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Screenwriter Eve Unsell, Hitchcock’s Mentor Who Saved Universal’s European Operation

Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on screenwriter Eve Unsell, who accumulated nearly 100 credits as a screenwriter while writing for notable stars including Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, Baby Peggy and Jack Benny.

Born in Chicago in 1888 (or thereabouts, different sites report different dates), writer-producer Eve Unsell grew up in Caldwell, Kansas. After earning her undergraduate degree and working as a journalist for the Kansas City Post, she attended graduate school at Boston’s Emerson College for a year. There she studied drama and literature before heading to New York. After reading one of her short stories, theatrical agent Beatrice deMille (mother of Cecil and William) hired to work as what was then called a play reader and constructionist. During her career, Unsell accumulated nearly 100 credits as a screenwriter while writing for notable stars including Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, Baby Peggy and Jack Benny.

[Alice Burton Russell Micheaux: “Breaking Barriers on Two Fronts”]

When theater producer David Belasco and all 3 de Mille’s saw the opportunity in the new medium of silent film, Unsell, too, paid attention. In 1913 the Kalem Company produced her script The Pawnbroker’s Daughter. Then the Famous Players Film Company, created by Cecil DeMille and Jesse Lasky, produced The Eagles Mate (1914) starring Mary Pickford.

Eve Unsell

Eve Unsell

While other early screenwriters also worked as writer-directors, Unsell focused solely on the writing. She found her forte in the adaptation of short stories, novels, and plays, a hallmark of the era. The more she wrote and produced, the more company co-founder Adolph Zukor felt he needed her to take charge of scenarios for the newly formed British Lasky company in 1916 so Unsell moved to London. One of her first hires was a young Alfred Hitchcock and Unsell taught him the art of adapting novels for film, which served him well years later. In England, she wrote and produced The Great Day (1921) and The Call of Youth (1921).

[June Mathis: An Eye for Talent]

When Unsell returned to New York it was to serve as president over her namesake branch of Famous Players-Lasky: “Eve Unsell Photoplay Staff, Inc.” Her husband, Lester Blankfield, listed as the secretary and general manager. Sadly, her work with Lon Chaney involved the then common practice of an actor using make up to mimic another ethnicity, in this case characters of Asian backgrounds in films like The Cheat (1915) and Shadows, (1922). That practice, named yellowface, has since mostly discontinued.

Unsell moved out of that phase with Captain January (1924), based on the children’s book by Laura E. Richards and featuring child star Baby Peggy. The film would be remade in 1936 with Shirley Temple. Unsell passed away in 1930 at the age of 50. The last film to carry her credit as adapting a play into a film, The Medicine Man (1930), starred Jack Benny.

Captain January poster, Principal Pictures

Captain January poster, Principal Pictures

She remained married to Blankfield until her death. When she died, after such a prolific career, she had a two-line obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

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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