The film industry used to be an institution of equality. From 1912 to 1924, a time in which Hollywood as we know it now was just beginning to take shape, women wrote half of the films made in those 12 years.
Laura Kirk opened her book talk at the Kansas Memorial Union with this fact. Kirk, a professor of theater and film at the University of Kansas, contributed two chapters to the 2018 book, “When Women Wrote Hollywood: Essays on Female Screenwriters in the Early Film Industry.” Kirk's appearance was part of the 2018 Free State Festival and sponsored by the Departments of Theatre and Dance and Film and Media Studies, as well as the School of the Arts.
The Lawrence Arts Center will put on its seventh annual Free State Festival from Sept. 17 to Sept. 23. By changing the usual dates from August to September and organizing more free events, festival founder and director Marlo Angell hopes to appeal more to KU and Haskell students this year. The festival programming includes speakers, films, taste-testings and more.
Kirk said researching early women filmmakers is like connecting the dots; not a lot of information about certain figures is readily available, so scholars have to make due by linking pieces of what they do have. She said this made for tough going at times.
“I knew at the end I would have quite a picture, but I'm glad I stuck with it,” Kirk said.
Writers Eve Unsell and Bella Spewack are the subjects of Kirk’s research. Unsell had a background in journalism and theater and had amassed 96 film credits at the time of her death in 1937. Spewack and her husband Samuel were immigrants from eastern Europe who wrote beloved musicals including “Kiss Me Kate.”
The success of these women can be attributed to the structure of the film industry at the time, according to Kirk. The structure was nonexistent. Women were there simply because no one told them they couldn’t yet.
Arts editors Courtney Bierman and Josh McQuade interview correspondent Grace Menninger about her experience at the Free State Festival.
“There were no paths. There were no rules,” Kirk said. “It was literally the Wild West.”
Senior theater student Tori Kilkenny said her admiration for Kirk as well as her aspiration to become an actress brought her to the lecture.
“Obviously as a woman in the arts, I'm very interested in our history because it's important to know where you've been and what women have been through in order to know where we can go from here,” Kilkenny said. “So that's exciting to see our history and see one of my mentors tracking that so diligently.”
Kirk ended the event with a passage from her chapter on Unsell.
“While her name is missing from the index of a broad survey of film history books of the silent era,” she read. “It is clear that Eve Unsell was a player who surely merits our regard.”