Celebrating the Female Screenwriters Who Came Before Us - Jeanie MacPherson
As with many other female Silent Era screenwriters Jeanie Macpherson began her career as an actress (appearing in over 147 films). Then she became a writer/director at Universal (writing 54 films) and eventually met Cecil B. DeMille, for whom she would write the bulk of his box office successes. In 1927, Macpherson became one of only three women, the other two being Mary Pickford and Bess Meredyth (more on her in a future column) who helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (along with thirty-three male screenwriters). She was also a suffragette – and a pilot in those early days of aviation when, like the new world of motion pictures, even the skies were open to female trailblazers.
Despite all this, Macpherson doesn’t make it into many histories of screenwriters of the era largely because DeMille downplayed her writing ability with quotes like this from a 1957 interview: “She was not a good writer. She would bring in wonderful ideas but she could not carry a story all the way through in writing. Her name is on many things because she wrote with me. I carried the story and she would bring me many, many ideas. You’ll find her name on a lot of scripts.”
It’s an odd quote considering that after Macpherson’s death, DeMille wrote and directed just four films while Macpherson had written both The Ten Commandments (1927) and The King of Kings (1923), two films that essentially created DeMille's iconic status. Also, in one way or another Macpherson is credited on over half of all of DeMille's other films, proving Macpherson was a writer, researcher and artist in her own right, with or without DeMille.
Macpherson came to the movies in 1908 when a friend told her Biograph Studios were seeking actresses. By 1912, Jeanie Macpherson had moved West and begun working with Universal where she quickly moved up the ranks. In 1913, she wrote, directed, helped produce, and starred in her own film, Tarantula, which was such a financial success she was promoted to the head of her own department where she wrote, directed, acted, and oversaw an entire team of people, creating at least six films for Universal. On top of that the brand new Universal City on the Oak Crest ranch of the Universal Film Company elected her the police judge.
In 1930, Macpherson moved to MGM and wrote the comedy Fra Diavolo (1933) (The Devil's Brother in the United States) with Laurel and Hardy, directed by Hal Roach. Fra Diavolo's (1933) success buoyed the studio and she stayed at MGM for four more years, until DeMille needed her again for his planned production of Cleopatra (1934). With a team of twelve under her, she meticulously researched to the point that "If Cleopatra herself had visited the set, she would have felt right at home" (Pawlek Ch 19). Following the success of Cleopatra (1934), Macpherson and Cecil worked together on five more films – The Plainsman (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), Union Pacific (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and Unconquered (1947). For these films, Macpherson is either head researcher, contributor, or wrote the original adaptation while others wrote the screenplay. She is not listed as a sole writer after 1930. Of note, Unconquered (1947) was released one year after Macpherson died. DeMille requested Macpherson have a stronger hand in the production, but sadly she had fallen ill and months later Macpherson died from cancer.
Macpherson’s understanding of the new art of screenwriting influenced many who came after her, including renowned Italian screenwriter Suso Cecci d’amici who read a manual Macpherson had written and used those lessons when writing such neo-realist films as Rome, Open City (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).