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Interview From the Past: The Play's The Thing

The following is a 1918 interview with one of the first celebrity scenario (screenwriters) in Hollywood. Anita Loos and her director husband wrote one of the first popular (and frankly very good even today) "screenwriting books" in 1923 How to Write Photo Plays [buy an original copy on ebay.]
April 1918 Lillian Montanye MOTION PICTURE

The Play's the Thing!

"Anita Loos and John Emerson have come out of the West," I announced, "and they are not writing or directing plays for Douglas Fairbanks any more. Now what ARE they going to do and what are they doing in New York?"

"Go and find out," said the Editor, sternly, so I meekly ventured forth.

In my mind's eye was a picture of Anita Loos, the clever writer of titles and author of innumerable scripts. She would be "high-brow," of course, and very, very serious. She would converse learnedly of art, ideals, inspiration and atmosphere. Would I be able to grasp it?

And as for the wonderful John Emerson, who is a big figure in the screen world today, just as a few years ago he was a commanding figure in the stage world, my imagination stopped working when I thought of him.

Two of them! It was almost too much!

Then came the appointment--an invitation to lunch with them; and without daring to think or plan, I found myself ringing the bell of Miss Loos' suite of rooms at the Hotel San Rafael. The door opened briskly, there was a cheery "Come in," and I was shaking the hand of a bright-faced wisp of a girl with great dark eyes that hat evidently kept on growing after she had stopped.

"You are not Miss Loos?" I exclaimed.

"Yes, I am," she said, emphatically. "What's the matter? Did no one tell you how 'onery' I am? Did you think I was a tall, stately lady?"

"No," I said, "but I did think that perhaps you were grown up."

"She's not 'high-brow' nor serious, and she's not going to converse learnedly," I thought, relievedly. But "onery"--no, I shouldn't say that. "Sit down until John comes: he is going to take us out," she said with a bright friendliness that put me at ease at once and made me resolve not to lose a moment as there was no way of knowing what might happen when "John" appeared.

"How did you begin your scenario writing, Miss Loos?" I began. "And what made you think you could do it?"

"Well, I was brought up on the stage. My father was a writer as well as an actor and producer, so I had exceptional training. Even when very young, a mere child, I took my work on the stage very seriously, making the most of every part, no matter how small. I studied technique until I had absorbed it, as one might say. That's where so many people make a mistake. They may have wonderful ideas and all that, but to write photoplays without some knowledge of construction and technique is like an engineer trying to run a train without an engine. It simply can't be done.

"Indeed I do remember the first scenario I wrote, because I sold it to Mr. Griffith. Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore played the leads. At that time I was in Los Angeles, and I wrote plays for two years before I had seen the inside of a studio. I'm not saying that I sold them all, but selling the first one encouraged me to continue, for I reasoned that what had been done could be done again. I was with Mr. Griffith five years, then the turning point in my career came, and I began working with Mr. Emerson."

There was a quick ring at the door, and at the psychological moment entered John Emerson.

"What is he like?"

Picture, if you can, a well-set-up personage with a manner direct but so pleasing that it seems to take one straight into his confidence; a pair of piercing, dark eyes, in which there lurks a rare sense of humor--just a big, compelling bunch of personality. That's John Emerson.

"Where will we eat?" he began, man-fashion. As he piloted us 'cross town, I remarked on the late unpleasantness of the below-zero weather, the coal famine, etc. "How you must have regretted sunny California!" I said. "Indeed we did not!" (chorus) v "I prefer New York, even though it were a perpetual, howling blizzard. No more sunny California for me," said Mr. Emerson.

"Then you are in New York permanently?" I queried as we seated ourselves in a cozy corner of the Hotel Claridge dining room.

"Yes, our plans are all made, and we expect to be here permanently and to continue our work together." "You see, it's this way about working together," said Miss Loos. "One person can't successfully write a play any more than one person can act it. When I began my play-writing, I had the best of training, and I had ideas, and suppose I was unusually successful. My plays were called good in the reading, but they didn't get over in a big way when they were screened."

"Yes," interposed John Emerson, "and I was looking for plays--fairly desperate because I could find nothing that suited me. I saw some of Miss Loos' work and said, "There's the thing I want." "And," interrupted Miss Loos, "you were told, 'Nothing to it, absolutely,'" "Very true," admitted Mr. Emerson, "but when we got together and began putting our ideas together and working them out, we each supplied what the other lacked. And there your are! You must admit," he continued, "that Miss Loos is a wonder at titles. She is rather young to be called a mother," he said, looking across the table at his small collaborator, "but I call her the mother of comedy titles."

"The titles are almost the whole thing, are they not?" I asked. "No," said Miss Loos, quickly. "The titles are to the screen play what the spoken word is to the stage play, but either one must have action and sustained interest to put it over. Of course, in comedy-dramas, the titles are very important."

"About our future plans," said Mr. Emerson. "We expect to provide a series of photoplay dramas for release by Paramount, known as the John Emerson and Anita Loos Productions. "These plays will carry out the idea, 'The play's the thing.' The play will be the feature. We will choose a god cast, but there will be no stars at enormous salaries. Too much money is spent on stars and too little on the production of the picture. So many of the plays written for the big stars don't suit them. Too many managers and directors think and say, 'It doesn't matter so much about the play; he or she will get it over.' That's a mistake. Intelligent people don't care so much about the star--it's the play itself they care about."

"It's a step in the right direction," I admitted.

"We think so," agreed Mr. Emerson, "and we are glad of the chance to try it out, backed by an organization that will give the proper artistic attention to the needs of our productions. Our plays will not be stage plays or novels adapted to the screen, but strictly individual, high-class satirical comedy. And now we shall do our best to demonstrate, 'The play's the thing.'"

"Miss Loos," I said, "how do you get the ideas for your comedies?"

"I hardly know," she smiled. "But I get them from life--little things I see and hear. Ideas come to me most unexpectedly sometimes. One of the best 'rube' plays I ever did was from an idea that came to me right in New York. The other night we were at the theater and I found an idea. Not from the play on the stage, but from people in the audience."

"Ideas are everywhere. I shouldn't be surprised if Miss Loos had found one right in this dining-room while we have been talking," ventured Mr. Emerson.

"Didn't you regret leaving Mr. Fairbanks?" I wanted to know.

"Certainly," said Miss Loos. "One always dislikes giving up associations that are pleasant. But Mr. Fairbanks decided to get away from satirical comedies and try a new type of play. We do our best work in satirical comedies. That's our specialty, so naturally we ventured forth to pastures new." v "Now, look here, Anita," said John Emerson, "of course we liked Mr. Fairbanks and regretted leaving him, but the real reason, speaking for myself, was that I wanted to get away from California. I never felt well there. I was never myself. 'Perpetual sunshine' sounds very poetical, but it isn't--it's too hot to be poetical. It gets on your nerves and gets you eyes 'on the blink,' and you long for just a few hours of gloom. It fades your clothes, your good disposition, your energy and ambition--even your morals."

"And it's so dusty you have to change your clothes three times a day, and then you're never clean," put in Miss Loos, eager to do her bit. "There really are beautiful roads, and you get in your car and think now surely this lovely road must go somewhere--but it doesn't," interrupted John the Emancipated. "It's like Raymond Hitchcock's song, 'All dressed up and nowhere to go.'"

I was listening in breathless amazement.

"Well," I managed to articulate, "you people must be different--or else those press-agents--" "Forget the press-agents," said John Emerson, "and let *me* tell you! "If ever you get to the place where you care no more about 'pep' or ambition, and want a place to live cheaply, a little bungalow, a little Ford, some kind of a society to belong to, a new kind of religion--in short a place to die in--California's a good place to go. But,--never again!" And now we're wondering!

If those two amazing people could accomplish so much in a land where there's no "pep," and where the very atmosphere is deadly to ambition, what will they do when they really begin doing things in li'l ole New York?

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