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The 'Strongheart' of Screenwriter Jane Murfin

Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on screenwriting and Hollywood trailblazer Jane Murfin.
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Before there was the Lady Gaga remake of A Star is Born there was the 1937 original A Star is Born, written by Dorothy Parker (see Column #3 in this series). Before that, there was What Price Hollywood? (1932), written by Jane Murfin (and Adela Rogers St. Johns) which earned a Best Writing, Original Story nomination for the two female screenwriters at that year’s Academy Award ceremony.

Few Hollywood history books ever reference the name Jane Murfin even though she wrote and co-wrote and directed over 60 produced films in a career spanning over three decades and was a founding member of the Screenwriter’s Guild. She was one of the most prolific writers of the 1920s and ’30s.

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Born Jane Macklem on October 27, 1884 in Quincy, Michigan she took her first husband’s name and used it professionally across her career (and two other marriages). Murfin enjoyed a rare benefit for her day, she attended college and trained as a teacher. Instead of working in education, however, she fell into acting and from acting she fell into a writing collaboration that lasted her entire life. Murfin’s first role in a touring production of The Music Master in 1904 lead to meeting her lifelong friend and collaborator, Jane Cowl, who also acted in the play. The two women became writing partners, first for the theatre, then for film.

As some of their early plays concerned World War I, they chose to use a male pseudonym, Allan Langdon Martin. But when Joseph M. Schenck purchased their play Smilin’ Through (1932) as a starring vehicle for his wife, actress Norma Talmadge, they used their own names on the screenplay. Much like What Price Hollywood? the film was such a success it was re-made as a talkie in 1934, starring Norma Shearer, Fredrick March and Leslie Howard, and again in 1941 with Jeanette McDonald and Gene Raymond.

Strongheart and Jane Murfin

Strongheart and Jane Murfin

Murfin created the dog movie as a genre long before the arrival of Rin Tin Tin or Lassie by featuring a German shepherd she had adopted in Germany after WWI named Strongheart in films, making him the first canine film star. Creating the Strongheart franchise allowed Murfin to move into directing by co-directing Brawn of the North (1922) with dog trainer Laurence Trimble. The Strongheart franchise proved so popular it spawned a dog food that was available into the early 2000s even though the dog and Murfin were long gone. 

Other writing collaborators included Anita Loos on the 1939 classic The Women and Aldous Huxley on Pride and Prejudice (1940); and Harry Ruskin on Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941).

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She became one of the founding members of the Screenwriter’s Guild and then the Guild re-formed as the Writers’ Guild of America in 1933, Murfin wrote the original rules and guidelines. She served on the Board of Directors for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and became RKO’s first female supervisor as well as a producer at MGM.

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Murfin died on August 10, 1955 and was buried beside Jane Cowl, who had passed five years earlier, at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.

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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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