Throughout the silent film industry, women took an active part in production, gaining more positions and power than women occupy now. Without women behind the screen, production companies could not have manufactured enough moving pictures to satisfy audience demand as popularity surged in the 1910s. By the second decade, even more women were working behind the scenes as production expanded. From major companies to small independents, women occupied a variety of positions, not just those considered more feminine, recognized for their skills.
As Alice Eyton wrote in the series Unknown Women of Filmland in Story World and the Photodramatist, “These women belong to various departments of the moving picture industry, and their work therein – it is as important, just as creative, and sometimes, more self-developing than the work of the stars, writers, supervisors, and directors…These silent workers form the real background of the profession.”
Unknown Women of Filmland: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Among the many women were Lillian Greenberger and Jeanne Spencer, who both entered moving pictures in the late 1910s. Although both gained some publicity and renown, Greenberger would see her career expire in the early 1920s as women began disappearing from the film industry, while Spencer would work into the 1930s but see her status decline.
Born in New York May 14, 1891, Greenberger attended high school through her freshman year before beginning to work. Although I am unable at the moment to discover her jobs until 1917 and how she landed in Hollywood, Greenberger served as purchasing agent for the L-KO and Stern Film Companies beginning in 1917, helping acquire supplies and other products for the companies. Acclaimed director Lois Weber recognized her skills, hiring her as business manager for her independent Lois Weber Productions in 1918, when she organized her own private studio at 4350 Santa Monica Blvd. Greenberger also served as purchasing agent for the Committee on Women’s War Work of the Women’s Motion Picture War Service that year as well. That same year, Greenberger married Spencer Valentine, purchasing agent and later business manager for The Thomas Ince Studio.
Late in 1919, Universal Film Manufacturing Co. hired her as casting director, at a time when women were coming to dominate the field, interviewing and hiring the casts of films, becoming the starmakers of the industry. The studio stayed busy: 15 companies filmed at any one time. Greenberger received publicity in the trades for her busy and fine work. Perhaps to recognize her fine work, studio production manager Irving Thalberg hired her as his assistant. This position was not a secretarial one, but one that relayed information to and from department heads and directors on the executive’s behalf.
For at least one year, Greenberger served in her position, only for trades to announce on April 16, 1921, that Julius Bernstein would replace her. At that point, Greenberger’s film career goes cold, at a time when multiple forces are ushering in foreboding practices for women that would soon force many of them from the industry. Close Up magazine published an uncredited story in its December 5, 1922 issue under the title Why Let Her Rest?, noting that producers recognized her “bright intellect and business acumen…yet here she is resting and squandering her valuable time, when she should be placed at the head of a department in which her talents could be utilized to great advantage… .”
In the 1920s, much would change for women as the industry evolved into the motion picture factory working in vertical integration, controlling production, distribution, and exhibition. As Karen Ward Mahar wrote in her book, Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, “Exhibitors integrated backward to obtain a steady source of films for their screens, while producers concentrated on buying or securing access to first-run theaters.” As Wall Street money began flowing in to complete these financial takeovers, studios began releasing women, with the formation of unions at the end of the decade forcing out many more.
Jeanne Spencer, however, would appear to enter the film industry around the same time as Greenberger, but worked until 1940s, perhaps because she ambitiously worked in multiple fields and her sister Dorothy would remain a successful editor. Born January 29, 1897, in Kentucky, Spencer graduated from high school before joining filmmaking. Although no documentation exists explaining how she entered the industry, Picture Play magazine in 1919 promotes four women in different positions at Universal, working as everything from script clerk to editor, with the periodical recognizing her as studio lead projectionist, “a keen student of mechanics and technology.”
Never one to sit still, Spencer saw some of her stories and scripts purchased and produced by the studio beginning in 1920. Other stories list her as a cutter at this time as well, and in 1922, Spencer served as continuity clerk on the Erich von Stroheim film Foolish Wives. Returning to the cutting room, Spencer remained at Universal for the next few years.
By 1926, however, Spencer took her first independent studio position, serving as cutter for the Richard Barthelmess film Ranson’s Folly, produced by Inspiration Pictures, Inc. In 1928, Spencer was named head of editing for the company, working with director Edwin Carewe. Over the next four years, Spencer cut such films as Ramona, Evangeline, and Resurrection. When the company folded, Spencer turned to cutting films for Poverty Row studios featuring silent stars on their way down like Lloyd Hughes, Wheeler Oakman, Walter Miller, and Edward Earle, and stars on the rise like Leon Ames with such titles as Alimony Madness, Behind Jury Doors, and Hollywood Mystery.
Spencer received her last credit in 1941 for developing the story for the Columbia Studios motion picture Adventure in Washington starring Virginia Bruce and Herbert Marshall, which received good reviews. Spencer was in her 30s, but her film career appears to end at this point.
Much continues to be done to document the many forgotten women who contributed to the success of the early motion picture industry, most forced out during the 1920s financial upheaval, with even trades recognizing they deserved more, as with the story about Greenberger.
The article in Close Up magazine (which I never heard of before!) is particularly interesting; just a little cry of protest against the system. It’s nice to hear that not everybody was on board with the unfairness. It reminds me of the 1925 film “The Home Maker,” in which both a husband and wife have to scheme to hide the “unnaturalness” of a woman who is good at a commercial job.