Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Elsa Lopez, Silent Film Art Director

Scenes of Paris, 1922, art direction by Elsa Lopez.

Virtually unknown today, women like Elsa Lopez played an integral part in the early silent film industry. Not just actresses or in administrative behind-the-scenes jobs, females made active contributions in creating moving pictures, serving in positions in which they helped shape the look and production of movies, a fledgling, open industry looking for dynamic ideas. Argentinian born, Lopez provided creative elements to industry superstars at a time when few women of color offered important input, becoming one of the first Latino women to gain status in Hollywood.

Born 1887 in Argentina, Elsa Solano Lopez remains somewhat cloaked in mystery before arriving in Hollywood, and kept her life a closely guarded secret after entering the film industry. By 1910 she lived in Portland, Oregon, where on October 29, 1910, she married clerk Justin Patrick O’Connor, giving birth in 1912 to their son Patrick Justin O’Connor. By 1914, the family lived in Los Angeles, with O’Connor serving as mercantile reporter and Elsa serving as housewife/mother. A later short industry biographical notice said she served as interpreter and newspaper writer early in her career.

Lopez and other women will be showcased in an exhibition of images from collector Dwight M. Cleveland’s poster collection opening April 8 at New York City’s Poster House called Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood.

How Women Love, 1922, art direction by Elsa Lopez.

In 1916, however, Lopez gained public notice when renowned director D.W. Griffith and Triangle Films named her research director and title writer. Entertainment trades praised her work and attention to detail in publicity stories, providing scarce detail on her background except that she was supposedly born in Paraguay as the granddaughter of Francisco Solano Lopez, a former president of the country. Stories noted that Lopez was educated in Europe, well traveled, and spoke Spanish, French, German, and English, while mysteriously not mentioning her husband, who served as assistant to Lasky executive Frank Woods, and son. Throughout her career, no story mentioned her status as wife and mother.

Motion Picture News wrote, “Miss Lopez holds down a job in which you would expect to find a scholarly old gentleman, who had spent his life delving in the musty recesses of libraries, but she is eminently qualified for her tasks and says she gets as much pleasure out of it as if she were posing before the camera or basking in the spotlight of fame…She digs out historical incidents, customs of the time or any and all embellishments that may serve further to adorn the characters with an air of realism and assembles them in such form that they will be readily available for costumer, carpenter and director.” In effect, she helped orchestrate lush looks and atmosphere for upscale productions.

Producer Joseph Schenck hired Lopez away from Griffith and Triangle in 1919 to serve as research director for his wife, Norma Talmadge and her Norma Talmadge Pictures Corporation. Schenck informed trades that they hired her to bring quality, accuracy, and attention to detail in producing high-end dramas and epics at their New York City production office. The September 30, 1920, El Paso Herald called her “a censor of detail” in an story titled “Elsa Lopez Makes Movies Look Right,” with Lopez telling them, “I knew it should be done if there was to be perfection in detail. It is pioneering, but all women have something in them which longs to blaze trails.”

Within a year, however, Lopez appears to have abandoned Norma Talmadge Pictures to provide more than just historical accuracy for films, looking to gain more industry clout and prestige as designer. Late in 1922, producer Whitman Bennett announced that he had signed actress Betty Blythe for a series of society dramas for state release, with Lopez to provide “elaborate scenic dressings.” Over the next year, Lopez designed sets as art director for such films as Secrets of Paris, How Women Love, Fair Lady, His Wife’s Husband, Idol of the Rich, and Modern Marriage.

Lopez mysteriously disappears from newspapers and entertainment trades by 1924. Few details of her life exist beyond that point. Somewhere after 1922, she and O’Connor divorced, because the 1940 United States census shows her living in New Jersey with salesman husband, Edward Smith, his son, and her 27-year-old son O’Connor. It appears that in 1970 the Smiths resided in Napa, California, and that Lopez Smith passed away in El Paso, Texas in 1984 after the death of her husband several years earlier.

The missing details of Lopez’s life echo that of many silent film female creators for which much documentation has disappeared on professional credits and even personal life details. Recognized in their time, many saw their credits and work written out of history for decades after Wall Street money turned the film industry from a mom and pop operation into a multinational and conglomerate system in the mid-1920s. Thanks to increasing digitization of newspapers, magazines, and trade journals, women like Lopez are gaining the recognition and accolades they deserve for their important contributions in forming and developing the early American silent film industry.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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