All About Bobbie: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Most Powerful Woman

When I was a kid, I heard stories of distant relatives — an uncle on one side who was shot and killed by the police, a great uncle on the other who was paralyzed from the neck down and made a living painting with a brush in his mouth — tales of tragedy and triumph from long ago that I had to take at face value. So, when I was told about a great-great aunt named Barbara McLean who had moved from New Jersey to California, long before anyone else in the family had, and worked in Hollywood in the 1930s, I just digested her story along with all the rest.

Recently, my sister sent me an obituary for Barbara that ignited an urge to find out more about her. And, from what I’ve managed to dig up online, I was surprised to discover that she was, in fact, a massively influential figure in the film industry. I found that Barbara McLean didn’t just work during the male-dominated “Golden Age of Hollywood,” but made a name for herself as its “Editor-in-Chief,” editing films for over four decades. Yet, oddly enough, her story is still relatively unknown to the general public.

Barbara McLean at 20th Century Fox, editing Sing, Baby, Sing in 1936.

On November 16, 1903 in Palisades Park, NJ, Antonio and Filomena Pollut (a variation among a long list of variations on my own last name) welcomed their new baby girl, Barbara, into the world. Growing up in Palisades Park had its advantages — first and foremost for her was its proximity to Fort Lee, a borough only a few miles east considered at the time to be the “motion-picture capital of America.” She began working on films at an early age, cutting negatives and splicing together release prints for E.K. Lincoln Studio in her father’s film laboratory. By the end of 1918, however, the movie studios had all but left New Jersey for Hollywood, and Barbara was determined to do the same. In 1924, she married film projectionist J. Gordon McLean and the two decided to head west to make it in the film industry.

By the early 1930s, her career had got its start — not as an actor, but as an assistant editor under Alan McNeil at First National Studio. After years of apprentice work, her first solo credit as the editor on a film came in 1934 with Gallant Lady. She soon moved onto Twentieth Century Pictures, a new company that had been releasing its movies through United Artists, and not long after joining the studio, was nominated for her first Academy Award for editing Les Misérables (1935). This was the first film adaptation of the classic French novel, and it won her some recognition, but not the Oscar.

Barbara McLean examining a film reel circa 1939.

By the end of 1935, Twentieth Century Pictures was bought by the Fox Film Corporation and became 20th Century Fox, headed up by Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck was an editor himself and was known for demanding the best editors in town. Luckily for “Bobbie,” as she was affectionately known in the film industry, Zanuck believed in her skills and judgment as an editor. He actually trusted her so much that he would ask for her thoughts on wardrobe, casting, and any number of other decisions related to production.

On one historic occasion, Zanuck turned to her when he couldn’t choose between Tyrone Power and Don Ameche for the starring role in Lloyds of London (1936), and she decided on Power — a decision which launched his career. “Don Ameche was good,” she said, “but the other fellow looked more dashing in the movie’s costumes.” Bobbie also edited the film, which almost assuredly sealed Power’s future as a movie star. According to one Los Angeles Times article from 1940, “Barbara McLean, one of Hollywood’s three women film editors, can make stars — or leave their faces on the cutting room floor.”

Barbara at work in the editing room in 1938.

By this point in her career, with years of expertise already, her process for film editing had become meticulous, critical, and heavily relied upon. But, what truly set her apart from other editors in Hollywood was the power she held in her position. She edited the majority of her movies as they were being filmed, and could tell directors when to reshoot or add scenes, if she felt they were needed. She often had final cut on films too. She knew how lucky she was to have this power though, having said, “I’ve always been pretty fortunate in being able to put the picture in the first cut as I saw fit.”

Barbara McLean editing a film circa 1939.

Once the cuts were screened, she sat beside Darryl Zanuck, the only woman in the screening room, voicing her opinion. And she was not afraid to disagree with Zanuck, having said, “I don’t care. Don’t ask me. If you’re going to ask me, then listen to me.”

She wouldn’t hold her tongue for anyone else either. On working with director Henry King, whose films she frequently edited, “We used to have some little arguments. I’d spend a lot of time on the set and sometimes he would say, ‘I’m going to do so-and-so-and-so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘You are?’ He’d say, ‘Now what’s the matter?’ I’d say, ‘Well, gee…’ and I’d give my opinion on something. And he’d say, ‘Now, don’t get me all off the track.’ I’d say, ‘Well, you asked me and I’m telling you.”

Barbara accepting the Academy Award for editing Wilson in 1945.

After her first nomination for Les Misérables in 1936, Bobbie went on to be nominated four more times for film editing before finally winning with her sixth nomination in 1945 for Wilson, a biopic about the life of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The movie was a box office flop, but a hit among critics. In 1951, she was nominated one final time for All About Eve, but had tough competition in what are now considered some of the best films ever made, including The Third Man, Annie Get Your Gun, and Sunset Blvd. All of which lost out to Ralph E. Winters and Conrad A. Nervig for King Solomon’s Mines. She held the title for most Best Editing nominations from the Academy Awards (seven total between 1936–1951) until 2012 when her record was broken by Michael Kahn (editor of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and many more of Spielberg’s movies).

Barbara McLean reading a script circa 1939.

By the late ’40s, she was held in such high regard that, in 1949, she was promoted to chief of the editing division at Fox. Around this time, her marriage to Gordon fell apart and the two divorced, but Barbara decided to keep the last name (I don’t blame her, especially when your birth name is nearly identical to a word that means “contaminate” or “infect”). Not long thereafter, she found and married Robert D. Webb in 1951. Webb also worked in the industry as a director and assistant director and, most notably, won the last ever Academy Award for Best Assistant Director — a very short-lived category that only lasted five years — for his work on In Old Chicago (1938). He’s also known for having directed Elvis Presley in his film debut, Love Me Tender (1956).

Two of her biggest career highlights came in 1953 with The Robe, the first film to be shot in CinemaScope, and Niagara, considered as the film which made Marilyn Monroe a star, giving her top billing for the first time and scoring the actress the first big hit of her career. Bobbie was a big proponent of Monroe’s, not only in how she edited her movies, but pushing to get her cast in the first place. From All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made!, “In 1951, when director Henry King was casting Wait ’Til the Sun Shines, Nellie, Marilyn tested for a part. McLean, watching the test results with King, predicted: ‘That girl’s going to be a big star.’ King answered, ‘Well, I haven’t got time to wait.’ McLean’s rejoinder: ‘I’d sure take her if I was directing the picture.”

From the February, 1952 issue of Vogue, Barbara McLean at work on a film.

She continued working on films as Fox’s “Editor-in-Chief” throughout the ’50s and ’60s — and, in 1969, after 20 years of supervising the editing on all of the studio’s films, she retired to care for her husband who had recently become ill. In the years since, she’s been featured in books chronicling influential women both in and outside of her industry, including Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present; Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema; Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century; and Nobody’s Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood— a book which features her so prominently, she can be seen front and center on its cover.

In his book, Women Film Editors, author David Meuel deemed her “the top Hollywood film editor of her era.” And, in 1988, Bobbie gained further recognition when she won the American Cinema Editors’ first ever Career Achievement Award.

Barbara “Bobbie” McLean Webb died on March 28, 1996 in Newport Beach, CA at age 92. She outlived her husband Robert by 6 years, but can be found by his side in a grave marked “Barbara Rose Webb,” top row of the mausoleum, just to Robert’s right.

I never got to meet her, despite living on the same coast, just a few miles north, and my being almost 10 years-old by the time she passed away. It’s a shame we didn’t, but, what really saddens me is how difficult it’s been to find any information about her — how untold her story has been until recent years. I can only imagine the amount of strength it took to gain so much success and power in an industry built to tear her down and keep her quiet, all while still being respected and adored by her peers. She not only helped pave the way for the inclusion of women in the industry, but pushed the industry as a whole to be better — to tell better stories and to make better films. She’s an inspiration, to say the least. Today is her birthday, and although great-great-aunt might be a tenuous connection, I’m proud of her and that she’s part of my family.