The Avenging Goddess of Screenwriters: Remembering Mary C. McCall Jr.

By J. E. SmythNovember 18, 2022

The Avenging Goddess of Screenwriters: Remembering Mary C. McCall Jr.
SHE AND BETTE DAVIS had adjoining birthdays, and sometimes they’d party together all night long. One year, Davis gave her a silver cigarette case engraved in the star’s handwriting: “To Mary from Bette.” I remember the first time I traced the lettering with my fingertip and tried to imagine the occasion. No men, no rules — just Mary C. McCall Jr., president of the Screen Writers Guild, and Bette Davis, Queen of Hollywood — dressed to the nines, facing two long rows of martinis at the Mocambo.

They first met at Warner Bros. in the early 1930s but only found time to talk after hours in their shared work for their unions. And at parties. At the 1938 joint screen actors’ and writers’ guild ball, McCall’s table included Davis and her husband, her agent Mary Baker and her husband, and one of her oldest friends from Manhattan, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart brought along his new girlfriend, actress Mayo Methot, and Methot, irritated by Bogart and McCall’s constant banter, allegedly threw a sterling silver coffeepot at McCall’s head. She missed. With a slight rewrite, it would have made a great scene for Davis’s next film, but Warner Bros. had fired McCall for union activities in 1936, and the screenwriter was currently enjoying the life of a freelancer that Davis, still shackled to her studio contract, only dreamed of.

By the time Bette Davis was free of Jack Warner in the late 1940s, McCall had been denounced as a communist sympathizer, and Davis, over 40, was no longer the most bankable female star in the business. But as the years passed, Mary and Bette’s friendship outlasted declining careers, failed marriages, newspaper smears, kids’ birthday parties, family breakups, and a Jane Addams biopic, developed in the early 1960s, that never saw the light of day.

When Davis died in 1989, her photo (as Margo Channing in All About Eve, 1950) was on the cover of People. I remember seeing that cover in the local grocery store as a kid and bursting into tears, embarrassing all the adults within earshot. I had no idea that her old friend Mary had died three years before, because I’d never heard of Mary C. McCall Jr. Even 10 years later, when I was studying film history at graduate school, her name never appeared in the curriculum. When women were mentioned at all in histories of Hollywood, they were actresses like Davis. Women were on one side of the camera and men were on the other. End of story.

But then one day in the Warner Bros. archives at the University of Southern California, I was looking through script files of old gangster pictures and saw that “Mary C. McCall Jr.” had written the treatment for Dr. Socrates (1935). It was the first time I’d seen a woman writer’s name on a gangster film script — and the first time I’d seen “Jr.” at the end of a woman’s name. A little digging in the archives revealed more. Top-earning Hollywood screenwriter. Architect of the most popular female film franchise of the 1940s. Co-author of the first screenwriters’ labor contract. Chairman of the Hollywood Council of Guilds and Unions. First woman president of the Screen Writers Guild.

Today, if you scour the mammoth bibliography on American cinema and media, McCall’s name survives in a handful of books. In addition to Nancy Lynn Schwartz’s excellent but underappreciated history of the Hollywood blacklist, The Hollywood Writers’ Wars (1982), she appears most prominently in Lizzie Francke’s Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood (1994), Marsha McCreadie’s The Women Who Write the Movies: From Frances Marion to Nora Ephron (1994), and my own Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (2018). But once upon a time, Mary C. McCall Jr. was arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood. November 12, 2022, is the 80th anniversary of her formal election as president of the Screen Writers Guild.

There are too many vanished Hollywood women, but McCall’s fall from the heights of power to near historical annihilation is one of the more blatant examples of Americans’ capacity for cultural apathy and the erasure of women’s history.

Nowadays, when Hollywood screenwriters are mentioned, people think of the blacklist in the late 1940s and 1950s — of the all-male Hollywood Ten. McCall’s rise to power began in the 1930s, when writers, inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s support for the labor movement, were fighting tooth and nail for a minimum wage, credit arbitration, and respect from producers that hired and fired them in batches, stole their work, and denied them screen credit.

She joined the Screen Writers Guild in 1934, and within a few months was on the executive board leading an industry-wide drive for union recognition. In addition to co-writing the guild’s labor contract, she was the team’s toughest negotiator, eventually forcing the producers to sign their names. At a meeting with Harry Warner, Paramount’s Y. Frank Freeman, and MGM’s Eddie Mannix sitting across the table, she asked, “Is Y. Frank Freeman a rhetorical question?”

In 1940, she was the first woman to act as interim president of a major Hollywood union and, two years later, its first elected female president. She was reelected twice more, and once the studios recognized the Screen Writers Guild, she served on the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for multiple terms. A public face for the profession and the guild, McCall was the first female writer to present Oscars to her writing colleagues and was one of the key architects of the Academy Foundation — the organization that eventually built the film archive in Hollywood, the research library in Beverly Hills, and the new museum at Wilshire and Fairfax. Of course, her name is not on the plaques outside these buildings.

During the war, she headed up the War Activities Committee in Hollywood, coordinating events for the troops and overseeing the production of morale-boosting documentaries. In 1945, she was elected president of the Hollywood Council of Guilds and Unions, voted in by over 15,000 motion picture workers to represent their interests as the producers attempted to claw back powers won in the New Deal. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the board was male.

And though she never won an Oscar, McCall was responsible for developing the most important female franchise of the studio era, Maisie (1939–47), starring Ann Sothern as a frequently out-of-work, Irish American showgirl in search of a paycheck. In her spare time, McCall gave birth to four kids and supported them and two husbands. Her twins were born the day after her last story conference on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). When she didn’t come to work the next day, Warner Bros. put her on suspension.

McCall was happiest skewering elites on her typewriter, be they protocelebrity influencers or greedy businessmen. She had her start as a poet and short story writer at The New Yorker, and many of her pieces written in the 1920s and 1930s focus on the pervasive double standards and stereotypes facing American women. At first, Hollywood offered few opportunities for her to develop material along these lines — apart from her collaboration with director Dorothy Arzner on Craig’s Wife (1936).

Inventing Maisie in 1939 changed that. Hollywood’s other blondes — Jean Harlow and Mae West — traded on sex and hyped femininity. West’s top lines were sexual lures: “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” (She Done Him Wrong, 1933). Harlow was usually the unwitting butt of her own comments — remember “I was reading a book the other day …” from Dinner at Eight (1933)? But Maisie’s shafts of wit are aimed at men. When some guy asks her what she’s looking at, Maisie replies, staring right at him, “Nothing. I’m nearsighted. I can’t see that far down.” Or “There’s one thing I like about you. You never surprise me. You act just like I figured the first day I met you.” And then there’s her reply to a condescending dude who asks if she understands him: “Yeah — I understand two languages — English and double-talk.”

Over several films, McCall’s heroine expounded a tough, self-reliant philosophy that resonated with women: “Life has prepared me for a right upper-cut and a double-cross, but up till now I’ve never been caught off balance.” As she reminded her audience: “When Heaven forgets to protect the working girl, she has to do the best she can on her own.” McCall’s “best” was staggering. She was on more industry committees than most other writers had film credits. In her first months as president of the guild, she negotiated pay raises for all unionized writers in wartime, when other guilds in the industry were too scared to raise the issue. She was active in Democratic Party politics, planned a film series with Eleanor Roosevelt, raised money for African American college students alongside Bette Davis, raised even more money for Jewish refugee children with Mrs. Harry Cohn, and spoke about women’s responsibilities in the postwar world all over Los Angeles. She was as noted and quoted in the trades and national papers as Maisie was on billboards and marquees.

Then, at the peak of her career, McCall’s personal life fell apart. For years, she’d been in an open marriage with artist Dwight Franklin. They liked each other, but things had gone stale. Relations with her children weren’t great either. She was never home — during the day, she was at the studio, and at night, she was at guild meetings with close confidant Charles Brackett (Ball of Fire, 1941) or out for drinks with Davis and Bogart. At one chaotic costume-themed birthday party for her and Davis, the L.A. papers gleefully reported that while the latter wore pigtails and shorts, her brother-in-law appeared in drag as Scarlett O’Hara. But McCall’s most famous costume party appearance dates from the 1920s, when she appeared as Shakespeare … complete with skullcap and whiskers.

Davis’s power in the industry also peaked in late 1941, when she was elected and then quickly forced out of her role as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1942, when Davis became president of the Hollywood Canteen, McCall volunteered to dance and drink with the soldiers as a favor to her old friend.

There McCall met Lieutenant David Bramson: a tall, blond, and handsome ex-MGM PR man — and an aspiring screenwriter. A few months later, the day after her divorce from Franklin went through, she married him. He was 32, and she was approaching her 39th birthday. This made for prime gossip at the Academy Awards a couple weeks later. McCall had done what so many Hollywood men had done over the years — ditched the old mate for someone younger and hotter. Bogart would do the same thing in 1945 when he divorced Mayo for a 20-year-old ex-model, but, given the prevailing double standards, it didn’t hurt his career. “McCall … Bacall,” he introduced them with characteristic brevity.

But McCall was an Equal Rights Amendment feminist and believed women could and should do whatever men did (note the Mary Jr. moniker). As far as she was concerned, if the times weren’t ready to take it, then the times had to catch up with her. She refused to dye her hair when it started to turn gray, belonged to the women’s club “Frankly Over Forty,” and, like Davis, never wore a bra.

She was a prominent organizer at the Oscars on March 4, 1943, but the speeches went on forever that night. McCall, presenting the writing awards, read the room and kept her speech brief. “In the beginning was the Word,” she boomed. The writers cheered; the producers sulked. It was the first time at the Oscars that writers had a contract and were on an equal footing with their acting, directing, and producing colleagues.

Though plenty of women have dismissed Golden Age Hollywood as an irredeemably misogynist system, McCall championed the industry’s support of women’s careers and female representation on screen. Writing was, as she always contended,

a wonderful field for women in that I have never found it “sex-conditioned.” You can earn equally with men. It is one of the few careers that combines pretty well with marriage and a family. There must be adjustments made, certainly, but to be a writer … it is easier than having to go to a factory or a department store. And it’s also more satisfying.

She also believed that women had to embrace the freedom and fear of financial independence: “Van Gogh never sold a picture during his lifetime except to his brother, yet he kept on painting. I had no Dear Theo. If I’d been unable to support myself by writing, I would have had to stop and to search for some other way of earning my living.” Eager to earn her keep and feel that it was deserved, she felt ambivalent about being under contract to the studio, getting regular paychecks for doing minimal rewrites on bad scripts. She called the work “corpse rouging.”

McCall was one of several writers in the early 1940s who moved into percentage deals on major productions. She developed a script about five brothers who were killed aboard the same naval vessel during the war. War films were hot, but McCall wanted to write about the Sullivans’ working-class upbringing rather than focusing on combat and death and flag-waving. She got complete control of her script and a percentage of the profits. The Sullivans — later retitled The Fighting Sullivans after Darryl F. Zanuck got his macho paws on it — was the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan (1998). Spielberg’s film, written by Robert Rodat, had more combat and schmaltz, and, despite the elaborate Normandy opening sequence, was less historically accurate.

Plenty of well-connected male screenwriters did similar deals, but McCall set herself apart from the rest of her colleagues. She wrote an article in The Screen Writer magazine explaining the finer points of her percentage agreement on The Sullivans. She wanted every writer — established or emerging, female or male — to have this chance. William Ludwig (Love Finds Andy Hardy, 1938) recalled, “I was a very lowly junior writer, but she treated me like a colleague … To Mary, there were no ‘junior writers.’ You were either a writer or you weren’t and if you were, she was for you.”

She was there for Paul Jarrico in 1952 when Howard Hughes, multimillionaire owner of RKO, refused to give the former Communist Party member credit for his latest picture. McCall, serving her final term as guild president during the height of the Hollywood blacklist, knew that if Jarrico lost his credit dispute, the guild contract itself was on the line and everyone was at risk. Many colleagues were too terrified to speak out, but McCall swung into action with, as Ludwig remembered, “the fury of an avenging goddess.” McCall put it tartly, targeting Hughes’s questionable moral fiber and personal style: “I did not intend to permit Mr. Hughes to trample on a labor agreement with muddy tennis shoes.”

Although President McCall took the scruffy millionaire to court, the conservative court ruled that Jarrico’s political beliefs were in breach of his contract on “moral grounds.” The labor agreement she fought for and defended was rewritten to discriminate against communists.

Jarrico produced Salt of the Earth (1954) and continued his writing career in Europe. Many blacklisted male writers found work overseas. As for McCall? Never one to cut and run, she remained in Hollywood, but at great personal cost. At the height of the blacklist, she’d gone toe-to-toe with not just another producer but the country’s richest man. Over the years she’d stood her ground against hundreds of powerful men. But times had changed. Her career in the film industry was over, and for the rest of her life, she lived a hand-to-mouth existence as a television freelancer.

Despite her suspicions, Hughes didn’t singlehandedly destroy her career. There is a much bigger and more insidious picture — because she wasn’t just purged from the film industry.

Most contemporary stories about Old Hollywood, whether told by academics or journalists or filmmakers, remain focused on visionary male artists, victimized starlets, and diva bitches. Even “Queen of Hollywood” Bette Davis was put in this gendered category by critics and opportunists from Richard Schickel to Ryan Murphy (see — or do not see — FX’s Feud, 2017). These are the Hollywood stories that sell — from Random House tomes to smartphone clickbait and streamers. McCall never fit this mythology, and perhaps that explains why so few have given her more than a passing glance over the years.

Mary McCall’s name is not studded on a studio building or engraved over the lintel of a library reading room or theater. There is no star for her on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. There are, however, Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille libraries, a Samuel Goldwyn theater, and bespoke archival collections for Orson Welles, John Ford, David O. Selznick, George Stevens, Darryl F. Zanuck — even silent-era legend Mary Pickford — and, of course, the ever-rebellious Bette Davis, who dubbed herself “the Fourth Warner Brother” in the 1950s, thereby upstaging the dead Sam Warner and throwing shade at all the men who had erased Hollywood’s women.

There certainly is no McCall biopic (though Rachel Brosnahan bears more than a passing resemblance to her). Instead, we’re stuck with Trumbo (2015) and Mank (2020), boring cinematic parables reminding us that the great Hollywood writers were men. Some of McCall’s best films are in danger of vanishing altogether; in addition to Craig’s Wife and her droll adaptation of Babbitt (1934), the hilarious screwball comedy It’s All Yours and working-class urban drama I Promise to Pay (both 1937) have never been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-ray. Several years ago, her Maisie series was released in a bargain-basement DVD format. You can find The Sullivans and her feminist western, Ride the Man Down (1952), as bad television transfers on YouTube.

Statues are understandably not in vogue now, but I can’t help wishing for a life-sized figure of her outside the old Screen Writers Guild headquarters on North Cherokee — brandishing the screenwriters’ contract in one hand and a briefcase full of pitches in the other, her frizzy hair hat-free, her chin lowered like an Irish American prizefighter. And engraved on the plinth? “Avenging Goddess of Screenwriters.” It’s time to remember her and another era for Hollywood’s women — not a dream, but a reality, however fleeting, for equality, creativity, and power.

Mary C. McCall Jr. with Maisie figure by Dwight Franklin, provided by Mary-David Sheiner.


J. E. Smyth is the author of Nobody’s Girl Friday (2018) and a forthcoming biography of Mary McCall. She writes for Cineaste.


Featured image provided by Mary-David Sheiner, daughter of Mary McCall.

LARB Contributor

J. E. Smyth is a film critic, historian, and contributing writer at Cineaste. She has written and edited several books, including a new edition of Jane Allen’s controversial Hollywood novel, I Lost My Girlish Laughter (2019); Nobody’s Girl Friday (2018), a history of the many high-powered women who worked in the golden age of the Hollywood studio system; and the acclaimed historian’s approach to classical Hollywood auteur theory, Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance (2014).


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