Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Viola Lawrence–Hollywood’s First Woman Film Editor

Viola Mallory
Viola Mallory Lawrence in Exhibitors Herald, Dec. 25, 1920.

Mostly forgotten today, or in the shadow of other female editors, Viola Mallory Lawrence actually was the first to cut a film in 1912, going on to work almost 50 years with some of the most iconic and visionary directors. Her work cemented films’ stories together while also creating a dynamic pacing. Dedicated and disciplined, Lawrence turned to editing at a young age and grew into one of the field’s most respected veterans.

Born December 2, 1894, in Brooklyn, New York, Viola Mallory grew up with the exploding popularity of moving pictures as a child. She joined Vitagraph studio in Flatbush at the age of 12, standing on a box to hold cards being photographed as titles. Within a few years, she gravitated to cutting, dedicating herself to the field. Apprenticing under Vitagraph’s lead editor, Frank Lawrence, she learned quickly. In 1912, she edited the three-reeler O’Henry, her first opportunity to fully serve as editor.

The Picture Show, 1919In 1917, Viola moved west to Hollywood to join Universal, as much to follow and join her love, Lawrence, eleven years her senior, as it was to join a major film company. The two married June 21, 1918, though she would continue using the last name Mallory for a few years. She worked on films with some of Universal’s top but often difficult directors, Tod Browning and Erich von Stroheim.

Viola first gained credit as an editor on 1918 Universal World War I film, The Heart of Humanity. Directed by one of the studio’s top helmers, Allen Holubar, the film starred one of the studio’s leading actresses, Dorothy Phillips, and featured German immigrant Erich von Stroheim in the role of a dastardly Prussian. Lawrence, now Universal’s editor in chief, and Viola shared editing credit on the film.

A wire story in 1919 under the title “Women Are Creating a New Field and Succeeding as Film Editors,” extolled Viola’s work, who they stated now led the Universal cutting department under the supervision of Lawrence, calling her “the feminine film editor.” The story stated, “Woman’s work in the world is jumping, leaping and gaining ground…Many of the larger studios have found that a woman could do this [editing] as well as a man, and as a result of the shortage of man power during the recent war, scores of intelligent girls have been given a chance at this line of work.” Viola described how she found editing “fascinating,” making the story coherent and moving. Blanche Sewell, a rising editor, served as her apprentice at the studio.

Later that year, von Stroheim earned the right to direct his first feature, Blind Husbands, with Lawrence and Viola , now working under her married name, working with the fledgling director. Newspapers noted that “the best titling and editing brains in the films have been turned loose..” on the film, reporting that both she and Elinor Fried would serve as editors with Lawrence. Following the film, Viola would serve as editor on the Tod Browning film The Virgin of Stamboul and the Holubar-Phillips film Once to Every Woman in 1920. Perhaps to avoid nepotism, Lawrence moved on to serve as editor in chief for Allen J. Holubar Productions by December of that year, with husband Frank remaining in charge of Universal’s editing department.

Viola served as editor for the Holubar-Phillips film Man, Woman, Marriage in 1921 before the director unexpectedly died in 1923 after gallbladder surgery. She would bounce around over the several few years working for such studios and companies as Columbia, Film Booking Office, Samuel Goldwyn, and Gloria Swanson’s independent production company.

She served as Columbia’s supervising film editor in 1927 and received credit for such films as Sweet Rosie O’Grady, Goldwyn films The Devil Dancer, The Awakening, and Bulldog Drummond starring Ronald Colman, which she co-edited with her husband. She served as editor for two Gloria Swanson independent productions, What a Widow and the over the top Queen Kelly, directed by von Stroheim. The mesmerizing decadence of Queen Kelly bankrupted Swanson and devastated von Stroheim’s directing career.

Viola survived difficult directors like von Stroheim, Orson Welles, and Nicholas Ray, as well as an industry that often disregarded the work of its female workers. However, the Los Angeles Times in 1926 praised women’s work in editing, noting that “One of the most important positions in the motion-picture industry is held almost entirely by women.” More than twenty women checked scripts or cut films, with some executives believing that women’s superior concentration and patience gave them a definite edge. Viola possessed these talents, but also showed great skill in keeping a story moving and coherent while adding dramatic appeal and style. While she continued to work for decades, many women soon began seeing their careers fade away.

Craig's Wife

Viola Lawrence, left, during filming of Craig’s Wife, with Rosalind Russell, center, writer Mary McCall Jr. and director Dorothy Arzner, Hollywood Magazine. 

In 1931, Viola returned to Columbia as supervising editor, where she would remain for the rest of her career. She worked on virtually every type of film, from Pre-Code to musical to drama to film noir. During the 1930s, she served as editor on such films as Man’s Castle starring Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, Lady By Choice featuring Carole Lombard, The Whole Town’s Talking starring Edward G. Robinson and Jean Arthur, and the Rosalind Russell starrer Craig’s Wife, directed by former editor Dorothy Arzner.

At the end of the decade, Viola edited the Howard Hawks’ film Only Angels Have Wings starring Cary Grant and Arthur. Hawks directed and produced the film, conceiving the story as well. The magazine, “The Movies…and the People That Make Them” called the movie “…highly melodramatic…with convincing, staccato dialogue and terse, taut scenes that move with speed and precision to create excitement and suspense.”

She edited diverse movies in the 1940s as well, working with tried Columbia directors like Alexander Hall and creative boy wonders like Welles and Ray. In 1941, the Hollywood veteran edited the supernatural romance Here Comes Mr. Jordan, later remade by Warren Beatty as “Heaven Can Wait.” Viola helped the legendary Welles shape the gloriously outre The Lady From Shanghai into a marvelous fun house of a film. Her editing added a visual elan to the atmospheric noir, and helped keep the imaginative director somewhat in check. She contributed greatly to the success of films on which she served, but trades and critics gave virtually all of the creative credit to the wunderkind directors for which she cut, from von Stroheim to Welles to Ray. How much was actually the decisions of these “great men”, or the work of her discerning eye.

A year later, she demonstrated perseverance working with Ray on the Humphrey Bogart film Knock on Any Door. Variety’s review praised her work, stating, “Expert editing by Viola Lawrence figures importantly in the pacing of the picture’s 98 minutes. There are no drags.” Over the next few years, she edited several of the Bogart Santana production released by the studio. She cut films Tokyo Joe and Sirocco and her fine work kept the gripping but downbeat In a Lonely Place taut and moving without becoming maudlin.

She edited an eclectic slate of films in the 1950s, from offbeat films to crime dramas. She survived 3D with the studio’s 1953 film Man in the Dark, the first 3D movie put into production. During the decade, she also edited many of sex goddess Rita Hayworth’s pictures, including Affair in Trinidad, Salome, and Sadie Thompson. The charming, breezy musical Pal Joey and the dark, fictionalized biography Jeanne Eagels featured up and coming Kim Novak while Queen Bee and Harriet Craig featured screen queen Joan Crawford as controlling and vindictive bitches. Noir films like Miami Story and Chicago Syndicate are entertaining if a little sleazy, but Tight Spot remained taut and suspenseful.

Although Viola edited top films, she received little recognition throughout her long career. She did receive a critics’ award for The Eddy Duchin Story and received two Oscar nominations for Pal Joey and Pepe. The bloated, big budget Pepe turned into Viola’s great white whale, as she was forced to try and whittle 500,000 feet of film down to 20,000. After the film’s release, she retired, grieving the death of her husband months earlier.

Lawrence survived a changing and difficult industry for women for almost 50 years, while her husband, Frank, retired in the late 1930s. Though he did cut such films as Bulldog Drummond, Nana, and the dramatic Hell’s Angels, Frank never received the attention or success of his talented wife. Viola joined American Cinema Editors as a charter member, and became a lifetime member upon her retirement, one of the few women working in the industry but virtually forgotten in the press.

Viola Mallory Lawrence demonstrated skill, determination, and patience in her long and successful career, and deserves recognition for her talented and diverse work.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Film, Hollywood, Hollywood Heights, Mary Mallory and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Viola Lawrence–Hollywood’s First Woman Film Editor

  1. Bob Borgen says:

    Fascinating. Related to you?


    • Mary Mallory says:

      HI Bob, that I don’t know. We have genealogy for the Mallorys all over the South, but I haven’t seen anything for anyone on the East Coast. Will need to check it out.


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