Welcome back to Common Careers! I know that it’s been a minute since we visited with Bryher and Lois, but…Film noir festivals must be attended and attended to. And what fun they are! Now, after exploring the dark streets of desperation and criminality, I am back to showcase the lives and work of the unique and creative women in film history. My hope is to try to post this column on a more regular basis than I have been primarily since locating these women’s stories and their critical influence on the world and film industry can be somewhat difficult. This is a necessary task and I am more than willing to take on some of the responsibility, so let’s get back to business.
Unlike previous profiles, this entry is geared specifically to an upcoming event. I am an annual participant in the TCM Film Festival and have been so for five years: the entirety of its existence. Due to this fact, I thought it might be nice to write-up one of the women who has made a contribution to one of this year’s films. Since I always find it more exciting to look into the slightly more obscure characters in film history, I thought this would be a great opportunity to shed some light on another fascinating female figure in film and allow folks at the festival to watch her creative work a bit differently. So here we go, down the way of cinema’s path, to find one of the women who helped forge some of the more beloved roles and stories in Hollywood: Fannie Hurst.
Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1889 to an immigrant Jewish family. Her parents, Rose Koppel Hurst and Samuel Hurst, were never the kind of parents to support their daughter in her writing ambitions or any kind of creative intent. Raised in St Louis, Missouri, Fannie discovered her love for the written word early and submitted short stories and articles to magazines all during high school but didn’t get anything published until college. Indeed, her intense passion for writing got her into some trouble before she was even able to make it to higher education. In high school, Fannie had no qualms about writing term papers in exchange for math answers from high school classmates. This little “swap” almost caused Fannie’s expulsion!
Hurst had many jobs in her lifetime aside from her most famous one as a writer- salesgirl, waitress, actress, night court attendee, factory worker (to study coworkers, of course!) and television talk show/public affairs program host. Fannie Hurst was no regular gal. Aside from being a woman who knew how to make ends meet, by 1925, she and Booth Tarkington were the highest paid writers in the United States.
Of course, Fannie Hurst’s writing was not everyone’s cuppa. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book, The Other Side of Paradise, one of his characters makes a statement that lists various authors (naming our heroine as one) as “not producing among ‘em one story or novel that will last 10 years.” People felt her literature was too “corny” and she was referred to as the Queen of the Sob Sisters (although not in an altogether unfriendly way). Almost to disprove Fitzgerald’s theory of course, here we are, 100 years later and although almost all of Hurst’s books are tragically out of print, we are indeed still discussing her work. And to add to this, the films that were borne from her writing have most certainly not been forgotten. In fact, they play remarkably well and some are treasured cinematic classics. What a curious point about adaptation and media. It does strike a peculiar point about Fannie Hurst’s gift for the dramatic: did Hurst’s ability to comprehend pure emotional resonance in characters work better for visual media than for the written word? It is a conundrum and perhaps we will never know, but we might consider the possibility.
Fannie Hurst was heavily critiqued for her prose, grammar and style. Yet she was also immensely popular. Over a career that spanned more than fifty years, she wrote seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, three plays, numerous articles, and had 33 filmic adaptations of her written works. Everyone from Doris Day and Frank Sinatra to John Garfield and Joan Crawford starred in those films, and a few of them did more than just entertain, much like Fannie Hurst herself.
The work that has been made and remade the most is her novel Imitation of Life, originally published in 1933. The first film version made in 1934, due to show at the TCM Film Festival this upcoming week, features the lustrous Claudette Colbert and the deeply talented Louise Beavers. The two actresses play single mothers raising their children together, learning how to become entrepreneurs and end up facing the ugly and distasteful world of racism. The film also confronts rare issues of skin color and topics like “passing” at a time when absolutely no film script was.
Before this film, Louise Beavers was a well-known African American actress in Hollywood, but generally known for playing the “mammy” stereotype. In Imitation of Life, Beavers became the first African American actress to give a “non-Mammy” role. By playing the part of Delilah alongside Colbert’s Bea, they created an interracial female team of womanly strength in this film, unlike anything that had been seen before. One of the more potent assets of this film directed by John M. Stahl is Louise Beavers’ portrayal of Delilah. In 1934, just the concept of giving an African American woman a part this dynamic and rich that was on par to a Hollywood starlet such as Colbert was unheard of.
Imitation of Life deals with several topics that were not considered “Hollywood safe” at the time- racial relations, single women, and the idea of racial “passing.” Chief of the Production Code Administration Joseph Breen was extremely suspicious of this film, rejecting the original script and calling out “miscegenation.” However, at the end of the day, what was released did contain more of the original story. While both films are based on the same novel, more original Hurst-written Imitation is contained in the 1934 version than in the later 1959 version (starring Lana Turner and Juanita Moore).
The film has been remade several times over, turned into a television series and remained popular the world over. It is the one Hurst work that has genuinely changed the landscape of cinema. The National Film Registry selected the 1934 version for preservation in 2005 and it continues to be a valuable piece of moving image history when it comes to African American representation and strong examples of rich female characters in film. This is not the only thing that has established Fannie Hurst in the halls of greatness but if this had been the only thing she had done, it would have been enough.
Hurst did not write this “just because.” Imitation was apparently inspired by a trip to Canada taken with close friend and confidente Zora Neale Hurston. One can only assume that what occurred during the voyage was less that satisfactory at times and struck Hurst in such a fashion that she felt inspired to write a tale involving race, passing and the ins and outs of what is involved in an interracial friendship. But this seemed to be par for the course in Hurst’s personal affairs.
Fannie Hurst’s life was as unusual as her writing was prolific. Convincing her parents that she was going to go to graduate school in New York after graduating from Washington University in 1909, she moved there and never attended Columbia as promised. Although she never made it to graduate school, her work in politics and feminism more than made up for any advanced degree. Marrying Russian pianist Jacques Danielson in 1915, the couple maintained separate dwellings, told no one of the wedding until 1920, and had an arrangement with one another to renew their vows every five years…but only if both parties agreed.
Fannie Hurst was one of the original members of what was called the Lucy Stone League. Founded in 1921, it was a women’s rights organization that primarily encouraged women to keep their maiden names upon marriage. This group began with the advocation of keeping surnames post-marriage and expanded, essentially challenging “state and federal laws that allowed a woman to be seen as a commodity belonging to her husband, laws that allowed her to be beaten and denied her property or inheritance.”
Although it has been well documented that she had at least one affair with Canadian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, Hurst was most dedicated to her husband. Married for 37 years, Danielson passed away in 1952. Upon Hurst’s death in 1968, 16 years worth of letters were discovered in her house, all of which were written to her long-gone life partner after his death. There’s something sadly romantic about that. It certainly matches the tone of her fiction.
But Fannie Hurst was more than the Lucy Stone League. She became great friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, supporting the New Deal and chairing a national housing committee from 1936-1937. She raised funds for WWII refugees and was a member on the board of the New York Urban League. A delegate to the World Health Organization in 1952, she was also part of a group called the Friendly Visitors, women who regularly volunteered in a New York women’s prison. When Fannie became entangled with Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1962 and he stated, “that it is time that we evaluated Women on merit and fitness for a job,” her quick response was, “Time sir! You are a half century too late.”
Her contribution to the moving image media world was not solely made through the adaptation of literary works. Beginning in 1958, Hurst hosted a talk show called Showcase that featured public affairs panels and social issue-based interviews. Showcase was one of the first television forums in which the gay and lesbian community was invited to speak on their own behalf instead of being given the third degree or being treated as though they were a science project. Most previous television appearances of homosexual men or women featured them being studied or questioned as though they existed within a fishbowl or were a group to be “dealt with” by a panel of specialists.
Hurst’s breakthrough show was not as popular as one might have hoped. While Fannie Hurst’s support of the gay and lesbian community was unfailing (and had been so for years), the television stations were not all game for this content. While her fame certainly had some cache, it didn’t outweigh rampant homophobia. Showcase was cancelled several times by more than one station, finally ending for good after a year. As Steven Capsuto writes, “Hurst had contentious disagreements with station managers over her insistence on presenting panel discussions about homosexuality, and these broadcasts may have contributed to the cancellations. When the second station, New York’s Channel 13, axed the show definitively in 1959, Hurst had begun devoting one show a week to the subject of homosexuality. The final Showcase broadcast focused on same-sex desire among teenagers.”
While Fannie Hurst may have been called Queen of the Sob Sisters and criticized for her writerly techniques, her success is undeniable. Films like Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas, 1954), Humoresque (Jean Negulesco, 1946), and both versions of Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934, Douglas Sirk, 1959) show the way in which her written word had the ability to be converted to graceful, touching and enjoyable film work. Although modern temperance for melodrama may have lessened in the last 75 years, Hurst’s ability to catalyze real emotion and make an audience feel for a character remain altogether genuine. And in an environment where the vast majority of filmic content produced has a certain level of smarminess or “ironic nudging” there is something very fresh and real about a woman who just wanted to tell a good old-fashioned tearjerker tale.
Fannie Hurst’s life and everything she managed to do with it makes her a marvel. What a treasure it is that we can say that she is part of our history of women in film.