Roberts, Marguerite (1905–1989)

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Roberts, Marguerite (1905–1989)

American screenwriter. Name variations: Maggie Roberts; Marguerite Sanford. Born in Clarks, Nebraska, on November 26, 1905; died of atherosclerosis on February 17, 1989, in Santa Barbara, California; attended Colorado State Teaching College; married twice, second time to John Sanford (a writer).


Jimmy and Sally (1933); Sailor's Luck (1933); Peck's Bad Boy (1934); College Scandal (1935); Florida Special (1936); Forgotten Faces (1936); Hollywood Boulevard (1936); Rose Bowl (1936); Turn of the Moon (1937); Wild Moon (1937); Meet the Girls (1938); Escape (1940); Honky Tonk (1941); Ziegfeld Girl (1941); Somewhere I'll Find You (1942); Dragonseed (1944); Desire Me (1947); If the Winter Comes (1947); The Sea of Grass (1947); Ambush (1949); The Bribe (1949); Soldiers Three (1951); Diamond Head (1962); Rampage (1963); Lorett's Many Faces (1965); Five Card Stud (1968); True Grit (1969); Norwood (1970); Red Sky at Morning (1971); Shoot Out (1971).

A screenwriter for Fox and MGM during the 1930s and 1940s, Marguerite Roberts was one of a handful of women of the time who made her reputation creating "men's films." Clark Gable, for whom she wrote several box-office hits, including Honky Tonk (1941) and Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), once said that she "writes men with more balls than any other guy on this lot." Roberts was accused of being a Communist during the dark era of the House Un-American Activities Committee; she was blacklisted and did not work for over a decade. She reemerged in the 1960s, however, to write her most celebrated screenplay, True Grit (1969), a western based on a novel by Charles Portis, which John Wayne called the best script he had ever read.

It is hardly surprising that Roberts was drawn to the western. Born in Nebraska, she was raised in Colorado, and was astride a horse almost as soon as she could walk. Her grandfather, who came to Colorado by covered wagon, was a sheriff, and her father was a town marshal. "He never carried a gun," Roberts said about her father, "but all the bad men were afraid of him. He was short and stocky, but some people said he was the strongest man in Colorado and nothing scared him." Roberts recalled that her family was poor and her mother took in laundry to earn extra money. It became her ambition to find a good job so her mother could lead an easier life. Roberts attended Colorado State Teaching College to prepare for a teaching career, but she got sidetracked when she married a traveling jewelry merchant who took her on the road with him. The marriage endured only as far as California, where Roberts decided to settle.

Following a stint as a reporter and as an unsuccessful writer of crime fiction, Roberts developed an interest in screenwriting. In 1927, she took a job at Fox as secretary to the studio head Winfield Sheehan. She later apprenticed in the script department, working with chief script editor Al Lewis. Once on her own, she experimented with several different genres, writing the screenplay for Peck's Bad Boy (1934), a vehicle for Jackie Cooper, as well as Hollywood Boulevard (1936), a melodrama exploiting the more tawdry aspects of the film business. Moving to MGM, where she created Honky Tonk (1941), a western adventure starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner , Roberts found a comfortable niche. Gable liked her style so much that he asked her to work on his next film, Somewhere I'll Find You (1942), the story of two war correspondents. Roberts went on to become one of MGM's most respected and highly paid screen-writers, earning enough money to send some home to her mother, and to support her second husband John Sanford, who was pursuing his own writing career.

While at MGM, Roberts did not write exclusively for male stars, although she preferred writing male characters. "At Metro it was very difficult to write for women since [the studio] had such old-fashioned ideas," she said. "There were two kinds of women—whores and angels—and they didn't make for interesting people." Roberts ran into particular difficulty when she was working on the rewrites for Sea of Grass (1947), a western in which Katharine Hepburn played the wife of a cattle tycoon (Spencer Tracy) who places his work before family. Roberts wanted to have the Hepburn character threaten to leave, but director Elia Kazan would not hear of it. "Kazan's politics were very liberal at the time, but he was a chauvinist, and politics, for him, didn't enter into that."

Roberts' own politics would prove to be a force in her career. During the late 1930s, she and Sanford had joined the Communist Party, more in hopes of establishing social reform than inciting revolution, writes Lizzie Francke in Script Girls. Her political views surfaced in Escape (1940), an adaptation of the novel by Ethel Vance which centers on an American's rescue of his mother from a Nazi concentration camp just before World War II. Called "far and away the most dramatic and hair-raising picture yet made on the sinister subject of persecution in a totalitarian land" by critic Bosley Crowther, the film was one of 25 investigated by the Senate Sub-committee on War Propaganda. In this case, Francke explains, the Producers' Association, representing management and the Screen Writers Guild (of which Roberts was a militant member), was successful in warding off indictment. But Roberts was not so lucky in September 1951, when she, along with many others in the Hollywood community, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At the time, MGM was so fearful of losing her that they encouraged her to name a few names in order to vindicate herself, but Roberts stood firm, pleading the Fifth Amendment and refusing to cooperate. As a result, her contract with the studio was terminated and her name was dropped from the credits of Ivanhoe, the film she was working on at the time.

After her return to work in the '60s, Roberts wrote the screenplays for such films as Diamond Head (1962), Rampage (1963), Five Card Stud (1968), and the memorable True Grit (1969), which won an Academy Award for John Wayne. Roberts ended her career with yet another western, Shoot Out (1971), an adaptation of Will James' novel The Lone Cowboy, starring Gregory Peck. She died in 1989.

sources and suggested reading:

Francke, Lizzie. Script Girls. London, England: British Film Institute, 1994.

Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell's Film Guide. 4th ed. NY: Scribner, 1983.

Sanford, John. Maggie: A Love Story. Barricade, 1993.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts