No. 3235: VERNA FIELDS, "MOTHER CUTTER"
by Karen Fang
Today, the mother of all film editors. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The classic aquatic scare film, Jaws, is a special effects spectacular. Yet its scariest shot is one of the simplest.
For the film's action sequences, young Hollywood hot shot Steven Spielberg blew his budget on three life-size mechanical sharks. The prop sharks were fully submersible and supposed to be highly realistic. One had articulated parts to mimic a real shark's sideways swim. On screen, however, they were lumbering fakes that had all the menace of a manatee. This shark, Spielberg worried, wasn't going to scare anyone.
Luckily, Spielberg's film editor Verna Fields, a Hollywood veteran then with more years studio experience than Spielberg, had an idea. Ignoring the shark altogether, Fields cut any footage that showed its entirety, focusing instead on thrashing water and the unseen menace of the deep. Terror, as the ancient Greeks knew, is always more effective when left to the imagination.
Verna Fields in her editing room in Los Angeles, 1975
Fields's tautly recut passages are Jaws's racing heart, and a vivid example of film editing's power. By deftly parsing visual imagry, editors like Fields help make movies like Jaws so unforgettable. Yet Fields, unlike Spielberg, isn't a household name. This anonymity is partly because of how little we know about film editing, but also due to gender.
From cinema's beginning many early film editors were women. No doubt this is because of its similarities to sewing. Film editing requires careful attention to thousands of feet of raw footage which is cut and spliced together to shape feeling and tell a story. Before digital editing this was done manually with scissors and glue, so filmmakers often hired women, thinking that nimble fingers were ideal for this tedious and seemingly perfunctory job.
Yet as Hollywood storytelling evolved, editing rose in income and status and more men became film editors. But as careers like Verna Fields's show, women have always been among Hollywood's leading editors. Their impact is clear in classic films like Jaws, whose editing is as key to the tension as its famous soundtrack.
The mechanical shark, attached to the tower
Why is it, then, that we know little about film editors? Their work happens off set, so is largely invisible. It's also invisible in the sense that good editing works when you don't notice cuts but just are absorbed in the story that film editing helps tell.
A big reason, though, that film editing isn't as noted as orchestration, is its history as a female trade. Like domestic work and child care, there's no question film editing is important; but similar misconceptions of film editing as menial initially consigned the job to women. As a consequence, we've never given film editors their due.
But if film editing's early debt to female labor was a way of devaluing it, it's appropriate that Verna Fields was known in Hollywood as "Mother Cutter." Movies wouldn't be what they are if it weren't for film editors, many of whom happen to be women. Verna Fields, "Mother Cutter," was one the best. By using gender to honor her legacy, Fields's professional nickname reminds us of the many people who make movie creativity.
So the next time you see a great movie, remember that no matter how good the actors, directing, music or the cinematography, it is film editors like Verna Fields who sew the final story together.
I'm Karen Fang, for the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Clip from Jaws (Universal, 1975): https://youtu.be/rW23RsUTb2Y.
Scott Feinberg, "Top Directors Reveal How Female Film Editors Shaped Their Movies".
The Shark is Still Working (film) (Erik Hollander, Finatic Productions, 2007)
This episode was first aired on May 19, 2020