“She learned about movies by seeing ones she liked three or four times, studying them frame by frame.”
New York Times article on Frederica Sagor Mass
“I would work so hard on some of the scripts and the minute I’d turn it in, someone else would take credit for it…Unless you wanted to quit the business, you just kept your mouth shut.”
Frederica Sagor Maas
Less than a month ago a part of Hollywood died. A part of old Hollywood—a link to the silent era of movie making.
When screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas died in La Mesa, California on January 5, 2012 she was 111 years old. That’s a long time, especially when you consider that she once contemplated committed suicide in 1955 when she was 60 years old.
Of course, she wasn’t literally a silent screenwriter, she just wrote silent pictures. She not only lived through the entire 20th century, but she lived to tell about it in her 1999 (at the ripe age of 99) autobiography, The Shocking Pilgrim, A Writer in Early Hollywood. (Her take on early Hollywood? An unethical, chauvinistic, heartless and shallow place where screenwriters didn’t get any respect.)
One of the serendipitous things about writing this blog is these little discoverers. In the same week that Maas died I happened to watch the movies Hugo and The Artist back to back, and it revived my interest in the early days of cinema. I’ve been blogging about that era for the past month.
In was in doing research that I came across an article about her death in the Los Angeles Times.
Maas was born in Manhattan, studied journalism at Columbia University, worked as a copy girl for the New York Globe, at age 23 became an assistant story editor for Universal in New York, before moving to to Hollywood at age 24. She co-wrote The Plastic Age (1925) which was Clara Bow’s biggest picture to date on her road to becoming “The It Girl.”
Maas went on to work on more than a dozen movies, but like many, didn’t survive the transition into the “talkies.” She married fellow writer Ernest Maas, but their careers didn’t continue to rise.
“(By) the fall of 1934, it was plain that we were not a success in Hollywood. In these five years we only found work doing short studio assignments – cleaning up other people’s scripts – and had failed to sell our own stories.
Frederica Sagor Maas
The Shocking Pilgrim, A writer in early Hollywood
Lack of work and losing a lot of money in the stock market crash of ’29 took its toll, and the fact that she subscribed to two alleged communist publications didn’t help the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants career in era of McCarthysim.
“Many of the screenplays she and her husband wrote between 1938 and 1950 were never produced. Hopeless, humiliated and having little money, the couple drove to a hilltop overlooking Hollywood with the intention of committing suicide in their Plymouth. Clutching each other, they started sobbing and realized that “none of these things mattered. We had each other,” wrote Maas.”
Valerie J. Nelson
Los Angeles Times
The couple struggled financially and at age 50 Maas was totally done with Hollywood and ended up working in the insurance business.
Before her death she was the third oldest Californian, the 44th oldest person in the world, and I believe the oldest living person on IMDB. And just to come full circle with the silent and Oscar-nominated film The Artist (2011), here’s a clip from the 1926 film Flesh in the Devil which Maas did uncredited writing on. The film stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The rise and fall of the movie star Gilbert (once the highest paid actor in Hollywood) was one of the inspirations behind the lead character George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) in The Artist,
P.S. The only silent film to ever receive a “Best Picture” Academy Award is the 1927 film Wings (starring Clara Bow). In January, the same month Mrs. Maas died, The Artist was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Tell me Harvey Weinstein doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Writing “The Artist” (Part 1)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 2)
Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)
Scott W. Smith
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