THE PRODUCER: Virginia Van Upp
In 1944, more than half of all Americans went to the movies every week, hungry for the glittering mirage of Hollywood. With so many men at war, the majority of audiences—factory girls and housewives, barmaids and nurses—were women. They eagerly consumed Bing Crosby musicals, Joan Crawford melodramas, and Tyrone Power swashbucklers. While the country survived on rations, the popularity of the film industry soared.
Keen to appeal to female moviegoers of the era, Harry Cohn, the notoriously brutish head of Columbia Studios, decided to hire an experienced screenwriter of “women’s pictures.” Her name was Virginia Van Upp, a tiny redhead who had unexpectedly ascended to the role of associate producer. Her male colleagues were aghast but Virginia had spent her entire life chasing a prominent creative role in the shark tank of the Hollywood system. She had worked as a child actress, a script girl, a film cutter, and finally as a writer for a decade-long stint at Paramount Studios. Her move from Paramount to Columbia would prove to be a lucrative career choice.
Her first screenplay Cover Girl was released that year, transposing a fairy tale onto the life of a Brooklyn showgirl, and it was a box office smash. The two leads — Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly — were on the cusp of bona fide movie stardom thanks to the film’s success.
Virginia’s terrain at Paramount had mostly been romantic comedies, but an independent, authorial voice shone through much of her work. “I know of more women taking care of no-good husbands and loafing brothers…” one of her characters spouts irritably. She wrote her career women with boyish names and serious professions; they were psychiatrists (She Wouldn’t Say Yes, 1945) entrepreneurs (Honeymoon in Bali, 1939), and even politicians (Together Again, 1944). As a writer, her greatest talent was for putting clever quips in the mouths of actresses such as Madeleine Carroll, Rosalind Russell, and Carole Lombard, who owed her some of their best moments.
This placed her in the perfect position to do work on Cover Girl. She made key costume decisions, collaborated with the star, and perhaps most importantly, mediated the always-tenuous relationship between Hayworth and Cohn. In fact, she so carefully supervised the details of the film that, according to a 1946 Screenland article, “it gave Mr. Cohn the idea that perhaps she could do a whole picture from start to finish.”
Between 1942 and 1944, the studio’s gross receipts leapt by millions of dollars. For the first time in Columbia’s history, their profit exceeded $2 million. With Cover Girl, Virginia had personally delivered Columbia Studios one of their biggest hits of the decade.
When Cohn decided he was going to promote someone in late 1944, the studio’s staff members were on their toes. According to biographer Bob Thomas, Cohn took sadistic delight in announcing his choice to a lunch table full of shocked, sullen male producers; Columbia’s new executive producer would be Virginia Van Upp. With the success of Cover Girl likely fresh in his mind, Cohn was thrilled to surprise the (apparently reluctant) Van Upp with the news. Others were less than thrilled. As Bob Thomas writes, “No one had conceived the possibility that the post would go to a woman.”
On announcement of the decision, one scathing article in the Sydney Morning Herald (amusingly titled “Threat to Male Supremacy: Hollywood Appoints Women Producers”) made a point of noting that a “middle-aged woman” would now be in charge of a large group of “male experts” at the studio. It added that the upward limit of her filmmaking budget would be a then-high 1 million dollars.
Cohn seemed typically unfazed by the whispers. Wartime audiences skewed female, and his biggest star, Rita Hayworth, wanted to entrust her next film to Van Upp as writer-producer. He had never been the type to worry about public opinion.
For her part, Virginia seemed bemused by the decision, but up for the challenge. At forty three, she had been employed in a litany of industry roles. In her previous decade-long tenure as a writer at Paramount, she had long wished for more control over her finished screenplays, but no one could accuse her of lacking experience.
At the start of 1945, Van Upp would become one of the only female executives in Hollywood. It was a position that no other woman would occupy for more than thirty years. Soon, she would begin work on her friend Rita Hayworth’s career-defining film noir: Gilda.
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