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Anita Loos, Screenwriting Pioneer

Getty Images / ullstein bild / Nickolas Muray

Anita Loos, Screenwriting Pioneer

Born on this day in 1888, Anita Loos was among the most important screenwriters in American movie history. Today we look back at her career, one that began with silent cinema and whose influence is still seen today.

Legend had it that Loos became a professional scenarist (as screenwriters were then called) at the age of 12. It wasn't true, but that didn't stop Loos from repeating it – she knew the value of a good story.

Part of the reason the story was accepted was that Loos had been part of the cinematic landscape for as long as there was one. Born in 1888 to a newspaper family, Loos said she knew from the age of 6 that she wanted to be a writer. Her father, an alcoholic writer, would often take her to explore the underbelly of San Francisco. Later, her mother would take a position managing a theater company in San Diego. Loos's career could be seen as a meeting place of these twin influences, as she later would often bring to the big screen stories of the down and out. (Not that she focused solely on society's underbelly – another antecedent of her writing can be seen in a scam she pulled while a teenager, when she would clip social items from New York papers and have a friend submit them to San Diego papers as original high society gossip reporting).

Her first exposure to the movies came at the theater her mother owned, where beginning in 1911 they started showing one-reel shorts after performances. By 1912 she was already submitting story ideas to movie studios. Her first produced was The New York Hat. Made by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, it was directed by film pioneer D.W. Griffith and featured silent stars Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. Loos was paid $25 for her efforts and she was hooked. Over the next three years, she would submit 105 scenarios and see all but 4 of them produced. All of her writing was done from her home in San Diego – she'd never yet set foot in an actual movie studio.

In 1915 she moved to Hollywood, where production had by then largely migrated from New York City. She landed a job at Griffith's Triangle Film Corporation for $75 a week, making her likely the first full-time staff writer in Hollywood.

In addition to penning film scenarios, she became sought-after for her ability to craft intertitles – cards of text that would appear between filmed action on screen. Griffith asked her to write them for his Birth of a Nation apologia Intolerance. Douglas Fairbanks – whose career her comedies helped launch – liked her intertitles so much he insisted she alone write them for all his silent films. One of her more clever came with the intertitle introduction of a character called Count Xxerkzsxxv. "To those of you who read titles aloud," Loos wrote, "you can't pronounce the Count's name. You can only think it."

By 1919 Loos had moved to New York, along with her writer-director husband John Emerson and fellow writer Frances Marion, to work for the Famous Players-Lasky. She also penned the non-fiction book Breaking Into the Movies, followed by 1921's How to Write Photoplays, likely the first ever advice book for would-be screenwriters.

But her husband was less successful, and in a move many thought an attempt to assuage his pride, he convinced Loos to write less and less so that they could travel.

While on a train bound for Chicago, Loos came up with the scenario that would prove her most lasting and successful contribution to American pop culture. Noticing all the male attention paid to actress and fellow traveler Mae Davis, especially by Loos's friend H.L. Mencken, Loos later recalled:

"I watched her disorganize the behavior of every male passenger on board. I tried to puzzle out the reasons why. Obviously there was some radical difference between that girl and me, but what was it? We were both in the pristine years of youth. She was not outstanding as a beauty; we were, in fact, of about the same degree of comeliness; as to our mental acumen, there was nothing to discuss: I was smarter. Then why did that girl so outdistance me in allure? Why had she attracted one of the keenest minds of our era? Mencken liked me very much indeed, but in the matter of sex he preferred a witless blonde. The situation was palpably unjust but, as I thought it over, a light began to break through my subconscious; possibly the girl’s strength (like Samson's) was rooted in her hair."

She wrote a humorous sketch based upon the situation told from the point of view of a character she called Lorelei Lee and sent it to Mencken. He loved it, and suggested she send it to Harper's Bazaar. They not only published her piece, but ordered more. Eventually they became the 1925 book Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Intimate Diary of a Professional Lady.

A perfect encapsulation of Jazz Age gold digging which many saw as a funnier version of The Great Gatsby (Edith Wharton praised the book as "the great American novel" while Time magazine complained it was written in "Moronese"), the book was a smash, selling out its first printing in two weeks and making Loos an international celebrity. Stage and screen adaptations followed, including both a 1928 film (now lost), and the much better known 1953 version starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe.

Loos's husband did not take her success well, having bouts of hypochondria (largely seen as a bid for attention) and persuading her to give up her writing career for a time following the completion of a sequel, Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. He would eventually be checked into a sanitarium.

Loos returned to Hollywood, penning the scripts for Irving Thalberg at MGM for $1,000 a week, and later signing a contract at United Artists for five times that amount – quite a difference from the days of penning $25 silent scenarios.

Though it paid better, the work itself was frustrating, as Loos had little respect for most of the producers then running Hollywood and few of her works were as successful as in her heyday. A notable exception was 1939's The Women, directed by George Cukor.

The Women was remade in 2008 – more than 25 years after Anita Loos's death at age 93 – proving the work of one of the great screenwriters in early cinema still relevant today.