Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights: Women Played Key Roles in Early Film Sales

Agnes Egan Cobb, wearing a wide-brimmed hat
At a time when men dominated the sales profession, two women facilitated moving pictures sales in the United States during the 1910s and 1920s, an incredible rarity in the selling profession. Pioneers in their field, these unsung women demonstrated that finesse and knowledge were as successful as aggression and domination in the often combative field.

Salespersons were then required to sell a company’s moving pictures to states’ rights distributors looking to fill the country’s film theatres while at the same time attempting to create demand for a particular brand or studio. Others were attempting to sell films from foreign countries here in the United States as well. Men dominated this competitive field, particularly those loud and aggressive enough to dominate competition or wily enough to outsmart competitors. These salespersons explained differences in product, popularity, and appeal, introduced new products, and supplemented their direct meetings with exhibit bulletins, reviews in Exhibitor’s Trade Herald and other trade magazines. Salespeople were the very embodiment of a booming new field.

It was in the decade of the 1910s that the growing popularity of motion pictures saw the introduction of salesmen trying to promote and differentiate a company’s product through all the swelling clutter. At the same time, two enterprising young women found excitement in the new position, enjoying the challenge of traveling, negotiating, and experiencing adventure.

Our first adventuress, Agnes Egan, continually searched for challenge and opportunity with her strong work ethic and initiative helping lead the way. Born October 19, 1877, in Brooklyn to an Irish immigrant, Egan graduated from public high school No. 139 and attended Mt. Holyoke Seminary for two and a half years before she was forced to search for work after the death of her father. She soon met and married William Hoffman in 1898 settling down to life as a wife and mother to daughter Josephine before Hoffman died in 1901. Forced once again to find employment, Egan was hired as secretary to the head of the Cieneguita Copper Company, even living in Sonora, Mexico for a time before returning to New York and working as a stenographer for the Fire Insurance Co.

Seeing the growing popularity of films and sensing an opportunity to get in on the ground floor, Egan moved quickly. Motion Picture News called her the “pioneer lady exchange proprietor” in a 1912 story, noting she opened and operated the Joselyn Exchange before selling out and joining P. A. Powers to help sell Buffalo Bill pictures for the Sales Company while also helping Frank Winch write the life stories of western celebrities Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill.

Reliance President Adam Kessel Jr. then hired her as his assistant before he moved on to California just a few months later. Looking for a challenge, she served as secretary to Frederick A. Cook at the Morgan Lithograph Company, becoming the first woman to sell the striking lithographs to film companies. Egan helped set up the Polar Publishing Company to sell the book of North Pole explorer Dr. Frederick Cook not long after, ambitious and driven to gain new skills.

In 1911 she was hired as private secretary to B.F. Clements, head of the National Film Distributing Company, with the magazine stating “she traveled over 5,000 miles showing the National Program” as she sold its product. R. Prieur of the Lux Company hired her as secretary for their Los Angeles office, through which she met Charles Lang Cobb Jr. and married him February 5, 1912. Cobb rose quickly too, working for Edison and Vitagraph before helping organize the Associated Motion Picture Company, leaving in fall 1911 to organize the Consolidated Motion Picture Supplies Co. Not long after their marriage, Cobb became a traveling salesman for Reliance, with Egan Cobb succeeding him as general manager at the company.

Egan found her passion in distribution, beginning a sales career buying and selling both foreign and domestic films and masterful at selling herself through publicity. In 1912, Egan Cobb gained recognition when she became sales agent and general office manager for Itala Films in America, with Moving Picture World calling her “one of the best known young women in the film business…Miss Egan possesses several years’ experience, a good personality and a vast acquaintance in the trade, which makes her a valuable asset.” Many stories praised her charming and outgoing personality, with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1914 proclaiming she “is a very charming little lady with a winsome smile, soft, pleasing voice, pretty eyes and a sense of humor that enables her to make the best of many vexatious situations.”

Ready to take charge, Egan Cobb convinced her husband to establish the Cobb Motion Picture Bureau in late May 1913 to serve as a feature film brokerage. While Cobb was president, he retained his position in charge of publicity and sales for Ramo Films, with Egan Cobb the active head of the concern. Agnes would sell the films to exchanges and manage the office due to her experience and knowledge. A story in Motion Picture News described the policies of the company as follows: “…to buy and sell film; to procure and establish a market for new film; to place features on a territorial basis and to supply feature film manufacturers with a ready and substantial market… .” Egan Cobb also handled Union and Ideal features for the Eclair Parisian Office. In love with their work and each other, the couple traveled the country together selling their entertainment wares.

Interviewed by Motion Picture News in 1913, Egan Cobb saluted housewives and mothers while stating her own love of challenging work. She described a home as “what makes life worthwhile,” but emphasized her abhorrence of housewifely duties. “I can cook things fit for a king to eat, but I despise the kitchen. I can sew, make clothes, do fancy work, anything a woman can do, but I would rather not. I do not enjoy it and it makes me nervous; but I do love to be in business solving its problems. With all my business ambition I am every inch a woman, and always hope to be.”

Egan Cobb’s success drew business her way. By the summer of 1914 she also served as the general manager for Leading Players Corporation in New York, selling their films across the country while also handling publicity materials like posters, heralds, and the like. Thanks to her experience selling Eclair’s foreign produced films, Egan Cobb gained additional European clients that fall, serving as selling agent in the United States for the London company Clarenden and the Swedish company Filmfabriken through Leading Players. Egan Cobb and other distributors were now realizing both the entertainment and monetary value of purchasing rights to show foreign films in the American market.

In 1915, Egan Cobb took over management of her brother, Charles Egan’s, film company, the Egan Film Company, when he fell ill. The industrious agent dissolved her other companies to focus her attention here, while also adding the selling of educational product to her list of accomplishments. Motion Picture News also proclaimed her the first person to serve as an “advisor” in the moving picture business, serving as what we would now call a consultant, offering advice on strategy, finance, and policies, which she had been offering friends for years. After her brother’s recovery, Egan Cobb joined Claridge Films, Inc. in 1916 as Vice President and General Manager, in charge of sales for its film productions.

Perhaps strain overcame Egan Cobb in 1917, as trades announced her two month recuperation at home for “nervous prostration.” Whatever happened during this time, whether physical or emotional, her life would never be the same, alternating between work and health issues. For two years Egan Cobb appears to have retreated from moving pictures, until a 1919 announcement of her appointment as sales manager for Schomer-Ross Productions on the states-rights’ market.

Change came quickly for her over the next several years, short stops as sales manager at a variety of companies, as well as possible separation from her husband, as they appear to take up different addresses. In 1922, Egan Cobb worked for a variety of companies as distributor and sales manager, ending the year distributing two-reel animal shorts created by filmmaker Nell Shipman. By 1924, she was selling accessories for motion picture theatres. Egan Cobb’s last appearance in the entertainment trades comes in 1930, announcing she has resigned from Zit’s Weekly to write a weekly film and fashion column for the New York Morning Telegraph. Not long after she retired to Connecticut to live with her daughter Josephine, dying in 1963.

Edna_sim_billboard_1913-05-10_25_19_0008Picking up Egan Cobb’s mantle at the end of the 1910s, Edna Williams this time focused on selling American films to foreign distributors in Europe and Asia. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, March 12, 1887, Williams moved to Los Angeles in 1904 to live with her mother, who supposedly operated major apartment hotels. Stories claimed her a popular amateur composer in the city, and Williams wrote a song which became a hit thanks to the work of a professional singer. Williams and her mother spent a year in New York laying the groundwork for a potential career for the young composer before she joined the large Tin Pan Alley publishing house Joseph W. Stern & Co. in 1909, where she served as one of a stable of popular song writers.

The January 2, 1909 Billboard described Williams as “one of the brilliant feminine writers on the staff” of the company, “whose works bear the stamp of high genius.” Besides composing, “she attends to the wants and secures the services of all the leading professional singers for the house.” Though Williams and a few other women composed songs for Stern & Co., very few operated in the heart of Tin Pan Alley, a competitive field dominated by assertive and loud men.

Over the next few years, Williams wrote lyrics and/or music singly or with a partner to such novelty songs as If the Wind Had Only Blown the Other Way, Big Swamp Boogie-Man, Mr. Gollywood, Good-night, I Looked Just Once and What I Saw Was Quite Enough For Me, Did You Advertise for Some Dreamy Eyes, I’ll Like to Build a Fence Around You, Don’t Go Up in That Big Balloon, Dad, Mr. Editor, How Do You Know?, Let Me Have a Kiss Until Tomorrow, Epidemic Rag, June Rose, You’ve Made a Home Run With Me, Subway Glide, Exceeding the Speed Limit, My Turkish Opal From Constantinople, Over the Great Divide, Maid of My Heart, and Old Erin, the Shamrock, and You. She also helped write songs for vaudeville acts and performers such as Carter De Haven and gained a promotion to heading the professional song department.

Her talents gained her a promotion in 1913, with Billboard writing, “She has achieved the distinction of being the only, genuine, female business manager for a music publishing house.” Even better, she succeeded in finding plagiarists and song stealers for litigation purposes as well as all necessary witnesses better than any detective. At the same time, they perhaps employed coded language in their writeup to suggest her sexuality. The magazine noted her accomplishments by stating that, “she is a GIRL. A girl? Yes, a girl! And a regular, all-round good fellow (we mean sweet, young lady), at that!” Not only a pioneer in the songwriting field but in life as well, as Williams dressed in a more masculine style with tie and men’s hat, along with shorter hair.

Perhaps by 1915 Williams tired of the grind of churning out songs, because she turned to the moving picture field, purchasing product for Australia and South America while occasionally composing on the side. She became Secretary for the National Movement Motion Picture Bureau in 1916, which served as a foreign clearing house for American movies in Great Britain, Japan, and South America. Williams gained such experience by late December 1917 that Robertson Cole hired her as a trade representative marketing American film territorial rights to foreign buyers for themselves as well as the U. S. Exhibitors’ Booking Corporation.

Impressed with her talent, Exhibitors Herald devoted half a page to her in 1918, noting that “Feminism is advancing in the motion picture industry.” The story listed her background and explained all she had accomplished in three months in expanding Robertson-Cole’s business of distributing special productions overseas, setting up offices in major international cities instead of conducting business by telephone and telegram. Heading the new division out of the Times Building in New York City, “this energetic young woman…directs virtually single-handed one of the largest enterprises now operating in the foreign film field. She is in touch with exhibitors in all parts of the globe.” Williams herself saw growing popularity of American films across the world, predicting that even Russia would desire American product after the conclusion of the War.

By the fall of 1918, Williams’ efforts on behalf of Robertson-Cole were so successful that the company moved into new and larger space at 1600 Broadway. The elaborate headquarters contained projection room as well as individual departments handling the sale, exploitation, and delivery of their film product. Knowledgeable and talented, entertainment trades and newspapers turned to Williams for information and description of selling foreign rights to American films. Williams also employed her composing skills to help market Robertson-Cole films. In 1918, she and L. Wolfe Gilbert wrote the song “That Beloved Cheater of Mine” to help sell the company’s film “The Beloved Cheater” directed by W. Christy Cabanne.

Meeting with overwhelming success, Film Booking Office (FBO) stole Williams away from Robertson-Cole in 1922, allowing her to set up foreign distribution offices around the globe to sell their product. For six months of 1923, she toured the European continent promoting FBO films and setting up offices in London, Paris, and Berlin. She was also in the process of setting up offices in Mexico City, Havana, and a few South American countries as well. Over the next few years, Williams would spend months at a time visiting the far-flung offices and drumming up purchases of the company’s output as well as opening offices in Asia and Eastern Europe.

After gaining enormous respect and experience, Williams struck out on her own in 1926, establishing Ednella Export, handling foreign distribution of American films throughout the world. Besides running her New York office, she established other branches in London, Paris, and Berlin too. Ads in Moving Picture World in 1927 show she handled sales for Preferred Pictures, Gotham Productions, and William Fairbanks Productions and stories also mentioned work for Columbia Pictures.

In 1929 if not earlier, Williams closed Ednella Export. Perhaps tired of all the traveling and ready to settle down, Williams moved West to Los Angeles, making her relationship with vaudeville/stage actress Nella Walker permanent. Possibly a couple as early as 1926, when ship records show them returning from England together and then taking subsequent foreign trips. the women appear to have committed to each other when Walker began landing film roles in Hollywood. The 1930 census lists Williams as a guest with Walker, while the 1940 census calls her Walker’s lodger. Both women are buried together at Forest Lawn Glendale.

Without women, the silent film industry of the 1910s could never have exploded into the massive powerhouse it became. Women’s contributions both behind and in front of cameras were required to produce enough film product to keep up with demand as well as creative new ideas to bring new customers to buy its wares, especially those in large, overseas countries Agnes Egan Cobb and Edna Williams’ drive, initiative, and talent sold filmmakers on women in the field as they also sold moving pictures for distribution.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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