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Universal Women

Universal Women: Filmmaking and Institutional Change in Early Hollywood

Mark Garrett Cooper
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    Universal Women
    Book Description:

    Between 1912 and 1919, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company credited eleven women with directing at least 170 films, but by the mid-1920s all of these directors had left Universal and only one still worked in the film industry at all. Two generations of cinema historians have either overlooked or been stymied by the mystery of why Universal first systematically supported and promoted women directors and then abruptly reversed that policy._x000B__x000B_In this trailblazing study, Mark Garrett Cooper approaches the phenomenon as a case study in how corporate movie studios interpret and act on institutional culture in deciding what it means to work as a man or woman. In focusing on issues of institutional change, Cooper challenges interpretations that explain women's exile from the film industry as the inevitable result of a transhistorical sexism or as an effect of a broadly cultural revision of gendered work roles. Drawing on a range of historical and sociological approaches to studying corporate institutions, Cooper examines the relationship between institutional organization and aesthetic conventions during the formative years when women filmmakers such as Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison, Ruth Stonehouse, Elise Jane Wilson, and Ida May Park directed films for Universal._x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09087-5
    Subjects: Sociology, Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Preface: A Puzzle, Some Premises, and a Hypothesis
    (pp. xiii-xxx)

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 1-8)

      To understand how and why Universal made it possible for women to direct in significant numbers, we might start by considering what, exactly, the Universal Film Manufacturing Company is. What does “Universal” name? To understand this corporate entity is a goal as well as a requirement of this book. Accordingly, the chapters comprised in part 1 develop a method of institutional analysis along with a consideration of how changes at Universal through 1917 affected its gendered division of labor. In that analysis, first, Universal’s brand names indicate a sequence of provisional but relatively stable institutional arrangements. Second, an investigation of...

    • Chapter 1 Universal’s Names
      (pp. 9-24)

      Although the feat of naming scarcely registers as an issue in most of the social-scientific and humanist literature on institutions, those who give corporations names have seen clearly the connection between organizational identity and descriptive habit. The field of corporate-identity design did not establish itself as a profession distinct from management and public relations until late in the twentieth century.¹ As early as 1967, however, J. Boddewyn provided this enterprise with a theoretical statement. Writing inNames,the journal of the American Name Society, Boddewyn makes a case for the importance of naming by explaining the difference between personal and...

    • Chapter 2 Universal’s Organization
      (pp. 25-44)

      Universal’s names interpreted its constituent parts for its personnel, its customers, and its competitors. In this way, they indicate something of how the company organized production internally as well as how it addressed the competitive field in which it participated. Changes of nomenclature indicate changes to the institution. In the liquidation of the brands that formed Universal and the generation of new ones, we see the passing of contests among the original partners and the emergence of a new struggle to stay abreast of a wider industrial shift away from a shorts program toward a program emphasizing the feature film....

    • Chapter 3 Universal City
      (pp. 45-90)

      A December 1913Universal Weeklyheadline proclaimed the company’s West Coast facility a place “Where Work Is Play and Play Is Work,” and a subhead amplified, “Universal City, California, the Only Incorporated Moving Picture Town in the World, and Its Unique Features; ‘Movie’ Actresses Control Its Politics.” True to its headline, the article links and balances three pairs of terms that would likely appear contradictory if not made reciprocally confirming: “work” and “play,” “business organization” and “municipal government,” “actresses” and “authority.” This rhetorical feat established an interpretative paradigm, and for the next several years, popular and industrial press coverage continued...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 91-98)

      In February 1919, Carl Laemmle proclaimed Universal to have come “back from hell.”¹ Thanks to investment in quality features, he maintained, the company had rebounded from the collapse of its shorts program and from the twin economic blows of the 1917 wartime tax on entertainments and the influenza pandemic of 1918. Historians are less sanguine. Consensus has it that the former giant continued to struggle in an industry increasingly dominated by vertically integrated firms.² Even understood as the expression of a wish, however, Laemmle’s pronouncement presents a paradox: Universal bet that women would lead it from purgatory at the same...

    • Chapter 4 Genre: A Category of Institutional Analysis
      (pp. 99-109)

      As an analytical category, genre explains how filmmaking institutions decide and what it means for them to have done so. This is a lesson that might be derived from reading recent approaches to film genres in tandem with a few key sociological studies of culture industries. Rick Altman’sFilm/Genre(1999) and Steve Neale’sGenre and Hollywood(2000) consolidate a change in film studies’ understanding of genre. Both provide an account of this intellectual turn, under way since the 1980s, and place it in the longer history of genre theory since Aristotle. Each rejects the proposition that genre is a fixed...

    • Chapter 5 Serials: The Foreclosure of Collaboration
      (pp. 110-127)

      Universal premiered the first episode ofLucille Love, the Girl of Mystery,in late April 1914. The studio doubtlessly hoped that this, its first, serial would allow Universal to catch up with Selig, which had hit withThe Adventures of Kathlynearly in the year, and with Pathé-Eclectic, which had launchedPerils of Paulinein late March.¹ It turned to the director-actor Francis Ford and the writer-director-actor Grace Cunard, a team that had reliably produced two and sometimes three shorts a month since joining Universal as a package in 1913. Even as they continued to crank out short films, Cunard...

    • Chapter 6 Gender and the Dramatic Feature
      (pp. 128-172)

      By the end of 1917, Universal had institutionalized an interpretation of the serial that valued hierarchical supervision above professional collaboration. Beginning in November of that year, the studio scaled back and reorganized production. Feature-film dramas replaced the shorts program as the company’s principal product. These changes strengthened central coordination and hardened the division of labor. By early 1918, the majority of individual titles produced by the studio received the same kind of attention in the planning and marketing phases as serials and Special Features had received in 1914. The shift eliminated the sorts of apprenticeships through which Universal’s most prominent...

    • Postscript: Eleanor’s Catch
      (pp. 173-186)

      This book began with the puzzle of Universal’s promotion and subsequent elimination of women directors. I limned premises about the key terms in this puzzle, including gender, historical change, and institutions. I proposed that Universal reached a decision about its division of labor through an interpretation of its films. To prove that argument, the book’s chapters have described what it means for “Universal” to interpret. In defining this process, I have presented the institution both as an historical actor and as a site of struggle. A close look at a single film can summarize the difference in perspective such an...