By Gary Carey
New York Alfred A. Knopf
ANITA Loos was a Hollywood oddity, a silent movie screenwriter who was almost as famous as the actors for whom she wrote. She went on to become a prolific playwright and novelist whose sharp, witty work sustained a career that spanned seven decades. Her friends included Aldous Huxley and Cecil Beaton and she numbered William Faulkner, Winston Churchill and James Joyce among her admirers. In Gary Carey's biography, however, what emerges is a portrait of struggle and frustration.
Loos' most famous work is the novel, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, which she thought might amuse her friend H.L. Mencken. The fame of that book and the subsequent play made Loos wealthy and famous (she had nothing to do with the Marilyn Monroe version most of us are familar with, though she admired Monroe's performance) but it occasionally overshadows the truly impressive scope of Loos' achievement.
Loos began as an actress in her father's theater in California and began selling scenarios to D.W. Griffith's Biograph Company. From there, Loos went on to compile one of the most impressive writing resumes of any woman this century. In addition to Gentlemen, Loos was responsible for the screen versions of San Francisco and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as well as Douglas Fairbanks' early silent classics.
Carey attempts to prove that though Loos associated with the excesses and inanities of Hollywood life, she clung to a reserved, almost conventional outlook. Carey's book is thorough, almost painstakingly so. He does not fall into the trap of treating his subject with simpering adoration, a common pitfall of Hollywood biographies. But Carey's impassive storytelling is dry, relying too often on Loos' detailed diary to the exclusion of analysis. Do we really need to know that, "That afternoon, while Gladys was still in Teaneck, she prepared a lunch of toast and Lipton's chicken noodle soup and started her new diary with a list of New Year's resolutions"?
Loos' one marriage, to collaborator John Emerson, was long and unhappy. Mr. E, as she called him, was relegated to becoming Mr. Loos after Anita began garnering acclaim on her own. But at the beginning of Anita's career, Mr. E.'s name on a script was probably instrumental in selling projects to male producers. And Anita also used Mr. E. to intercede with some who were uncomfortable with having a woman in charge. Carey avoids the issue of sexism by deriding Emerson rather than the Hollywood system.
CAREY takes the role of biographer too literally, sticking almost exclusively to the facts of his subject's life and ignoring the context of the times in which she lived. He carefully avoids the issue of whether Loos encountered any discrimination as a woman, implying that Loos was treated from the start as an equal and that despite her diminutive size, her tough intelligence inspired respect from her male colleagues.
But Loos did submit her first script under the gender neutral name of A. Loos because she had heard that male writers get paid better. And throughout her career, Loos was at the mercy of the whims and prejudices of the producers, almost exclusively male, who ran Hollywood and Broadway.
Carey also seems uninterested in Loos' own attitudes towards feminism. Though Loos is undoubtedly a role model for many women, she didn't see herself as a pioneer, nor was she particularly interested in the political situation of women. Loos did not quibble with the biases of a male-dominated industry. She simply played the game no matter how sexist the rules may have been.
But a deal maker Anita was not. She was frequently unhappy and frustrated in Hollywood and Broadway. Her projects were often stalled or cut short by recalcitrant actors, belligerent agents or financial worries. Loos was forced to keep several projects going at any given time in order to be sure that something would eventually be accepted. This was especially true towards the end of her career when Hollywood and Broadway became increasingly more commercialized and competitive.
That it was not always easy to be a woman screenwriter for Loos seems clear. In 1936, she was faced with scripting Clare Boothe's play, The Women which was reproached at the time for its cattiness. Carey sidesteps the dilemma Loos faced, noting simply the play's "bitchiness."
Loos would not be surprised by her biographer's assessment. "It's always men who find The Women offensive," she said. "They don't want to believe that their wives and mothers and girlfriends can be so catty. But the cafe society and the Upper East Side spawned them in the hundreds. [The characters] were sketchy perhaps, but not untrue to what you overheard at Elizabeth Arden or in a fitting room at Bullock's Wilshire."
Carey similarly glosses over an incident that took place over Loos' play, Happy Birthday. He reports that "the censors felt the play was an endorsement for liquor-get drunk, get your man!"
Loos never believed men could fully understand women, yet, paradoxically, her own delineation of the feminine perspective was stereotypical, taking its cues from traditional male depictions. She was a woman working in a man's business, but Carey does not explore the incongruities that situation presented her as a writer.
WHEN Carey does enlarge his focus to provide analysis, his perspective is a cliched attempt at psychoanalysis. As Anita grew into old age and Mr. E. became increasingly mentally ill, Loos began to rely on her paid companion and housekeeper Gladys. Under Gladys' influence, Anita began to become more religious. But Carey slights this spiritual development and instead concludes in an almost condescending manner: "Though she never realized it, her journals brought more peace of mind than any passage in the Daily Word."
In attempting to chronicle the sordid end of Anita's life, Carey is restricted by the impassive voice he has assumed. In her last few years, Anita devoted herself to Gladys and her young charge, Miss Moore. But when Anita was ill, Gladys was 70 years old and possibly had a drinking problem. Carey's description of the battle over Loos' will and her friends scandalized reaction to her relationship with Gladys and Miss Moore, who are Black, is blank, uninflected. The sadness and tragedy of Anita's loneliness are left unexamined.
The achievements of women in Hollywood's early days both behind the screen and as actresses were impressive and important. Carey's thorough, fact-filled account of Loos' career is a useful overview of one woman's career. But it lacks depth or an ability to evaluate the significance of a woman's contribution to a male industry. A book that treats these issues with thoughtful analysis and a broader perspective has yet to be written. Carey's account is but a useful chronicle for that future historian.