Overlooked No More: Dorothy Spencer, Film Editor Sought Out by Big Directors

From a New York Times story by Gavin Edwards headlined “Overlooked No More: Dorothy Spencer, Film Editor Sought Out by Big Directors”:

When Dorothy Spencer was asked what it took to become a film editor, her answer was always the same: patience.

In a five-decade career, she worked as an editor on more than 70 movies and received four Academy Award nominations across a range of genres: the Oscar-winning 1939 western “Stagecoach”; the espionage thriller “Decision Before Dawn” (1951); the costume epic “Cleopatra” (1963); and the disaster movie “Earthquake” (1974). She was sought out by directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for her deft touch, both with fight scenes and with subtle character moments.

Bringing clarity to a confusing sequence might require sifting through 11 reels of footage, but Spencer easily got lost in her work.

“I enjoy editing, and I think that’s necessary, because editing is not a watching-the-clock job,” she wrote in American Cinematographer magazine in 1974. “I’ve been on pictures where I never even knew it was lunchtime, or time to go home. You get so involved in what you’re doing, in the challenge of creating — because I think cutting is very creative.”

Bill Elias, who worked with Spencer in the Universal Pictures editing department, spoke to her work ethic.

“Every time I saw her,” he said in an interview, “she was sitting down at a Moviola” — the industry-standard film-editing machine in the era when the job required physically cutting and splicing film.

In the movie industry, where important behind-the-camera roles have generally not been open to women, editing was an exception: Though the field was still dominated by men in Spencer’s day, there have been many notable women editors over the years, including Anne Bauchens (who edited Cecil B. DeMille’s films) and Thelma Schoonmaker (who edits Martin Scorsese’s). That might be because the job, which involved sorting and restitching, was somewhere between librarian and quilt maker — professions that were traditionally considered the domains of women.

Spencer’s specialty was action movies, but one would not guess that from her short stature or from her quiet demeanor. “For some reason, I always seem to get assigned to pictures that are very physical,” she wrote in 1974.

Not that she was complaining.

“I like working on action pictures very, very much,” she said. “They’re more flexible, and I think you can do more with them.”

Dorothy Spencer, who was known as Dot, was born on Feb. 3, 1909, in Covington, in northern Kentucky, near the border of Ohio. She was the youngest of four children of Charles and Catherine (Spellbrink) Spencer. When she was a child, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where her older sister, Jeanne, began acting in movies (which she didn’t enjoy) and then became a writer and editor (which she did).

Following her sister’s example, Dot started working in the film industry when she was a teenager — first as a junior employee at the Consolidated-Aller Lab, then as an assistant editor on silent movies like “The Strong Man” (1926) and “Long Pants” (1927), the first two features directed by Frank Capra.

For four years beginning in 1937, Spencer worked with the editor Otho Lovering, cutting 10 films. She earned $5,000 in 1939 (about $102,000 in today’s dollars), but she still lived with her parents. That year marked the release of John Ford’s acclaimed western “Stagecoach,” which follows a group of strangers traveling together through perilous territory in the American Southwest in 1880. It was her most notable collaboration with Lovering — and not just because it made John Wayne a star.

The editing of “Stagecoach” was regarded as masterly. Orson Welles said that he taught himself film editing by screening a print of “Stagecoach” 45 times at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Some aspects of the editing were groundbreaking: In his book “Film Editing: History, Theory and Practice” (2001), Don Fairservice pointed out that “Stagecoach” contained one of the earliest uses — maybe even the first — of the now-commonplace technique called a prelap, in which as one scene ends, dialogue from the next is already beginning on the soundtrack.

Also innovative was the editing of the climactic action sequence, when Apache warriors attack the stagecoach. A fundamental law of film editing is the 180-degree rule: Although you can splice together a scene from diverse angles, you will confuse viewers if you cross an invisible 180-degree boundary, flipping the perspective so that a character who was facing left now faces right.

In the attack sequence, Spencer and Lovering repeatedly and deliberately broke that rule. As David Meuel observed in his book “Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema” (2016), “by disorienting and confusing the audience, it created a closer bond between viewers and the characters in the stagecoach, who are themselves thoroughly disoriented and confused. So, rather than compromising the cinematic experience, this deliberate breaking of the 180-degree rule actually intensified it.”

Spencer began working solo in 1941, and over the next decade she averaged two movies a year, working with notable directors like Hitchcock (“Lifeboat,” 1944), Elia Kazan (“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” 1945) and Ernst Lubitsch (five movies in which Spencer showed off her impeccable comic timing, including “To Be or Not to Be,” 1942).

She made most of those films as a staff editor at the 20th Century Fox studio, a job she took in 1943 and kept for the next 24 years. During her tenure, the Hollywood studio system collapsed and the aesthetics of editing evolved; for example, dissolving from one scene to another went out of style.

Spencer remained a constant, working with geniuses and journeymen, deferring to directors who had a vision in mind but offering creative flourishes when there were opportunities.

“When you work with a new director who has never had any editing experience, he often asks for the impossible,” she wrote in 1974. “You can’t tell him it won’t work. You just have to do it his way and let him realize that maybe he was wrong.”

In the soapy “Valley of the Dolls” (1967), directed by Mark Robson and based on Jacqueline Susann’s best seller about three young women struggling with the temptations of show business, she cut together some striking montages that nodded to the French New Wave. In one sequence, Patty Duke spits out water in the shower, does a multiple-exposure somersault, exercises on a rowing machine (with the top half and the bottom half of the screen deliberately out of sync) and gets married — a significant plot point, seen only in a black-and-white still photograph.

Spencer needed all her unflappability and dedication on “Earthquake,” the eighth movie she made with Robson, which featured Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Richard Roundtree and the destruction of Los Angeles.

Many scenes of seismic mayhem were filmed with multiple cameras, meaning that she had to wade through 200,000 feet of film. Her feedback spurred Robson to change his approach to filming the earthquake: Early in the shoot, she realized that “the shake wasn’t very noticeable because there was nothing in the foreground to serve as a reference for the degree of background movement.” So Robson made sure there was a prominent steady object to orient viewers.

By the time of “Earthquake,” Spencer was mostly retired and living in the rural town of Encinitas, Calif. She edited one last movie — “The Concorde … Airport ’79,” another disaster film — but otherwise kept her distance from Hollywood; her death at 93, on May 23, 2002, went unnoticed in the press.

Frank J. Urioste, a three-time Oscar nominee for film editing himself, said in an interview, “I wanted to work for her one time, just so I could say I got to work for Dorothy Spencer.”

If he had, he might have learned a lesson about striving for perfection: “The more you see a film, the more critical you get,” she wrote in 1974. “But a paying audience sees the film only once, so perhaps they won’t catch it.”

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