Today, one of the top executives at MGM, she holds the all-embracing title of editor-in-chief.
Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them.`
—Thelma Schoonmaker, when asked how such a nice lady could edit Martin Scorsese’s violent movies.
Women have participated in what we’d call today post production, for as long as there has been post production - in fact, longer.
In 1888, a magazine called Photographic News reported that “the duties of the reception room - retouching, printing, mounting, and colouring - are already acknowledged to be within the sphere of women’s abilities”. In 1890, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin described the female retoucher as a “nobody who sat each day in front of a studio window, her head bent over her easer, a magnifying glass in her eye, a pointed pencil in her hand, busy from dawn to dusk taking out wrinkles and putting in dimples.”
I’ve often heard that the main reason for this female dominance of post production was that in those days, it was a footery job that required nimble fingers and endless patience. However, in 1925, Motion Picture Magazine reported that:
Among the greatest ‘cutters’ and film editors are women. They are quick and resourceful. They are also ingenious in their work and usually have a strong sense of what the public wants to see. They can sit in a stuffy cutting-room and see themselves looking at the picture before an audience.
And in 1926, the Los Angeles Times announced that “one of the most important positions in the motion-picture industry is held almost entirely by women” whose job it was to assemble “thousands of feet of film so that it tells an interesting story in the most straightforward manner.”
So clearly there was respect for women’s storytelling talent over and above their fine motor skills.
And no editor was more respected, or more feared, as we’ll get into in a moment, than the grandmother of post production: Margaret Booth.
Margaret Booth’s credits as an editor and supervising editor are staggering. She was involved in the cutting of Birth of a Nation. As we discussed a few weeks ago, Birth a Nation was not the first feature film, but it’s hard to deny it was pretty seminal in terms of establishing narrative feature films as a thing.
Over a career that spanned nearly seven decades, she edited Garbo’s Camille, Mutiny on the Bounty (for which she was nominated for the Oscar), The Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, The Way We Were and, Annie. Her first editing credit was in 1915, and her last was in 1986 — the year that Aliens, Stand by Me and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were produced. That is staggering!
In Women Film Editors, Unseen Artists of American Cinema, director Sidney Lumet is quoted as telling a group of young filmmakers:
When I complete a film for Metro, I have to get blood on the floor to protect it from a lady by the name of Margaret Booth. She was Irving Thalberg’s cutter, and to this day she checks every movie made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and can stop you at any point, call off your mix, and re-edit it herself. She owns your negative.
Film writer Graham Daseler called her “a terror to directors throughout the industry, pouncing on weakly edited scenes like a ravenous jungle cat.” And Ally Acker in Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present tells us "For three decades, no film left [MGM] without her imprint.”
So we adore her, right?
“In those days,” she told Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By. “One did everything and sometimes I went on location as a script girl. When the Mayer company merged with Metro and Goldwyn, I went to work at the Culver City studio. I was still an assistant, but I used to go back at night and cut the out-takes. After a while, [her boss] started to look at these efforts of mine, and sometimes he’d take a whole sequence that I had cut and put it in the picture. The gradually I got around to making his first cut - and that’s how I got to be an editor.
Margaret Booth is credited with pioneering what’s known as the classic editing style or “invisible cutting” - that is, cutting on a piece of action so the audience isn’t consciously aware of it. It’s also about cutting within the rhythm of the scene, not crossing the line, not smashing from a wide establishing shot right into a close up.
If you remember from a few weeks, Hitchcock deliberately broke the conventions Margaret Booth established to create jarring effects and make you jump -- but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective had Margaret not created them in the first place.
It’s fascinating to consider why it is that Margaret Booth (and several other female editors, Viola Lawrence, Anne Bauchens, Dede Allen and right up to today with Thelma Shoonmaker) managed to buck the trend and remain in powerful positions in Hollywood throughout the 20th century and beyond.
Is it simply that it had been established as “women’s work” so firmly that it never really changed? Is it because editing, as Kevin Brownlow puts it, is “the hidden power” so remained low key enough for nobody to make a concerted effort to toss the ladies out? Is it that they proved themselves over and over?
I just took a quick look at the history of Academy Award nominated for editing, and while more men have won over all, there has been at least one woman nominated more years than not since the award was created in 1934. What other film discipline can say that?
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