Paper Mates: Phoebe and Henry Ephron

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.

How can you not love seeing Kate Hepburn and her beloved Spencer Tracy together? Here they are in Desk Set, one of the best films by screenwriting duo Phoebe and Henry Ephron. © 20th Century Fox / Courtesy of Photofest.


In thinking about the exhibition Jewish Homegrown History and the impact that Jewish individuals and communities have had on the fabric of Los Angeles, I immediately thought, “Hollywood!”

Most of us know the great Jewish men of Hollywood, like Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Danny Kaye, MGM Founders Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, and the four brothers of Warner Bros. We also know Jewish women who found fame on the silver screen, like Lauren Bacall, June Havoc, and Molly Picon, to name a few. But what’s less known are the behind-the-scenes contributions that Jewish women have made to the industry and to the culture of L.A. Perhaps this is because of a gender-bias in “the biz,” or an oversight by historians. Whatever the reason, I was happy that a quick search on the Jewish Women’s Archive led me to a plethora of information about the important and well-known films either written or co-written by Jewish women.

The Skirball’s new, upcoming film series The Write Stuff celebrates these hidden gems, the great films of the Golden Age of Hollywood penned by Jewish women screenwriters. In these early days, i.e. the 1930s to the 1950s, women were mostly relegated to acting roles. Thankfully, some were able to break through this glass ceiling to become not only great screenwriters, but also directors, producers, editors, etc.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel <em>Humoresque</em>, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Fannie Hurst wrote the novel Humoresque, for which Phoebe and Henry Ephron adapted the screenplay. This tragic film starring Joan Crawford is a tear-jerker. © Warner Bros. / Courtesy of Photofest.

Some of the women who won early renown as screenwriters were: Sonya Levien (Daddy Long Legs [1931], which was remade in 1955 by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, and Interrupted Melody [1955]); Fannie Hurst (Humoresque [1920] and Imitation of Life [1934]), and Betty Comden (Singin’ in the Rain [1952], The Band Wagon [1953], and The Barkleys of Broadway[1949]). These films went on to win prestigious awards for best screenplay and best writing, not only attesting to these writers’ achievements, but also paving the way for future generations of women screenwriters, many of whom remain on our “favorites” lists today.

Of particular interest to me are the works of Phoebe and Henry Ephron. Their comedic dialogue and keen understanding of relationships are expressed in such a natural and easy manner that their films are a delight to watch. The husband-and-wife team would ultimately have four daughters: Amy, Nora, Delia, and Hallie, all of whom have become writers themselves. I can only imagine being a fly on the wall in the Ephron household and what conversations around the dinner table were like! Phoebe once said, “Tragedies of your life one day have the potential to be comic stories the next.” In their view, everything was potential material.

Henry Ephron, with a portrait of himself and Phoebe in the frame behind him. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

Henry Ephron, with a portrait of himself and Phoebe in the frame behind him. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark.

Writing during an era when it was common for women to fill the roles of just mother and wife, Phoebe personally experienced the challenges of being a mother, a wife, and a writer. But even with her great success, she faced stinging stereotypes. In response, she famously said, “We have a cook for the cooking and a nurse for the children. I’ve been a full-time screenwriter and I put in a full day at the office.” It’s not easy “doing it all”—something I know from personal experience, watching my mother struggle with the obligations of a full-time career and motherhood while trying to maintain some semblance of a life outside these two roles.

That’s why one of my favorite films written by the Ephrons (and one featuring a strong leading lady) is Desk Set (1957). In this classic film, Katharine Hepburn’s character, Bunny Watson, heads up a research department at a primetime television station who refuses to be limited or defined by the situations she finds herself in. Throughout the film, she projects a strong, positive on-screen presence. In one scene, the camera captures Watson’s unruly vine plant, which spans all four walls of her office. To me, that plant is a personification of Watson’s unabashed individuality and strength.

In the movie’s wo/man vs. technology plot, Watson advocates for the all-female staff of her department when the president of the company decides to have a computer installed in Watson’s department. He reasons that it will greatly increase efficiency and accuracy in the workplace. In the days of early computers, this film really spoke to the anxieties plaguing those who feared that their jobs would become extinct with the advent of new technology.

In one pivotal scene, Watson proves that her researchers are far superior to “Emmy,” the room-sized computer used to answer simple factual questions. After one-too-many inquiries, Emmy proceeds to smoke, hiss, and spit out pink slips, firing the entire company—even Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), the engineer hired to oversee Emmy’s installation! Meanwhile, answers to the questions are retrieved within minutes by Watson’s human staff. In a comedic “I told you so” manner, Watson and her team stand calmly by as the machine proceeds to self-destruct.

Real-life Hollywood couple Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy quarrel in this scene in which a computer goes berserk and starts firing office staff!

For me, Hepburn’s legendary intelligence, strong personality, groundbreaking career, and storied personal life render Watson’s character in such a powerful and formidable light that I can’t help but admire Watson. Although I’m a biased viewer—Hepburn is one of my favorite leading ladies—the 1957 New York Times review of Desk Set feels the same: “The thought of having Katharine Hepburn as an intellectual competitor is one that should throw fear and trepidation into the coils of any mechanical brain. Miss Hepburn is obviously a woman who is superior to a thinking machine.”

Watching Hepburn in Desk Set is a real treat—and the fact the Ephrons wrote such a strong-willed and competent female lead is nice to see. Growing up watching classic films with my aunt, I remember thinking that the women in many black-and-white films from another time seemed so unreal—like caricatures of themselves—swooning, playing damsel in distress, or seeming to act solely on sentiments. None of the women in my life were this way! On the contrary, Hepburn seemed to me, as a young girl, like a real person—one with wit, smarts, and presence.

Screened at a place that seeks to inspire and educate, The Write Stuff film series will hopefully do just that. The legacy that these Jewish women screenwriters have left on Hollywood and our local history is unforgettable and lasting, both on and off screen.

Don’t miss The Write Stuff film series, featuring matinee screenings of What Price Glory, Daddy Long Legs, Carousel, and There’s No Business Like Show Business. And come watch Desk Set on the big screen and hear insights from Amy Ephron, one of Phoebe and Henry’s daughters, author of Loose Diamonds…and other things I’ve lost (and found) along the way, a regular blogger of The Huffington Post, and publisher of food blog “One for the Table.

Postscript June 26, 2012: On behalf of the Skirball Cultural Center, I send my condolences to the Ephron family upon the passing of Nora Ephron, Phoebe and Henry’s eldest daughter. Among my favorite films that Nora wrote was Sleepless in Seattle and, most recently, Julie and Julia. Nora Ephron’s talent, which surely came from having such groundbreaking screenwriter parents, will be missed.

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About Kasia Gondek

As Programs Coordinator at the Skirball Cultural Center, Kasia Gondek enjoys working with artists, speakers, and guests on a variety of lecture, film, music, and theater public programs. As an undergraduate, she studied art history and visual culture and politics—so she particularly enjoys programs that comment upon the impact of visual culture, history, and art on our lives. When she’s not running around the Skirball, she can be found training for her next marathon race, on the trails hiking, or enjoying L.A.’s restaurants, museums, and concerts.

One comment on “Paper Mates: Phoebe and Henry Ephron

  1. Melissa on said:

    Great review/blog about of the upcoming series! Enjoyed reading it. Insightful and inspiring piece that has motivated me to come out to the Skirlball to see the films. Thanks! Hope to read more about future programs.

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