Celebrating the pioneering female filmmakers at the dawn of Hollywood.

Episode 4: Julia Crawford Ivers

Episode 4: Julia Crawford Ivers

Women of Hollywoodland explores the female filmmaking pioneers working at the dawn of Hollywood. This week, we meet the “Lady of the Shadows” – Julia Crawford Ivers.

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Show Transcript:

Hello hello and welcome to episode 4 of Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that explores the feminist dawn of Hollywood.

Guys, you’ve been amazing about sharing this week – it’s fantastic, thank you so much to all of you who’ve tweeted and facebooked, including Ruth Lett, Mr Jordan and The Dudette.

This week we’re going to be chatting about screenwriter, director, and the first female general manager of a Hollywood studio, Julia Crawford Ivers. Or at least, we’re going to try to. Despite Ivers’ prolific career, finding information about her – well the words needle and haystack come to mind.

Now to be completely fair – even though I do have a semi serious working theory about the dastardly, deliberate erasing women from film history – this is partly to do with simply how long ago it was that she was working. For the first few years of Hollywood, no one thought in terms of saving and storing films. Maybe because so many of them came from a theatre background, they a basically made a movie, showed it to people – like the run of a play – and when it was over, they just dumped the print.

Even when they didn’t deliberately trash it, film in those days was made of nitrate which deteriorates at around 70 degrees farenheight, a temperature not exactly uncommon in Los Angeles. They should have stored all their films in Glasgow, it would have been fine. But they didn’t, and as a result the vast majority of movies made in the first couple of decades of the film industry basically melted or caught on fire. And when they caught on fire, they had an inconvenient habit of taking precious records with them – early screenplays, contracts, casting notes – it’s heartbreaking to think of the historically priceless archieves that literally went up in smoke.

So in a way, we’re talking about the dark ages of the film industry. Even though it was only a hundred years ago – a blink in historical terms – and even though plenty of records exist for other aspects of the period, there are lots of letters and diaries to be found from the First World War, for example, the film industry – bizarrely for an industry that’s generally quite visible – is kind of a black hole.

Look at the fact that – as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago – a lot of people will look you in the eye and tell you that Birth of a Nation was the very first feature film. I know people who were taught that at film school – and yet by the time of its release there had been dozens of features, including one directed by a woman. I haven’t been able to ascertain the existence of prints of any of those early films, so Birth of a Nation may well be the earliest surviving feature – but that’s a different thing.

I think it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind as we try to shine a tiny torch into these dark ages. In the same way that history is written by the victors (and by white men, at that) and that colours our perception of what actually happened – the films and the records that survive kind of dictate film history. And that’s one of the reasons that women have disappeared.

But all that said, even within this dark ages of film context, Julia Crawford Ivers is particularly enigmatic. Even Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood only mentions her once – and trying to find a comprehensive bio of her, well you’re about to find out just how ‘successful’ I’ve been there.

In fact, one of the things that first intrigued me about her is that she was actually known even at the period as the ‘Lady of the Shadows’ because of her unwillingness to do publicity.

But even then there’s a twist – so one of the blurbs that you will find about her online – it’s at rotten tomatoes, for example – reads: “A mystery woman who left no photographs of her likeness nor any published interviews.” Except I’ve read at least two interviews with her, and have seen several photos.

Her Wikipedia bio – which, yes I know, Wikipedia, but I do think that Wikipedia is a decent indicator of where someone is in the public consciousness, if nothing else – and it’s like, blink and you’ll miss it – mentions that her sister Grace died at age 14 – but doesn’t mention that she was the first female head of a studio – a fairly important entry on her CV, you might have thought. And the Women Film Pioneers project at Columbia University states: “When discussing Julia Crawford Ivers, film historians primarily emphasize… her remarkably introverted personality” – yet in December 1921, the New York Telegraph reports that “on one side of our table where Mrs Julia Crawford Ivers was the charming hostess…” then goes on to list all the fancy famous people that she hosted. So even the minimal information we have about her is contradictory. I don’t know about you – but I’m intrigued.

Most bios will tell you that Julia Crawford was born in Los Angeles, but oddly enough her 1921 passport survives, and it states that she was born in Boonville Missouri on the 3rd of October 1869. According to Los Angeles county records, the family was resident there by 16 August 1870.

So – 1869. You know how Hollywood is all about youth and if you haven’t made it by 25 you can forget it? Julia Crawford Ivers would beg to differ – at the peak of her career, she was in her forties and fifties and in fact she had a grown up son, James Van Trees, from her first marriage who was a prominent cinematographer of the time – and remained so right up until the sixties.

I can’t find out what happened to Mr Van Trees – not least because some sources refer to him as James Van Trees and his son James jr, whereas others call him Franklin Van Trees – but whatever his eventual fate, Julia married Oliver Ivers in 1900. Oliver Ivers was an oil tycoon, richer than midas, as all good insanely wealthy husbands should do, he conveniently expired two years after their marriage in February 1902.

According to her obitiary in the Los Angeles Times in 1930 (she died at the age of 62 of stomach cancer) – she started working in the film industry in 1913. She worked with Frank Garbutt – who had been a business partner of her late husband.

The earliest credit I can find for her is for screenwriting, a film called The Rug Maker’s Daughter in 1915 – so whether she was assisting up until then, or working on films that haven’t survived, I can’t be sure.  In 1920 she told Moving Picture World that she had “done almost everything around a studio but sweep the floor”.  

And this is one of the many things I love about her – as a wealthy widow she absolutely could have chosen to be the prototype Real Housewife of Beverly Hills (before they’d built Beverly Hills, but still…) but instead, in her mid forties, she was like ‘no, I’m gonna make movies.’

The first movie she is officially credited with directing, The Majesty of the Law was well recieved, with Atlanta Constitution praising it for its appeal to “all classes.” It tells the story of a Virginia judge who sternly hands down severe sentences while in court only to later help the families of those he condemns. In the same year, according to When Women Called the Shots by Linda Seger, Ivers became the first female general manager of a studio – the Bosworth film studio. Given that she had just made a movie with message of compassion, of social responsibility – and it seems no coincidence that one of her first orders of business was to woo Lois Weber briefly from Universal over to Bosworth. Our chain of women hiring women is growing.

Ivers is only credited with directing four of the fifty movies she wrote – but, you know what I’m going to say, roles were fluid and titles interchangeable. In the early twenties, Jesse L Lasky appointed her one of four supervising directors at Famous Players-Lasky which was at the time evolving to become Parmount – which would seem to suggest that she was considered to have significant directing experience.

It also seems that she edited her films too. In 1917, she told the New York Telegraph – this would be one of the interviews she never gave – “Cutting is something that I love,” averred Mrs Ivers. “I mean cutting films. I accomplish this, so to speak, in the hand. That is, I actually dicide on the parts I wish to deliete while I have the film in my hands and cut them out then and there. Some persons do not agree with me that this methond is best, but I have found it most satisfactory.”

The same article, perhaps not surprisingly, stated that: “Probably Mrs Ivers is the businest woman in the country – at least one of the busiest – and while she will do a considerable amount of work while in New York she declares that she had a fine rest on the train coming across the continent. She will then enjoy a similar brief respite on her homeward journey – and then, back to the desk at the studio with piles of work confronting her.”

Almost uniquely for filmmakers of the period, Julia Crawford Ivers seems to have more or less stayed working at the same studio and with the same people for her entire career. While she technically worked at Pallas Pictures, at Bosworth, at Famous Players-Lasky then Paramount – that was actually just the name on the door changing because of mergers and takeovers. In the twenties, she was still collaborating with Garbutt for example – he was the cinematographer on possibly her most successful work, a series based on the Tom Sawyer books, directed by William Desmond Taylor.

By the late teens, Julia Crawford Ivers was collaborating almost exclusively with director William Desmond Taylor – a 1920 article refers to her as the :special writer for Mr Taylor’s Paramount Productions.” Some accounts suggest an affair – or at least that she was in love with him, but they’re unconfirmed, and given that she was at least five years older than him, it seems unlikely.

Also, I found a 1922 article for the Los Angeles Record, which states: “Friends recall how Julia Crawford Ivers “mothered” the director through his attacks of indigestion” – which, maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t really sound like foreplay.

In 1920, the Los Angeles Herald announced their latest collaboration, The Soul of Youth:

“The first of April was signalised at the Lasky Studio by the commencement of what is considered one of the most important productions that has been made there in a long time, manely, William D Taylor’s production, which has the working title The Boy, pending selection of a pernanent name (which we know would be The Soul of Youth.) It is an original story by Julia Crawford Ivers who also wrote the scenario and who is remembered for her splendid work on the Mark Twain pictures.”

One little interesting thing to note there, is the clear distinction between a story for a picture, and the scenario – what we’d call today the sceenplay. At that stage, coming up with an idea for a movie and writing a blue print, as it were, from which a movie could be shot, were two different roles, even if they were occasionally performed by the same person. The idea of screenwriting as a single role didn’t really emerge until talkies..

The Soul of Youth, by the way, is about a young orphan boy, who, due to his depravation and isolation from society is drawn into a life of crime, until he is adopted and redeemed by a kind foster family. Remember, before the Code, the idea of crime being the exclusive haunt of “baddies” hadn’t been invented yet. Just a couple of weeks after the initial announcement, production is obviously underway, and there’s another little mention in the Los Angeles Record

“Judge Ben Lindsay made up yesterday at the Famous Players-Lasky studio. The judge has been engaged to play himself  in the William D Taylor production of Young America  (which was still to be renamed The Soul of Youth – clearly these people hated titles as much as I do!), which is now in the making. After Julia Crawford Ivers wrote the story she determined to induce Lindsay to appear as himself  and made a trip to Denver to lay her arguments before him. That they were convincing is indicated by his presence at the Southern California Studio yesterday.”

And there’s two things to note here – it’s hard to imagine anyone as introverted as Ivers is claimed to be heading off to Denver to secure a spot of stunt casting, and also, though she isn’t credited as a producer on the film, she clearly wasn’t just handing her script in and being done with it – she’s evidently taking an active role in the production.

As you’ll remember from last week, in February 1922, William Desmond Taylor was found shot in his home – and to this day, we don’t know who did it. Just a couple of days after his death, Julia Crawford Ivers made this statement to the press:

“I have worked side by side with this man for seven years. We have solved many difficult problems together, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant: always hard, trying nerve-wracking. And during all these years of closeassociation I have never known him to do one unkind, one ungenerous act, but I have known hundreds of instances of open-handed generosity and in most cases the beneficiary never knew whom to thank.
    “This man whose loyalty and honor were without question, who takes with him the undying gratitude of the thousands to whom he has lent a helping hand–this man who stood for everything that was fine and clean in pictures, who is known to have declared that if it were necessary to his success to produce unclean pictures he would go back to the white, clean snows of Alaska and dig his living out of the ground–this man was shot in the back by a cowardly assassin. He was given no opportunity to defend himself and William D. Taylor would have defended himself, for he did not know the meaning of the
word fear. And more cowardly than the assassin’s bullet, lodged in the heart of this dear man, is the tongue of scandal, which safely sheltered behind his dead body, is striking at his reputation–more cowardly for he is powerless to defend himself.
    “His friends know that when it is all over the character of Mr. Taylor
will stand, as it always has stood, for everything that is fine and worthwhile.”

You’ll often find Julia Crawford Ivers listed as one of the many suspects in Taylor’s death. Apparently actress Mary Miles Minter – who definitely was in love with Taylor at the time of his death, to what extent it was requited is unclear – gave a statement in which she stated that the only person she could think of who could have killed Taylor was Julia Crawford Ivers.

In Tinseltown: Murder, Morphene and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood, which is about the Taylor murder and is a fun read, if a bit tabloidy and not overly enlightened in its treatment of female and gay characters – William J Mann describes an alleged scene between Miles Minter and Ivers at the studio some months before Taylor’s death:

From across the set, Taylor’s screenwriter Julia Crawaford Ivers, a sharp, sturdy lady of fifty-two, caught sight of Mary’s approach. IT wasnt’ the first time the petite actress had barged onto one of Taylor’s sets, and Ivers wasn’t happy to see her. “Oh there’s little Mary again,” the older woman said in exasperation, “what can she be wanting this time?” The screenwriter knew how harrassed the director felt, and she felt duty-bound to protect him. So she made sure to position her considerable bulk in front of Taylor whenever Mary came around making a pest of herself.”

So not the most feminist perspective and certainly not historical cannon – but if anything along those lines happened it could explain why Minter, allegedly, accused Iver.  Either way, according to foremost Taylor expert historian Bruce Long, Ivers was never seriously considered a suspect. And unlike Mabel Normand, whose press clippings about the scandal could fill a book, Ivers was only ever peripherally connected to the scandal.

And yet, after Taylor’s death she went off to Hawaii – it’s suggested that she suffered some ill health, whether because of her grief or exacerbated by it – where she wrote and directed The White Flower  – which was critically well received… and pretty much disappeared off the face of the earth. She resigned – supposedly – to pursue freelance work, which sounds a bit like code for was fired, yet during production of The White Flower she was referred to as Jesse Lasky’s most prominent screenwriter. So what happened? I have no idea.

The idea that she was tainted by her association with Taylor and the whole scandal like Mabel Normand was, just seems flimsy — and while some of the stories she wrote were somewhat socially progressive, she seems to have been a much more flexible filmmaker than Lois Weber, happy to work on commerical hits like Tom Sawyer – yet here we are with a third woman whose career evaporated in 1922.

It’s like 1922 was the Bermuda Triangle for female filmmakers’ careers. It’s so weird, and while I have some thoughts on how the industry changed and they were phased out around the early twenties, for so  many to have fallen off a professional cliff in such a short time span – search me.

But I’m going to keep looking – and next week, I’m not going to focus on a specific filmmaker, but talk more generally about the world, the atmosphere in which they worked and how and when that changed – maybe we’ll come up with a working theory, I don’t know. If you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them – please drop by womenofhollywoodland.com, where there’s comment sections for each episode, and contact details for me too.

Thanks again for listening to episode number 4 of Women of Hollywoodland, and as always, if you fancy sharing, tweeting, posting, telling random passersby on the street about it, I’d be most grateful. And subscribing and rating – you know the deal by now. Thanks again, and see you next week.