Not until more than a decade after her death was the long and illustrious career of actress-screenwriter-producer Virginia Van Upp properly documented as a significant chapter of the history of Hollywood film. Her life was unique, multifaceted and singular. She was a producer, a studio executive, and an accomplished screenwriter with a significant body of work to her credit (and in some cases noncredit); her remarkable career in the Hollywood film industry spanned nearly half a century.
To some, she is considered a ?first,? perhaps the first woman to crash Hollywood?s proverbial glass ceiling during a period when patriarchal studio bosses controlled their empires with an iron hand. The recent work of film scholars, however, most notably Ally Acker, attest to the fact that there were many women before Van Upp who assumed important positions in various facets of the early film industry. But whether she was truly a first or not, Van Upp?s career was at the very least, states Acker, ?unusual for the era in which she was working.?
Van Upp was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1902. As a child of perhaps seven, she appeared in silent films, working with directors Thomas Ince and Lois Weber and alongside such actors as film star John Gilbert. Her father, Harry Van Upp appears to have also had some connection with the film industry; her mother, Helen Van Upp, had been an editor and title writer for the Ince Company. As a young woman, Virginia Van Upp?s life in motion pictures included a host of different occupations. She acted in the position of casting director for the 1925 production of Ben Hur, as an agent, as secretary for RKO-Path? writer Horace Jackson, as a film cutter, and as a script assistant. Perhaps influenced by her work with Jackson, she discovered her true calling as a scriptwriter.
At Paramount Pictures in the 1930s, her co-written scripts and adaptations of stage plays and stories often explored in humorous terms, marital, interpersonal relationships, and comedies of ?romantic dilemma.? Later, at Columbia, she was often paired with director-writer Edward H. Griffith on a number of wartime, ?enjoyable trifles.?
But more than simply being skilled in the art and craft of the motion-picture screenplay, Van Upp, by all accounts, possessed a certain measure of savvy that allowed her to move easily amongst the various operatives of film production. Van Upp ?appreciated the myriad details involved in getting a movie made,? writes Bernard Dick in his book on Harry Cohn; amongst these details was ?the need to subject a script to a diversity of opinion.?
In 1945 a writer for the Los Angeles Times wrote about Van Upp?s success at Columbia Pictures, making a point of describing her as bespectacled and small in stature. Nevertheless, her small size had little relation to the enormous power she wielded in her position as executive producer and second-in-command to studio boss Harry Cohn. Working closely with Cohn, in
Perhaps Van Upp?s most remarkable achievement was Columbia?s 1946 release of the film Gilda, starring World War II film-goddess Rita Hayworth. Gilda was a big picture with a big budget and Van Upp was in charge. In this picture, Van Upp solely is credited as the producer. The film, now considered an early archetype of the postwar film-noir style, was replete with a dark, sinister mood and overt sexual overtones. It went on to become one of the more commercially successful pictures of the year.
The post-World War II period was a turbulent one for the film industry as antitrust litigation, Communist witch-hunts, television, and the changing tastes of a society experiencing social upheaval, signaled the end of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood. It is interesting to note Van Upp?s involvement in the production of the 1948 classic, Lady from Shanghai. Considered filmmaker Orson Welles?s masterpiece, the film may not have occurred at all had it not been for the intervention of Van Upp. Welles had gone well over budget. He erected elaborate sets and chose expensive on-location shooting in luxurious and expensive resorts in Acapulco. It was Van Upp who was assigned to save the day, patch the ragged script, and rein in Welles, the impetuous ?Boy Wonder.? One can only speculate how many other film ?classics? occurred because of Virginia Van Upp?s direct intervention.
In 1951 Van Upp co-wrote the screenplay for Here Comes the Groom and in 1952, for her last Hollywood film, she served as the associate producer for Affair in Trinidad, which was based on a story she co-wrote. A subsequent film for Republic Pictures was abandoned when Van Upp took ill.
Although one can only surmise what led to the end of Van Upp?s professional career?the changing film industry and her poor health were most likely contributing factors?her career had already spanned almost 50 years. She had been a performer and had written or co-written more than a dozen respectable motion pictures. She had worked with internationally known directors from Fritz Lang to Frank Capra. She had saved The Lady from Shanghai from disaster and assumed one of the most powerful positions ever shouldered by a woman in modern film history. And notes Acker, it would be more than another 20 years before another woman would do the same.?