In the weeks leading up this this year’s Academy Awards, Lesley Blume paid long-overdue tribute to pioneering screenwriter Anita Loos in a well-researched ARTICLE for the Hollywood Reporter. It reminded me of my own encounter with the woman responsible for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and I thought I’d share that conversation with you here. I had just taken over publication of Daryl Davy’s Film Fan Monthly in May of 1966 and was hungry for content. I had hoped to conduct a series of interviews with New York-based subjects, but I had no idea how to reach the people I wanted to meet. I lucked out when the publisher of Anita Loos’ autobiography, A Girl Like I, responded to my query. That’s how I found myself, at age 15, sitting in Miss Loos’ spacious apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan, tape recorder in hand. If only I had been more knowledgeable back then. (And if only we could see the 1928 silent version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It’s one of the most frustrating titles on that perpetual list of lost movies.)
My most vivid memory of this brief conversation is that when I transcribed it I realized that Loos had spoken in complete sentences and paragraphs. I don’t think I have had that experience in all the years since. In the conversation that follows, I identify myself as FFM—for Film Fan Monthly.
FFM: How long were you working on your autobiography?
LOOS: Oh, I worked on it for about two years. Not consistently, but off and on because in the midst of it I had a play running in London.
FFM: Was writing the book an enjoyable task?
LOOS: Yes it was. I love to write anyway. I look on writing much as crossword puzzles or something of that kind.
FFM: You worked at MGM for a while, didn’t you?
LOOS: I worked there for eighteen years, and I had a long, long stretch of writing for Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and a great many of the film stars of those days.
FFM: What did you think of Louis B. Mayer?
LOOS: Well, he wasn’t one of my favorite men, although I must say I never had any trouble with him myself. But I was strongly attached to Irving Thalberg, and Mayer persecuted him no end. It was a pretty sordid story.
FFM: Did you write stories or screenplays?
LOOS: I wrote screenplays mostly, from other people’s books. I wrote two originals while I was there. I wrote San Francisco for Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald. You may have seen it because it’s on the Late, Late show about every two months. That was an original. Another one I wrote for Jean Harlow was original. I adapted The Women, Clare Luce’s play, for the movies. I did so many screenplays in eighteen years I can’t even remember all of them.
FFM: Did you write screenplays with certain stars in mind?
LOOS: Generally, yes, at MGM we had a star in mind. Although the first job I did for MGM was a book called The Red Headed Woman, and I wrote the screenplay and then we found the star for it, who was Jean Harlow. Toward the latter part of my time there I got into the way of being a film doctor, so every film that had some problem in it was handed over to me. I was working on two or three films at the same time. That sort of career, I must say, I had enough of. I was never handed a play to do unless there was something radically wrong with it.
FFM: Working as a film doctor, were you on the set a lot?
LOOS: Yes, I was often on the set. There were even cases where I did some directing. I remember when we did The Red Headed Woman there was a unit going down to the pier at Santa Monica, taking a short scene with Jean Harlow, and the director was busy at the studio, so I went down and directed the scene.
FFM: What was Clark Gable like?
LOOS: Clark was a real man’s man. He was never happier than he was when he was out in the woods with a sleeping bag, hunting or sleeping out. His entire interests were all in sports and real male occupations. He was genial; he didn’t have a sense of humor, he had a sense of fun. I would say he was about the most 100% male I ever knew.
FFM: Did he enjoy working?
LOOS: He must have enjoyed working because he had enormous ambition. When I first met him at MGM he was just starting, and he really wanted to make a career of acting; but he wasn’t like an actor some way. He wasn’t a show-off in any way. He preferred to be out of the limelight when he wasn’t working. When he’d finish a picture he would go off into the woods somewhere, or down on his ranch, later on, and he’d live the life of a rancher.
FFM: Do you have a favorite film from all those you worked on?
LOOS: I think I liked San Francisco the best. I am a San Franciscan and I wrote the film because I adore San Francisco. I had more fun writing it because there was a group of San Franciscans at MGM and we all got together and sort of had a jam session on the subject of San Francisco. The composer Nacio Herb Brown was a San Franciscan and he wrote many of the songs in the film. Although the theme song, “San Francisco,” which is now used there as a theme song, was written by a young Yugoslavian composer who just arrived, and he hardly spoke English. It was Bronislau Kaper, who wrote the songs for Lili, and a great many more fine songs.
FFM: There has been a lot written about Jean Harlow…
LOOS: Most of it completely untrue, and I go out of my way always’ to defend her because I knew her as well as anybody could know someone who worked constantly day after day with her, and her whole public image is completely wrong. In the first place she came from a very, very prosperous family in the Middle West, and she was sent to one of the best girls’ schools in the Middle West. She was well educated; she wasn’t a cultured girl because she wasn’t interested in that sort of thing. Many of those film girls who rose from nothing had a vulgar intonation in their way of speaking and she did not. She always spoke with the cultured accents of a lady. A perfectly scurrilous book came out in which she spoke like she came out of the gutter. All of that was untrue; all of her life she was a victim of her own appearance. She was a terribly nice girl. I adored her.
FFM: Did you enjoy working more on sound films than on silents?
LOOS: Yes, I think so, because it was writing dialogue, which up to that point I had to write as subtitles. Actually my specialty is dialogue, not action.
FFM: Is it true that most early films were improvised?
LOOS: Yes it is. As a matter of fact, the films were practically composed on the set. D. W. would take the bare scenario and work with it. Now this is done in Italy, where they have practically gone back to the methods of the early days of movies.
FFM: When you subtitled Intolerance, did you know what D. W. Griffith’s conception was?
LOOS: I didn’t know what it was about. When I saw it, it rather startled me. I was terribly confused by it. I must have run it fifty times while I was writing the titles. By the time I finished the titles I had a feeling of what he was trying to do. When I was completed I had a great admiration for him.
FFM: Do you see many new movies?
LOOS: I see all the foreign movies. I don’t look at the Hollywood movies, not even the ones they make in Europe.
FFM: What do you think about censorship?
LOOS: Censorship doesn’t exist anymore. When you go to see an Andy Warhol movie shown in a public theater, you get a feeling that there’s no such thing as censorship.
FFM: What was it like when the production code came into being?
LOOS: I was partly responsible for bringing on censorship, because of a film I wrote for Jean Harlow. It was not any particular scene that the censors objected to. It was the fact that a naughty girl came out victoriously at the end of the picture. It was not that the picture was risqué in any way, it was just that a bad girl made good. Sometimes you had to be clever to get your point over, with censorship, so it made an improvement in the films. I know in one case it vastly improved a picture. It was San Francisco, and there was a scene where Clark Gable hauled off and socked a priest, played by Spencer Tracy. The Johnston Office said you cannot have Clark Gable sock a priest, it’s unthinkable. So I went away and got to pondering about how I could fix the scene. So I figured out that we would prove at the beginning that the priest could floor Gable any time he wanted to. He was a much cleverer boxer than Gable. That proved that when Clark hit him he could have killed Clark, but he didn’t do it, which made his character stronger as a priest, and it was accepted by the censor. In order to prove this situation I opened the picture with a scene of two men boxing and you saw Spencer Tracy sock Gable and knock him out. And then when they got dressed you saw that one of them was a priest. That scene wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t had to outsmart the censor.
FFM: You knew Erich von Stroheim. What was he like naturally?
LOOS: Naturally he was tremendously bawdy, raucous, witty, and with a colossal sense of humor, terribly good company, and just a terribly interesting man. He was well-read, he had lived all over the world. I met him at the time he got the first job he ever had in Hollywood. He got a job in a film that my husband (John Emerson) was directing.
FFM: Did he write those Prussian roles for his own amusement?
LOOS: Yes. He adored to be wicked. He adored to be the man you love to hate. And basically he was the most kind, generous, and even tempered man, but he loved to put on that Prussian exterior and frighten people. As a director he was so obsessed with perfection, with getting everything right that money didn’t mean anything to him. He spent twice as much on a film as any other director. He shot miles of film he couldn’t use. That was his downfall in Hollywood.
FFM: Which version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes do you like best?
LOOS: I think I liked the latest one, the one written by Charlie Lederer, with Marilyn Monroe. The first one was shot completely silent except for one scene, in which there was sound. Ruth Taylor was chosen as Lorelei for her physical appearance; she looked the part. Marilyn was absolutely perfect in the part, but Carol Channing (who did it on the stage) was a caricature, and she was funnier. Marilyn was exactly as she would have been in life; Carol Channing was far out. I liked Carol better because she was funnier.
FFM: I think we’ve covered just about everything.
LOOS: My book only goes to 1926 and most of my career has been since 1928, but that’s another story. I’ll have to pick it up where I left off.
Miss Loos made good on her promise, writing Kiss Hollywood Good-by in 1974, as well as a biography of the Talmadge sisters and a personal survey of New York in collaboration with her good friend Helen Hayes. She also agreed to appear on a panel I hosted about Women in Comedy in 1975 at the New School for Social Research. Other participants included Nora Ephron, Chris Chase, and TV writer Susan Silver. The 87-year-old Loos was quiet, but every time I tossed a question her way she responded with a pithy remark that brought down the house. You can read Lesley Blume’s tribute to Anita Loos HERE.