Off the Cutting Room Floor:
Hollywood Editor Barbara ‘Bobbie’ McLean
by J.E. Smyth
Film historians are gradually coming to terms with the substantial number of women involved in the Hollywood film industry during the twentieth century, yet recent research focuses on directors, actresses, and screenwriters from the silent era. Few realise how many of the ‘classic’ films of the studio era (1920-1960) were edited by women. These female editors frequently put a rough cut together with little or no input from the director, and often the editor’s rough cut became the final cut seen by audiences. Film history traditionally focuses on the director as author, constructor, and enunciator of the cinematic language, but for decades, Margaret Booth, Adrienne Fazan, Jane Loring, Barbara McLean, Blanche Sewell, Anne Bauchens, Viola Lawrence, Irene Morra, and Rose Smith were writing with celluloid and scissors. Their stories have been edited from the history of American cinema familiar to most fans, students, and critics.
I am currently heading a British Academy-funded research project on the history of women’s work in the Hollywood film industry from 1913 to 1963, entitled ‘The Organisation Woman’. The project will not only attempt the first major assessment of women’s employment in Hollywood from the early days of feature filmmaking through the “golden” studio era, but will also focus on women within the film industry who articulated shifting attitudes toward gender, work, and power. Barbara McLean (1903-1996), who edited 64 films between 1929 and 1955 and had 7 Academy Award nominations, is one of my stars.
McLean was born for the job. Her father ran a film lab in New Jersey at the E.K. Lincoln Studio, and she worked there during her vacations from school. She was later hired by Harold Young, Alexander Korda’s film editor, and worked as his assistant at First National. When Warner Bros. took over the company, she lost her job and went to work for Mary Pickford on Coquette (1930). She remembered “With seven cameras grinding, my God, we did everything … I could get into every department …You’d go on the scoring stage when they’d do the music, to see what he would be doing. You know, to know that everything was going to fit. Each thing you learned a little bit more.” She adored Pickford, and went on to work for Samuel Goldwyn at UA on The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). He “was a perfectionist” and working at UA was like being in a family “so naturally you worked like mad because you loved every bit of it.”
In between pictures, she asked Ed Eberle to hire her on a new production at Twentieth Century Pictures, The Bowery (1934). There was a strike toward the end of the picture, and so McLean went on strike. When it was over, they didn’t want to hire her back or give her credit for the work, even though she had done the balance of the picture. Alan McNeil, who took over from her, told (Darryl F.) Zanuck he wanted her back. As McLean remembered, “They all called me ‘Bobbie’, so Zanuck said, ‘Get him back, get him back’ thinking I was a boy.” Although Fox actress Celeste Holm said Zanuck had a problem with strong women, DFZ adjusted easily to the fact that his best editor was a woman, and gave her Gallant Lady (1935) to edit by herself. But it was Les Miserables (1935) that earned her first Oscar nomination. Zanuck trusted her judgment so much she even directed bits of Affairs of Cellini (1935) after Gregory LaCava left for Europe. They spent long hours in the editing room together, going over every detail. But most of the time, even when they disagreed, Zanuck would listen to Bobbie (he even asked her to choose whether Tyrone Power or Don Ameche starred in Lloyds of London, so fans owe McLean for launching one of Fox’s biggest stars). “I’ve always been pretty fortunate in being able to put the picture in the first cut as I saw fit,” she said, and when she thought things were missing, told directors to reshoot scenes or shoot additional close-ups. She had a long and productive collaboration with director Henry King and would discuss potential problems in the script from early on, staying on the set and watching for holes in set-ups and continuity. She also helped Joseph Mankiewicz make up his mind on a number of key sequences in All About Eve (1950).
Film critics have often said her work with Zanuck at Fox was more a ‘corporate signature’ than personal style, but this is only lingering sour grapes from those who still cling to directors as the only creators of film art. McLean dismissed attempts to see her career in a feminist light, only remarking that the women she knew worked harder than anyone and “Why do you think that the film editors who are women, who have been in it since I’ve been in it, are the best in the business? Why? Because you had to be good or you wouldn’t get there.”
J.E. Smyth is Reader in History at the University of Warwick (UK) and directs the History and Film Masters Programme. She is the author of Reconstructing American Historical Cinema from Cimarron to Citizen Kane (2006), Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (2009), Hollywood and the American Historical Film (ed., 2012), and Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance (2014).