Excerpt from Never Done (On Sale Today!)

The book is out and Amazon says it's in stock, so please order here if you're so inclined. In honor of the release, here's an excerpt from the opening pages, which lays out the history and explains my project. Hope you enjoy!


There’s a myth in Hollywood—reflected in both its cultural works and its own internal production culture—that women did not participate in much of film history except as actors or, more rarely, as screenwriters, because they were pushed out from behind the camera in the early years of filmmaking, managing to return decades later only amid nationwide equal rights activism. This oral history was recounted to me when I entered the film industry as a producer’s assistant in 1999, and was repeated by the casting directors I began interviewing about their work in 2004. The same narrative framed many of the industry-authored “Women in Hollywood” books or special issues of Variety or Vanity Fair published in the 2000s and early 2010s, referencing this bleak past only to dismiss it with a statement about women’s progress along the lines of “Today women are working in every area of media production.” And, until relatively recently, the focus of most scholarly work on the subject of women in production—on female writers, stars, and silent-era directors—rehearsed a similar story in what it left out.

Women working in the MGM editing room, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Women working in the MGM editing room, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The Women Who Weren’t There

Like many myths, this one is based in fact. With very few exceptions, women did not direct or produce films for major studios from the 1920s, when previous advances in elite creative fields were halted, until the 1970s, when a handful fought their way back to directors’ chairs, often under the banner of the women’s movement. And, to be sure, the powerful women who survived in the studio system—writers like Frances Marion and stars like Bette Davis—were powerful in spite of the structural inequities that undermined them throughout their careers. These female movie makers—the early, pushed-out pioneers and the rare, studio-era survivors—are important, and their achievements are worthy of all due recognition and attention. But they weren’t the only women working in Hollywood in the twentieth century. Their achievements, though remarkable, aren’t the sum total of women’s contributions to the first century of filmmaking in the United States. And, for better and worse, theirs isn’t the only professional line from which the generation of women currently at work in Hollywood descends.

When the earliest American films were produced in the mid-1890s, it was women—the wives of Thomas Edison’s male employees—who hand-colored them, frame by frame. Only a few years later, in 1897, a Scientific American feature depicted dozens of women bent over spools of film in the American Mutoscope Company’s drying and retouching room under the watchful eye of a male supervisor. Like other growing film companies in the 1910s, the Selig Polyscope Company employed “hundreds and hundreds” of “deft-fingered girls” in its Chicago laboratory to cut apart negatives and to patch, retouch, tint, and splice film. This practice was common at the film companies that were, by the 1920s, emerging as major studios in Los Angeles.[i]

Other women’s sectors that sprang up at film studios followed a similar pattern of growth—from a few women working in ad hoc arrangements (which afforded them some professional mobility to nearby male-dominated jobs) to dozens or hundreds of workers in dedicated departments populated almost exclusively by women and often managed by men. By the 1930s, an entire floor of the MGM costuming department was reportedly devoted to hand embroidery and beading alone and was populated largely by immigrant women, much like factories in the garment industry at the time. In the 1930s, it was women, working in a similar light manufacturing capacity, who made it possible for Walt Disney to produce his first feature-length animated film on a reasonable schedule and budget. He hired female workers for all of Snow White’s inking and painting—the stage of cel animation in which animators’ pencil sketches are drawn onto sheets of transparent celluloid with ink and then filled in with paint. [ii]

Women worked in service professions all over studio lots in the 1930s and 1940s. They served meals at studio commissaries, were maids to studio personnel, taught and cared for child actors in studio schools, and provided medical care in studio hospitals and infirmaries. The women who produced and maintained the sea of paperwork on which each production floated formed the largest population of female workers and were arguably most important to the studios’ daily workflow. A predominantly female clerical workforce typed and distributed every treatment, outline, and draft of every film in production, as well as most of the notes, memos, and purchase orders that circulated around them. Women administered studio offices as secretaries and looked after the personal lives and emotional needs of executives and major creative personnel. They also filled many of the lower ranks of departments that guided production by means of paper planning; researching productions in studio reference libraries, processing incoming books and plays and evaluating their filmic potential in story departments, typing actor lists in casting departments; and mailing pictures and answering fan mail in publicity departments. Through their collective efforts, managing the flow of paper scripts, records, and other communications—and the details and noncreative work that swirled around creative endeavors—these women were the fuel of Hollywood’s large-scale, industrial production process.

MGM Negative Cutters, 1950. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

MGM Negative Cutters, 1950. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In the 1950s and 1960s, studios downsized planning departments by transforming executive-level positions to freelance, middle management, or crew jobs with reduced cachet and increased service components. Predictably, men abandoned these fields, and women streamed in to fill the void. And so, by the 1970s and 1980s, while women like Elaine May, Amy Heckerling, Paula Weinstein, and Sherry Lansing were (re)paving the way to elite creative fields, women who had begun as negative cutters, secretaries, “script girls,” and casting assistants were fighting their way into mid-level jobs as junior story executives, production coordinators, editors, casting directors, and publicists.  On entering these fields, women faced the same implicit gender-related expectations they had faced in their old jobs, where it was presumed certain tasks came naturally to them as women: that on top of their official responsibilities, they add value by “giving good phone,” ordering the sandwiches at lunch time, charming and socializing with clients, cheering male colleagues and superiors on, and framing their own workplace contributions with acts of conspicuous, performed femininity so as not to be perceived as bossy, mannish, or bitchy—the worst possible sins for a woman. If women succeeded, it was as part of the team, and credit for their individual contributions was often assigned elsewhere. This was the price of entry into what had been male-dominated positions, paid in exchange for tolerance of women’s presence in a workplace that men understood (and often still do) as theirs.

Women were never absent from film history; they often simply weren’t documented as part of it because they did “women’s work,” which was—by definition—insignificant, tedious, low status, and noncreative. In the golden age of Hollywood, women could be found in nearly every department of every studio, minding the details that might otherwise get in the way of more important, prestigious, or creative work (a.k.a. men’s work). If film historians consider the classical Hollywood era’s mode of production a system, we ought to consider women this system’s mainstay, because studios were built on their low-cost backs and scaled through their brush and keystrokes. Simply put: female workers, so often segregated and devalued under the studio system, should not suffer the same fate in media history by being considered only for what they could not do as casualties of unjust gender politics. Examining the types of work women could and did do in the wake of sex segregation reveals their agency—both in their own careers and in their industry’s history—and helps frame an understanding of contemporary gendered labor. The stakes—pay, credit, workplace identity, and so forth—are too high to leave the past in the past. And anyway, for women, the past is always present—a reality reflected in every chapter of this book.

Adapted from Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016. Copyright © 2016 by Erin Hill. Reprinted by permission of Rutgers University Press.

[i] Edison colorists: Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 41. “American Mutoscope: The Art of Moving Picture Photography,” Scientific American, April 17, 1897, 248–250; “deft-fingered girls”: “Selig’s The Great Moving Picture Plant of the West,” Moving Picture World (hereafter referred to as MPW) 5, no. 8 (August 21, 1909): 248; “Girl operator”: Melvin Riddle, “From Pen to Silversheet XIV—The Film Laboratory,” The Photodramatist 4, no. 9 (February 1923): 6, 38. “Sample copy room”: Edward Dmytryk, It’s a Hell of a Life but Not a Bad Living: A Hollywood Memoir (New York: Times Books, 1978), 5.

[ii] Greer photograph: Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz, Gone Hollywood: The Movie Colony in the Golden Age (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 69. “Embroidery”: Ronald L. Davis, The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood’s Big Studio System (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1993), 216; Beth Day, This Was Hollywood: An Affectionate History of Filmland’s Golden Years (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1960), 128–129. Disney/“the nunnery”: Patricia Zohn, “Coloring the Kingdom,” Vanity Fair. (March 2010), http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/03/disney-animation-girls-201003.