Whatever Happened to Virginia Van Upp?

No other producer did for Columbia Pictures what Virginia Van Upp, one of Hollywood’s first female executives, did in the 1940s. So why did her influence slowly fade away? 

Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture at Sight &...
 

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 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. Kelly, not yet the legendary hoofer he would become, was understandably grateful to Columbia Studios for the role. He intended to congratulate the screenwriter of Cover Girl on a job well done. The actor likely thought he was paying Virginia Van Upp a compliment when he told her, “You write just like a man!”

Van Upp was unlikely to be flattered by such a statement. “Writers of either sex are writers. They have to know people,” was her reported reply. It was she who had written Kelly’s role as Danny McGuire, insisting the actor be taken out on loan from MGM to play the male lead. In fact, at the behest of Harry Cohn, she had tacitly overseen the entire picture. It would not be the last time a movie star had Virginia’s sharp instincts to thank for their success.

In fact, Van Upp had been lured from the employment of the much-larger Paramount Studios to work on Cover Girl. Columbia’s prized starlet, Rita Hayworth, needed a carefully tailored vehicle to endear her to the public. Van Upp already had a proven track record for giving screenplays a “feminine touch,” and she and Hayworth became fast friends.

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.”

When Virginia was told her skill was commensurate to a man’s, it’s no wonder she found it laughable. No man in the same role did for Columbia what Van Upp had. 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—long known as a “poverty row” outfit—one of their biggest hits of the decade.

*

The working life of an executive producer at Columbia Studios was often an embattled one. The studio was forever small fry by comparison to the other majors, and film production lived and died under the watchful eye of one man: studio founder and head Harry Cohn. Nicknamed the meanest man in Hollywood, Cohn was notoriously foul-mouthed, dictatorial, and incredibly quick to dispense with anyone who dared cross him. He had clawed his way out of grinding, filthy poverty in turn-of-the-century New York, and unlike some of his upwardly mobile colleagues, he had no time for niceties. People seemed either to despise him or to be fiercely loyal to him; rarely did anyone sit on the fence where Harry Cohn was concerned.

Periodically, the mogul would promote one of his producers to the role of executive—essentially making them his second-in-command. It was a highly prized role, and a busy one—it meant overseeing all of the studio’s output, from the lower-budget serial fare to the more lovingly crafted “A” pictures. Cohn was a gambler by nature, both personally and professionally. But it fell to producers to actually manage that risk-taking when it came to motion picture production. This was never an easy task, and with an office next door to the abrasive Cohn, even the most hardened of producers did not last more than a few years in the post.

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. An apocryphal story from the biography King Cohn tells how any grumbling male producer who didn’t call Van Upp to congratulate her on the promotion was fired. We’ll never know if it’s true, but it’s just the sort of dramatic display of power that would have been typical of the mogul.

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.

*

When Humphrey Bogart read the screenplay for a lead role in Gilda, he almost immediately turned it down. He felt that the part—eventually taken on by Glenn Ford—would be insubstantial in comparison to Hayworth’s. In so doing, he unwittingly opened the door for Marion Parsonett and Virginia Van Upp to retool the script, focusing even more on the female protagonist. Parsonett and Van Upp worked on a version of the film which would be entirely Rita Hayworth’s picture, and go on to cement her status as a bombshell. They created a portrait of a complex, sexually liberated, and (as the PCA movie censorship board scathingly noted) “independently minded” woman. When Gilda was released in early spring of 1946, it was a breakout hit. As both writer and executive producer, much of the credit was due to Van Upp. It pulled in upwards of $3 million at the box office, making it a record-breaker for Columbia and in the top ten highest-grossers of the year.

By the middle of the decade, it was clear that nearly everything Virginia Van Upp put her name on earned her studio a profit. And in the press, it seemed that the lucrative bottom line had subsumed any rumblings about gender. She had become a figure of respect. When maverick director Orson Welles struggled to piece together his film The Lady from Shanghai, it was Van Upp who sat on the floor with him and rearranged the script’s pages until the wee hours of the morning. She went uncredited.

Journalists who interviewed Van Upp—men and women alike—still seemed keen to note that one of Hollywood’s only female executives had retained her femininity. The petite, bespectacled Virginia was regularly referred to in terms of those very qualities, with headlines such as “small girl makes good in large job” and “dainty dynamite!” printed alongside photographs of the producer.

“She is a lovely looking person with the very prettiest shade of red hair, and is charming, vivacious, and natural,” went one fawning article in The Pittsburgh Press in 1947. “Miss. Van Upp is not a ‘career girl’ in the usual sense. She has found time for a happy marriage and has reared a charming daughter.”

Various profiles of her took care to inform readers that she stood a delicate five-foot-three, with flame red hair and green eyes. Reporters also took a special interest in her domestic life, routinely mentioning her husband, writer Ralph Nelson. He was often featured alongside his (markedly more successful) wife, with whom he worked as an un-credited associate producer. Other articles discussed how Virginia had studied shorthand while she stayed home with her infant daughter Gay, working nearly around the clock as a secretary, script girl, and casting agent as she climbed the industry ladder. “It meant working nights as well as days. It meant very little home life,” Virginia told a reporter in 1946, speaking about her early years. By that point, Gay Nelson—an only child—had grown into a pretty, pert aspiring actress, and had appeared in a handful of films.

“Having it all” was not a phrase readily applied in the pre-feminist era. But Virginia’s high-powered job in the public eye put her in precisely that position. By 1947, trade papers reported that Van Upp was making an annual salary of $117,000 a year; adjusted for inflation, the modern equivalent would be about $1.3 million. Yet it was rarely Virginia’s enormous salary or vast managerial power that took up column space.

After several years of seemingly happy marriage, Virginia’s family idyll was broken in late October of 1949. Papers announced that she was establishing residence in Carson City, Nevada, to obtain a divorce. The working relationship with Ralph Nelson, however, would continue. “He’s the best in the business,” she offered by way of explanation. When asked if a conflict of careers was the source of the split, you can almost hear the sigh in Van Upp’s voice. “I suppose so. How can you ever explain these things?”

By 1949, the divorce was not the only portion of Virginia’s life that was difficult to explain.

*

Trouble was afoot on the long production of The Guilt of Janet Ames. Since the close of the war years, Virginia had taken an interest in the psychological fallout among young war brides and widows. She undertook a screenplay on the subject, with a starring role for Rosalind Russell. The story focused on a bitter, grieving widow who searches for answers from the group of men her husband died to save.

Although the film featured many of Van Upp’s familiar collaborators, including director Charles Vidor, there were continued battles over the script. The working relationship between Vidor and Van Upp seemed to rapidly deteriorate, with frequent breaks in the filming. By August 1946, trade papers were reporting that the producer had taken “suddenly ill” on set. Others reported that she had walked off in a rage and refused to return.

Conflicting reports abounded as to the source of the argument, but Virginia did not stick around to pass comment. Instead, she took a six-month sojourn across Latin America to develop other projects, which hardly sounds like the behaviour of a woman in poor health.

Some said that the trouble stemmed from the fact that Van Upp hadn’t had time to finish the script before filming began. Others assumed that she was never sick at all, but simply weary of fighting the arrogant Vidor tooth and nail on her own production.

A contracted associate producer, and one of the handful of other women in the industry, Helen Deutsch, was asked to step in. But she struggled; Vidor reportedly refused to take any instruction from her. The end result was a disjointed film—and no credit whatsoever for Van Upp, Deutsch, or Vidor, who was removed and replaced.

Things were smoothed over somewhat when Van Upp returned to the studio the following year, and her contract was renewed. As one news piece wrote, “Virginia has apparently made her final peace with the studio […] and has signed a new deal for a 7-year contract which still has 2 years to go. Obviously, Mr. Cohn wanted the lady.”

But it would only take another twelve months for Virginia to part ways with Columbia for good.

When Virginia had left Paramount roughly a decade before, she had said: “An association like that is much closer and more exhausting than a marriage. You get so you just can’t stand it any longer. […] I left in mutual agreement. Believe me, there’s nothing more useless than an unhappy writer.” Whether this offers any insight into the situation at Columbia is uncertain, but it’s compelling that Virginia’s point of comparison was marriage, given that her relationships to both the studio and to her husband seemed to be worsening simultaneously.

Cohn’s biographer, Bob Thomas, assumes that she wanted to spend more time with her family, though given the fact that her daughter was grown and her divorce was imminent, this seems suspect. And neither illness nor a sudden urge for domesticity explain Virginia’s attachment to some half-dozen other independent productions over the next few years. For a while, she was slated to write The Life of Valentino with director Edward Small, then a musical biopic at 20th Century Fox. In the early fifties, there was even a plan to write, produce, and direct a feature called The Big Whisper, a film about the Allied underground movement, to be shot in West Berlin. Most ambitious of all of these, perhaps, was a screenplay called Christ the Man and renamed The Trial. It was to be filmed by Frank Capra, and would reimagine the life of Jesus Christ in a small American town. Paramount ultimately cancelled production on the film, feeling it was both too costly and too controversial in subject matter. It’s striking that not a single one of these projects were made. It seems that Van Upp’s reserves of creativity and ambition never truly ran out, which begs the question: what happened?

*

One major passion project appeared most frequently in the papers with Van Upp’s name attached. It was an independent endeavour called Tolvanera, to be filmed partially in Spain and partially in Mexico. Tolvanera would be an adaptation of a best-selling Spanish novel of the same name, epic in scope, with a cosmopolitan international cast. Little is known about the plot, except that it was to be based around the “good neighbour” policy between Mexico and the United States.

Over the course of three years, reports flooded in of Van Upp’s production developments. Potential cast members were to include the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, Moira Shearer, John Garfield, and Rome Open City actor Aldo Fabrizi. It was almost as though Virginia had David O. Selznick-style ambitions for the film; a sort of Latin American Gone with the Wind.

But money was tight in Hollywood at the start of the ‘50s. Around 1951, all mention of the project seems to disappear. In the end, the last feature with a credit bearing Virginia Van Upp’s name arrived in 1952, on her old friend Rita Hayworth’s comeback, Affair in Trinidad.

It may be that the demands of working twice as hard as her male cohorts got the better of Virginia. She was an indefatigable workaholic, known to stay on set all day and write all night. Certainly, everyone agreed that battling the pugnacious Harry Cohn would tire anybody out. But it’s strange that her fade-out from Hollywood has been explained away with talk of phantom illness and a desire for family time. Van Upp passed away in 1970, aged sixty-eight, with little fanfare and hardly any column space. So much of the time in between is a mystery.

One thing that seems clear is that Virginia did not gently retire at the end of her time with Columbia Pictures. Her myriad attempts at independent production reveal a woman striving for creative control and large-scale artistic achievement; her unmade projects speak of aspiration and daring. It’s compelling and frustrating that, for now, we can only guess at why none of these films came to fruition.

As for Tolvanera, the novel is out of print these days and unavailable in English. Curious about its title, I looked it up in the Oxford Spanish Dictionary. The word means dust storm, but that doesn’t quite do it justice; a tolvanera is a dangerous cyclone of wind and desert sand, notorious for damaging Mexican cities. As with all words in Spanish, it’s also gendered. Tolvanera is feminine—so its real definition may as well be: a female whirlwind.

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