Frederica Sagor Maas RIP

Frederica Sagor Maas, from the front cover to her autobiography

No one cares about a screenwriter. It’s brutal, but it’s true. They toil away at a keyboard for months, then see their precious work mangled and abused in its conversion to the screen. They are unwelcome on the set. Their brightest ideas get attributed to the director, their sharpest lines end up credited to some dumb actor. Frequently they get dropped from the credits entirely, particularly when they have undertaken essential remedial work on someone else’s botched script that needs urgent surgery. No one writes books about them, no one studies them, film history ignores them.

That’s how it is with screenwriters, and how it has always been. It certainly how Frederica Sagor Maas recorded it, one of the pioneers of Hollywood screenwriting who lived more than three times longer than the silent era itself, finally passing away last week at the remarkable age of 111. At the sprightly age of 99 she published a memoir, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, having been encouraged to do by Kevin Brownlow. It is no rose-tinted autobiography. She was contemptuous of the film industry and some of its most vaunted figures (Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer), finding Hollywood corrupt, debauched and dishonest. Her cynicism was undoubtedly accentuated by years of seeing the her work and that of her co-writer husband Ernest Maas unacknowledged, plagiarised or rejected. A difficult time in the 1950s being investigated by the FBI for alleged communist sympathies can’t have helped much either.

She was born in 1900, the child of Russian emigrants to the USA, studied journalism at Columbia University, and joined Universal Pictures in New York as an assistant story editor, aged 20. She moved to Hollywood and Preferred Pictures in 1923, later working for Universal Pictures, MGM, Fox and Paramount. Films she wrote included Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo, His Secretary (1925) and The Waning Sex (1926) with Norma Shearer, The Plastic Age (1925) with Clara Bow, and Rolled Stockings (1927) with Louise Brooks. Much of her work (as it appeared on the screen) is now lost, while other work never went acknowledged in the first place.

Work dried up in the sound era, with the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1946), based on a story with serious interest in the issues of women and work by Frederica and her husband, turned into a silly musical rather summing up her film industry experience. So she became an insurance adjuster instead, and said if she’d had her time again she would never have gone into the movies.

Is that true? Probably not. You don’t stick at a business for thirty years without feeling some sort of commitment to it, and the passing of time can sour memories just as it can sugar the memories of others. At any rate, her memoir is of particular value for providing an insight into Hollywood’s silent heyday from the perspective of someone who had experienced the changes of a century and found herself writing for a 21st century audience which likes its histories to have warts. It would have been a different book if written at another time.

There are obituaties for Frederica Sagor Maas in the San Francisco Examiner, Hollywood Reporter and Los Angeles Times. Her passing leaves perhaps just the former child stars Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy) and Mickey Rooney as the living survivors of the silent era. Judging from Maas’s view of Hollywood, ‘survivor’ is the appropriate word.

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