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Behind the Scenes: Women Film Editors

Women have worked behind the scenes in the film industry for far too long. There is little recognition for the hard-working women editors in the history of Hollywood, however, this article aims to bring the women behind-the-scenes to light. Acknowledgement and involvement within the movie industry are increasingly improving: nevertheless, the founding women film cutters struggled to be seen. According to data analysis of the entertainment industry, "[i]n 2019, the percentages of behind-the-scenes women working on the top 100 and 250 (domestic) grossing films increased, reaching recent historic highs" (Lauzen, 2020, p. 1). There are men who wish to maintain their predominance within the film industry. Despite this, women are managing to gain a vital role in cinema. Before talking about the present, it is important to recognize the past unsung mothers of editing.



The Beginning

Film editing makes movies; in fact, it is vital to all cinema. Editing involves the splicing of film, digitally or by hand, to join adjacent shots together (Bordwell, 2017, p. 217). It is, actually, the artful way with which these shots are combined in accordance with continuity that allows the film to achieve a smooth or abrupt texture. Continuity was developed between 1900 and 1910 to give storylines a clear, continuous flow, which was welcomed by filmmakers around the world (Bordwell, 2017, p. 230). Editing can be used to connect shots together, to create a graphic match. This entails connecting similar shots through "[s]hapes, colors, overall composition or movement in a shot" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 220). This adds continuity to the story and creates a seamless video for the audience. Other editing techniques include: the cut ("an instantaneous change from one shot to another [...] [to] produce more gradual changes"), fade-outs ("darkens the end of a shot to black"), fade-ins ("lightens a shot from black"), eyeline matches ("shot A presents someone looking at something offscreen and shot B shows us what is being looked at"), reestablishing shots ("reestablish[ing] the overall space that was analyzed"), and sound editing (Bordwell, 2017, pp. 217-234). Editing is essential to films and can cause a shot to be coherent or can be used to emphasize something specific (Bordwell, 2017, p. 218). Early film editors were predominantly hard-working women, whose job was to "[a]ssemble reels and [cut] negatives"; however, they took on a more direct role, combining shots in an artistic way, which became the most influential editing techniques people still use today (Hatch, 2013, p. 1). In 1888, these women were given the mundane task of editing because "retouching, printing, mounting, and colouring — are already acknowledged to be within the sphere of women's abilities" (Mahar, 2006, p. 20). Around 1909, women like Miss E. M. Martine were doing manual labour, given the task of tinting ("dipping the film strips in vats of dye") or individually hand painting the film strip (Mahar, 2006, p. 23). It was considered tedious; furthermore, women were forced into work, but that did not stop them from adding their inherent creativity to the screen. During the silent film era, women were nicknamed "cutters" because they physically cut film strips by hand (Wright, 2009, p. 8). They were used to "[screen] dailies with directors and producers to help decide what footage should be used, what [to] cut, and whether additional footage needed to be shot. They attended test screenings to determine where a film's pacing flagged, where the drama might be heightened with a close-up, or where a sequence needed to be cut" (Hatch, 2013, p. 2). They had invisible power as they could break the director's career through their footage (Hole, 2017, p. 282). This arduous job gave little credit; in fact, even some of the best women editors were only seen as an extension of their husbands or men coworkers. Such as "Agnès Guillemot [who] edited the majority of Godard's films in the 1960s [...]; yet, she is completely omitted from the documentary. James Smith is credited as D. W. Griffith's editor, but the documentary gives only brief mention of Rose Smith, his wife, despite her own 20-year career as an editor in which she edited 11 Griffith films, including Birth of a Nation [1915] and Intolerance [1916]", and the list goes on (Wright, 2009, p. 8). Women were perceived as objects by men and not given many opportunities (Thornham, 2009, p. 9). Due to sexist views held collectively in early films, women editors never achieved the recognition they deserved. Although this is beginning to evolve in modern entertainment, this article aims to bring the names of these outstanding women of the past to light.



Margaret Booth

One of the most unheard-of genius editors was Margaret Booth. She started her career as a negative cutter, working for D. W. Griffith around 1915 (Hatch, 2013, pp. 2-3). Her job entailed matching similar frames in the negatives, at a time before they were numbered on the edges, which "was difficult, time-consuming, and intricate, which perhaps explains why it fell so often to women. Key numbers, or edge numbers, finally made it easier to match each frame of a print to its corresponding frame on the negative", though she had initially done this task with her eyes (Hatch, 2013, p. 3). Booth had not only an eye for continuity but also knew when to do a close-up for a specific scene. Booth deemed that rhythm was essential to editing, and in 1924, before the Moviola editing machine had come out, she "ran the film on reels controlled by hand-cranked rewinds, through a small box that was set into a table and covered with frosted glass. A light bulb inside the box illuminated the film, which the cutter physically cut and glued back together by hand", finding rhythm within her hands (Hatch, 2013, pp. 3-4). When sound was added to movies, it became harder to cut shots, as there was little freedom to match shots to their synchronized soundtrack (Hatch, 2013, p. 5).


Figure 1: Photograph of Margaret Booth (1937).

The earliest sound films were edited by women like "Blanche Sewell [who] edited MGM's first sound film, [...] Viola Lawrence for Goldwyn [and] Barbara McLean edited Mary Pickford's first sound film, Coquette (1929)" (Hatch, 2013, p. 5). Most of the film recognition fell on the directors, but it was the editors who put scenes together in a perfect sequence with minimal input and who made the final cut of the movie. Women like "Margaret Booth (MGM), Adrienne Fazan (MGM), Barbara McLean (Fox), Dorothy Spencer (Fox), Eda Warren (Paramount), Jane Loring (RKO/MGM), Blanche Sewell (MGM), Anne Bauchens (Paramount), Viola Lawrence (Columbia), Monica Collingwood (Goldwyn), Eve Newman (MGM), Irene Morra (Fox/Warner Bros.), Eleanor Morra (Fox), Alma Macrorie (Paramount), Frances Marsh (MGM), Mary Steward (Fox), Lela Simone (MGM), and Helene Turner (Paramount) were writing with celluloid and scissors" (Hole, 2017, p. 281). Booth was, indeed, instrumental in filmmaking because of her attention to detail, as well as her rhythm, which gave the films she worked on their magic.



Mother Cutter

Verna Fields became enamored with film during World War II, when she met an assistant named Sam Fields (Meuel, 2016, p. 118). Fritz Lang, a director, noticed her in the studio and gave her an opportunity to work on sound editing in 1944 for his film, The Woman in the Window (Meuel, 2016, p. 118). Fields later became a part of the editor's union, daring to make her way into an area of moviemaking that was predominated by men (Meuel, 2016, pp. 118-122). Although Fields kept busy in her domain, working on TV projects and independent films throughout the '50s and '60s, she was not fully noticed until the '70s (Cale, 2019). She was influential during the 1970s era of "New Hollywood", helping Steven Spielberg edit the mess of Jaws (1975), for which she was awarded an Oscar (Meuel, 2016, p. 117). Fields thought it was amusing when people found out she had edited Jaws (1975), and this became an inspiring tale for women editors pursuing the same career (Meuel, 2016, p. 122). Fields was given the nickname "mother cutter" by a group of filmmakers she had worked with, including: "Peter Bogdanovich, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg" (Meuel, 2016, p. 117). Unlike Margaret Booth, Fields was known to play with editing instead of finding a specific rhythm,n for which she was awarded an oscar. At a lecture to the American Film Institute in 1975, she said, "[t]here’s a feeling of movement in telling a story and there is a flow. A cut that is off-rhythm will be disturbing and you will feel it, unless you want it to be like that. On Jaws [1975], each time I wanted to cut I didn’t, so that it would have an anticipatory feeling — and it worked" (Meuel, 2016, pp. 123-126). Fields went against the grain of traditional storytelling, which made her iconic in her department. In 2019, the Leeds International Film Festival honoured her work through film history, noting her unconventional editing style and determination, which made her work so special (Cale, 2019).


Figure 2: Photograph of Verna Fields (Kennedy, 1975).


Alma Hitchcock & Others

Many people know of the famous filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, but little is known about his wife, Alma. She was his biggest supporter and his hardest worker, doing most of his editing and critiques (Silet, 2003, p. 186). Alma would supervise his scripts and edit them, as well as provide feedback on his final edits (Silet, 2003, p. 186). She had worked on the memorable shower scene in Psycho (1960), as well as the music (Bordwell, 2017, p. 216). Alma was famous before Alfred, as she was successful in her editing career in early cinema, but she gave up her independent work to help him flourish (Silet, 2003, p. 186). There are, indeed, many unpraised women editors, especially during the 1920s-1960s, who crafted classics such as:

The Merry Widow (1925), Chicago (1927), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Camille (1937), I Married a Witch (1942), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Twelve O’Clock High (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), All About Eve (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Ten Commandments (1956), [which] are only a fraction (Hole, 2017, p. 280).

More unacknowledged women include: Barbara McLean, Nancy Naumburg, Anne Bauchens, among many others. Barbara McLean, also known as "Bobbie", was sought after because of her nickname, which caused directors to think she was a man (Hole, 2017, p. 280-285). McLean was Darryl F. Zanuck's "right hand in the editing room and [was] one of the only people who could persuade him that he was wrong" (Hole, 2017, pp. 282-283). She remained strong despite people being prejudiced against due to her gender, yet she still found camaraderie on set. In 1924, McLean edited professionally but was determined to be a part of the entire filming process, directing the directors as they shot. Working in juxtaposition with most editors who stayed in the editing room, McLean took it upon herself to be included in every aspect of filmmaking, from scripts to directing, and "often getting her own way" when she did (Hole, 2017, p. 283). McLean remains one of the most prolific creators of filmmaking to this day because of her stubborn nature and beautifully inventive mind.


Figure 3: Photograph of Alma Hitchcock (1956).


Conclusion

Other than shooting a film, editing remains the most daunting task when it comes to making a movie. Long hours are put into a single scene, which can be frustrating when women who have worked on these tasks are not given the credit they deserve. In a Hollywood film shot today, a "movie typically contains between 1,000 and 2,000 shots; an action movie can have 3,000 or more" (Bordwell, 2017, p. 216). Numerous hours are put into every movie, and yet it is still chiefly men who are reaping the rewards. In more recent times, Sally Menke edited all of Quentin Tarantino's films until she passed away in 2010 (Walters, 2010). Although their relationship was more than just work, as they had a strong affinity for one another, his films would be unusable without her, yet it is only his name that is recognized (Walters, 2010). There are a great deal of notable women editors today who go unseen, which remains unjust and causes women to doubt themselves in this career. If only women could gain the same recognition as men working in the industry do, cinema would be viewed as less of a hierarchy and more as the creative realm in which every story gets told. The future is constantly changing, and one day women editors must achieve being remembered and be celebrated in the same breath as directors.


Bibliographical References

Bordwell, D., et al. (2017). Film Art: An Introduction (11th Edition). McGraw-Hill Education.


Cale, A. (2019). Film: Mother cutter — Women who shaped film at #LIFF2019. The CULTURE VULTURE. Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://theculturevulture.co.uk/cultures/film-mother-cutter-women-who-shaped-film-at-liff2019/.


Hatch, K. (2013). Cutting Women: Margaret Booth and Hollywood’s Pioneering Female Film Editors. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, Columbia University Libraries. Doi: https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-t0y9-hv61.


Hole, L. K., et al. (2017). The Routledge companion to cinema and gender [eBook edition]. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315684062.


Lauzen, M. M. (2020). The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2019. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a6a1a1dcd39c3d4e52f5c35/t/5f072b2e669f462441fe7927/1594305329623/2019_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf.


Mahar, K. W. (2006). Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood [eBook edition]. The Johns Hopkins University Press. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=VoRog0VP0J0C&oi=fnd&pg=PP17&dq=women+hand+colouring+film+editors&ots=wMg6Fs7i2V&sig=cL8FYPqYHtafWDiIJ5VkBy1LdhE&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false.


Meuel, D. (2016). Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema [eBook edition]. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=XkwzDAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=women+editors+in+film&ots=Uw-3SXonL8&sig=NDS5yymuHaKWswHh2NoAf0gizEM&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=women%20editors%20in%20film&f=false.


Silet, C. (2003). Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man. Hitchcock Annual, pp. 186-191. https://www.proquest.com/docview/206526177?parentSessionId=W7cf4wmT6ALc%2FcUq2HTihmoqkYfmBT%2BLcnXx%2BYG2%2B9Q%3D&pq-origsite=primo&accountid=15182.


Thornham, S. (2009). Feminist Film Theory: A Reader [eBook edition]. New York University Press.

https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Dvk8DAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=women+editors+in+film&ots=gRGA6RApAw&sig=QX3JnIWPOnbW1L4J_jgeR90y8qo&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=women%20editors%20in%20film&f=false.


Walters, B. (2010). Sally Menke: The quiet heroine of the Quentin Tarantino success story. The Guardian. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2010/sep/29/sally-menke-quentin-tarantino-editor.


Wright, J. (2009). Making the Cut: Female Editors and Representation in the Film and Media Industry. UCLA: Center for the Study of Women. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0pz3k79s.

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