Sada Cowan and writing partner Howard Higgin in 1925, Exhibitors Herald.
Women made an integral contribution to the early silent film industry in all areas, both behind and in front of the camera. Without their presence, the field could not have produced as many movies that made as much impact on society as those created during these early years. Their contributions developed the industry as we know it, before they virtually disappeared from production in the 1920s.
Writer Sada Cowan is one of these unsung heroines, writing and shaping many stories revealing the hopes and frustrations of women in work as in marriage. Turning from one-act plays and poetry to screenwriting, she composed scripts featuring strong women characters for more than a decade before seeing her career virtually disappear with the introduction of sound.
Cowan assisted with writing DeMille’s Why Change Your Wife?
Much of Cowan’s early life remains shrouded in mystery. Born Sarah Louise Cowan September 8, 1882, in Boston to Jewish parents, Rebecca and Elias Cowan, seven months after they married, Cowan changed her name to Sada as she turned to writing. Elias Cowan, one of eight children, moved to Boston from Australia in 1880 and began working in the jewelry field, later operating his own shop. He married Rebecca Myers, originally from England, and the two lived a comfortable life.
At 18, Cowan lived at a Boston-area girls’ school before moving to Europe to study music in Germany. On April 29, 1905, she married German produce exporter Carl Neumond in France, but nothing can be found about how long they remained married or when they divorced. She married Frederick James Pitt in New York in 1917, but continued working under her maiden name, though no records appear to exist as to when they divorced either.
By 1905, Cowan’s name appeared in print for excerpts of some of her poetry first published in The Forum, with the Albany Democrat listing an epigram by her under the name Sada Louise Cowan: “Muscle control is the secret of grace as mind control is the secret of charm.” She began writing one-act plays focusing on social and women’s issues by the mid-1910s, with such titles as The State Forbids, Playing the Game, In the Morgue, Pomp, The Honor of America, and The Wonder of the Age.
She completed 16 one-acts, with some translated into other languages such as Japanese and others performed by actresses such as Gladys George and Madame Chautard-Archainbaud of Paris, possibly the wife of film director Emile Chautard, as well as others by students of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The State Forbids dealt with contraception and birth control, while Playing the Game told the story of an actress acquitted for the murder of her husband before she commits suicide. Written in 1917, the one act The Honor of America was called timely by the San Francisco Examiner, “a bid for enlistment and an indictment of the slacker.”
Cowan traveled to Hollywood in 1918 hoping to mend her broken heart as well as to make a splash, thanks to her growing reputation as a playwright. Universal signed her to adapt Playing the Game in 1919 after it purchased for a special six-reel feature starring Fritzi Brunette and directed by George Siegmann. The studio changed the title to The Woman Under Cover, about a “sob-sister” snooping for information into a mysterious murder that also might implicate her worthless brother.
Looking for experience from a master, Cowan struck up a rapport with director Cecil B. DeMille, who gave her a pass allowing regular access to his sets. As Cowan later told journalists, “I made myself a complete nuisance,” planting herself behind the cameraman and continually asking the editor questions. Ruby Miller, supervisor of the typists who copied scripts, greatly assisted her by showing her top continuities. DeMille eventually allowed her to assist writing the continuity for his 1920 film Why Change Your Wife?, sharing credit with the experienced writer Olga Printzlau, and sharing titling responsibilities with Printzlau and DeMille’s brother William. DeMille appeared to attempt to wear her down, continually denigrating her output and her writing prowess, stating he didn’t expect her to succeed, before eventually giving her a raise. She would go on to help with the story for Why Change Your Husband? as well while also drafting titles for other films.
In June 1920, producers Harry Garson and Herbert Somborn signed her to write scripts for actress Clara Kimball Young. These stories would focus on domestic dramas set in the present day, helping to defray production costs. Hush focused on a married couple dealing with the aftermath of the wife’s attraction to another man and how to reconcile. Excessive spending and financial debt by a frustrated woman was the theme of the second Young film, Charge It. In The Worldly Madonna, Young showed wide range, playing a convent novitiate who exchanges places with her cabaret dancer sister, who thinks she has killed a man.
After quickly turning out these stories, Cowan searched for new opportunities to work with talented directors who understood how to shape dramatic material into compelling stories. Cowan wrote two scripts for actor’s director Sidney Franklin. The first, Courage, a picture of trying times in Scotland, featured the work of young actor Adolphe Menjou, and the second, Brass, saw a young wife attempting to win back the love of her husband after her marriage hits the rocks. Looking for a hit, she also paired with writer Beulah Marie Dix to churn out Fool’s Paradise for Cecil B. DeMille, another of his over the top melodramas, this time with a cad in a Mexican border town torn between two cantina dancers who is blinded by an exploding cigar and wrestles between which of the women to marry.
Reckless Lady (1925) with a script by Cowan.
Paramount signed her to a contract in 1923 to develop scripts for several of its strong leading ladies. Partnering with Ouida Bergere, Cowan helped create the Herbert Brenon-directed The Rustle of Silk for Betty Compson, focusing on a love triangle. Showing her range, Cowan adapted a French play into the tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy Bluebeard’s 8th Wife for the fashionista superstar Gloria Swanson. Cowan also wrote The Silent Partner for Leatrice Joy, about a woman who adeptly plays politics to advance her husband’s career.
In 1923, Cowan met former art director and production manager Howard Higgin and found a complementary writing partner. A few years younger than Cowan, 40, Higgin also recognized the pressures of marriage and career on contemporary women which sometimes lead to divorce and infidelity. Over the next three years, the freelance writing team did everything from titling to script doctoring to adapting to creating nine scripts for virtually every major studio in town, eventually earning a $1,000 a week each.
As they described in a newspaper interview, “Sada is the stronger on drama and movement and the exploitation of psychological states. Howard’s particular forte is detail, practical considerations, continuity. Sada starts off on any script by seeing the characters almost as disincarnate emotional states; Howard has to see what clothes they wear and what door they’ll enter before he can feel their reality…. It was the belief that we could create more valid drama in this respect jointly, contributing the viewpoint of both sexes, than we could singly that led to our dual enterprise.”
The team wrote scenarios starring such diverse leading ladies as Mae Murray, Joy, Viola Dana, Norma Shearer, Pola Negri, Blanche Sweet, and Belle Bennett, with Higgin directing the last three of their films together. Their greatest success came in the 1924 Clarence Brown-directed Universal film Smouldering Fires starring Pauline Frederick, the story of a fortysomething businesswoman finally finding love and romance, only to discover her younger husband has fallen in love with her baby sister. Brown’s masterful direction and Frederick’s heartbreaking performance really sell the story, which tends towards conventionality by its conclusion.
The writing team went their separate ways in 1926, and Cowan’s career began nosediving just before the introduction of sound and as Wall Street money dominated financing for moviemaking. As sound came in, many studios employed the new technical changeover as the perfect time to also dismiss highly paid, veteran talent like Cowan, 44.
Her first solo effort without Higgin, Mismates, featured the excellent cast of Doris Kenyon, Warren Baxter, and May Allison under the direction of Charles Brabin in a story of spouses eventually separated by class and money. The 1928 Stand and Deliver, starred Warner Oland and Lupe Velez in a story of a woman hater who falls in love with the saucy woman he rescues. While both featured strong actors and veteran directors, neither earned huge box office receipts.
Like the Frederick character in Smouldering Fires, Cowan appeared to find passionate love with Los Angeles Dr. Ernest L. Commons in Chicago, marrying him after a three-month courtship in 1929. The couple traveled overseas but once they returned to L.A., Commons grew jealous of her successful career and Hollywood friends, turning emotionally abusive and turning his twelve-year-old son from his first marriage against her. After their divorce in 1930, Cowan struggled.
The troubled writer turned to magazine articles, novels, and plays to support herself, as she earned only three screenwriting credits for”B” pictures in the 1930s focusing on independent women trying to survive, the story of the writer herself. In 1934, she adapted Dashiell Hammett’s Woman in the Dark, featuring a strong cast of Fay Wray, Melvyn Douglas, and Ralph Bellamy which did moderately well at the box office. The 1935 Forbidden Heaven, Republic Pictures’ first production, seemed ripped from the headlines, the story of a young man who saved a despairing young woman from drowning and then worked to help her and her homeless friends find solutions to their situation. Four years later, Cowan earned her last writing credit for Fox “B” film Stop, Look, and Love, starring Jean Rogers as a young woman finding trouble holding onto boyfriends due to her critical mother until her lovable, understanding father (William Frawley) steps in. Newer, younger writers now received the opportunities thrown her way only 15 years before.
On July 31, 1943 at the age of 61, Cowan died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital after a protracted illness. She had completed the novel Bitter Justice during sanitarium confinement not long before, a title with which she could identify.
Like many women from the beginnings of the silent film industry, Cowan developed the scripts and productions that gave birth to the business’ success before finding themselves virtually discarded with the arrival of sound. Cowan and others like her need their own private stories and achievements acknowledged for the fact that without feminist help, the motion picture industry would not have become America’s first mass form of entertainment.