Edna Ferber wrote vividly of the first time she saw a film: "It was in 1897 that I glimpsed the first faint flicker of that form of entertainment which was to encircle the world with a silver sheet. We all went to see the newfangled thing called the animatograph," she recalled. "It was hard on the eyes, what with a constant flicker and a shower of dancing black and white spots over everything. But the audience agreed that it was a thousand times more wonderful than even the magic lantern." Twenty years later, Ferber made her first sale to Hollywood—Our Mrs. McChesney (1918), her first coauthored play (with George V. Hobart). Metro Pictures purchased the screen rights of the play for its original Broadway star, Ethel Barrymore. A year later, independent director and producer Hobart Henley adapted Ferber's short story "A Gay Old Dog."
Ferber did not discuss these early transactions with Hollywood. In the first part of her two-volume autobiography, published in 1939, she remembered her "first film sale" more dramatically. In 1920, she sold the rights to her semiautobiographical novel, Fanny Herself (1917), to Universal. She used the money to finance the writing of her first major historical novel, The Girls (1920). As Ferber recalled, her first Hollywood paycheck was "an unimposing sum." But the buyer was Irving Thalberg. At this point, Ferber had no agent or lawyer, and met directly with Thalberg. He was a complete shock to her. Expecting him to follow the stereotype of "larger gentlemen smoking oversized cigars" (or to look like his boss, pioneering film producer Carl Laemmle), she was amazed to find "a wisp of a boy, twenty-one, so slight as to appear actually frail . . . High intelligence, taste and intuition combine rarely in Hollywood or elsewhere." It was her first and only dealing with Hollywood's "boy genius," although she would meet many more filmmakers, forming close relationships with Samuel Goldwyn, who produced Come and Get It in 1936, and, later, director-producer George Stevens (Giant, 1956).
Ferber's attitude toward Hollywood was complex. On the one hand, she was fascinated with its iconic stars, glamor, and the artistry of a handful of great filmmakers. She admired some like Thalberg, Goldwyn, Stevens, screenwriter Howard Estabrook, and actor James Dean for their drive, ambition, self-invention, and commitment to their work (Fig. 1.1). It was a commitment she shared. Yet she was repelled by Hollywood's "ghostlike" persona—where the flowers had no scent and the people were overplayed personalities rather than individuals. After selling the rights to Fanny Herself, she remained in the Los Angeles area for several months to write her next novel. But it was difficult to write a story of women in post-Civil War Chicago while she was stuck in Hollywood's cultural desert. As she commented, "About the town, its life and its people there was in 1920 a crude lavishness that had in it nothing of gusto. It wasn't American, it had no virility, it sprang from almost pure vulgarity." Ferber expected the "pioneering" new industry to possess something of California's nineteenth-century spirit. But, she complained, "There was about it none of the lusty native quality of the old gold-rush camp days. Offended by it, and bored, too, after the first glance or two needed for complete comprehension, I retreated gratefully into the work-walk-read routine of escape."
Friend and colleague William Allen White had shared his less-happy studio experiences with her. Though White had made a little money from the sale of his popular short story "A Certain Rich Man," according to him, the screenwriters had transformed it into an almost unrecognizable, tawdry romance. He fumed, "The way the others put your stuff up and the way they tear the heart out of a creation, I don't care to have them. I'd rather have nothing and get the picture across as I conceived it than to have many thousand dollars and get the story all balled up." He continued, "I don't like to have a movie butcher go in and mangle my stuff." White was neither the first nor the last writer to complain about Hollywood's adaptation of his work, but Ferber's experience was different. Although admittedly she had not made much from her first sale to Thalberg, it was the start of one of the most influential and profitable historical relationships in twentieth-century American culture. Ferber was one of America's most prominent historical novelists, a writer whose uniquely feminist, multiracial view of the national past deliberately clashed with traditional narratives of white masculine power. Hollywood filmmakers paid premium sums to adapt her controversial best sellers, creating some of the most memorable films of the studio era—among them Cimarron, (1931), Show Boat (1936), and Giant (1956). Her historical fiction resonated with Hollywood's own interest in prestigious historical filmmaking aimed principally but not exclusively at female audiences. Ferber, like many Hollywood filmmakers of the studio era, projected a hybrid historical vision that challenged prescribed boundaries between low and high culture, history, fiction, and cinema, and gender, race, and power. This book is the story of that historic partnership.
The Ferber Franchise
In A Peculiar Treasure (1939) and in her second volume of autobiography, A Kind of Magic (1963), Ferber focused on the writing and the Hollywood afterlives of her historical fiction. It was an impressive body of work. So Big won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925, and that year Warner Bros. made the first of its three adaptations of her novel. Show Boat (1926) was to have a life of its own on Broadway beginning in 1927 before Universal made the first of its two film versions. Counting the later MGM film musical, three versions of Show Boat were released between 1929 and 1951. Cimarron was first a number one best seller in 1929 and then the number one film of 1931. It was reckoned one of the industry's most impressive critical and popular masterpieces for years before MGM made its own version in 1960. Come and Get It (published 1935; released 1936), Saratoga Trunk (published 1941; released 1946), and Ice Palace (published 1958; released 1960) were adapted only once, but each was marketed and reviewed as a prestigious "Ferber film" and helped define the industry's attitude toward American history during the studio era.
Ferber's Broadway plays also served as the basis for several major films of the 1920s and 1930s, but in her autobiographies, she virtually ignored both her collaborative work with George S. Kaufman and Hollywood's smaller-scale silent-era adaptations of her modern short stories. The story "Old Man Minick" (1924) was filmed by Paramount in 1925 (Welcome Home) and by Warner Bros. in 1932 (The Expert) and 1939 (No Place to Go). In addition, Ferber and Kaufman produced a trio of successful plays about American performers. The Royal Family (1928) was so evocative of the Barrymore theatrical dynasty that Ethel Barrymore nearly sued the duo. It was a guaranteed hit for Paramount in 1930, retitled The Royal Family of Broadway and starring Fredric March. Dinner at Eight (1932) became one of MGM's most star-studded productions a year after its Broadway opening, showcasing John Barrymore as a ravaged actor among a cast of New York social climbers. RKO quickly purchased Stage Door (1936), releasing an adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers in 1937. All three plays and films are elegantly paced and loaded with Kaufman's stock-in-trade cynical repartee. Their protagonists and supporting casts are glamorous, frenetic, strained, grasping, and frequently vapid—obscure actresses trading insults in an overcrowded boardinghouse, socialites and players jockeying for momentary supremacy, egomaniacal siblings hamming it up onstage and off. Their work was critically respected as well—Stage Door won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1936. Kaufman's biographer Howard Teichmann speculates that while Kaufman supplied the deadly dialogue, Ferber brought depth, variety, and drama to the partnership.
Once produced by Hollywood, the film versions of the plays were critical and box-office successes, but unlike the adaptations of her novels, they were not known as "Ferber films" or even prominently reviewed as "adapted from the play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman." In fact, New York theatre critics always gave Ferber second billing to Kaufman.8 Broadway publicity subtly undercut Ferber's influence, and some playbill photographs show Ferber watching while Kaufman edits their script. Even in Hollywood, Ferber's name was not always mentioned in reviews of The Royal Family of Broadway, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door; in fact, neither of the playwrights' names appears on the posters and ads for Stage Door. Ferber seems to have responded in kind; she did not discuss the plays in her autobiographies beyond a perfunctory acknowledgment of their existence. As she remarked of Stage Door: "It was rather good but not frightfully good."
But Ferber's reputation in Hollywood did not depend on her collaborations with Kaufman, and therefore they are not the focus of this book. While Kaufman always worked with another playwright and had only one successful stint as a credited coscreenwriter, Ferber was a filmmaking gold mine. Although she worked only once as an uncredited screenwriter (Giant) and once as an uncredited script vetter (Come and Get It), Ferber's historical novels became some of Hollywood's most profitable films. The studios did their best to make her a screenwriter. Even when the demands of wartime production curtailed historical projects between 1942 and 1945, studios were busy negotiating for future Ferber works. In 1944, MGM offered her $375,000 over a period of three years to write one new film a year. According to the contract, she could remain in New York. As agent William Herndon wrote to her, "The content and quality of the original would be entirely up to you . . . I don't know how you feel about this, Miss Ferber, but such homage, to my way of thinking, is absolutely startling."
Hollywood critics and journalists were equally aware of her power. As the Los Angeles Times commented during the production of Giant: "While it may be 15 years since Edna Ferber visited Hollywood, her influence even in later days has been strong in the films. It has been tremendous when you view it in full perspective, for no fewer than nine of her creations have been made into motion pictures and some of them several times." After her death, in 1968, when seven years had passed since a new Ferber film was in theatres, the trade papers reminisced about her ability to engineer landmark contracts and hefty film rights. Weekly Variety recalled, "When agent Leland Hayward sold Edna Ferber's Saratoga Trunk to Warner Brothers in 1941 for $175,000, he also established a precedent in the sale of literary properties to motion pictures. It was the first time that such a deal called for all rights to the property to revert back to the author after a stated period. In the case of Saratoga Trunk, this was for eight years, although renewed twice, for five and eight years. Hayward also came close to securing the negative rights for his client." The writer went on to comment that only recently had top stars like Cary Grant managed to secure rights to the negative.
But in many ways, Ferber was a star on a par with Grant. No other American writer had such a sustained, successful relationship with the industry during the twentieth century. Between 1918 and 1960, no fewer than twenty-five films were made from her work. While Zane Grey's novels and short stories were adapted more frequently during this era, the majority of the films were low-budget westerns produced for a specific genre market. The renewed interest in prestige westerns during the 1930s, generated largely by the successful adaptation of Ferber's Cimarron, did not include Grey's stories. Most of Ferber's work, in contrast, was lavishly produced and advertised to a broad spectrum of viewers. Although several of her contemporary short stories during the 1920s became fairly pedestrian variations on the filmed themes of love, money, and adultery, Hollywood's main interest in Ferber lay in her historical novels. In fact, her career as one of America's most popular writers spans the classical Hollywood era and parallels the film industry's obsession with national history, panoramic narratives, social and political controversy, and financial success.
With the introduction of sound to cinema in 1926-1927, Ferber's reputation in Hollywood rapidly expanded. Arguably, the new medium transformed and reenergized historical cinema more than any other Hollywood genre, giving greater prominence to the many meanings of the projected and spoken word. During the 1930s in particular, American historical cinema (sometimes referred to as Hollywood "Americana") dominated critical and box-office polls. In their different historical contexts, Cimarron (RKO, 1931), So Big (Warner Bros., 1932), Show Boat (Universal, 1936), and Come and Get It (United Artists, 1936) both reflected and commented upon the nation's fascination with its varied past. Ferber's historical novels also made a critical connection between prestige filmmaking and female audiences. Her heroines had an unconventional dynamism, echoed later by Julie Marsden (Jezebel, 1938), Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind, 1939), and Phoebe Titus (Arizona, 1940). During the Second World War and the heyday of the war-genre and propaganda film, the studios wisely avoided producing Ferber's often-critical appraisals of American history and female-driven narratives. But Saratoga Trunk (Warner Bros., 1946), Show Boat (MGM, 1951), and So Big (Warner Bros., 1953) responded to the industry's renewed faith in the allure of history and the costume picture to draw female audiences. Giant (Warner Bros., 1956) arguably represented the apex of Ferber's influence in Hollywood; the author would also serve as an unofficial screenwriter and a very well publicized producer. The film's phenomenal success spurred MGM and Warner Bros. to make more Ferber films, but Cimarron (MGM, 1960) and Ice Palace (Warner Bros., 1960) reflect more of the industry's increasingly frantic search for bigness and novelty in the age of impending studio collapse than of Ferber's feminist, even multiracial America.
The Critical Legacy
Despite their massive popularity with the American public, Ferber and Hollywood's "Ferber films" have been neglected in contemporary academic criticism. Mary Rose Shaughnessy's study, the first attempt to assess the spectrum of Ferber's feminist literature, fails to examine Ferber's historical interpretations, use of racial minorities, and relationship with Hollywood. Niece Julie Goldsmith Gilbert's popular biography reacquaints audiences with Ferber the celebrity author, but like Marion Meade's more recent collective biography of 1920s women writers, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, it focuses more on the author's New York social life than on her historical novels and Hollywood successes. While Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's musical adaptation of Ferber's Show Boat is well known to popular and academic film criticism, Ferber's novel is less studied. Only one of Ferber's written works has received any major attention: Cimarron (1929) is the subject of several accounts of western history and prestige filmmaking. But aside from this, literary scholars and film historians have ignored the writer and her impact, possibly put off by what Joan Shelley Rubin terms her "middlebrow, mass-cult success." I would also argue that Ferber's interest in American historical narratives rather than in modern literary style and characterization has lowered her in the eyes of academic critics. She seems almost a generation apart from contemporaries F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald was particularly offended by her work, refusing to read So Big despite editor Maxwell Perkins's recommendation. Jealous of her big sales and generous reviews, the anti-Semitic writer sniffed that Ferber was "the Yiddish descendant of O. Henry." Ferber responded in kind, remarking to editor Ken McCormick of Doubleday: "I suppose that, like Scott Fitzgerald, you have to be dead to be good. I'll oblige, sooner or later."
Other male critics shared Fitzgerald's distain, even if not his anti-Semitism. More often, Ferber was attacked for her portraits of multiracial America; Stanley Vestal raged that Cimarron (a novel with a mixed-race protagonist and family) had no respect for western history's "racial standards." Nearly thirty years later, reporter Lon Tinkle damned Ferber's portrait of Texas white supremacists: "You aren't writing Uncle Tom's Cabin." Like Harriet Beecher Stowe a century before, Ferber used the form of a family melodrama to expose the history and contemporary legacy of American racism. Ferber's America was inherently multiracial, but it was her feminism that made many American men see red. Texan Sam Nugent disliked all of Ferber's work because "only the women are worth their salt! It is obvious that Miss Ferber's contention is that men may be attractive, but only in the sense that children are attractive. She seems to feel men are only excess baggage in her tidy little feministic world. Thus in her books, without exception, women are the builders, men are picturesque—but really useless."
Although some female literary critics, like Margaret Lawrence, Mary Rose Shaughnessy, and Diane Lichtenstein, have promoted Ferber as a feminist icon and the first woman to write about successful, even heroic American women, she does not have the critical status accorded to other female American novelists, like Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. Shaughnessy has suggested that Ferber is out of step with late twentieth-century feminist criticism precisely because her heroines are not victimized by the patriarchy. Ferber succeeded in writing the "androgynous" books that British novelist and critic Virginia Woolf had sought in A Room of One's Own (1929). Ferber herself resisted being labelled a writer of "women's fiction" and its association with contemporary romantic melodrama. Her turn to historical fiction may have been one means of casting off any limiting gendered critiques of her work. Doubleday's marketing strategies, which stressed the "epic," "heroic," and "panoramic" historical appeal of her work rather than the characters' romance and glamor, reinforced her image as a writer of serious American historical literature.
Contemporaneous critic William R. Parker's complaint in the English Journal targeted her popularity, productivity, and, more subtly, her preferred genre of historical fiction. According to him, her work was "too capably made, like the imitation antiques that come from Grand Rapids." Parker was particularly annoyed by influential critics like William Allen White, who argued, "Of the first dozen chroniclers of the America that has grown up in this twentieth century, authentic reporters of American life, Edna Ferber would be in the first five if the rating were made on popularity, artistic accuracy, and a deep understanding of the American scene." White, like Ferber, was a small-town newspaper reporter who made good marketing small-town American values to an increasingly urban America. Both were masters of America's powerful mass-cultural market, and had little tolerance for elitist highbrows who damned success—especially when it was American made.
In one of his glowing appraisals of her work, White quoted Ferber: "'I wish America would stop being ashamed of its art . . . It's time we stopped imitating . . . Let us write in the American fashion about America.'" Despite White's sense of Ferber as an "authentic reporter of American life," she preferred to write about America's past rather than its present. Ferber embraced the romance, the pain, and the conflict of American history. Critics like Parker called it "crudeness." Dorothy van Doren had another name for it—Ferber's writing was perfect for the movies. In a review of her novel Great Son in 1945, Time profiled this relationship: "Great Son . . . is the dependable Ferber brand of slickly written, cinemadaptable Americana . . . The success of Great Son is assured. The Literary Guild alone is printing 450,000 copies, Cosmopolitan has serialized it, and Broadway producer Mike Todd has reputedly paid $200,000 for the movie rights." These faint sneers bothered Ferber, who was quoted in the same article: "'What's wrong with writing a book that lots of people buy? . . . My God, there's no point in writing it if you don't sell your stuff.'" Samuel Goldwyn could not have said it better. Ferber and Hollywood were made for each another. They were American cultural entities that thrived on mass audiences and publicity; they were frequently condemned by critics for their "crude," lowbrow popularity; yet they both successfully used American history as a means of elevating their prestige.
Until recently, critical appraisals of classical Hollywood's historical genre concurred that on-screen national history was dead, white, and male, and reflected an old-fashioned, heroic view of the past. Although a majority of biopics released during the classical era focus on the exploits of conventional American heroes (Abraham Lincoln, 1930; Silver Dollar, 1932; Diamond Jim, 1935; Sergeant York, 1941; Buffalo Bill, 1944; My Darling Clementine, 1946; The Magnificent Yankee, 1950; and The Spirit of St. Louis, 1957, to name only a few), unconventional women dominate Hollywood adaptations of historical fiction. Women like Ramona Moreno (Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona, 1938, 1936), Scarlett O'Hara (Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 1939), Sabra Cravat (Cimarron, 1931, 1960), Selina Peake (So Big, 1925, 1932, 1953), and Magnolia Hawks (Show Boat, 1929, 1936, 1951) all sprang from the historical imaginations of American women. More than any other author, Ferber was responsible for making American women an integral part of Hollywood's projection of history. Ferber's version of American history was not a celebration of masculine ingenuity, strength, and hard work. Instead, it was American women who dominated her narratives, making decisions, overcoming romantic disappointment and social prejudice, achieving public fame. As her niece and biographer Julie Goldsmith Gilbert noted in 1978, "[Ferber] was a precursor of the Women's Liberation Movement by depicting every single one of her fictional heroines as progressive originals who doggedly paved large inroads for themselves and their 'race.' Her male characters, on the other hand, were usually felled by their colorful but ultimately ineffectual machismo." An advocate of many progressive social and political policies, Ferber hoped that her work and example would transform contemporary gender imbalances. She commented in 1959: "The world so far . . . has been run by men, and it's not very pretty. Perhaps the women ought to use their powers, begin running things. They bear the children, rear them, keep the household budget. They may get us out of the woods yet. Men have dominated for thousands of years. It is only since 1920, when women were granted suffrage, that the female has had any rights."
Ferber's feminist counterhistories even tackled the racism dominating western and southern historical narratives; indeed, race and gender were often entwined within her national portraits. Her studies of American racism cover discrimination against African Americans and mulattas in the postbellum South (Show Boat, 1926; Saratoga Trunk, 1941) and Mexican Americans in twentieth-century Texas (Giant, 1952). Her portrayals of Native Americans in Cimarron (1929) and Ice Palace (1958) go beyond the frontier myths of noble savages, vanishing Americans, and marginalized characters. Ferber was the only important American author to create mixed-race heroines who were active historical protagonists rather than passive, tragic mulattas or voiceless, vanishing Americans. Most scholarly work on race and gender in classical Hollywood cinema, best exemplified by the work of Daniel Bernardi, Linda Williams, Susan Courtney, Richard Dyer, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, insists that the studios merely reinforced prevailing racial and sexual ideologies and stereotypes. Often, Hollywood's alleged racism coalesced around its two dominant historical genres, the western (The Plainsman, 1936; Stagecoach, 1939; The Searchers, 1956) and the Civil War epic (The Birth of a Nation, 1915; So Red the Rose, 1935; Gone with the Wind, 1939). Both Ferber and Hollywood framed American history primarily within the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century West and South, regions that embodied complex texts and images of racial and sexual dramas. But when adapting Ferber's work, studio-era Hollywood filmmakers foregrounded the history of a multiracial, multicultural nation, often interrogating the visual and historical ambiguity of racial difference and the insidious nativistic and misogynistic social codes upholding the myth of white America. Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant focused on these themes and would become some of the most prominent American historical films of the classical era.
Yet despite the critical and box-office acclaim of Ferber's adapted works and even the long-standing interest in Hollywood's adaptation of American literature, film scholars have persistently ignored Edna Ferber. Of all her contemporaries, only the novelists William Faulkner and John Steinbeck had careers that were in any way comparable. But while eight of Faulkner's novels and short stories were adapted for the screen, only The Long Hot Summer (1958) was a hit with critics and audiences. Faulkner was better known as an unsuccessful, frequently uncredited screenwriter for Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox during the thirties and forties. Steinbeck was responsible for four screenplays, and his work served as the basis for ten films, including the Academy Award-winning John Ford picture The Grapes of Wrath (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) and Elia Kazan's adaptation of East of Eden (1955), set in early twentieth-century California. But while he commanded high fees for movie rights, his films (Of Mice and Men, 1939; The Moon Is Down, 1943; The Wayward Bus, 1967) did not always receive the same prestige treatment and box-office receipts of a Ferber picture. Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, RKO, United Artists, and Universal all produced Ferber films, but Steinbeck sold his work mostly to Fox and later to Warner Bros. Nevertheless, Ferber is only a footnote in contemporary film history, while the Hollywood careers of Faulkner, Steinbeck, and even the failed novelist-turned-screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald have been the subject of several studies.
But long before twentieth-century American fiction and films became the subjects of critical inquiry, Edna Ferber's name meant something to readers, filmmakers, and audiences. Studio executives treated Ferber with respect because they had to; in addition winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1925 (for So Big, 1924), she was routinely at the top of Publishers Weekly's best-seller lists. No other writer secured such favorable terms for film rights and publicity. In addition to commanding the highest prices for her work (Cimarron cost RKO $125,000 in 1930, and Giant and Ice Palace also netted her percentages of the films' grosses), Ferber received television, radio, and copyright reversion on most of her work. Beginning in 1924, clauses in all of her contracts required that each time the studios advertised a film title based on her work, they also had to mention her name. So "Edna Ferber" appeared on almost every piece of studio film publicity, from posters to syndicated press articles. Film credits not only gave her a separate writer's title all to herself (when usually the original writer's name appeared on a shared title beneath that of the screenwriter), but also introduced the film with her name and the studio's (for example, "Warner Bros. Presents Edna Ferber's Giant"). Ferber knew that her relationship with the studios was a happy partnership because it was based on mutual exploitation. Both she and Hollywood made national history sell and helped each other reap high profits. In her autobiographies, Ferber devotes pages to her novels and their adaptations by various Hollywood studios, and it is through her historical novels that we begin to understand her long-term relationship with Hollywood.
Women Writers, Readers, and Filmgoers in Modern America
As remarkable as Ferber was—as a writer, historian, and Hollywood player—she drew upon the legacies of best-selling women writers, social crusaders, professional and popular American historians, and filmmakers. To a certain extent, Ferber's career and influence can be triangulated with the perspectives of nineteenth-century novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852) and Helen Hunt Jackson (Ramona, 1884); journalist and historian Ida Tarbell (The History of Standard Oil, 1904); historical novelists Ellen Glasgow (Battleground, 1920), Willa Cather (My Ántonia, 1918), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind, 1936); historians Mary Beard and Mari Sandoz; and popular Jewish novelists and playwrights Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life, 1933), Anzia Yezierska, and Lillian Hellman. While the historian Julie Des Jardins recently examined American women historians' impact on academic social and cultural history, an analysis of Ferber's career reveals the wider impact of women on the popular dissemination of national history.
Hollywood had a longstanding investment in female writers, including top-earning screenwriters Anita Loos, Frances Marion, and Jeannie Macpherson. During the studio era, Hollywood writers adapted a wide variety of material for fiction films, ranging from Broadway plays to popular biographies and history to best sellers and widely read articles in major journals like the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies' Home Journal. Much of this work was written by women, including Ferber's Jewish colleagues Anzia Yezierska and Lillian Hellman. Although Ferber was not a screenwriter, she, Yezierska, and Hellman worked for Samuel Goldwyn (Fig. 1.2). Goldwyn hired Yezierska briefly in the 1920s to adapt her successful Hungry Hearts (1923) and Salome of the Tenements (1925; starring Jetta Goudal). Film historians are more familiar with Hellman's career as a playwright and screenwriter, though, surprisingly, there have been no in-depth studies of her work since 1983.51 Although anticommunist witch-hunting curtailed her influence after the ill-fated Goldwyn production North Star (1943, released by RKO), for ten years she produced some impressive work for Goldwyn and Warner Bros., adapting her plays alone or in collaboration with Dashiell Hammett (These Three, 1934; The Little Foxes, 1941; Watch on the Rhine, Warner Bros., 1943) and revamping old scripts like The Dark Angel (1925; remade by Goldwyn in 1935).
Compared with Ferber's, both Yezierska's and Hellman's influence in Hollywood was short-lived. Although they dealt with major social issues like the lives of immigrants and the urban poor, the exploitation of women, anti-Semitism, and, in Hellman's case, fascism and the Second World War, they were mainly writers of contemporary America. While Ferber, the historical novelist, proved more adaptable and enduring to filmmakers and audiences in her own generation, Yezierska and Hellman would eclipse Ferber in the late twentieth century as icons of American feminist literature and, in Hellman's case, liberal Hollywood filmmaking.
In the 1930s, Hollywood bought the work of writers such as Fannie Hurst (Imitation of Life, Universal, 1934 and 1959, and Back Street, Universal, 1931 and 1941), Elizabeth Madox Roberts (The Great Meadow, MGM 1931), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence, RKO, 1934), and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind, Selznick, 1939). In the 1940s, writers such as Ethel Vance (Escape, MGM, 1940), Jan Struther (Mrs. Miniver, MGM, 1942), Marcia Davenport (Valley of Decision, MGM, 1945), Kathleen Winsor (Forever Amber, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1947), and the estate of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1946) all made lucrative studio deals.
What distinguished Ferber from these writers? Quite simply, none of these women sold as much, for as much, as Edna Ferber. With the exception of American Beauty (1931) and Great Son (1945), all of Ferber's historical novels published between 1924 and 1958 were adapted as major motion pictures. Many were remade more than once. Ferber was an astute businesswoman. She maximized each book's potential readership by first serializing it in a key national periodical such as the Woman's Home Companion, the Ladies' Home Journal, or Cosmopolitan. It was a smart strategy, for Americans read magazines in huge numbers. As Robert and Helen Lynd note in their study of an average American town (Middletown), in 1923 the 9,200 homes in the town (later revealed to be Muncie, Indiana) consumed 20,000 copies of each issue of commercially published weekly and monthly periodicals. Three in ten of workers' families and nine in ten of those from the business class took three or more magazines. The Lynds found powerful evidence of "the way periodicals operate, probably even more powerfully than books, to shape the habits and outlook of the city." The Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, and the Woman's Home Companion were taken in one in five of Middletown's 9,200 homes. Between two hundred and five hundred homes took Collier's, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. These journals all contained fiction authored by women and often intended for female audiences, who, the Lynds revealed, had constituted America's main reading population since the nineteenth century.
Doubleday did not object to Ferber's decision to serialize before publication. Publishers were rapidly discovering that although the number of American readers had grown since the late nineteenth century, most were library readers. Wealthy women were the largest group of book buyers in America, but as leisure time and disposable income increased for most Americans following the First World War, publishers worked to capture new book-buying audiences from the middle and working classes. A book had a better chance of becoming a best seller if it reached a wider audience. The audiences were, as the Lynds discovered, reading magazines and going to the movies. For a book to succeed in postwar America, it had to be marketed and exhibited in a variety of cultural venues. It also had to appeal to women, who now formed the heart of motion-picture audiences.
Following the serialization of Ferber's work, which typically would be spread over a six-month period, Doubleday would heavily market the book, pushing a variety of editions and even selling reprint rights to different presses. Sometimes, Ferber would substantially change the novel's ending (as she did with Come and Get It), managing to recapture magazine readers who otherwise would not have bought the book version. More than any of her other Hollywood novels, Come and Get It focused on a hero's rather than a heroine's struggles. Ferber may have been aware that this novel had less appeal to her contingent of women readers.
Beginning in the 1920s, studios bought Ferber's work in part because she reached an audience that often went to the movies. In turn, Doubleday recognized that Ferber films added substantially to the novels' sales. Ferber usually managed to sell the film rights to her work during the initial serialization period, so that when her book finally did hit the stores, newspapers and trade papers would carry multiple articles and blurbs about her book and the film. During and after film production, Hollywood and Doubleday would negotiate a variety of hard- and paperback film editions—the most important with Grosset and Dunlap, which had been publishing classic and contemporary literature illustrated with film stills since the early twentieth century. After the war, in an attempt to attract filmgoers as potential readers, dust jackets and paperbacks displayed scenes from the films with stars like Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper (Saratoga Trunk, 1946 editions) or Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (Giant, 1957 editions). So while Hollywood profited from Ferber's best-selling status, the Hollywood films generated yet another cycle of publicity and revenue for Ferber and Doubleday.
But astutely, she never trusted the film industry completely, reading the Hollywood Reporter and Variety religiously in case producers tried to capitalize on her name or her works. Ferber never let producers read her work in advance and never gave interviews on her works in progress, all too aware of how Hollywood might infringe on her historical territory. In the midst of writing Great Son (a novel about nineteenth- and twentieth-century Seattle, which was purchased by Mike Todd but never filmed), she wrote to agent Leland Hayward, worried about a reference in the Hollywood Reporter about a new film on Seattle history: "Can you find out for me something about it? Without, I mean, having it leak out that I want to know. I'd hate to think that all my work might be for nothing," she anguished. "Can you let me know the period, the background—modern or otherwise—so that I may know whether I'll have to abandon my book. I think I have some rather good material and I'd hate to throw it all in the wastebasket." Ferber was not just a born worrier; she knew that historical novelty was one of the secrets of her success in Hollywood.
The "Middlebrow" and Historical Fiction
Ferber's unrivalled business acumen helped make her America's top-selling female writer, according to the literary magazine the Bookman, which began publishing "best-seller" lists in 1895. She was by no means the first best-selling female writer. Mary Johnston and Ellen Glasgow were both impressive precursors, often writing historical novels. In 1900, Mary Johnston had the number one best seller with To Have and to Hold, and she made it to number four in 1902 with Audrey, Sir Mortimer in 1905, Lewis Rand in 1908, and The Long Roll in 1911. Ellen Glasgow made the list with The Deliverance in 1904 and The Wheel of Life in 1906, and even beat Ferber's Come and Get It in the top ten list some thirty years later. Of all the writers on the list from 1900 through 1960, only turn-of-the-century novelist Winston Churchill outperformed Ferber, making the top ten nine times. Yet Ferber's seven best sellers were published between 1924 and 1958, when the publishing market was more competitive. As Alice Payne Hackett pointed out, Publishers Weekly, the main measuring stick after 1912, only lists books "distributed through the trade"—those sold through bookstores and purchased by libraries. Copies of Ferber's books sold by mail order or by book clubs (and she was a regular pick of the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild) were not included. If Publishers Weekly had recorded all of Ferber's sales, she probably would have been off the charts. But Ferber was so highly regarded that even the first instalment of her autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, was rated number eight in the top ten for nonfiction for 1939. That year was a competitive one for nonfiction and memoirs; ironically, Ferber's book was narrowly outsold by Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
But being a best-selling author does not guarantee long-term literary regard; in fact, American cultural critics almost always equate popularity with mediocrity. Indeed, Ferber's reputation has been in decline since her death. Just as film-studies scholars have paid more attention to Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald, literary historians have neglected Ferber in favor of her peers Willa Cather and Edith Wharton. Even Fannie Hurst has been revived, in large part because of her status as the author of Imitation of Life (1934), one of the earliest films to depict the dilemma of a mixed-race African American. But Ferber's interest in the history of racial mixing and mixed-race protagonists endured throughout her career. Unlike Hurst, she did not simply dabble in the theme.
Although in 1925 she won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big and many critics routinely compared her favorably with Cather and Wharton (also Pulitzer Prize winners and best sellers), by 1952, the year of Giant's publication, Ferber was relegated to being only one of many popular writers in Edward Wagenknecht's massive Cavalcade of the American Novel. Even though Wagenknecht noted that the "thirties witnessed the first great revival of historical fiction since the turn of the century," Ferber was not mentioned. While Cather's work merits an entire chapter, including a section on her attitude toward the American past, Ferber is relegated to a few sentences in the index. They are not flattering:
Edna Ferber exemplifies the popular novelist of twentieth-century America whose books are usually best-sellers. Among others in this class are Kathleen Norris, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Janet Ayer Fairbank . . . Fannie Hurst, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Taylor Caldwell, and Marcia Davenport. All of these women have aimed at mass circulation and have consequently concerned themselves with themes which interest the average reader and handled them in a manner which the average reader can comprehend. They attempt little or no technical experimentation, and their principal appeal is to readers of their own sex. But they all know how to tell a story, and some of them sometimes produce a book which interests even readers of quality fiction.
Wagenknecht's brand of criticism, with its misogynistic dismissal of female writers and popular women's fiction, is indicative of the kind of highbrow criticism advocated by Clement Greenberg and Dwight MacDonald. MacDonald, in fact, would later foreground Ferber as a "masscult" blot on the American cultural landscape. In the opening sentences of "Masscult and Midcult" (1960), the conservative social critic damns her work as part of a massive "parody of High Culture" and the descendant of "'servant-girl romances.'" Ferber was masscult personified because of her mastery of the modern mass media (Hollywood), her status as a best seller, and her "indifference" to critics like him. But like many advocates of high culture, MacDonald seemed ambiguous about the standards that define American "art."
Some critics appreciated the energy, vitality, and unique Americanness of the new "arts," including Gilbert Seldes and filmmaker Charles Chaplin, self-proclaimed "high lowbrows." In later years, the influence of postmodernist deconstructive criticism undermined the canons of critics like Greenberg and MacDonald. Once-reviled popular female novelists like Fannie Hurst are now studied as part of courses in literature and film studies. Academic engagements with film noir during the 1980s and 1990s elevated Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to artistic genius and even made Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer thriller I, the Jury a subject of serious criticism. For at least half a century, there has been widespread interest in rediscovering formerly spurned works of mass culture, whose authors compete in American studies courses with former icons of high culture like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Cather. Ferber, however, continues to be ignored, largely because she is not, contrary to MacDonald, a true emblem of masscult. She is a much more dangerous writer: a middlebrow.
Ferber's historical research and writing, her popularity with critics like White and William Lyon Phelps, Hollywood's prestigious adaptations of her work, mark her as the consummate middlebrow. As Joan Shelley Rubin notes, middlebrows are not popular in the bifurcated world of American cultural criticism. Academics "have thus reified and perpetuated the conventional dichotomy between 'high' and 'popular' culture, overlooking the interaction that went on between the two." Middlebrows retain some of the nineteenth century's faith in literary standards, intellectual argument, and Victorian self-improvement. During the first few decades after the First World War, they even created canons of their own in journals like the Saturday Review and institutions like the Book-of-the-Month Club, making high culture accessible to the public. The Book-of-the-Month Club, launched in 1926, helped make Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant best sellers. Middlebrow culture was not always such an unpopular topic. Van Wyck Brooks was perhaps the first American critic to call for "a genial middle ground" between elitism and low materialism in American culture. Women, as Margaret Widdemer writes in "Message and Middlebrow" (1933), were the backbone of this group. They were the majority of the readers who supported culture by buying books and attending lectures. They would become Ferber's major audience.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the gender demographics of Ferber's American film audiences, several critics, including Tino Balio and Steve Neale, have noted the connection between "prestige" filmmaking and women's films produced during the studio era. Ferber's adapted works arguably represented the apex of this important production area. But it was not just Ferber's Pulitzer Prize and the admiration of populist critics like William Allen White that set her above female novelists like Marcia Davenport, Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Fannie Hurst, and Kathleen Winsor. Critics of Ferber's generation believed that her status as a serious American historical novelist and social critic set her apart from other best-selling writers. Her tendency to write about traditionally "masculine" historical topics like the American West also helped her win over male audiences and prevented critics from labeling Ferber adaptations "weepies" or "women's melodrama." Many of her staunchest supporters acknowledged Ferber's powerful female protagonists and female fan base but insisted that she was a national writer whose historical material transcended gender.
Similarly, though Ferber was proud of her Jewish heritage and spoke at length in her autobiographies about early confrontations with anti-Semitism during her midwestern childhood and later sojourns as a reporter and writer in Chicago, New York, and Europe, the protagonists of her historical novels are not Jewish Americans. While respected female Jewish American writers like Emma Lazarus and Anzia Yezierska combined narratives about Jewish culture and family with themes of assimilation and American identity, Ferber's characters are largely secular Christians. Although sympathetic Jewish characters like Schultzy (Show Boat) and Sol Levy (Cimarron) populate her American landscape, she did not write ethnic American histories about Jews. Instead, she subsumed her American Jewish "outsider" identity and heritage in dramas involving discrimination against mixed-race, Native, African, and Mexican Americans. But in writing principally about the history of ordinary American women, Ferber retained another dimension of her identity as an American outsider (that is, as a working woman), channeled and marketed it to a wider and undoubtedly more sympathetic reading and viewing audience. If, as Ferber believed, America was "the Jew among nations," then women were Ferber's chosen people. In 1963, she argued that women "have had to be smarter in order to survive . . . They are smarter for the same reason that Jews are often considered smarter than non-Jews. Hounded and bedeviled and persecuted, granted few rights and fewer privileges, they learned—the rejected Female and the rejected Jew—perforce to see through the back of their heads as well as through the front of their heads."
Although Edna Ferber's America was a history of its outsiders and was often fiercely critical of the white male establishment, her supporters promoted her as an American institution. In 1954, Vincent Starrett of the New York Herald Tribune defined her as America's preeminent historical novelist and admired her impact on Hollywood: "For Miss Ferber is first of all an exciting story-teller." Her novels are "sentimental, pictorial, and resistlessly 'readable'. (I am sorry for critics who find these virtues negligible!) But they are realistic, too, when realism is called for; and they contain a social criticism that hasty readers do not catch. Above all, I would painstakingly point out, they are American; for Miss Ferber is one of the most enthusiastically American of contemporary novelists." Starrett defended Ferber as both a consummate storyteller and an incisive historian. Yet here was the great irony: the historical perspective that distinguished Ferber from other writers also undermined her authority as a serious historian and novelist.
Women and the Historical Tradition
Though Ferber's popularity as a historical novelist and her ability to master various forms of twentieth-century media are unrivalled in her own generation of writers, American women had a long history as best-selling authors during the nineteenth century. This was in part due to their status as consumers of culture after 1850. As literary historians Nina Baym and Ann Douglas have pointed out, American women led the publishing market throughout the nineteenth century. Elite writers with abstruse literary qualities like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne may dominate critical appraisals of American fiction during the nineteenth century, but it was female authors who truly approached the modern concept of a best seller. As Baym writes, "It is widely agreed that since the middle of the nineteenth century, no book can hope for popular success if it does no attract large numbers of women readers, because women were and are the majority of readers in America."
Women's fiction usually tells the story of a young woman who has to make her own way in the world without the usual familial, social, or economic supports to cling to. They are stories of struggle, success, and accomplishment—even if, quite often, though not always, the ultimate accomplishment and conclusion of the tale is a happy marriage. But most of the novel deals with the heroine's struggle to conquer an insecure, indifferent, and even hostile world. As Ann Douglas writes, "Sentimental 'domestic novels' written largely by women for women dominated the literary market in America from the 1840s through the 1880s. Middle-class women became in a very real sense the consumers of literature. The stories they read and wrote were themselves courses in the shopping mentality, exercises in euphemism essential to the system of flattery which served as the rationale for the American woman's economic position." But as Nina Baym argues, many more show women working and achieving within the capitalist system—a path that Ferber would later take.
Ferber read voraciously as a young woman, and it is very likely that Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850) was one of her early influences. The book was the first of the best-selling domestic novels about the unwillingness of a young girl (Ellen Montgomery) to participate in wide world of economic competition. Ellen's father is an ineffectual man who loses both a lawsuit and his income, so Ellen must work. Ironically, something similar happened to Ferber when her father, Jacob, an unsuccessful storekeeper, went blind. Although her mother, Julia, tried to run the business, take care of her husband, and raise her two girls, Ferber's dreams of finishing college and attending dramatic school were over. She went to work as a reporter, and turned novelist and short story writer when a brief illness prevented her from continuing her reporting job. The savior of the Ferber family finances was another single working woman, Emma McChesney. Emma and later Selina Peake in So Big, Magnolia in Show Boat, and Sabra in Cimarron went to work when the traditional patriarchal structures failed—but these women thrived on the experiences.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's The Minister's Wooing (1869) contained a precedent for Cimarron's relationship between Yancey and Sabra. The heroine, Mary Scudder, also must fend for herself. As Douglas writes, "It is the men in her world who are, economically, at best unreliable, at worst downright shiftless." Mary's mother supported a visionary but profligate father. Later, she and her mother look after the local minister, who cannot take care of himself or his flock. "Mrs. Stowe is offering an economic critique here, if a symbolic one," Douglas argues. "The male poets and preachers think while their women work." This pairing of a weak man with a strong woman would become the mainstay of Ferber's America. But Ferber's closest connection to Stowe was through Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). After the publication of Show Boat, critics frequently linked Ferber's name with Harriet Beecher Stowe's. The first half of Ferber's novel is structured around the exposure of a mixed-race actress during the postbellum South. This woman, Julie Laverne, is the heroine's best friend and confidante, and the rest of the novel resonates with their physical, cultural, and spiritual closeness. The references to Stowe continued with Giant's revelation of contemporary Jim Crow laws in Texas, although many irate Texans used Stowe's name as a curse rather than a compliment. Filmmakers also saw her as Stowe's heir. Henry Pollard, who had directed the lavish 1927 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin for Universal, was assigned to direct the first production of Show Boat, in 1928. In early 1944, producer Arthur Hornblow was planning another remake of Uncle Tom's Cabin (with Paul Robeson), and agent Leland Hayward reported, "He and I were talking about writers for it and I said the one perfect person in the world to write it would be Edna Ferber. He agrees entirely."
Ferber's novels also commanded a social power akin to Stowe's. The story of President Lincoln and Stowe's first meeting, in which he credited her book with precipitating the Civil War, is well known. But Ferber's presentation of prejudice against Mexican Americans prompted some prominent Texans to attack the book, undercut its reviews in major periodicals like the Saturday Review, insinuate that the author was a communist, and even censor George Stevens's film in its Latin American runs. Later, Ferber's writing on Alaskan race relations and the exploitation of the territory had a direct influence on the congressional decision to grant statehood. Governor Ernest Gruening would later call Ice Palace "the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the crusade for statehood."
Stowe allegedly did a great deal of historical research on American slavery, but her 1852 best seller was not a historical novel but a contemporary melodrama. While many of the nineteenth-century best sellers were contemporary novels about good conduct and self-sacrifice, a few very prominent women made their names as writers of historical fiction, including Lydia Child (Hobomok, 1824; The Rebels, 1825), Catharine Sedgwick (Hope Leslie, 1827; The Linwoods, 1835), and Helen Hunt Jackson (Ramona, 1884). These writers created heroic female protagonists. In addition, like Ferber's future work, Hobomok and Hope Leslie both deal with women's relations with other exploited minority groups; Hope Leslie even rescues a young Native American woman from prison. Helen Hunt Jackson created a powerful mixed Native American heroine, something Ferber would develop in Cimarron and Ice Palace.
Although many female novelists of contemporary fiction raised the tone of their romantic quests with discourses on theology and morality, these were subjects long associated with the "women's sphere." Even Stowe's unique use of a serious political issue in Uncle Tom's Cabin was cushioned within a sentimental morality tale with exaggerated, melodramatic characters and situations. In contrast, history drew a select group of novelists into a realm hitherto dominated by men; history was a means of "elevating" the cultural value of women's literature, though, as Bonnie Smith points out, female historians suffered constantly under male charges of incompetence and amateurish research and writing: "Amateur writing came to be seen as in some way fit for women—women who made their living by writing for the marketplace, outside the more exclusive professional institutions of history. This kind of market-driven work was interpreted by later professionals as base, catering to low reading tastes, and distinct from the high-quality work of affluent men outside the academy. Women were the quintessential amateurs, who dealt with the market; men, the appropriate professionals, who served more lofty ends." Like her predecessors, Ferber would also use the historical novel to her advantage, capitalizing on the middlebrow trend for cultural elevation. Doubleday's publicity and syndicated interviews emphasized the meticulous historical research behind the best-selling narratives. Ferber's intellectual, high-culture cachet was dependent upon her use of American history, but ironically, she would suffer at the hands of critics who attacked both her lack of literary style and overly "colorful," hybrid, amateur women's history.
This disdain for female historians and historical novelists dates from at least the late nineteenth century. When Ferber was born, in 1886, the American historical profession was undergoing a serious transformation. More and more, male writers of history were consolidating the writing of history as a masculine profession. Women had long been respected national historians. Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the America Revolution (1805) was published in multiple editions, and Martha Lamb, author of The History of the City of New York (1877-1881) and editor of the Magazine of American History, was one of the most widely read historians of her generation. But with the redefinition of history as a "professional" rather than a "popular" field, women were increasingly robbed of their historical authority. They were excluded from universities, denied access to archives, and refused membership in learned historical societies. Scientific, Rankean-derived historiography demanded endless facts and archival research and tended to focus on the "masculine" realms of diplomatic and political history. Underlying this national reconstruction of the profession was a veneration of the great male life. Female historians lacked the credentials for such work, and because of their propensity to examine social and cultural history, they were dismissed as popular, unreliable historians.
Douglas argues that female historians and historical novelists have suffered greater professional exclusion in the United States than in Europe because "in a country like America whose historical identity rests on a short series of self-conscious crises, the exclusion of women from the historical life of the culture is particularly acute. American history does not reach back into an irrecoverable past; hence it nowhere takes on in retrospect the aspect of process which interweaves it inexorably with social life. We have marble busts of all our great leaders . . . men keep public records; women seldom figure in them, much less keep them." But female historians often rejected both the style and content of these rigid patriarchal narratives, writing historical novels that "express discreetly veiled hostility to the very history they were apparently extolling." While Catherine Sedgwick created fearless, unconventional fictional heroines, female historians pursued social and cultural history as a historiographic antidote to great men and endless battles.
By 1900, women were not only infiltrating the American Historical Association and low-level university positions across the country, but also writing popular and professional history and historical fiction that conflicted with both areas of masculine historiography: the dry, ivory-tower lists of facts and the popular heroic masculine biography. Women impacted American history at every level—as elementary school teachers, journalists, and novelists. Julie Des Jardins comments, "Often their bottom-up methods for the dissemination of social and cultural history mirrored their insightful methods of historical analysis. As marginal figures to the historical profession, many represented pasts of Americans marginalized by race, class, ethnicity, or gender in ways that scholars have little acknowledged." Women were more inclined to take a critical historical perspective: "Whereas men often viewed the American past superficially as one of perpetual progress, these women peeled back the layers to see it as a patterned prevailing of power."
In 1917, historian and educator Lucy Salmon speculated in What Is Modern History? that recent nativist paranoia instigated by patriotic groups revealed the prevailing ignorance of ethnic history in American schools. The history of America, Salmon argues, is a narrative of racial and ethnic mixture: "How can we deal with the melting pot in America unless we know that races have always mingled and intermingled? . . . I have always felt that our great strength as a nation has come from the mingling of the many races." Ferber was not the only historical writer to share Salmon's perspective on the American past. During the 1920s and 1930s, female historians increasingly focused on issues of race, gender, and national history. Native American historians Angie Debo and Mari Sandoz and women's historian Mary Beard were Ferber's ivory-tower equivalents, exposing the racist practices of the federal government and the patriarchal structures of American history.
But though Beard was fairly well known through her collaborative histories with husband Charles Beard (The Rise of American Civilization, 1927), her individual work was not as widely read. Debo was next to unknown until her death. In contrast, Ferber had a readership numbering hundreds of thousands. However, both Mari Sandoz and Ferber traded on their historical hybridity on many levels. Like Ferber, Sandoz specialized in highlighting controversial aspects of American social history, reaching many mainstream readers. Like many of Ferber's historical novels, Sandoz's Old Jules (1935) was a "middlebrow" selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. But while Ferber's historical fiction covers a broad landscape of racial, ethnic, and gendered conflicts, Sandoz focuses on the experience of Native American men in imaginative biographies and social histories, setting Native American masculinity in opposition to the dominant narratives of the white West. As Suzanne Clark notes, "In book after book about the Great Plains during the Cold War, Sandoz promoted a revulsion against assimilating national high-handedness, questioned the recording of Western history, and promoted sympathy for the alternative histories of the American Indian." In spite of Sandoz's harsh critiques of the U.S. government, Old Jules (1935), Crazy Horse (1941), and Cheyenne Autumn (1953) reached wide audiences, and ten years after its publication, when pro-Native American westerns were more fashionable, John Ford filmed Cheyenne Autumn (1964) with actor Richard Widmark. Both Ferber and Sandoz wrote counternarratives of the American West that reached mainstream audiences, and Sandoz's work on Cheyenne Autumn arguably influenced Ferber in the last decade of her working life.
But Ferber's closest friendship with another female historian was with Margaret Leech (Mrs. Ralph "Peg" Pulitzer), whose work on postwar Washington won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 and 1960. Although Ferber and Leech corresponded regularly throughout their lives, they did not discuss American history, social criticism, or their books. True, they had different historical interests; Leech was primarily a political historian and a biographer of prominent American men. Ferber chose to keep her thoughts about American history and the role played by women and minorities in its development to herself—with one major exception. She communicated her historical vision to Hollywood.
Edna Ferber's Hollywood
Ferber's novels and Hollywood's adaptations of her work confront the major issues facing American identity and society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the disappearance of the frontier, the rise of immigration, the ongoing exploitation of women and racial and ethnic minorities, the crisis of historical relativism, and the nation's enduring fascination with its own past. Ferber herself was bewitched by America's history and what she saw as its "violent, varied . . . insular, spectacular" qualities. In many ways, Ferber remained a nineteenth-century American, her progressive political and social attitudes coexisting with a modern, critical perspective on the past and a mastery of the postwar media. But her historical perspective was always controversial.
This book contextualizes Ferber's work and her cinematic legacy within four historiographic areas: the roles of American women in history, literature, and cinema; classic and more recent perspectives on mixed-race Americans; Hollywood's commitment to American historical filmmaking; and finally and most crucially, classical Hollywood's long-term investment in the adaptation of her work. Edna Ferber's Hollywood locates the writer's reputation and impact on Hollywood through an intertextual historical analysis of her writing, literary publicity, reception and criticism, legal negotiations and contracts, private letters, interviews, annotated screenplays, production correspondence, studio publicity, audience previews, national critical reception, and, where possible, domestic and foreign box-office reports. While the writing of history is itself an exercise in adaptation, Ferber's career pushed the meaning of the term to its modern media limits. Her revisionist historical novels were in turn adapted and reenvisioned by countless Hollywood filmmakers in multiple remakes that added new layers of cultural context, historical argument, and images of American race and womanhood to her original narratives.
Edna Ferber's Hollywood is not a traditional literary biography or analysis of Hollywood adaptation. Each chapter focuses upon one or two of Ferber's historical novels and the subsequent film versions, and these do proceed in sequence according to the books' initial publication dates. The structure is not intended to give priority to the literary text over the subsequent film versions, as do many traditional adaptation studies. Indeed, such a structure would hardly suit Ferber, a writer distinctly outside the canons of American literature and historiography—and proud of her status. As I argue here, Ferber's writing cannot be considered in isolation from Hollywood and its complex networks of projecting and marketing American history. Each chapter explores a unique set of critical and historical contexts that impacted the historical narratives.
In addition, each chapter is deeply connected to a particular aspect of historiography, literature, and social history affecting the American West and South. Ferber and Hollywood shared a biregional historical vision of America. While the cinematic preoccupation with the West and the South has produced its share of ideologically conservative, misogynistic, and racist historical films, Hollywood's commitment to Ferber represented a large investment in American counterhistories. With this in mind, I have organized the first few chapters to alternate between the revisionist westerns So Big (Chapter Two) and Cimarron (Chapter Four), on the one hand, and the equally revisionist southern-belle epic Show Boat (Chapter Three), on the other, until Chapter Five, which examines both the frontier history of Come and Get It and Saratoga Trunk's mixture of western and southern themes. In Chapter Six, Giant integrates the two regional perspectives with the Jim Crow treatment of Mexican Americans. It is significant for me to end the book with Ice Palace, not only because it was Ferber's last book and the last Warner Bros. film that came out of their historic partnership, but also because Ice Palace's history as a cultural entity links the theme of the end of the frontier with the dying Hollywood studio system.
Part of Ferber's uniqueness certainly lay in her ability to connect the revisionist historical trends in American social and cultural historiography during the first half of the twentieth century with the cultural power of Hollywood. She was, in many ways, the ultimate middlebrow, mediating the worlds of traditional and revisionist history, history and fiction, high art and mass culture. Edna Ferber's America was inherently multiracial and multiethnic; it was a woman's as well as a man's country; it was struggle, conflict, intrigue, disillusionment, poverty, and racism. Edna Ferber's Hollywood was a testimony to the power, challenges, and contradictions of middlebrow culture. The filmmakers capitalized on the historical prestige of a Ferber adaptation, carefully presenting the historical authority of a woman, a novelist, and a Jew. Her critical perspectives on the past, race, and gender also fit with Hollywood's own ambition to produce a national historical genre that appealed to women.
Although essentially an American author, Ferber's fan base was international. Fellow Doubleday writer and fan Rebecca Reyher wrote to her shortly after the run of Giant, quoting a woman from Ceylon: "'It's a story that appeals to Ceylon. The rich Benedict family, thinking themselves better than everyone else coming down in the world. The poor man getting ahead, and the son marrying an Indian girl, and the brown baby being the one to carry on the family name!'" Reyher continued, "They ought to have a revival of Show Boat here regularly, they would eat it up in all the coloured countries." The dramas of race, gender, and nation appealed to women around the globe. Yet like so many American female historians and novelists, Edna Ferber's fame and legacy have been disparaged by a misogynistic critical culture. It may seem surprising that Hollywood, often defined as a hegemonic culture industry driven by male fantasies, should have championed Ferber's work for so long. Perhaps Hollywood's reputation, like Edna Ferber's, demands a new perspective.