of-age story about an orphan girl growing up under the strict societal rules of Moon’s Scottish heritage which reached the bestseller list.

Feeling better, Moon returned to the studio and wrote Upstage (1926), After Midnight (1927) and Love (1927), for which she partnered with friend, and two-time Academy Award-winning Frances Marion. Together the screenwriters adapted Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into a hit for the best-selling box office duo of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. That female friendship became deeply important when Moon faced another bout of tuberculosis. She needed to pay for treatments and hospitalizations and Marion used her power at the studio to adapt the tragic Dark Star into the 1930 comedy film Min and Bill.

[International Women's Day: Frances Marion—The Original Power-Woman of Hollywood]

With that move, Marion salvaged the finances of two dear friends, Moon and star Marie Dressler who had gone bankrupt and needed a new lease on her career. Min and Bill brought Dressler back into the Top Ten lists of popular stars for decade while it paid for Moon’s stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She died there in 1930 at the age of 43. It wasn’t until William de Mille died in 1955 that Cecil told his adopted son, Richard, that William and Lorna had been his birth parents.

thin black line

If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.

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