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.

Triangle Film Corporation

The House Built upon Sand (1916), with Lillian Gish and Roy Stewart, from La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma

Here’s a couple of websites to bring to your attention, each dedicated in one way or another to the Triangle Film Corporation. Triangle was formed in 1915 following a parting of the ways between the brothers Harry and Roy Aitken and other board members at the Mutual Film Corporation. Harry Aitken formed the Triangle Film Corporation in July 1915 with the plan of releasing the films of three prominent producers: D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett. For three years it was a considerable force in American film production before it was dissolved, brought down in part by the huge costs of Intolerance – ironically enough, given that it was formed on a tide of optimism and finance that followed the great success of The Birth of a Nation.

The first site is The Harry & Roy Aitken Collection, created by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, Madison. The WCFTR holds the papers of the Aitken brothers, comprising scripts, photos, promotional materials, company ledgers, legal records, and both personal and business correspondence. The site exhibits documents from one part of the collection, the Scripts and Scenarios series, using selected digitised documents to illustrate the great changes that took place in American film practice in the 1910s.

From the continuity script for Love of Justice? (working title The Woman of It) (1917)

The site comprises a timeline of developments in cinema in the 1910s; and a summary history of such developments, focussing on such key aspects as the arrival of feature films, the formation of exchanges, the distribution of features, and their exhibition. The central section is Continuity Script and the Rationalization of Film Production, which illustrates its historical thesis with digitised documents showing examples of Proof of Copyright, Detailed Scenario, Credits and Condensed Story, Locations, List of titles, Continuity Script Excerpt, Complete Picture Report and Budget Summary, all of them for Triangle releases. Another section, Changes in Film Style in the 1910s, demonstrates changes in lighting, staging, performance, editing and cinematography films at the start and end of the decade, with clips and stills as illustration. Finally there’s a case study based on The Clodhopper (1917), directed by Victor Scherzinger for Kay-Bee and released by Triangle, with a clip from the film and its matching continuity script.

From the gallery of photographs of Triangle productions on the Cinémathèque française site

Secondly, there’s the recently-launched La Triangle (1915-1919): Archives, recherche et histoire du cinéma, created by the Cinémathèque française. This brings together film clips (William S. Hart in The Desert Man, 1916 and Thomas Ince’s The Despoiler, 1915) with analyses of their restoration, photographs, digitised archival documents (including another contintuity script, for Lieutenant Danny, 1916, essays, catalogue records for relevant papers in Paris, Madison and Chicago, filmography, bibliography and weblinks.

Even if you don’t read French, the gallery of photographs alone is gorgeous to look at, and both sites are properly scholarly and just a little bit enthusiastic about their their subject, which is not just Triangle but the extraordinary way in which American film production stylistically and structurally evolved, matured and conquered the world over the period of the 1910s.

My thanks to Andrew Comiskey for alerting me to both sites.

Searching for Mary Murillo


Recently I was invited to speak at an event taking place Saturday 7 November at the BFI Southbank in London, on women and British silent cinema. There is increasing interest in the role of women in the early years of filmmaking (as demonstrated by Duke University’s Women Film Pioneers project), and as part of this trend the industrious Women and Silent British Cinema project has been investigating all traceable women filmmakers active in Britain in the silent era – including some rather obscure names, for whom little information survives. For my talk I offered to take on a scriptwriter about whom little was known, Mary Murillo, to demonstrate the research process and some of the online sources available. This blog post serves as part of my response.

Mary Murillo does not turn up in any standard motion picture encyclopedia or reference book. Her name is absent from all of the histories of the silent film era that I have consulted (bar a film credit or two), yet she was a significant screenwriter in American film for ten years, then worked in British films for six or more years where her name brought prestige to three different film companies, before she moved to work in French films at the start of the talkies. The fact that she has almost disappeared from film history says a lot about the way in which women filmmakers have been allowed to slip out of early film history, and about the low status of scriptwriters generally. So, how do we go about recovering that history?

Type her name into Google
Type “mary murillo” into Google and you get 15,500 hits. Initially this seems the very opposite of obscurity, but one quickly discovers that the same film credit data has been lifted from one or two sources to be reproduced on numerous filmographic and DVD sales sites, and what is useful information about her is very thin on the ground (one also finds many sites which refer to paintings of the Virgin Mary by the Spanish artist Murillo).

So there’s Wikipedia, which does have a short entry for her – a one-paragraph biography, a filmography and a couple of links. The biography tells us that she was born in Britain, wrote for the Fox, Metro and Stoll studios (the latter in Britain), that most notably she wrote for Theda Bara and Norman Talmadge, and that she was Irish by nationality, though some sources have her as being Latina. This is useful – and correct, because unfortunately the major piece on Mary Murillo available online, ‘Mary Murillo, Early Anglo Latina Scenarist‘ by Antonio Ríos-Bustamante, makes the fatal assumption that her surname meant that she was of Latin American extraction, despite evidence that she was born in Bradford. The writer has uncovered some useful information, but having made a wrong turning at the start, goes off in totally the wrong direction. There are other errors, notably in the filmography, and one is better off with her credits on the Internet Movie Database – over fifty titles – yet one should never accept the IMDb as being accurate or complete, especially for the silent film era, when credits can be difficult to determine (particularly for scriptwriters). Certainly she made more films that are listed there.

Family history sources
For a proper grounding in biographical film research, it is essential to use family history sources. This is where some small investment is necessary, because apart from the volunteer-produced FreeBMD (births, marriages and deaths in the UK, roughly to 1900), the major sources – Ancestry, etc. – require payment. Ancestry, however, is essential, offering not just births, marriages and deaths, but census records, shipping registers, military records, and much more. The Bioscope has produced a guide to using family history sources in film research, here. Mary Murillo is a problem, however, because it was an assumed name. Her real name was Mary O’Connor. She was of Irish parentage, which is a problem because there are few Irish family history resources online and most pre-1901 census records were destroyed in 1922 during the Civil War. However, Murillo / O’Connor was born in Bradford (explained below) in 1888, yet I can find no official birth record – the first indication of what seems to have been an unconventional childhood.


Mary De Murillo, bottom line of this insert from the ship’s register for the S.S. New York, sailing from Southampton 2 August 1909, from

Shipping records
These are essential. One of the great boons for biographical research recently has been the publication of shipping records, particularly between Britain and the USA before 1960, which give access to passenger registers, or manifests, which contain much biographical information, as well as certain dates. Ancestry has some, Findmypast provides Ancestors on Board using records from The National Archives, but best of all is Ellis Island, a free database with digitised documents of New York passenger records 1892-1924. From Ancestry’s shipping records we discover that Mary first went to American in 1908, under the name Mary de Murillo, where we learn her age (19), that she was Irish but living in England, that she was born in Bradford, that she was an actress, and that she was travelling with her step-sister, Isabel Daintry.


This seems a wonderful clue, though it has proven to be a bit of a dead-end. I’ve not been able to trace a family history for Daintry, who was an actress herself, appearing in a few films in the early 1910s, before fading from history, leaving just a photo (left) from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection in New York Library. One also discovers from the shipping record that Murillo does not give a family member as contact back in England, instead naming a Mrs Henderson of Eton Avenue, London as her friend. One her assumes that her parents were dead. We also learn that she was 5′ 4″ tall, with fair complexion, fair hair and brown eyes, and that she was in good health.

Why was she travelling to America? Well, she was calling herself an actress, and she was looking for work. Among the several handy databases that one can employ to find biographical information for those in the performing arts, a particularly useful one is the Internet Broadway Database, a free database of production credits for all stage performance’s on New York’s Broadway. And sure enough, there early in 1909 is Mary Murillo appearing alongside Isabel Daintry in the chorus of a musical, Havana. It was not a notable dramatic career – she has three further credits on the IBDB in 1912 and 1913, from which we may infer that she was on tour in stage productions during this period. As newspaper and theatre records reveal, she was a member of Annie Russell’s Old English Comedy Company, performing way down the cast list in plays such as She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals. This correlates with shipping records, because we find she sailed again from Britain to New York in October 1912, this time on her own, revealed by the manifest for her departure (on Ancestors on Board) and for her arrival (on Ellis Island), with useful the information that her previous stay in the country had lasted for three-and-a-half years.

Census records
Normally census records are the bedrock of biographical research. You get a person’s age, place of birth, family members, occupation, place of residence, and incidental information that one can glean, such as social status. Unfortunately I have not been able to find Mary Murillo/O’Connor on any British or Irish census, though I have found family members (her sisters, but not her parents). However she does turn up in the 1910 New York census, where she is a lodger in Manhattan, given as born in England, profession stage actress, no other family member with her. Something to be wary of – the electronic versions of such data, in this case Ancestry, are based on transcriptions and often the names have been written down wrong – for the 1910 census, Ancestry has her name as Mary Minter. Later census records have not yet been made publicly available.

At some point in 1913 or 14, Mary Murillo sold a film scenario to the husband-and-wife production team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Her career as an actress had not taken off, and like many others before her she looked to the movie industry as a way out, though in her case it was through her pen. She clearly had talent, because within two years she was one of the leading film scenarists in the American film business, becoming chief scriptwriter at Fox in 1915. This rise to fame one can trace through the best source for any online research of this kind, the newspaper archives. There are so many of these, though few are free, so either you pay a subscription or you hope your local library subscribes. Major resources include Newspaper (for American papers), the Times Digital Archive and Guardian Archive. Free resources include Australian Newspapers, New Zealand’s Papers Past and a private archive of American papers, Old Fulton NY Post Cards. Film publicity departments sent out supporting bumf worldwide, and you can find Mary Murillo’s name scattered all over the place, becase such was her prominence that her name was frequently mentioned as a leading feature – in ‘reviews’, advertisments and posters. The Bioscope has produced a guide to newspaper archives online, though it’s in need of some updating.


Advertisment for Her Double Life, from the Sandusky Star Journal, 28 September 1916, available from Newspaper

Mary Murillo specialised in exotic melodrama, and wrote five scripts for Theda Bara, Hollywood’s archetypal vamp. The films were Gold and the Woman, The Eternal Sapho, East Lynne, Her Double Life and The Vixen. From an article in the New York Clipper, 1 May 1918 (found at Old Fulton’s NY Post Cards), entitled ‘The Scenario Writer’, we learn this:

Even as late as the year 1914, there were few companies who deemed the writer worthy of mention on the screen and as for proper financial reward, many an excellent five reeler brought the magnificent sum of seventy-five dollars. Slowly but surely, however, the big film producers have come to realize the importance of the scenario writer in the general scheme of things with the result that from being one of the most poorly paid individuals connected with the industry, the men and women who create the successful screen plays today, now receive monetary recompense of substantial proportions. Mary Murillo, for example, a scenario writer, who made over twenty-five thousand dollars last year, sold her first script for twenty-five dollars, four years ago. She is but one of many scenario authors, who unsung and ignored but a few years back, are now reaping similar big rewards in the scenario field.

Quite a leap from stage obscurity to $25K a year in just four years. Newspaper records also tell us that Murillo left Fox at the end of 1917 to go independent, working for Metro amongst others, before joining the staff of Norma Talmadge productions in 1919, where she scripted such titles as Her Only Way, The Forbidden City and The Heart of Wetona, plus others such as Smilin’ Through where her name does not turn upon official credits but where she seems to have been a script doctor – a role she performed many times, making her exact filmography a difficult subject on which to be precise.

She ended her American film career in 1922. Why this was one can only speculate. Perhaps she wanted new challenges, perhaps her penchant for high-flown romanticism was starting to be out of fashion, or perhaps it was related to a revealing report in the New York Times of 18 March 1923, where we learn of the seizure by a deputy sheriff of a five-storey at 338 West Eighty-Fifth Street leased by Miss Mary Murillo, “a scenario writer, now said to be in Hollywood”. She had defaulted on her payments. Among the goods seized were “tapestries alleged to be valuable, a mahogany grand piano, phonograph and a quantity of records, a lot of silver and a leopard skin”. Mary had been living the movie life, and how.

Contemporary movie guides
It’s worth remembering that there were reference guides produced from the early 1910s onwards that provide biographical information on those before and behind the camera in the film business. Often the personal information provided needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it’s always a handy starting point. Some of these are available on the Internet Archive: for example, Charles Donald Fox and Milton Silver’s Who’s Who on the Screen (1920), and the 1921 edition of William Allen Johnston’s Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual. The latter has an entry on Mary Murillo, which seems to be wholly accurate, as follows:


Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual 1921

Trade papers
There is plenty one can find about Mary Murillo from American newspaper sources, even if mostly of a superficial kind. Once she moved to Britain, the online sources dry up, because she gets little mention in the digitised British newspapers. She started writing for Stoll Film Productions, the major British studio of the early 1920s, resulting in five films: The White Slippers (1924), The Sins Ye Do (1924) and A Woman Redeemed (1927), plus two (possibly three) titles for other studios. Information on these is best found in film trade papers, such as the Bioscope and the Kinematograph Weekly, which do not exist online and need to be located at the BFI National Library, British Library Newspapers (which has produced a useful list of British and Irish cinema and film periodicals that it holds), or on microfilm sets at film research centres. There are no indexes to such resources – you just have to scroll through them and hope to strike lucky, though the BFI’s onsite database provides many references (these are missing from the online version of the database). One trade journal that does have a handy index is the American Moving Picture World, and it is from Annette M. D’Agostino’s invaluable Filmmakers in the Moving Picture World: An Index of Articles, 1907-27 that I found an article on Murillo from 16 March 1918 – though only after looking twice, because her name was indexed as Murrillo (remember never to trust indexes implicitly – always look laterally, and be prepared for mispellings etc). From that I got the photograph at the top of this post and some tantalising biographical information, including her schooling at a convent in Roehampton, near London. (By the way, the American journal Variety does publish indexes, for film titles and an obituaries index, only in printed form).

Ask people
Of course, asking people is a hugely important part of research. It’s always best to do a bit of research yourself rather than expect others to do all your work for you, but armed with some information you’ve been able to gather, turn to the experts. Having taken my research so far, I posted a query on the classic film forum Nitrateville, which is jam-packed full of knowledgeable people only too willing to help. It so happened that none knew anything about Mary Murillo directly, but one or two respondees came up with excellent leads. One used Google Books, which enables you to search through snippets of texts from books old and current and found a mention of her in a Belgian memoir – more of that below. Another looked in the Irish Times Digital Archive, a subscription site, and found that there seemed to be an article on her in 1980. I have access to the site at work (see here for a list of all full-text, word-searchable newspapers and journals available electronically at the British Library), and discovered that the article was a piece by Irish film historian Liam O’Leary on the director Herbert Brenon, with whom Murillo worked. O’Leary, as an aside, revealed the precious information that her real name was Mary O’Connor, and that she came from Tipperary.

Tipperary and Bradford? Something odd there, but the Liam O’Leary papers are held in the National Library of Ireland, where former cameraman and known walking encyclopedia of Irish film history, Robert Monks, has care of the papers. Bob looked up Liam’s card index for me and found reference to an article on her in the October 1917 issue of Irish Limelight, a short-lived film trade journal. Happily, the British Library has Irish Limelight. From this I learned that her family came from Ballybroughie – though there’s a problem there, as there is no such place as Ballybroughie, at least as far as I can find. Her early years were spent near Tipperary, though as she and her sisters (more of them in a minute) were born in Bradford the family clearly moved around a bit. She mentions her father (no name) but not her mother, boasts of her great muscial gifts when young, says that she chose the name Murillo because she was compared when young to a Murillo madonna painting, and describes how tough she found it finding work as an actress.

She also mentions the convents she went to – St Monica’s in Skipton, Yorkshire, and Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton. This is now Woldingham School and the archivist there told me that Mary O’Connor (born 22 January 1888) and her sisters Philomena and Margaret were at Roehampton for a year (1903-04) before deciding that its tough regime was not for them. The parents’ (parent?) address is given as Thomas Cook c/o Ludgate. He, or they, were overseas (the travel agents Thomas Cook’s main offices were in Ludgate Circus, London). In the 1901 census Philomena, Margaret and another sister Winifred (but not Mary) are given as boarding at St Monica’s, aged respectively 4, 3 and 7. What were the first two doing in a boarding school at that age? Were the absent parents touring performers, or involved in international (Empire?) business, or just plain neglectful?

Mary Murillo turns up in a couple of British newspapers in the late 1920s when her name was used by two film companies issuing prospectuses in the hope of investment. In The Times, 29 November 1927, the British Lion Corporation (with backing from the author Edgar Wallace) announced that its grand plans included “a contract with Miss Mary Murillo, whereby she is to write two complete Film scenarios for the Company during the year 1928”. It also makes the surprise claim that she wrote the script for The Magician by Rex Ingram (Irish himself, of course), something not otherwise recorded in any source. She also turns up in the prospectus the Blattner Picture Corporation (found in The Daily Mirror 21 May 1928, available from pay site ukpressonline) where it declares that “the company will from its inception will have expert technical assistance, and in particular Miss Mary Murillo (formerly Scenarist for the Metro-Goldwyn Corporation, Messrs Famous-Players Lasky, Mr D.W. Griffith, Miss Norma Talmadge &c.) will write Scenarios for this Company’s first year’s programme”.

This is useful, though only a couple of films seem to have come out of her association with British Lion, and none with Blattner. She made some films in France, apparently working on English versions of French releases, though she is credited for the script of the 1930 classic Accusée, levez-vous!. Her last film credit is as a co-writer of the British film, My Old Dutch, in 1934. Then what? Well, the Belgian source I mentioned was Les Méconnus de Londres (2006), the memoirs of Tinou Dutry-Soinne, widow of the Secretary to the Belgian Parliamentary Office in London, which cared for Belgian exiles during World War II. She met Mary Murillo in London at that time, and provides a sketch of a lively, interesting character with a fascinating history in film behind her who was keen to help Belgian exiles. An email to the obliging people at the Belgian embassy in London got me Mme Dutry’s address, and she wrote me a most friendly and detailed letter with all the information she could find on her social contacts with Mary Murillo up 10 October 1941, the last time she saw her. Murillo wanted to do what she could to help the Belgian cause (she seems to have spent some time in Belgium before the war), but suddenly disappeared from the scene.

And then what? I don’t know. She just vanishes. She appears not to have married nor to have had children. I have found no death record, though admittedly Mary O’Connor is not an easy name to research. But for the film researcher the biographical information, though a necessary backbone, is not the main business. She was a scriptwriter, and we want to find film her surviving scripts, and surviving films. Firstly we need reliable film credits. I’ve said that IMDb is a good start, but always double-check with at least two other sources. The filmography at the end of this post comes from a combination of the IMDb, references in newspapers, the Library of Congress Catalog of Copyright Entries: Motion Pictures 1912-1939 (available in PDF form from the Internet Archive), the American Film Institute Catalog (for which the records for silent films are accessible to all), Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue 1895-1985 and the BFI database. There are some uncertain titles in the filmography – as said, she seems to have tidied up others’ scripts at times, or to have developed scripts which were then completed by other hands, so determining what is her work outright is not easy.


There is no register of all extant film scripts, and one has to search in multiple places. I found two Murillo shooting scripts in the indexes of the BFI National Library in London (The Sins Ye Do, A Woman Redeemed). The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a Motion Picture Scripts Database, from which I found nine scripts, held by UCLA and AMPAS itself: Ambition, The Bitter Truth, The Little Gypsy, Love’s Law, The New York Peacock, A Parisian Romance, Sister against Sister, Two Little Imps and The Vixen (the poster, right, for her 1917 film Tangled Lives, comes from the Margaret Herrick Library site). Some of these scripts are also held in the Twentieth Century-Fox archives, as Antonio Ríos-Bustamante discovered. WorldCat, the union catalogue of world libraries, lists two scripts available on the microfilm set What women wrote: scenarios, 1912-1929. All in all, a remarkable fourteen Murillo scripts survive, a gratifyingly high number.

Finding what films exist in archives (as opposed to the DVD store – I think only two of Murillo’s films are available this way – The Forbidden City, from Grapevine and Accusée levez vous! from Pathé – but Silent Films on DVD is the place to check) is not easy. Again, no central register exists, and not all film archives publish catalogues of their holdings, let alone online catalogues. A list of world film archives is provided by the Federation of International Film Archives. A useful first source for checking whether a film survives and where (chiefly American titles, though) is the Silent Era website, which continues on its way to becoming the single-stop essential source for information on silent films. Otherwise, you just to check a lot of catalogues and ask in a lot of places (once again specialist fora such as Nitrateville or the Association of Motion Picture Archivists (AMIA) discussion list are home to many experts, archivists and collectors). The filmography at the end of this post lists the dozen Murillo films known to survive.

Round-up, and a few tips
This post documents some of the avenues down which I’ve travelled trying to uncover information on one obscure film scriptwriter from the silent era. It’s not a typical research enquiry, but then what such enquiry ever is? It should show that you start out with some basic sources and some key questions to ask, but then will find yourself led down all sorts of unexpected avenues, because people are unexpected.

And why research someone so obscure? You have to ask? Is there any nobler activity out there than to recover a life? Certainly it is always excellent when anyone recovers a corner of history that has been lost or ignored, however small it may seem. It’s a contribution to knowledge, and telling us something that we didn’t know before is a whole lot better way to spend your time as a researcher than re-telling that which we already know. So go out and do likewise – and then tell the world about it. Meanwhile, I’ve much more to try and find out somehow about Mary Murillo. What was her connection with D.W. Griffith? What films did she write for Nazimova? Who were her parents? Do any other photographs of her exist? When did she die? The quest goes on.

A few tips. Never trust any source on its own – always verify the information in two or three other places. Remember that people tell lies about themselves. Official documents such as birth certiifcates, census forms and shipping registers tell us much, but they can also mislead (sometimes deliberately – people lie about ages etc.) and the electronic databases suffer from mistranscriptions. Always think laterally. Remember when searching for female subjects that names change on marriage, and of course with Mary Murillo we have someone who lived under an assumed name. Don’t expect to find everything online, and don’t expect to find everything immediately, and be prepared to spend a little money for valuable resources that have taken a lot of money and effort to compile. Use the Bioscope Library for standard reference sources of the period, its FAQs page for tips on searching, and the categorised links on the right-hand column as a guide to the online world of silent film.

And have fun.

This post is long enough as it is, so the Mary Murillo filmography can be downloaded here as a PDF of an Excel file. It includes script and print sources.

New York State Archive film scripts

Here’s a good research resource which I hadn’t come across before (and should have). New York State Archives has the largest collection of film scripts in the world, some 53,000. It makes available a database of its script index, covering the period 1921-1965 (it advertises itself as covering 1927-1965, but I’ve found records going back to 1921). This doesn’t give you the script itself, just the bare outlines of the production details, but these are more than valuable enough in themselves.

Each record gives you (and is searchable by) original title (there are many non-American films listed), title in English, country, year, writer’s last name, director’s last name, alternate film title, manufacturer, and exchange. The Motion Picture Commission began its work in 1921, but tragically almost all of the 18,000 scripts for silent films that passed through its hands are now lost. However, the outline records are still there, and form a hugely useful reference source by themselves, and for a lot of these titles the archives have associated documentation, but not the script itself.

The collection exists because, for forty-four years, New York state censorship required distributors to submit scripts for vetting, so anything exhibited theatrically in New York between 1921 and 1965 is going to be there. The archive also contains the apparatus of state film censorship – applications for licences, reviewers’ reports, notices of change in title or length etc., as well as the scripts. Scripts only start to be available from 1927. Frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be any way to search on extant scripts for silent films. Nor can you combine search requests, so you can’t automatically look for all Walt Disney-produced films in 1924, for example. Minor gripes apart, this is a major gateway into the films of the 1920s.

It’s possible to order copies of scripts, if you are the copyright owner, or have the permission of the copyright owner, or can claim copies under a ‘fair use’ declaration. It may also be that you have to be a United States citizen – it’s unclear.

Writing the Photoplay

Lasky Studios

There’s growing interest in the study of silent film screenplays, particularly at the moment in Britain where so few silent film screenplays have survived, which only adds to the challenge. Charles Barr’s work on Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock’s scenarist in the silent era, has been followed by the ongoing research of Ian McDonald at University of Leeds, who is conducting a survey of extant British silent film scripts.

All of which preamble introduces the latest addition to the Bioscope Library, J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds’ Writing the Photoplay, first published 1913 and then in a revised version in 1919. It is the latter that is available from Project Gutenberg.

It is a standard ‘how to’ guide, published by the Home Corresspondence School of Springfield, Mass. (odd how Springfields keep turning up these days), so presumably it ended up being read by those more optimistic than talented. Nevertheless, it says all the right things (“Action is the most important word in the vocabulary of the photoplaywright”), and it goes into great detail about the process of producing a screenplay, covering its component parts, how a script should look, the mechanical production of a film script, devising a scenario, delineating characters, the use and misuse of titles, and how to market a screenplay. There is an example of a completed screenplay, Everybody’s Girl (adapted from an O. Henry story and released by Vitagraph in 1918). There is also some amusing advice on what not to try and include in your screenplay (expensive scenes like the sinking of ships, ‘trick animals’, special costumes), and advice on what not to include in your screenplay owing to the attentions of the censor (“Write as your conscience and a sense of decency as an individual and as a good citizen dictate”).

It’s all sensible stuff, with interesting insights throughout and plenty of incidental comments on the routine of film production that is useful to the researcher now. There are some good photographs on studio production, and Gutenberg have most helpfully provided hyperlinks not only for chapters and illustrations, but for the index at the back. E-books just get better and better. It’s available from Project Gutenberg in HTML (747KB) and plain TXT (624KB).

More from the Marchioness

I’ve found more information on Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend, who wrote some scenarios for the Clarendon Film Company, and an interview with whom was given in an earlier post.

The new source of information is her autobiography, It Was – and It Wasn’t, written in 1937. This tells us a little more about the agreement she made in 1912 with Clarendon to produce scenarios for them, and gives us more film titles than I had listed.

She seems to had always had an interest in films, which included considering investing in cinema buildings, and she had written articles on aspects of film before she made a deal with Clarendon:

I had been keenly interested in the Cinema Theatre and its possibilities at Maidenhead, and in 1912 I entered into an arrangement with the Clarendon Film Company of Charing Cross Road, to produce a series of picture plays; the first play, A Strong Man’s Love, being well received by the public and the Press. The House of Mystery followed. These were the first cinematograph dramas to give the author’s name, and I was the first peeress to write for the Cinema.

Were these the first films to credit the scenarist (as opposed to a playwright)? I don’t know. It might be Anita Loos, whose first film for D.W. Griffith was The New York Hat (1912), or Harriet Quimby, wrote wrote five scenarios for Griffith in 1911, but was either credited on screen? But I think Gwladys is on solid ground when she says she was the first peeress who wrote for the screen. Fascinatingly, she names two others who wrote scenarios after her – the Countess of Warwick and the Countess of Roden. I know nothing of either.

Next she gives interesting information on how much she was paid:

The late Sir George Alexander and I believed in the artistic future of the Cinema. At that time I considered its moral and ethical possibilities limitless, and it is interesting to compare the views of the Gaumont Company in 1913 as to the prices paid for scenarios, with the money of 1935. In 1913 a representative of the Gaumont Company told an interviewer that, “on the whole, the scale of payment is not high, and the picture dramatist does not expect – at any rate, he does not receive – anything like the renumeration of his brother, the real dramatist. The royalty system exists, but it is not general, the plot usually being bought outright. The average price is that of a short magazine story, but many ideas are disposed of for half a guinea apiece.” At that time I was paid £300 for writing six film plays, but, fortunately for authors, prices have increased considerably since then.

After an aside on the importance of the cinema as a force for education, she describes how she used a model theatre in her garden – together with cardboard cut-out nuns for her film The Convent Gate – to work out how scenes should appear. Then, after comments on the need for appropriate music for silent films, she concludes thus:

After my first film play was produced by the Clarendon Film company, the same company produced another – When East meets West. This completed a series of seven film dramas commissioned by the same company during a period of two years – A Strong Man’s Love, At the Convent Gate, The House of Mystery, Wreck and Ruin, The Love of an Actress and The Family Solicitor. All these sound most melodramatic now, but had their little success in those days.

I hadn’t come across some of these titles, but all were produced, so here’s a complete filmography for her, with slightly mocking descriptions taken from Denis Gifford’s British Film Catalogue:

Released January 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Elizabeth
Crime. Vicar’s daughter elopes with actor who kills manager and is acquitted by barrister who loves her.

Released April 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Fake ghost, gas chamber, and raid on den of 50 coiners by 100 policemen.

Released September 1913
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Marie St Clair
Drama. Jilted bride recovers sanity after being saved from fire.

Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … Actress
Evan Thomas … Peer
Drama. Film actress feigns drunkenness to repel peer but saves him from suicide after he takes to drink.

WRECK AND RUIN (2,755ft)
Released August 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew
Drama. Foreman saves mill owner from flood caused by striking workmen.

Released September 1914
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Lawyer forges earl’s will so that his indebted son may inherit.

Released February 1915
p.c: Clarendon
dir: Wilfred Noy
story: Marchioness of Townshend
cast: Dorothy Bellew … The Girl
Crime. Indian fakir hypnotises officer’s daughter and explodes gas bulbs from afar with electric rays.

None of these films is known to survive today.

Interview with the Marchioness Townshend

Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend

Returning to the theme of British women filmmakers in the silent era, meet Gwladys, Marchioness of Townshend. The humble British film industry was more than a little flattered when the Marchioness Townshend (1884-1959), born Gwladys Ethel Gwendolen Eugénie Sutherst, later Mrs Bernard Le Strange, agreed to provide scenarios for the Clarendon Film Company. The films for which she supplied stories were Behind the Scenes, The Convent Gate, The House of Mystery and A Strong Man’s Love, all made in 1913. Sadly, none survives.

The Marchioness of Townshend was a playwright, novelist and poet, as well as a celebrated socialite. Her plays included The Story of an Actress (1914) and The Fold (1920), and her novels Married Life: The Adventures of Herbert and Mariana (1914) and The Widening Circle (1920). She wrote an autobiography, It Was – and it Wasn’t (1937) and a collection, True Ghost Stories (1936), which was still in print in the 1990s.

We can only speculate about the films with which she was involved, but her opinions are interesting. This interview with her, from The Bioscope in July 1914, hints at someone who had possibly turned to the lowly cinema through frustration at not getting her plays produced on the stage, but she was alert to the potential of the medium, and claims to have been inspired by early films of waves breaking on a sea coast, no less. Whatever her actual abilities, it was unusual at this time for a film scenarist to be given any credit at all, and it indicates a new significance which was being given to the craft.

In view of the great interest aroused by the announcement of three new dramas by the Marchioness Townshend, to be shown to the Trade next Friday, we begged her ladyship to favour our readers with a few of her ideas on the subject of writing for the film, and were kindly granted an interview at the offices of the Clarendon Film Company, where Lord and Lady Townshend had called to inspect the recently completed films. Lady Townshend’s views are of partiular interest, not only on account of the great success achieved by “The Convent Gate,” “The House of Mystery,” and “A Strong Man’s Love,” but by reason of the cordial reception given to the one act play now running at the Coliseum.

In answer to our question as to what first turned her thoughts to writing for the cinematograph, Lady Townshend said she had been deeply interested in moving pictures ever since her childhood, when she first saw a picture at the Palace Theatre of waves breaking on the sea-shore.

“As far as I can remember,” said Lady Townshend said, “it must have been quite a bad picture, but I immediately realised the possibilities of this new medium, and fully believed that the time would come when its range would be enormously increased. I have always taken a keen interest in the stage and have written many plays which have been produced for charitable purposes. I felt the fascination of this new form of silent drama, partly because of its great advantages in the way of stage setting and realism, and partly perhaps, because when writing for the stage I always seem to see thesituations as I create them. Another advantage is the extent of its appeal, for although the nature of that appeal is in some respects more restricted than that of the stage, and must necessarily be more simple, it reaches a far greater public, and if nothing can equal the power of human speech, on the other hand, nothing can equal the eloquent silence of the cinematograph.”

“Then you are not in favour of the speaking picture, Lady Townshend?”

“Not of the mechanical speaking picture. I am too fond of the stage to wish for the cinematograph to enter into direct competition with it. For the same reason I do not care to see the stage adaping itself to the film, for neither great plays not great actors can always be represented adequately on the screen. I think that youth has its chance in the film play, and it is better to build up a reputation as a film actor than to give an inadequate record even of a world-renowned success.”

“What do you consider the most suitable subjects for the film play?”

“As far as my own experience goes, I believe that the public requires melodrama, though not that class of melodrama which merely consists in piling up of impossible situations as a test of it’s [sic] author’s ingenuity in evolving a successful happy ending. I think a plot should contain more of a problem than the abstraction of some papers of ambiguous value and the chase over two continents for their recovery. By problem I don’t mean the morbid dissection of some social question which is left involved at the end. In my new play, “The Story of an Actress,” for example, the problem is whether a young peer should marry an actress who is a thoroughly good girl or sacrifice his happiness and hers out of consideration for the feelings of his relatives. The moral is the foundation of the play, but its main object, of course, is to interest the public, and that object, I believe, is best gained with the help of melodrama, which is an ingredient of nearly every great play.”

“Then I believe also in absolute realism. If I write of the doings of the people of the slums, I want them to look and behave like real slum people; just as when I bring in members of the aristocracy, I want them to look and behave like ladies and gentlemen. That is the kind of realism which appeals to the public and also has a certain educational influence.”

“You believe, then, in the educational value of the cinematograph?”

“Most decidely, and have always taken the greatest interest in that branch of the subject. I think the time is certainly coming when much more will be done in that direction, in which, at present, we are rather behind other countries. I heard only yesterday that the Crown Prince of Siam had a private theatre in which he gives his soldiers practical instruction in manoeuvres and military matters, a notable example to come from so small a state. With regard to dramas, I believe that every good play which is true to life has a certain educational influence, and I should like to think that the influence of my plays will be a good one. I have written one or two costume plays, but they have not been produced as yet, as there seems to be not great demand at present for that class of work, though certainly the Clarendon Company has produced some very successful costume dramas.”

“Have you written plays for any other company, Lady Townshend?”

“No, the Clarendon Company produced my first work, and so far I have written exclusively for them. Indeed, I have been so pleased with the result of my first works, that I have no wish to change, and have, in fact, just signed a contract for six new plays. Everybody concerned has worked hard to ensure success, and I hope that the new ones will be received as well as the earlier ones.”

“You find no difficulty in inventing original plots?”

“Is there such a thing as an original plot? I certainly have no difficulty in weaving stories, and I think I have always been in the habit of doing that in dramatic form, but, after all, I think originality of treatment is the main thing, and that is essential in all classes of literary work. I find time to write a good many magazine articles, and have even contributed articles dealing with the cinematograph.”

It is gratifying to learn that the company engaged to play in these new dramas has the advantage of Lady Townshend’s personal supervision and advice.

The Bioscope, 30 July 1914, pp. 430-431.

Nothing seems to have come of the six new ‘plays’ she was to have written for Clarendon, and so far as is known she had nothing further to do with the film business.

Education, education, education

Some new additions to The Bioscope Library. A prominent theme in the silent era was the use of films in education. It was driven by a mixture of idealism and commerce, but mostly by the evident appeal that motion pictures had for children – a challenge to authorities in every sense. An enthusiastic period in the 1910s, when many advocated the motion picture as an essenial tool for educating the young was followed by a period of experiment and analysis in the 1920s, determining the pedagogic value and the pitfalls. Many specialist producers in educational film then sprang up, exploiting the new 16mm film format for non-theatrical exhibition, riding on the bandwagon of what was labelled Visual Education.

Ernest Dench’s Motion Picture Education (1917) is a rambling but enthusiastic guide, which considers the potential for film to teach history, arithmetic, natural history, domestic science, even handwriting. There is some grasp of the theoretical side, and warnings that film is no substitute for text. Dench reveals how the great passion for films among young audiences was taxing authorities, which sought to master a medium they did not fully understand. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.3MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (351KB) formats.

Don Carlos Ellis and Laura Thornborough’s Motion Pictures in Education: A Practical Handbook for Users of Visual Aids (1923) is one of the standard guides of the period. It is designed as the essential handbook for the teacher needing to the how and why of using film in the classroom. In good common-sense fashion it covers the history of educational film, the objections raised against its use, the advantages of using the medium, the kinds of films available, the practicalities of exhibiting them, and examples of their successful use. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (7.2MB), PDF (34MB) and TXT (515KB) formats.

Also in an instructional vein are two further books added to the Library. The year before his book on education, Ernest Dench wrote Advertising by Motion Pictures (1916), a fascinating, if discursive guide to the potential of the motion picture for purposes of advertising. Dench covers the selling of railroads, food products, agricultural machinery, shoes, real estate, newspapers and dry goods through motion pictures. He covers different approaches for different kinds of audience (working classes, farmers), and different media, with particular attention given to the use of advertising slides. Some of it is aimless speculation, like the chapter on naming soda fountain concoctions after movies, but its enthusiasm is appealing and it paints a useful picture of they ways in which the cinema industry engaged with the American audience in the early years of cinema. It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (5.2MB), PDF (23MB) and TXT (207KB) formats.

Lastly, there’s Hugh C. McClung, Camera Knowledge for The Photoplaywright (1920). This pamphlet offers a simple guide to the technology and practice of cinematograph for the would-be writer of screenplays. McClung was a cinematographer himself, with Gaston Méliès, Willian Fox, Triangle, Douglas Fairbanks and Famous Players-Lasky. The chief intent of the booklet is to make writers “think in pictures,” and in between the general pleas for appreciation of the hard work that went behind the making of pictures, there are some interesting anecdotes which bring to life the practicalities of the business. Available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (604KB), PDF (2.2MB) and TXT (37KB) formats.