Frederica Sagor Maas
Published 12/02/2012 | 05:00
Last of the silent movie screenwriters, who revealed the vice and treachery of Hollywood's supposed 'Golden Age'
Frederica Sagor Maas, who has died aged 111, was almost certainly the last surviving screenwriter of the silent movie era, and at the age of 99 wrote a memoir that revealed the pre-talkie world to be a sex-obsessed den of treachery that had driven her to attempt suicide.
Her death comes as modern audiences flock to the Academy Award-nominated The Artist to rediscover the "innocent charm" of silent film. According to Freddie Sagor Maas, however, the industry was hardly charming -- and anything but innocent.
Her first screenplay was for The Plastic Age (1925), one of the defining films of the Jazz Age, which starred the red-headed Clara Bow as a promiscuous college flapper. Onscreen antics, however, were nothing compared to what was going on behind the scenes.
At one of Clara Bow's shindigs during the making of the film, and to the astonishment of Freddie Sagor Maas, the star "undressed and danced on the table nude. She had her bra off, her panties off. Everyone was stewed. It didn't matter." Then there were the orgies, described by Freddie Maas as more depressing than titillating, in which "disgusting men" cavorted with "desperate women".
Though no prude, when she saw her own producer, Harry Rapf, and even the immaculate young Irving Thalberg, presiding genius at MGM, in the thick of one such bacchanal, Freddie Sagor Maas resolved to avoid such shenanigans out of a sense of "basic self-respect".
As a comely brunette then in her 20s, however, this insistence on keeping her legs together and steering clear of the casting couch did not prove a wise career move. Instead, despite a string of screenwriting successes for Clara Bow, Freddie Sagor Maas soon found herself falling from favour with studio bosses.
She found that scripts and story ideas were often rewritten and screen credit given to the wrong person. Worse still, several of her ideas and stories were stolen outright by unscrupulous insiders. She had little redress. The Writers' Guild was new and not powerful. Those who complained were marked as trouble.
When, for example, Freddie requested to be moved from the unit headed by Harry Rapf to one led by a different producer, Rapf sacked her for her presumption. "She's a talented writer," he conceded to his secretary as he dictated the memo of dismissal, "but she's a troublemaker." For good measure, Rapf struck her name from the credits on her new film The Waning Sex (1926), which she had created from scratch as a starring vehicle for her friend Norma Shearer. "It wasn't right, and it wasn't fair," Freddie Sagor Maas wrote later, "but that was how Hollywood operated."
Although Freddie Sagor Maas considered leaving Hollywood many times, it was only in 1950 that she decided to end her "insane" career. Looking back later she had a host of regrets: "If I had to do it again, I'd like never to have seen the motion picture business."
Frederica Sagor was born on July 6, 1900, in New York, the youngest daughter of Russian immigrants, and studied journalism at Columbia University.
She set her sights on the burgeoning film industry and when she was only 22 landed a story editor's job with Universal in New York. It was there that she came across The Plastic Age, a racy new novel by an English college professor, Percy Marks, which she offered to Preferred Pictures for $20,000. Preferred's head of production, BP Schulberg, wired with the simple response: "Buy at once."
Schulberg was one of the first Hollywood moguls whose advances she turned down, and in 1927 she married Ernest Maas, a writer and producer at Fox; the couple decided to work together as a writing team. A script they wrote called Beefsteak Joe was, she claimed, "misappropriated" and made into the 1927 Paramount film directed by Victor Fleming called The Way of All Flesh.
Nonetheless, the couple persevered, with scripts for Silk Legs (1927) and the Louise Brooks film Rolled Stockings (1927), as well as the Clara Bow vehicles It (1927) and Red Hair (1928).
But soon Freddie and Ernest Maas found that their careers had stalled, and from the early Thirties they could get only rewrite work.
In 1941 Freddie and Ernest tried another screenplay, Miss Pilgrim's Progress, about the economic opportunities opening up to women after the invention of the typewriter. Unconvinced about it, Darryl F Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, insisted on completely rewriting it as a light-hearted musical comedy for Betty Grable.
To the Maases' delight The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) proved a huge hit at the box-office. But they saw only a fraction of the profits. Nor could they find any takers for their next project, a film about the American Civil War which had taken them five years to develop, and as their money ran out they were forced to move in with friends. Another story idea, for a film about a medical fraud, also generated no interest.
Then the FBI came calling with questions about the couple's alleged communist sympathies.
Left of centre, but hardly revolutionaries, Freddie and Ernest Maas found themselves on a studio blacklist. Realising that they were both "washed up in the picture business", they settled on a suicide pact.
The couple sat sobbing in their car with the engine running, a pipe from the exhaust wedged in the driver's window. Suddenly, their folly became apparent. "What were we doing? Failure, disappointments, lack of money, humiliation -- none of these things mattered," Freddie Maas wrote later. "We had each other, and we were alive!" For the next 20 years, until her retirement in 1971, she worked as an insurance adjuster.
In 1999, almost half a century after leaving the movie business, Freddie Maas chronicled her unhappy experiences in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood. With its caustic portraits of such figures as Louis B Mayer ("a pompous, power-mad, insensitive hypocrite") and Irving Thalberg ("a Jewish mama's boy"), and details of the pervasive sexism and chicanery in the industry. The memoir is now considered an important reference work on the early years of Hollywood.
Freddie became the oldest living person in California. On her 110th birthday, she asked staff at her nursing home in San Diego for "a very large chocolate cake".
Frederica Sagor Maas died on January 5. Her husband died in 1986, and the couple had no children.