Obituaries: Margaret McLean

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The Independent Online
Whether due to feminism or the triumph of trivia there has been an increasing fascination with the role of women in Hollywood, from the ideology of physical glamour to the practicalities of the technical work they have been allowed to perform there. Barbara McLean, who died at a suitably mythic 92, was not only boyishly beautiful in a manner appropriate to the golden age of Californian cinema, she was also, more importantly, a revered editor who perhaps single-handedly established women as vital creative figures in an otherwise patriarchal industry.

McLean was nominated for no less than seven Oscars for her cutting ways, finally winning the award in 1944 for Wilson, and without her film editing would never have developed into the female speciality, "ghetto" some might say, it has become in America at least.

McLean had an advantage in that she had been chopping and gluing since girlhood in her father's film laboratory in New Jersey, and when she moved to Los Angeles in 1924 she continued this paternalistic pattern by becoming the adopted protegee of Darryl F. Zanuck, the notorious 20th Century Fox chief. In fact Zanuck relied upon "Bobbie", as she was called by those who dared, for almost all his artistic decisions over several decades, and when he pronounced "Bobbie says . . ." it meant the matter was settled. Thus it was on Bobbie's recommendation that Tyrone Power was hired for Lloyd's of London and became a star, Zanuck deferring to her opinion in every area of the business from costumes to composers and composition.

McLean was head of Fox's editing for over 20 years and personally edited all of Zanuck's projects, her dedication being legendary whether watching a film 100 times before making a final cut or spending hours on the set noting the director at work. One of her regular collaborators was Henry King, and when he was shooting The Captain from Castille in 1947 she flew down to Mexico repeatedly to confer on the cutting, believing that a thorough editor should have seen a film's development all the way through.

Beginning in 1934 with The House of Rothschild and The Affairs of Cellini, McLean went on to edit innumerable films, everything from classics such as All About Eve to the improbably titled The Magnificent Dope. Amongst her last films was The Untamed (1955), but far from being tamed herself by old age or changes in technology McLean only officially retired from Fox in 1969.

Whether her exceptional slicer and splicer's eye was inherited from her family or was due to her musical studies as a child which ensured she could cut a musical to the beat, there can be no contradicting Ronald Davis's description in his 1993 book The Glamour Factory: "Creative, imaginative, and expert in her art, McLean was also quiet, efficient and co- operative." If that sounds like a patronising male qualification it can only seem radical by comparison with McLean's own theory on why women make better editors than men: "Because every woman is at heart a mother. A woman uses the scissors on a film like a mother would, with affection and understanding and tolerance."

Barbara McLean, film editor: born Palisades Park, New Jersey 1904: died Newport Beach, California 28 March 1996.