Even if you don't know her name, chances are you know Anita Loos's work. Not only did she write the novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes and coin the phrase "Diamonds are a girl's best friend," she also shaped the careers of Douglas Fairbanks and Jean Harlow, wrote D.W. Griffith's epic masterpiece Intolerance, and in 1939 adapted The Women for the screen, the snarkiest chick flick ever produced.
Loos was born in 1888 to a pair of San Francisco newspaper publishers. "The family has always used the correct French pronunciation which is lohse. However, I myself pronounce my name as if it were spelled luce, since most people pronounce it that way and it was too much trouble to correct them."
She began acting on the stage with her sisters at the age of nine, but always preferred writing and she not only wrote some of the plays she performed in, but also wrote a New York gossip column despite living in San Diego at the time. Loos broke into the movies in 1912 with the screenplay for The New York Hat, a D.W. Griffith short starring Mary Pickford in her last film for the Biograph Company. That same year she wrote The Musketeers of Pig Alley, which is now credited as the first gangster movie.
Over the next three years, she wrote more than fifty screenplays—including the titles to Griffith's masterpiece Intolerance—but made her biggest splash in 1916 when she wrote a series of screenplays for Douglas Fairbanks who was attempting to make the jump from Broadway to the movies. It was Loos who first saw the real-life Fairbanks as a born swashbuckler—fun, athletic and heroic—and screenplays such as American Aristocracy, The Matrimaniac and Wild and Woolly helped establish Fairbanks in the minds of the movie-going public as one of the silent era's greatest stars.
Through this series of scripts, Loos (along with Mary Pickford's favorite writer, Frances Marion) turned movie intertitles—the dialogue and descriptions that pop up during silent movies—into an art form, transforming them from dull chapter titles into witty bon mots worth reading in their own right. When Fairbanks joined the Famous Players-Lasky film company, he brought Loos with him, paying her a salary of $500 a week.
It was on a trip west with Fairbanks and his entourage that Loos noticed the men on the train falling all over themselves to impress Fairbanks's latest costar, an empty-headed actress who was nevertheless blonde, a situation Loos (herself a brunette) deemed "palpably unfair." The novel inspired by the trip, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was a sensation, as were her stage and (1928) movie adaptations of it.
After a brief marriage in 1915, she married frequent writing partner John Emerson in 1919 and remained married to him until his death in 1956. Despite its longevity, the marriage was not a happy one. Not only was Emerson a chronic philanderer but even more dismaying to Loos, his dull exterior concealed an even duller mind. "I had set my sights on a man of brains, to whom I could look up, but what a terrible let down it would be to find out that I was smarter than he was."
It was Emerson who convinced Loos to largely abandon Hollywood for New York. There, Loos wrote such plays as The Whole Town's Talking, the aforementioned Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and an adaptation of Colette's novel Gigi.
Despite living in New York, Loos continued to pen screenplays on occasion, including a brilliant adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce's hit Broadway comedy, The Women, in 1939. The most important of her sound era screenplays, however, may well have been 1932's Red-Headed Woman, which starred Jean Harlow.
Largely wasted up to that time in glamorous roles that required little acting skill, Harlow was a star without a screen persona, a situation producer Irving Thalberg was determined to remedy. Buying up Harlow's contract from Howard Hughes, Thalberg cast her in the screen adaptation of Red-Headed Woman, Katharine Brush's racy novel about a woman who sleeps her way into high society. F. Scott Fitzgerald took the first crack at the screenplay, but couldn't solve the puzzle of how to make the audience like a character he himself didn't approve of.
It was instead Loos who drafted the final screenplay.
Although Harlow's Lillian Andrews is a manipulative gold digger—she seduces her married boss and breaks up his marriage—there was a sincerity to Lil's transparent scheming, and with Harlow serving up the brassier bits with humor and wounded pride, audiences found themselves rooting for her. The result was one of the biggest hits of 1932.
Harlow played variations of this character throughout the remainder of her tragically brief career.
In all Loos wrote five screenplays for Harlow including her last, Saratoga. She also wrote such screenplays as San Francisco, Susan and God and I Married an Angel.
Loos never retired and published her last book, a biograph of Norma and Constance Talmadge, in 1978. She died in 1981 at the age of 93.