Nitrate Divas: A Tribute to Four Female Film Editors

“Women are a finer filter of reality.”

—Michelangelo Antonioni

Margaret Booth in her natural habitat: the editing room.

I wrote this article as a way of commemorating Ada Lovelace Day, an occasion to celebrate those extraordinary women who have contributed to the fields of science and technology. Now, cinema might not be the first field you think of when you hear the words “science and technology.” Nevertheless, cinema is a medium of invention, a relatively new medium with a definite and modern physicality—unlike painting or sculpting, say.

Cinema is chemistry, optics, psychology, and so much more. A movie’s production relies on analytical minds, men and women who fill the chasm that separates entertainment, science, and art. Perhaps no one grapples with the technological aspect of cinema more than a film editor. He or she must combine a mathematical, sequential intellect with a rich comprehension of drama and aesthetics.

And the very term, “film editor,” as opposed to the vulgar “cutter” of early cinema, was created by Irving Thalberg for a woman: Margaret Booth.

So, I’d like to take a moment to applaud Booth and a few other remarkable women who not only prevailed in the male-dominated culture of studio Hollywood, but also succeeded in fusing aesthetics and technology. These women shaped stories out of time and space, they cut together strips of celluloid and emulsion into beautiful dreams. In the tradition of the whimsical, but sharp imagination of Ada Lovelace Byron, they were masters of art and of of science and showed us that perhaps we shouldn’t see these two things as so different.

Here are some of the rhythms they teased out of strips of plastic.

Margaret Booth (1898-2002)

Cut 44 films (that are listed on IMDB, but she most definitely worked on more) and became Editor-in-Chief of M-G-M.

“[I]n the old days, we had to cut negative by eye. We matched the print to the negative without any edge numbers. We had to match the action.

“When I cut silent film, I used to count to get the rhythm. If I was cutting a march of soldiers, or anyting with a beat to it, and I wanted to change the angle, I would count one-two-three-four-five-six. I made a beat for myself. That’s how I did it when I was cutting the film in the hand. When Moviolas came in, you could count that way too. You watched the rhythm through the glass.”

—Booth, quoted in Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By

Perhaps Booth’s masterpiece, the horrifying, yet liberating “taking of the ship” sequence from Mutiny on the Bounty. Booth incorporated Sergei Eisentein’s montage techniques without resorting to the same didactic feel. She adapted and invented, stretching the medium to tell a story even in crisis.

Click here to watch the clip (TCM won’t let me embed it).

I also love the elegiac grace which Booth’s leisurely, but attentive cutting brings to this clip from the Garbo silent, The Mysterious Lady.

Viola Lawrence (1894-1973)

Editor of 99 films, including The Lady from Shanghai, In a Lonely Place, and Pal Joey.

Enjoy the taut pacing she brings to this scene in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings.

Dorothy Spencer (1909-2002)

Editor of 74 films, including Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, his Foreign Correspondant and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.


She also edited one of the greatest Westerns of all time, John Ford’s Stagecoach. This concluding stand-off will remain etched in my mind as one of the greatest examples of pacing and suspense in cinema history. Often copied, never equalled.

Verna Fields (1918-1982)

Editor of 14 films—many of them movies that launched the “Hollywood Renaissance,” including the breakout films of Stephen Spielberg (Jaws), George Lucas (American Graffiti), as well as Peter Bogdanovitch’s Paper Moon.

The opening sequence of Jaws owes much to how the rapid—but not too rapid—editing frays the audience’s nerves. Fields set a new standard for film editing in horror movies for which she more than deserved her Oscar.

This is a brief post (for this blog, at least!) but I encourage you to discover more about these, and other women who have influenced cinema history with their inspired command of the mathematical and artistic sides of the film medium.

They were real nitrate divas. I’m honored to blog about them.