THE OPEN, LONELY ROAD OF KATHRYN SCOLA

by Wendy T. Merckel

“You know, a long time ago I decided to travel the same open road that men travel. So, I treat men exactly the way theyve always treated women.” ~ FEMALE ( 1933 )

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ILLICIT” was on TCM, starring an incredibly young Barbara Stanwyck. I had appreciated the ideas in the film in a previous viewing, so I sat down to watch it again recently.

On this viewing, one of the lines struck me forcibly – something about marriage being a cage that causes women to lose their separate identity. I knew suddenly and instinctively that a woman had written that line, and so I went to look up the credits for the film on IMDB and found the name Kitty (Kathryn) Scola.

If you are a classic film fan, you may know some Hollywood writers: an under-appreciated, over-worked group in the Hollywood Studio-era. You have no doubt heard of ‘Mank’ – ( Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of “Citizen Kane” ), which was recently nominated for the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe awards. Or you may know the names Paddy Cheyevsky, Ben Hecht, Sidney Howard, or John Van Druten, since they were playwrights as well as film scribes. One would probably recognize the names of writers who became directors – John Huston, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder come to mind. If you are of a completist mindset, or prone to researching Hollywood history, you might have read about blacklisted writers like Abraham Polonsky, John Howard Lawson, or Dalton Trumbo, who were part of The Hollywood Ten. Trumbo himself was the subject of a biopic a few years ago.

Women were a huge part of the film industry from the beginning. They worked steadily as writers throughout the classic era, but were most influential in the 1910’s, 1920’s and early 1930’s, before Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship and the lure of big money made movie-making a dog-eat-dog, billionaire boys’ club. Women were some of the first screenwriters, though many went uncredited. A few, like Frances Marion, were well-known, and had extraordinary power. Marion was the head of the writing department at World Pictures, and became one of the highest paid scriptwriters in the industry by the early 1930’s. However, by the end of that decade, even Marion was working uncredited, fixing other people’s scripts, as the now male-dominated industry worked to squeeze her out.

It is not unusual to find that even the most dedicated and knowledgeable classic film fans have never heard the name of Kathryn Scola, despite her bravura writing on many of the most well-known, woman-centered, pre-code films. I believe she was THE voice of Depression-era women.

There is precious little written about Scola – she was born in 1891 to an Italian father who was a silk dyer, and an Irish mother. As far as I know, she never married, listing as head of her household in the 1940 census. She was working as a script clerk for Frank Lloyd at First National Studio at the advent of the talkies. In 1930, she was an up and comer, getting a promotion from script clerk to scenarist, even getting her name in the trade papers for her second script – a film called “The Lady Who Dared”, starring Billie Dove. She was on her way… by the next year, she would be specializing in racy, forward-thinking stories of Depression-era women who wanted their own identity, separate from the confines of marriage and children.

Kathryn Scola generally worked in tandem with other, better known male writers, like Gene Markey, Norman Krasna, and Gene Fowler. Her partnership with Markey would prove most fruitful, delivering at least four wonderful scripts in 1933 alone.

As Markey moved up in the studio system, Scola’s work was more often uncredited. Her most notable collaboration was with William Faulkner in 1936, on a script for the Fox Studio property called “Splinter Fleet”, which was later produced as “Submarine Patrol” (1938). She played babysitter for Faulkner at the request of Darryl F. Zanuck and Markey (who, by that time had risen to producing films), with a special entreaty that she keep the novelist focused on the plot. When she spoke to Faulkner about the initial story, he told her that Markey had requested he “follow the story line, but I can’t find the story line.” Scola told Faulkner’s biographer that Faulkner wrote good ‘Faulknerian’ dialogue, but had trouble staying on topic. It was Scola’s job to keep the plot moving forward.

Perhaps this is why her work seems to have been completely forgotten – that sublimation of identity she railed against in her films was unfortunately achieved through the outsized focus on male writers in Hollywood over time; or perhaps it was simply through the studio system’s disdain for writers in general. Sadly, by the end of the 1940’s, Scola would be thrown away by her studio like a piece of scrap paper – but only after six month’s long and dedicated work on a script for the film “Caught”, a thriller about a young woman’s marriage to a rich, Howard Hughes-type playboy. Her work was deemed ‘too controversial’ and her script was discarded. She was then fired, after working at the studio for 20 years.

When I looked up Scola’s credits, I discovered that she had a hand in writing at LEAST five great pre-codes, and had helped create 29 other A-list films during her 20-year career.

As I looked at these works, it struck me that the women characters in her films were never stereotypical, and that her films distinctly revolved around WOMEN’S choices. Her heroines and even secondary characters are invariably women struggling against gender roles that they really do not fit. Some actually want to fit in, but can’t; others gave up trying to make themselves over in society’s image long ago. These women refuse to be defined by men in a man’s world. They side step such diminution and speed along the fast lane to empowerment in the only ways that are available to them. They chafe at being relegated to the roles of either plaything or wife. They have careers, of a sort. Money and power are everything to a gal down on her luck. They live in a separate world from their spouses or love interests. The men they come in contact with are no match for such strong, bright, and infinitely fascinating women. These heroines are always more than the sum of their parts – and the parts are the only thing the men are fixated on. This is the tragedy of life – being unable to conform to a wrongheaded, societal insistence on maintaining norms, when it is the norms that should be changed, not the women.

Such modern, revolutionary viewpoints and deeper ideas are incredibly refreshing, and they are so candid that they shock us now… as if somehow, the very male-female dynamics we are dealing with right now got time-warped into the pre-code era. Same as it ever was, I guess, for thinking women.

This is why so many of these Kathryn Scola-written films are my favorites. Baby Face, Illicit, Lilly Turner, Midnight Mary, Woman Wanted…. to discover that the same person, a WOMAN, wrote all of them was overwhelming. It made me want to know about her, and to help others to know about her.

For now, we will have to let Kathryn Scola’s scripts do the talking – to know her work and her voice is to know the woman.

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ILLICIT ( 1931 ) ~ “Nearly every girl I know, Mr. Ives, is either unhappily married or happily divorced, and I’ve simply come to the conclusion that marriage is disastrous to love. There’s so much about it that’s all wrong – the awful possession that people exert over each other, the intimacy, and the duties. I don’t know… but love can’t stand the strain, that’s all.”

BABY FACE ( 1933 ) ~ “Yeah? Well, you better get used to it. Listen, I don’t owe you a thing. Whatever I do is my own business. You never had but one idea about me. That’s all I ever meant to you.

LILLY  TURNER ( 1933 )

Doc Peter McGill: “I’m just a laborer in the vineyards of the Lord. Lilly, sometimes you’re a great temptation to my poor weak nature.”

[patting Lilly’s behind]

Lilly ‘Queenie’ Turner Dixon: “And to your wandering hands.”

MIDNIGHT MARY ( 1933 )   “Easy money, you boob. Sure, I saw it written all over that grinning mug of yours. I thought I could trim you and get away with it. But now the idiot wants to marry me! Is that a laugh? Now, I can’t even tell you you don’t have to marry me or you’d lose your high ideal of me. But, listen, sweetheart, marriage is too high a price to pay even for a bankroll like yours. I’d last just about a week, and then I’d brain you and run back to a real man! Good night – and pleasant fairy tales, little Rollo.”

 

WOMAN WANTED ( 1935 ) “Say, she breaks engagements like some people break fingernails.”

 

 

 

ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND
( 1938 )

Davey Lane: [exasperated] “Whatta ya do with a guy like that?”

Jerry Allen: “Oh, just relax and put your mind on your drinking. Stop trying to maneuver him into talking business.”

Alexander (Roger Grant): “Business? What’s that?”

Jerry Allen: “You know, the thing you do to take your mind *off* your drinking.”

 

THE CONSTANT NYMPH
( 1943 )

Florence Creighton: “You flung yourself at my husband in this house and you succeeded!”

Tessa Sanger: “l can’t help it if I love Lewis! I did long before you came to Switzerland and it’s not a happy thing. It’s brought nothing but sadness into my life, and yet it’s so overwhelming I wouldn’t want it to be different.”

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I hope that someday, this author of so many great films about women, FOR women, will be as well known as Ben Hecht or Paddy Chayefsky. Kathryn Scola’s challenge and upending of a male-dominated society, and her insistence on crafting films with a distinct and strong female voice, made Hollywood more and more uncomfortable. By 1949, the word ‘controversial’, applied so many times to her writing, was a death knell to her career. Her arrows, launched against tradition and sexism, were too sharp and accurate to stand in the time of blacklisting and the baby boom. But those very qualities are what make Kathryn Scola’s movies singular and timeless.

 

 

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