Ida May Park in Photoplay.
Virtually forgotten today, Los Angeles-born Ida May Park earned the distinction of being one of the first women to direct feature films in early Hollywood, as well as write and produce, before being pushed aside as Wall Street money took over film production. Her long career acting on stage enhanced her film career, one in which she focused on creating strong women characters around which stories revolved.
Born December 28, 1879, to laborers Charles and Martha Park in Los Angeles, Ida seemed drawn to entertainment at a young age, appearing with the Alcazar Acting Company in San Francisco by 1897, perhaps after her family moved to Sacramento, where her father later served as a postman. Within a few years, Ida became an itinerant actor, performing with troupes around the United States.
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Ida May Park in Moving Picture World, July 21, 1917.
The November 19, 1899, Los Angeles Herald praised Park’s performance in the Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “A Lady of Quality,” noting her fine support of star Eugenia Blair and mentioning her birth and childhood in Southern California. The young woman appeared mostly in classic plays, essaying such roles as Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
While touring the country Ida met and fell in love with fellow actor Joseph De Grasse, marrying him May 25, 1901 in New York City. The two formed their own acting troupe, appearing opposite each other in Shakespearean productions and occasional contemporary shows. Unlike many of her female stage counterparts at the time, Ida proudly kept her last name for her profession. The couple moved to Burbank a few years later before moving to 1040 E. 47th in 1906, the address at which their son Joseph Paul would be born in 1907. They later lost a child as well.
Ida May Park, Las Vegas Daily Optic, Oct. 6, 1906.
Finding life on the road difficult with a child, the De Grasses established an acting school in downtown Los Angeles in 1908, with the September 13, 1908, Los Angeles Herald noting their students would appear in supporting roles at the Auditorium and at the Belasco Theatre. Curious and ambitious, Ida found multiple ways to express artistic pursuits, joining the 16-year-old Los Angeles Women’s Orchestra in 1909 and playing trumpet.
Looking for steady jobs, the couple joined the young Pathe film organization in 1910, with Park writing scenarios and De Grasse directing movies. For the next few years, they learned the filmmaking business and developed their skills, first with Pathe, and later with Ammex and Lubin. Ida loved working, and detested housework, per later articles, throwing herself wholeheartedly into the entertainment industry.
Joseph De Grasse, Las Vegas Daily Optic, Oct. 6, 1906.
Universal Feature Film Manufacturing Company took notice of the talented duo, hiring them in 1914 to create pictures for the company. The couple worked as a team, with De Grasse directing and Park writing scripts for everything from one and two-reelers to features, with such stars as Wallace Reid, Dorothy Davenport, and Lon Chaney. Even in motion pictures, the couple formed their own troupe, forming strong bonds with cast and crew. Many of their films focused on strong independent women as protagonists, seeking out success and fulfillment in sometimes unconventional ways.
By 1915, De Grasse and Park created films for Universal’s Rex brand, joining Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, with some of these films starring actress Cleo Madison, who also served as producer. Within a year, Park and De Grasse shared directing responsibilities on their productions, blending their talents in order to ensure their vision ended up on screen. Trade stories indicated that Park wrote and directed 12 films in 1916, some original stories, and others adaptations of popular works at the time.
De Grasse and Park began co-directing Dorothy Phillips’ Bluebird films in 1916, all featuring a strong heroine in charge of her destiny, often working jobs. Chaney and William Stowell appeared as Phillips’ co-stars, with Jack Mulhall making some appearances as well. In 1917, Park began directing on her own, with trades noting that the couple could then create twice as many Phillips films to release.
Ida gained her first solo directing credit for the 1917 film “The Flashlight” starring Phillips, Chaney, and Stowell, filming on location in the Sierra Nevadas. Moving Picture Weekly, Universal’s own trade magazine, claimed in an article that Park had written more than 100 photoplays before turning her sights to directing, and was one of only two females producing films.
Park not only directed, but also wrote and produced her second film, “Fires of Rebellion” that summer, also starring the same three performers. To enhance the story of a woman attempting to escape the drudgery of factory life, Park took her cast to the manufacturing section of downtown Los Angeles along with 100 extras, choreographing fight and crowd scenes.
Park’s films featured strong, vital scenes not just romantic melodrama. “The Grand Passion” earned great reviews, with the January 2, 1918 Moving Picture World calling it spectacular and tough, noting it featured “explosive, wild, lustful” realism. Park made films of passionate people, attractive to men or women. A trade noted of the film, “if the name of the director were not known, I would be very likely to say that the direction was the work of a man, so virile is it in its every phase.” Later that year, she directed the film “Bread, which Universal called the sequel to Lois Weber’s earlier film “Shoes,” because it also starred Mary McLaren as a struggling young woman.
“The Flashlight,” written and directed by Ida May Park, Moving Picture Weekly, April 28, 1917.
Ida soon gained a reputation for steady and disciplined work, throwing herself wholeheartedly into shaping good pictures. While not as famous as Lois Weber, the July 21, 1917, Moving Picture World included a shot of Park directing a film. The February 1918 issue of Photoplay also included shots of Park directing. She told the magazine she first thought directing unsuited for a woman, but then stated, “I don’t know why I looked at it that way, either. A woman can bring to this work splendid enthusiasm and imagination; a natural love of detail and an intuitive knowledge of character. All of these are supposed to be feminine traits, and yet they are all necessary to the successful director.”
Park stated directing also took a sense of humor, firm character, and a strong point of view, but not to take the work too seriously. “Direction is recreation to me, and I want my people to do good work because of their regard for me and not because I browbeat them into it.” The magazine went on to describe how she directed quietly by sometimes demonstrating what she wanted and at other times explaining the situation and allowing the actor to figure it out their own way.
Unfortunately some scholars have misread the article and claimed that Park stated that directing was men’s work, but instead it was young E. J. (Elsie Jane) Wilson, another female director, who made this statement, as she focused on her appearance as well.
By this point, Park realized the importance of one person heading a production, with the Central New Jersey Homes News reporting her statement “too many cooks spoil the broth” in its August 13, 1918, edition. She stated that a strong director wanted to see their own vision undiluted onscreen, without others toning down the message. Park told the Winnipeg Tribune reported in an October 20, 1919, story, “I’ll match my fight scenes against any director’s in the business..Treat ‘em rough seems to be Miss Park’s motto.”
The director continually pointed out the importance of seeing women’s stories onscreen told by women, ones exhibiting “brains, earnestness, intensity, talent, and character,” all important for actresses or even directors. In a January 21, 1921, story, the Oregon Daily Journal reported Park’s words about getting more women involved in making films. “Although my sex composes 75% of cinema audiences, most of their screen entertainment comes from men…the result often is that the finished product bears the stamp of masculinity and contains situations, moods and implications which often don’t ring true.”
The Intercollegiate Vocational Guidance Association was impressed with her talent and skill, asking her to write an article in 1920 about the motion picture industry as part of a vocational guide for women to be distributed by colleges. In her published article, she wrote about the long hours required of the job, as well as the tremendous poise, patience, and talent in accomplishing the task. She wrote, “As for the natural equipment of women for the role of director, the superiority of their emotional and imaginative faculty gives them a great advantage.” Through hardy and determined work, “Women will find no better calling.”
Unfortunately, by 1919, both Park and De Grasse found themselves forced out of Universal in a similar fashion as Weber, struggling to continue their film careers. Wall Street money was flowing into the motion picture industry, and open, freewheeling companies offering opportunities to women as well as men found themselves forced out of business by large companies operating as factories, with men in charge. Women, who had once dominated the writing and editing fields, would soon see most of these opportunities disappear, along with the chance to direct.
Park and De Grasse joined Thomas Ince to direct and produce films for actress Louise Glaum in 1919, but this deal appears to have fallen apart. Park wrote and directed “The Butterfly Man” for Lew Cody in 1920, but producer Louis Gasnier gave her no more work.
Joseph De Grasse and Ida May Park, Motion Picture News, Oct. 21, 1916.
Later that year, Park and De Grasse joined forces again and signed a deal with Andrew Callaghan Productions a few months later to write and direct films for actress Bessie Love, making and releasing “Bonnie May” and “The Midlanders” that year, before seeing that contract broken as well. As her career was imploding, critics still praised her work. E. P. Hunzicker in the January 9, 1921 Washington Evening Star stated, “Ida May Park, a veritable feminine wizard, whose special forte is the society drama, has won wide fame and is now one of the leading producer/directors.”
On January 28, 1921, Park addressed the Assistance League of Southern California, speaking about the motion picture industry and women’s role in it. At the same time, fellow directors recognize Park’s talent, as the Motion Picture Directors’ Association elects her to their group in May 1921, only the second women invited to the group, after Lois Weber.
Unfortunately the conglomerates taking over the film industry were continuing to turn their backs on women, and Park found little to no opportunity to direct. Soon thereafter, the trades noted that the couple was working on a book about the film industry, but it never appears to have been published.
“Bread” by Ida May Park, Los Angeles Herald, Sept. 10, 1918.
Once again, Park turned her attention to writing and doctoring scripts. In 1930, she wrote about the dark side of the business in a story called “The Chiselers of Hollywood,” which the Los Angeles Times described as “the story of the lesser lights is told, the ones who are forced to struggle and scheme and perhaps cheat a little to hang on.”
Sadly, Park found herself unable to hang on in an industry she helped establish, basically retiring to home life at 2459 Laurel Pass Road in Hollywood. She died June 13, 1954, at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, 14 years after the death of her husband.
Park made a lasting contribution to the early film industry as one of its first writer/director/producers but like Lois Weber found herself written out of the picture by the men who took over the field and rewrote history. Thanks to female scholars the world over, the great accomplishments of people like Alice Guy Blache, Weber, Park, and others is being reintroduced and promoted, recognizing the firsts these women brought to the motion picture industry.