One afternoon a couple of years ago, on a visit to a New York library, film scholar Marsha McCreadie stumbled onto something strange. She had been looking at old movie scripts, and she noticed that most of them were authored by women. ''Some of these early women writers I'd never heard of. I mean, everybody's heard of Anita Loos,'' says McCreadie, referring to the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and a score of other screenplays. ''But Alice D.G. Miller, Bess Meredyth, Marguerite Roberts? Who were these women?''
To find out, McCreadie began researching and writing a book The Women Who Write the Movies: From Frances Marion to Nora Ephron and soon discovered that in the first few decades of moviemaking, ''women outnumbered men in the screenwriting trade 10 to 1.'' Something like the reverse seems to be true today. What happened?
''The movie business was more open to anything and everyone in the early days, and the roles were much less compartmentalized than they are now,'' says McCreadie. Frances Marion, for instance, who wrote scripts for Mary Pickford including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm started out as a script girl and an actress. By the '20s, she was writing five or six screenplays a year. ''Women were writing for women much more than now,'' McCreadie adds, explaining why actresses didn't have to complain about a dearth of good roles. Women writers thrived even through the '30s and '40s, partly because women's films were still popular and ''the role of the screenwriter was taken much more seriously than now,'' according to McCreadie.
The author believes the trend for women today is perhaps best exemplified by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle), who not only writes but also directs her own films. ''It isn't entirely the boys keeping women writers out,'' McCreadie notes. ''It's smart women realizing the real power is in directing.''