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Van Upp, Virginia 1902-1970

Van Upp, Virginia 1902-1970


Born 1902, in Chicago, IL; died of complications from a broken hip, March 25, 1970, in Hollywood, CA; married Ralph W. Nelson (divorced, 1949); children: Gay Harden.


Actor, film producer, and author. Began career in film as a child actor in silent films, and worked variously as a script assistant, agent, scenarist, and casting director; worked as a scriptwriter for Paramount Pictures and became a scriptwriter, producer, and executive producer for Columbia Pictures; producer of films such as Gilda, Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1942.



The Pursuit of Happiness, Paramount Pictures, 1934.

Timothy's Quest, Paramount Pictures, 1936.

Too Many Parents, Paramount Pictures, 1936.

Poppy, Paramount Pictures, 1936.

My American Wife, Paramount Pictures, 1936.

Easy to Take, Paramount Pictures, 1936.

(With Oscar Hammerstein II) Swing High, Swing Low, Paramount Pictures, 1937.

(With Norma Krasna) You and Me, Paramount Pictures, 1938.

(With Malcolm Stuart Boylan, Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, and Jack Moffitt) St. Louis Blues (also known as Best of the Blues, Paramount Pictures, 1939.

Cafe Society, Paramount Pictures, 1939.

Honeymoon in Bali (also known as My Love for Yours), Paramount Pictures, 1939.

Virginia, Paramount Pictures, 1941.

(With Patterson McNutt) Come Live with Me, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1941.

One Night in Lisbon, Paramount Pictures, 1941.

(With Nelson Hayes) Bahama Passage, Paramount Pictures, 1941.

The Crystal Ball, Cinema Guild Productions, 1943.

Young and Willing (also known as Out of the Frying Pan), Cinema Guild Productions, 1943.

Cover Girl, Columbia Pictures, 1944.

(And producer) The Impatient Years, Columbia Pictures, 1944.

(With F. Hugh Herbert; and producer) Together Again, Columbia Pictures, 1944.

(With John Jacoby and Sarett Tobias; and producer) She Wouldn't Say Yes, Columbia Pictures, 1945.

(With Liam O'Brien and Myles Connolly) Here Comes the Groom, Paramount Pictures, 1951.

(With James Gunn and Oscar Saul; and producer) Affair in Trinidad, Columbia Pictures, 1952.


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 one of the first, and 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 work of several film scholars, however, most notably Ally Acker in Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, attests 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, stated 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 worked in motion pictures in a variety of occupations. She acted in the position of casting director for the 1925 production of Ben Hur, as an agent, as secretary for RKO-Pathe 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 cowritten 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 films. Van Upp also served as producer of several of her own films, such as Together Again, from 1944. A New York Times reviewer called Together Again a "sprightly and sometimes madcap tale" of a widowed small-town mayor, Anne Crandall, who inherited the office from her dead husband, Jonathan, and who, five years after his death, has been encouraged by her father-in-law, Jonathan, Sr., to find a new man. When lightning knocks the head off the stature of her deceased husband, Anne is dispatched to New York by her father in law to find a new statue and, he hopes, new romance. There, she meets George Corday, "and from there on the lady Mayor has quite a struggle with her natural inclinations and the dignity of her office," commented the New York Times reviewer.

More than simply being skilled in the art and craft of the motion-picture screenplay, Van Upp, by many accounts, possessed a certain measure of savvy that allowed her to move easily amongst the various operatives of film production. In 1945 Los Angeles Times reporter Philip K. Scheuer wrote about Van Upp's success at Columbia Pictures, making a point of describing her as bespectacled and small in stature. Nevertheless, her petite 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 1945 she was directly responsible for the production of approximately forty features and some twenty million dollars of filmmaking budget, a large sum in those days.

One of Van Upp's most remarkable achievements was Columbia's 1946 release of the film Gilda, starring 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 all 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 might not have been produced 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 were released because of Virginia Van Upp's direct intervention.

In 1951 Van Upp cowrote the screenplay for Here Comes the Groom, starring one of the era's most prominent leading men, Bing Crosby. As a reporter in France, Crosby's character, Pete Garvey, is smitten by a pair of orphaned children whom he rescues and brings back to America with him. To keep the children, however, he must get married within five days. The woman most attractive to Crosby, Emmadel Jones, is unavailable, however, as she is scheduled to marry a handsome millionaire from Baltimore. The remainder of the film chronicles Garvey's efforts to prevent Emmadel's upcoming nuptials and convince her to marry him instead. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called the movie "a light, breezy item, nicely marked with the genial Capra touch and adorned with the cheerful disposition and the casual vocalizing of Bing."

In 1952, for her last Hollywood film, Van Upp served as a coauthor and the associate producer for Affair in Trinidad, which was based on a story she cowrote. The film marked the return of 1940's-era sex symbol Rita Hayworth to the movies after a four-year absence. Hayworth stars as a dancer who secretly agrees to collaborate with the police in order to gather evidence on a group of international spies. Her efforts invoke the suspicions of the man she loves and puts her at risk of losing him forever, but she adheres to her duty despite the risk to her personal happiness. As was traditional in films of the day, however, "she gets the doubting hero, and the police get the spies in the end," commented Crowther in another New York Times review. With Affair in Trinidad, Van Upp's career was near an end. 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 contrib- uting factors—her career had already spanned almost fifty years. She had been a performer and had written or cowritten more than a dozen respectable motion pictures; she had worked with internationally known directors from Fritz Lang to Frank Capra; she had assumed one of the most powerful positions ever shouldered by a woman in modern film history. And it would be more than another twenty years before another woman would do the same.



Acker, Ally, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, Chrysalis Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Eames, John Douglas, The Paramount Story, Octopus Books (London, England), 1985.

Francke, Lizzie, Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood, British Film Institute (London, England), 1994.

Hirschom, Clive, The Columbia Story, Crown (New York, NY), 1989.

Langman, Larry, A Guide to American Screenwriters: The Sound Era, 1929-1982, Volume 1, Taylor & Francis (New York, NY), 1984.

McCreadie, Marsha, The Women Who Write the Movies: From Frances Marion to Nora Ephron, Carol Publishing (Secaucus, NJ), 1994.

McGilligan, Pat, editor, Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1986.


Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1945, Philip K. Scheuer, "Small Girl Makes Good in Large Job."

New York Times, March 31, 1944, "Cover Girl, with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, at the Music Hall"; November 24, 1944, "At the Music Hall," review of Together Again; January 12, 1946, Bosley Crowther, review of She Wouldn't Say Yes; September 21, 1951, Bosley Crowther, "Here Comes the Groom, New Bing Crosby Vehicle, Opens at the Astor Theatre"; July 31, 1952, Bosley Crowther, "Columbia's Affair in Trinidad at the Victoria Brings Rita Hayworth Back to Screen."


Turner Classics Movies Online, (July 22, 2006), "The Big Idea behind Gilda." Variety Online, (July 22, 2006), review of Gilda.



Variety, April 15, 1970.

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