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The Shocking
Miss Pilgrim

A Writer in Early
Hollywood

By Frederica Sagor Maas

 

BOOK REVIEW

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood
By Frederica Sagor Maas

The University Press of Kentucky : Lexington, Kentucky : 1999
ISBN 0-8131-2122-1 : 264 pages : hardcover : $25.00

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
In silent era Hollywood, there were thousands of virtually unknown and largely uncredited studio workers. Usually, fewer than a couple of dozen people received screen credit for their efforts on a motion picture, and most of those who were credited were actors. Those workers were the drones of Hollywood studios, toiling in an exciting but ultimately frustrating industry controlled by well-known mogols and their legion of faceless and mostly talentless managers.

Early Hollywood, as it does today, devoured writers. Well documented, even by Hollywood itself, is the industry’s voracious appetite for ideas and the people who produce them. But who were these people of the silent era, whose creativity helped create a megamillion dollar industry? Where did they come from? And what did they hope to achieve with their pacts with the Hollywood devil?

At hand is a rare account by a writer who participated in silent era Hollywood and survived, dignity and sanity intact, to tell the tale. In the narrative are accounts of Hollywood greats and not-so-greats, their successes and foibles, and a smattering of gossipy tidbits. But what makes this autobiography by Frederica Sagor Maas, screenwriter of Clara Bow’s film The Plastic Age (1925), so intriguing is her revealing portrait of herself and her writer husband, Ernest Maas, as industry workers struggling to make the Hollywood system acknowledge their efforts to create successful and creatively satisfying motion pictures.

After sorting through the to-be-expected tales of story theft, morally bankrupt executives, casual sex, fleeting success and hand-to-mouth months, we are left with a substantial portrait of two people one might want to sit down to dinner with and engage in one of those fascinating discussions that last into the wee hours of the morning. I found myself wishing that I could have been an acquaintance of Frederica and Ernest Maas. I wanted to learn something more from them than insider Hollywood information. I wanted these people as friends, since their story left me with a respect for them both as people of honor, intellect and love.

The story starts at the beginning, with Frederica’s Russian immigrant parents and their move to America. Frederica gives an average account of her childhood days growing up in New York, with the narrative quickly advancing to Sagor’s teen years, when she began showing signs of her interest in writing. At Columbia University, Sagor studied journalism from mostly uninspiring teachers. At 20, she got a job as assistant to the story editor of Universal’s New York offices reading and screening scripts. Thus began Frederica Sagor’s 20-plus years of involvement with the motion picture industry.

Early in 1923 Frederica became a story editor for Universal Pictures Corporation. Early in 1924 she moved to Hollywood, unencumbered by a job, and soon was contracted by B.P. Schulberg’s Preferred Pictures, Incorporated, to write the adaptation and scenario for The Plastic Age. In 1925 Sagor landed a job as a writer at MGM. While there, she saw the other side of the folly of Hollywood screen credits, with Sagor receiving full credit for the adaptation and scenario for Dance Madness (1926), a project almost wholly written by Alice D.G. Miller. Sagor wrote the Norma Shearer vehicle The Waning Sex (1926). She later worked for Tiffany Productions. She married writer/producer Ernest Maas in August 1927.

Among Sagor’s reminiscences of this era are her visits down the hall with Erich von Stroheim during the time he was editing Foolish Wives (1922) in New York. “I would often sit in the cutting room and make suggestions to the half-crazed man, who felt that every foot of film he shot was sacred. He lacked the courage and judgment to part with any of it. . . . he over-developed his films and lacked the ability to tell a story economically and dramatically. . . . Although I recognized the wasteful extravagance of von Stroheim, I also recognized the fierce intensity he had to tell a story in every detail. He was deeply involved in character delineation . . . [but he] had cheap ideas about men and women and their relationships. . . . It could be that the trashy stories on which he lavished such effort reflected what he believed to be the taste of the American public.”

Among some of Sagor’s other observations, some brief and some lengthy, are those on directors Edmund Goulding, Clarence Brown, Marshall Neilan, Josef von Sternberg (who was apparently impotent), Louis Gasnier, Richard Thorpe and Charles Brabin, executives Louis B. Mayer, B.P. Schulberg, Darryl Zanuck, Joseph Schenck and Sol Wurtzel, producers Harry Rapf, J.G. Bachman and Winifred Sheehan, writers Carey Wilson (who out-and-out stole Sagor’s script for His Secretary [1925]) and S.J. Perelman, and actors Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge, Adolphe Menjou, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mae Murray, Sally O’Neil and Jeanne Eagels. Sagor’s opinions and observations are forthright (be they pro or con) and informative.

The second half of the book follows the lives of Ernest Maas and Frederica Sagor Maas, from Ernest’s childhood through their married years together. Detailed are their on-again-off-again dalliances in motion pictures (producing “swell fish”), years of lean times, and a successful reconcilation with Hollywood in the 1940s. Among their collaborations was the original story (stolen by producer Bachman) for the Emil Jannings film The Way of All Flesh (1927) and the story (“Miss Pilgrim’s Progress”) for the Betty Grable vehicle The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), the source for the title of this book.

The Shocking Miss Pilgrim is a rare view into the lifes of writers who worked in silent era films. I found this book to be both entertaining and informative, and recommend it as a valuable peek into some previously undocumented corners of Hollywood and the motion picture industry, in its silent era and its classic years.

 
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