John Emerson: The Man in Front of the Woman

Broad and yet ambiguous is the legacy of stage and screen figure John Emerson (Clifton Paden, 1874-1956). This is because for many key years of his career, he was part of a creative partnership with Anita Loos. Today Loos is generally regarded as the true talent of the pair, yet it’s probably too strong to say that his contributions were nil, especially in the early years.

Starting out in his native Ohio, Emerson was a product of the old stock company system. He first made his mark as a Broadway actor in 1904. He appeared in a dozen plays there over the next decade, the most successful of which was the Charles Frohman produced The Conspiracy (1912-14) which ran for a year and a half. By 1912, Emerson was already acting, writing and directing for films. The 1914 screen version of The Conspiracy being one of his few notable turns in front of the camera.

It was in 1916 that Emerson and Loos were paired on the early film comedies of Douglas Fairbanks, co-writing the scenarios (the writing mostly Loos), with Emerson directing. These included His Picture in the Papers (1916), The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), The Americano (1916), Wild and Woolly (1917), Down to Earth (1917), and Reaching for the Moon (1917). These were all for D.W. Griffith’s division of Triangle-Reliance, and helped cement Fairbanks’ stardom. By 1919, Fairbanks became one of the founders of United Artists and took his career in a different direction. That same year, Emerson and Loos were married. Meantime, they had helped Griffith with the titles and editing of Intolerance (1916) and also helmed the 1918 Shirley Mason films Come On In and Goodybe Bill as well as Oh You Women (1919) starring Ernest Truex. With the Constance Talmadge picture A Tempermental Wife (1919), Emerson stepped back from directing and took the title of producer and co-writer with Loos, which was generally his tack on their collaborations going forward. His last film directing credit was on Polly of the Follies (1922) again starring Talmadge. He did however co-write and direct the 1923 Broadway show The Whole Town’s Talking with Loos. He generally shared credit on all of Loo’s writing projects, although it’s generally conceded that after a certain point he was much the junior partner, and sometimes the credit was only a formality.

Emerson was director of Actor’s Equity from 1920 through 1928. His last job as director was the 1931 Broadway play The Social Register, cowritten with Loos. He has writer and producer credits on Loos films through 1938, the last being The Cowboy and the Lady with Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon.

For more on entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more silent film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.