Sunday, May 6, 2012

Celebrating Screenwriting Pioneer Jane Murfin

Jane Murfin, standing and Jane Cowl about 1917 at the time of their Broadway success.

I have been having fun putzing around a Facebook group for old movie buffs.  Lots of great discussions and some great clips.  The topic recently turned to screenwriters.  The usual suspects like Billy Wilder came up.  But my mind turned to the lesser known Jane Murfin one of the most successful women writers in the movies in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s.

There are not a lot of famous Murfins,  so her name pops up a lot if you Google my last name.  I knew that she worked a lot with George Cukor and that she had her hand in several memorable films.  But not a lot more.  Curious, I did a bit of research.  This is what I found.

The first discovery was that she was a Murfin by marriage.  A marriage that did not last very long, but she continued to use the name professionally through two more marriages and a likely lifelong romantic relationship with a close female friend and writing collaborator.

Jane Macklem was born on October 27, 1884 in Quincy, Michigan. Raised in a middle class home she was educated in local public school in Coldwater, Michigan and attended Michigan State Normal School.  Despite the training as a teacher, she was never interested in education—she wanted to go on stage.  

Her first appearance as an actress was a small role in the touring production of popular comedian David Warfield’s hit The Music Master.  She befriended another young actress in the production, Jane Cowl.  The two women not only became inseparable lifelong friends, but writing partners.  Their relationship was close and endured through Jane three marriages.  Whether or not it was also sexual is a matter of some ambiguity.

Jane put aside her stage ambitions in 1907 when she married James Orin Murfin, a prominent attorney, former state senator, and a judge in Wayne County.  Shortly after their marriage, Jane organized a women’s drama club which made amateur productions.  She also began her collaboration as a playwright with Cowl.

She divorced her husband in 1915 and was working as a script editor for Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn.  Murfin’s first stage collaboration with Cowl, Lilac Time was a hit in 1917.  The pair followed up rapidly with three more successful plays over the next three years—Daybreak, Information Please, and Smilin’ Through.  
During this period she married actor/animal trainer/producer Laurence Trimble.  The couple moved to Hollywood in 1920.  Cowl also relocated.

Together Trimble and Murfin searched Europe for a dog to use in movies.  In Germany they discovered a three year old German Sheppard who had been trained for police work.  They renamed the animal Strongheart.  The animal became the first big “movie star dog”, predating Rin Tin Tin.  The couple produced six films starring Strongheart while Murfin and Cowl adapted their plays to films at other studios.  In 1927 Murfin not only wrote, but got behind the camera to direct Flapper Wives in which Strongheart appeared.  

The adaptations of the plays were also successful especially Smilin’ Through which was produced and starred in by Norma Talmadge, a top silent actress.  The play had been produced under the joint pen name of Alan Langdon Martin but Cowl and Murfin shared screenwriting credit in their own names.  The story was so popular it was remade as a talkie in 1934 at MGM with two of the studio’s top stars, Norma Shearer, Fredrick March, and Leslie Howard and yet again in 1941 with Jeanette McDonald and Gene Raymond.

Murfin divorced Trimble in 1927 and concentrated on her career as screenwriter, with and without collaboration with Cowl.  Way Back Home in 1931, for which Murfin wrote the original story as well as the script, was the break-out film that established her as a major—and bankable—writer.  The film is best known today because it was one of Bette Davis’s first films in an important supporting role.

In 1932 Murfin married for the third time to British born character actor Donald Crisp known for his work in costume dramas with Errol Flynn as well has beloved fathers in the classics How Green Was My Valley, National Velvet, and Lassie, Come Home.  Crisp doubled as a shrewd businessman and was on the board of the Bank of America, where he oversaw loans that financed films.  Since his support was critical for getting capital to produce a film, it may have helped his wife get ever better assignments at major studios.  The couple stayed together until 1944.

Murfin worked with George Cukor, the leading director of “women’s pictures,” beginning the same year as her marriage to Crisp with What Price Hollywood starring Constance Bennett.  Murfin and other writers on the film received an Academy Award nomination.

 Other memorable film with Cuckor included uncredited dialogue in Little Women and The Women (with Clair Booth Luce and Anita Loos.
Among Murfin’s other notable films were Spitfire, The Little Minister, and Alice Adams all with Katherine Hepburn;  the musical Roberta with Irene Dunn, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers; The Shining Hour in collaboration with Ogden Nash for Joan Crawford; and Pride and Prejudice staring Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier in collaboration with Aldous Huxley.

Murfin’s production tapered off in the 1940’s as the women’s pictures in which she specialized went out of style.  She wrote Rosalind Russell’s roman a clef take on Emilia Earhart, Flight for Freedom in 1943.  Her last film re-united her with Hepburn in Pearl S. Buck’s Dragon Seed.  

In 2008, 53 years after Jane Murfin died in Los Angeles in 1955 at age 69, she again received screen credit for the updated version of The Women starring Meg Ryan, Eva Mendez, and Annette Bening.

Murfin is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.  She lies next to Jane Cowl.  Her headstone reads simply:  Jane Murfin Crisp/Still/“Smilin’ Through”/ 1884-1955.


  1. Check out She's in Family Line #2. Her life story and lists of films and plays are on the site. Not as pretty as your page here.
    Ed Murfin

  2. Thank you so much. Nice to see some women in Hollywood could be successful

  3. Great write up, however, there is no documentation anywhere that Jane and Larry Trimble ever married. As a matter of fact, it is documented that Jane's good friend, author J. Allen Boone, was rather vocal in his disapproval of Jane's relationship with Larry and encouraged her to end it. But I am very glad to see you have found Strongheart's appearance in Flapper Wives, as that is not a well known fact. He was truly a remarkable dog!