Girls Like Us: Women Editors in British Film
The ‘Girls Like Us: British Women and WWII Cinema’ season continues at the National Film Theatre in May with more great films on offer. As in April, and despite the fact that these 1940s films have been selected for their strong female content, all of them were directed by men. But, also as in April, if we look more closely we will still find women in key roles not just on screen but also behind the camera.
In my previous post I focused on Carmen Dillon, who made her name as an Art Director during the War. But I also highlighted editing as one area where women were making a particular impact in the British film industry of the 1940s. Across the Girls Like Us season as a whole, we have Vera Campbell who was editor of Unpublished Story in 1942; Winifred Cooper on Tomorrow We Live in 1943 and Candlelight in Algeria in 1944; Flora Newton on Thursday’s Child in 1943 and Piccadilly Incident in 1946; and Betty Orgar on Great Day in 1945.
We all know that in general, across most occupations in most industries, higher-status and better-paid jobs are associated with men, and lower-status and worse-paid jobs with women. But the status attached to a particular job, and the practical or creative value of that job, are two different things, and this is illustrated by the case of women film editors.
Film production took shape in the early twentieth century as a male-dominated domain. It was highly technical, and technical work was generally seen as ‘unsuitable’ for women, in common with other jobs which were defined (by men) as challenging, professional or high-status. But this did not apply to editing or ‘cutting’. Editing in the early days seems to have been regarded primarily as a matter of assembling shots whose running-order and inter-relations had already been decided ‘in camera’. The job was understood to require care and diligence, but no great technical or creative ability. This is certainly the view of veteran editor Anne V. Coates – still going strong at the age of 92, whose History Project interview is at http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/anne-v-coates. She says:
“ … most of the editors (i.e. on early, silent films) were women, and they started by cutting negative. And I think that women were considered more patient and careful and all those sorts of things” (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0167613/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1).
Hence the emergence of the woman editor, which was not restricted to Britain. In Hollywood too, editing provided a way in for women, precisely because it was initially seen as low-status, low-paid work (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/martin-scorsese-jason-reitman-reveal-664559).
In the 1910s and 1920s one of Britain’s leading directors was Maurice Elvey. In later years he recalled that before 1920, one of his crew was:
“that charming lady Alma Reville who was to become Mrs Alfred Hitchcock and at that time used to edit my films for me”.
We don't know exactly which of Elvey's films she worked on because credits in those days were few and far between, but she can be seen on screen in his great – unreleased – masterpiece The Life Story of David Lloyd George made in 1918. In 1930 Elvey gave an interview to the Daily Express in which he discussed various film industry roles:
"Another job is the negative editing and cutting and the piecing of the actual film when made. This is usually done by women, and is well paid. Some of them earn from £10 to £15 a week.”
So it seems that by 1930, editing was still seen as women’s work, but its status and financial rewards were improving.
By 1930 of course, sound had arrived, but this was not a key factor. Throughout the 1920s there had been a growing understanding of the creative contribution of the editor, as late-silent projects became increasingly complex and ambitious. If anything, the advent of sound set things back by imposing new limitations on visual story-telling. Eisenstein’s conception of montage is just one, well-known example of the appreciation, in the late-silent era, of editing as a creative moment in the filmmaking process.
The 1930s and 1940s therefore represent an interesting period. On the one hand, there was this new realization of the creative potential of editing, and ambitious young men chose to work as editors to hone their story-telling skills before moving on to direct: Thorold Dickinson, Robert Hamer, David Lean. In his autobiography Nice Work Adrian Brunel described his cutting rooms as “a sort of film university” from which “many brilliant film workers graduated”.
On the other hand, there was a continuing tradition of editing as a female craft. Anne V. Coates remembers the 1940s, when she entered the industry, as a time of many women editors. But few went on to direct, and Anne casts some light on this as well. When asked if she ever wanted to be a director, she answered:
“Yes, when I was younger. But as soon as I had children, I realized I would have to give up too much of my life to directing, and would not be able to give enough to my children … The director has to be there; if he’s not there at 7:30 in the morning, the show doesn’t go. If the editor comes in late because a child has a cough, no one really knows as long as you keep up with the day’s cutting. My husband was a director––and one in the family was enough”. (https://www.editorsguild.com/Magazine.cfm?ArticleID=831)
Even if most women editors did not become directors, they still needed good relations with directors, for the simple reason that directors have a big say in who gets to work on their films. This is especially true of the editor, whose working relationship with the director is inevitably close and intense. The career-defining partnership of Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese is probably the best-known example of this today, but it’s not unique. Long-lasting director-editor relationships litter the history of the industry.
Take one of our British 1940s women editors, Thelma Connell. As Thelma Myers, she worked with Noel Coward and David Lean on In Which We Serve; and with Michael Powell on One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Then in 1945 she edited Sidney Gilliat’s film The Rake’s Progress, and her own career-defining relationship took off. From 1945 to 1960 she edited film after film either for Gilliat, or for his collaborator and friendly rival Frank Launder. Her Gilliat films include Green for Danger (1947), London Belongs to Me (1948), and State Secret (1950); and among her Launder films are I See a Dark Stranger (1946), Folly to be Wise (1952), and two St Trinians films in 1954 and 1960.
Thelma only tried her hand at directing once: in 1954 she co-directed and co-edited the crime drama Tale of Three Women. Instead, she branched out in a different direction, stepping across from the mid-1950s into the new and challenging world of commercial television. First she worked as editor on Colonel March of Scotland Yard, starring Boris Karloff; and then she worked as editor, and subsequently as associate producer, on the long-running children’s series The Adventures of Robin Hood. In his History Project interview at http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/sidney-cole, the producer Sidney Cole talks about his own work on Robin Hood, and recalls Thelma – “a very nice person and very good editor” – advising him on the most economical way to edit (yet another) dramatic Sherwood Forest ambush. But Thelma never gave up on the film industry or on her relationship with Frank Launder. She edited her last film for him, The Pure Hell of St Trinians, while also holding down her TV associate producer job on Robin Hood.
So, if you manage to get along to the NFT season, remember to look out for the films edited by women, and remember to celebrate their work when you find them.
Many thanks to Lucie Dutton (who tweets @MissElvey) for information on Maurice Elvey; and to Polly Rose (who tweets @theflyingeditor) for many invaluable comments and for pointing me to sources on Anne V. Coates, Adrian Brunel and others.