Born in Los Angeles, Margaret Booth became a film joiner or ‘patcher’ for D W Griffith in 1915. She later became the supervising editor at MGM till 1968 when she was 70 years old..
As supervising editor at MGM, Margaret did no actual editing but assigned editors and approved their work. She had the final word on sound and image. She could make changes and present the editing of sequences to producers and directors. She was answerable only to Louis B. Mayer during his reign at MGM.
In 1936,The New York times acknowledged., “ Film editing is one of the few important functions in a studio in which women play a substantial part.”
Straight out of High School,Margaret Booth had no formal training but landed a job with D.W.Griffith. Before the Moviola editing machine in 1924,the cutting of a film was done by hand,with the use of a rewind bench,a magnifying glass and a pair of scissors! The skill came in finding the right frame to cut on. The film was physically cut and glued together.
Margaret rarely spoke to the press or film historians but she did give an interview in 1965 to Kevin Brownlow for his book, “The Parade’s Gone By”. Her brother Elmer worked for L.B.Mayer who was an independent producer:
“I went to work for Mr.Mayer at the Old Mission Road studios……at Mission Road was a remarkable director, John M.Stahl. I became his assistant……he taught me how to edit.
When the Mayer company merged with Metro and Goldwyn,I went to work at the Culver City studio. I used to go back at night and cut the out-takes – the takes Stahl had discarded…..sometimes he’d take a whole sequence I had cut and put it in the picture. Stahl was a hard taskmaster….he shot every sequence so it could be cut in many different ways.”
“Irving Thalberg was that way too. in ROMEO AND JULIET,I had 5 different versions of the balcony scene. One with tears,one without tears,one played with close-ups,another played with long shots only.”
When Stahl left MGM for Universal,he wanted Margaret to go with him,but she chose to stay at MGM. Her favourite editing jobs were BOMBSHELL, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and CAMILLE.
She called Irving Thalberg, “the greatest man who was ever in pictures.”
“MGM was like home to me…..I knew everybody there and never wanted to work any other place.”
“Clarence Brown was a wonderful technician. I cut a number of his pictures and I never saw him in the cutting room. He worked in the projection theatre; he used to run the picture again and again and make comments.”
“Sound was nerve wracking when it first came in. It was hard to get it synchronised. We were all new at it. I thought it was terrifying.”
“I have never been in a cutting room since 1937. I work in the projection room. Directors and editors work on a picture and then I come in and finish it.”
Hers was the classic editing style – invisible cutting – the transition from one image to another as seamlessly as possible.
She told Kevin Brownlow, “There has been no advance in technique since the silent days, except for one thing. They’re doing away with fades and dissolves.”
In her 70s,Margaret was hired by producer Ray Stark as supervising editor on THE WAY WE WERE and FUNNY LADY. She received an honorary Oscar in 1978.
It’s been fascinating finding out about this little known woman who played such a big part in the look of MGM films. She deserves a book about her career.
Watch out for her name in the credits!