The headline “Gal Producer” in Screenland reflects attitudes toward women in Hollywood.
Virtually “born in a trunk” August 23, 1906, Harriet Parsons, the only child of John Dement and Louella Parsons, grew up surrounded by entertainment folk. A child performer, Parsons later worked behind the scenes writing and producing films. Overshadowed by her mother, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Harriet Parsons strove for excellence and seriousness in all she did. Ambitious and dedicated, she became Hollywood’s first female studio producer in the 1930s, fighting against prejudice and discrimination to make thoughtful projects starring strong women.
Parsons and her mother struggled after her parents divorced. Louella, originally a teacher, began writing social columns before her daughter’s birth. After the divorce, she focused ever more on her writing, producing stories of all types to help make ends meet. The two moved to Chicago in 1912 when Louella sold a script for $25 to the Essanay Film Company, “The Magic Wand,” written with her daughter in mind.
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Essanay produced the story as a one-reel film, which starred young Parsons as the character “Harriet Parsons.” Written with perhaps some wish fulfillment by Louella, the moving picture reveals the story of a small girl who steals a “magic wand” from her school play to escape the hovel in which she and her impoverished mother live and improve their lot.
As Parsons revealed to Silver Screen magazine in 1934, “…someone got the weird idea that I should be turned into a child actress. It turned out that I had all the temperament and none of the talent.” Billed under the name “Baby Parsons,” she actually received good reviews in trade papers, with Moving Picture World’s review stating, “Baby Parsons, a splendid little child actress, is wonderfully sweet and sympathetic as the fairy queen.”
Parsons abandoned acting to focus on writing and books, producing a short story about a girl who ended up eloping with a red-haired man. She continued her writing, telling Silver Screen magazine in 1931 that she wrote patriotic speeches at 10 and wrote her first fan story at the age of 12, interviewing the 4-year-old son of actor George Beban for Photoplay magazine.
When she was a sophomore at Wellesley College, Parsons wrote a Boston movie column for the New York Morning Telegraph. After graduating in June 1928, Parsons returned west, determined to make it as a writer in the entertainment industry on her own. Her doting mother stepped in, however, pulling strings and “canvassing studios” to help her daughter get ahead. MGM hired her as a scenario writer in October 1928, paying her $75 a week, with Variety in its October 24 issue describing this as a “ghost” position, which MGM was known for.
Parsons took the job, though she wanted out of her mother’s control, keeping up the search for something new. Visiting the Hearst Ranch in September 1929 with her mother, Parsons struck up a conversation with Photoplay editor James Quirk, who was also visiting that weekend. Quirk hired her as an associate editor for the New York-based magazine, finally giving her independence and freedom from her mother, this time on the East Coast. Although her name and connection might land her positions, Parsons dreamed of success on her own terms.
Driven and industrious, the mature Parsons spent hours tracking down leads and facts for society copy, with Variety reporting in 1930 that she was turning out more copy than any other writer, male or female in town. Watching her mother for years, the astute Parsons worked her contacts, practiced her writing, and looked to move up the ladder to something more challenging. Being a woman in Hollywood meant doing twice the work of men in order to get half the respect.
In January 1931, Parsons joined Silver Screen magazine back in Hollywood, becoming its youngest contributor, which the magazine proudly boasted about in a full-page ad. She finally got the chance to conduct interviews and write features for the magazine, focusing on women and their issues. Patiently and persistently, she devoted herself to moving ahead.
When her mother, Louella, began devoting more of her time to radio in 1935, Parsons took over Louella’s syndicated column “Hollywood Snapshots” for the Hearst syndicated service, balancing her time between the two jobs, as noted in the book “Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood.”
Parsons finally got her chance at serious film work when Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn hired her in 1934 as the new executive producer of the studio’s one-reel short “Screen Snapshots,” a film version of society columns and stories. Thanks to her new job, Parsons became Hollywood’s first female film producer in the studio era, with director Dorothy Arzner the only other woman in charge of making films. While working on the shorts, Parsons also continued the syndicated column.
Parsons battled prejudice, sexism, and resentment producing the series, all of which would continue throughout her Hollywood career. Though she wrote, directed, and produced 56 shorts between 1934 and 1940, screen credit was attributed to Ralph Staub, though trade magazines praised her work.
Trade ads trumpeted “Screen Snapshots” as “the fan magazine of the screen,” a popular and profitable program filler for Columbia. Parsons interviewed and filmed stars at their homes, premieres, sets, and hotspots, taking a breezy, lighthearted look at the stars at play. Trade ads applauded her skills, and local exhibitors commended the entertaining quality of the shorts.
When her mother vacationed in 1937, Parsons hosted Louella’s radio show “Hollywood Hotel,” showing a knack for the medium. Accurate and down-to-earth, Parsons appealed to audiences, and she realized radio offered the potential to reach more people in a more intimate, personal way than print.
Looking for challenges, Parsons filled in for three weeks on NBC Radio in 1938 when Eddie Garr’s program was unexpectedly cancelled. Carrying her column to radio, Parsons connected with audiences, leading NBC to hire her full time. The 15-minute show offered movie news and interviews with stars, and the Parsons balanced her time between the column, radio show, “Hollywood Highlights,” and Columbia’s “Screen Snapshots.”
After almost five years of steady work producing and creating the short with no credit, Parsons moved on. Republic Studios hired her in 1939 to produce new one-reel shorts called “Meet the Stars,” also promising her the opportunity to produce features. Once again working as girl Friday, writing, directing, and producing the shorts, Parsons quickly made the new one-reelers popular with exhibitors and audiences, as well as earning praise from reviewers.
By 1941, trades announced that Republic had promoted her, giving her a deal to serve as producer/director of three features in 1942 in addition to creating all the “Meet the Stars” shorts. That fall, she served as associate producer on the film “Joan of Ozark” starring the exuberant Judy Canova. The two women hit if off, establishing a rapport, with Parsons rewriting parts of the script per trade journals. Parsons also produced Canova’s next Republic film, “Lazy Bones.”
Unfortunately, Republic never fully lived up to its part of the bargain, allowing Parsons to serve as producer on these films only at Canova’s insistence. After more than 10 years of hard work churning out shorts without the aid of a mentor, Parsons moved on to RKO in 1942 to focus solely on film producing, helping pave the way for other women in the position. Even at RKO, however, Parsons struggled to get projects made, with men often blocking her projects.
Parsons discovered the manuscript for “The Enchanted Cottage,” falling in love with it. Before she found the chance to begin working on it, however, the studio took it away from her, as they did with her next choice, “I Remember Mama.” Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, her mother’s main rival, found the situation distasteful, defending Parsons and noting that women producers were “as scarce as hen’s teeth” in Hollywood. Shamed, RKO returned “The Enchanted Cottage” to Parsons, and eventually “I Remember Mama” as well.
Even while producing “The Enchanted Cottage,” Parsons found herself demeaned on the set. Trades reported that a set visitor turned to her and asked, “What do you do, little girl?,” with Parsons replying that she was the producer.
Thanks to her success, women like Joan Harrison gained the opportunity to produce, with Harrison receiving greater help and chances in her career thanks to her mentor Alfred Hitchcock. Parsons’ talent shown through, however, with American Cinematographer in 1945 calling her “the dean of women producers,” recognized for bringing projects in on time and on budget. Screenland magazine reported that year that “some men still resent the intrusion of women in high business positions…” looking to keep the field to themselves.
Over the next few years, Parsons optioned projects featuring strong women characters, ones surviving and triumphing over challenging situations like those of Dorothy McGuire in “Enchanted Cottage” and Irene Dunne in “I Remember Mama.” Though trades announced her optioning titles like “Prodigal Women,” “Who Could Ask For Anything More,” and “A Very Remarkable Fellow,” Parsons produced only a few more films, “Never a Dull Moment” with Irene Dunne, “Clash by Night” with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and “Susan Slept Here” with Debbie Reynolds and Dick Powell.
Even after becoming a respected film producer, Parsons couldn’t escape her mother, with Photoplay writing that though she was talented and industrious, the guidance and support of Louella mostly contributed to her success. In an unpublished memoir entitled “I Never Told My Mother,” Parsons wrote that she was always discouraged by her mother’s reputation and outstanding achievements, always feeling stuck in her mother’s shadow no matter what she did.
Film projects seemed to dry up for Parsons by 1954, even after she joined the Screen Producers Guild in 1953. Parsons produced “How to Marry a Millionaire” for television and attempted a couple of projects, including the 1957 proposed series “Dead Letter Office,” a reality show based around actual letters received by the post office, and “I Married a Psychiatrist” in 1961, neither of which were made.
Though Parsons married at the time she began producing “Screen Snapshots,” she divorced five years later. Many books claim she was gay, without listing any sources. In later years, Parsons spent most of her time in Palm Springs. Her mother, Louella, passed away in 1972, and Parsons died of cancer in 1983. Even in death she couldn’t escape her mother, with virtually every obituary describing her as Louella’s child.
Virtually forgotten now, even forgotten by women writers and academics who laud Joan Harrison but make little to no mention of her, Harriet Parsons is the true trailblazer. Parsons slogged through oppression and sexism to help pave the way for people like Harrison and setting the course for today’s powerful female producers.