The Early Visionaries of American Film: A Series – Part 1
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…Women were the driving force behind Hollywood and the movies. This is the first part in a series paying homage to the women who broke the glass ceiling and wrote and directed the films that gave birth to the “Golden Age” of cinema and the motion picture industry. Unfortunately, when the men realized the gold mine films were becoming, the women faded away thanks to the Hollywood studio system. Well, as the saying goes, “that’s the way they do you.”
Frances Marion was a trailblazer. becoming one of the most powerful screenwriters of the 20th century. With a career that spanned decades, she became the first female to win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1930 for the prison life film The Big House, starring Robert Montgomery, Wallace Beery, and Chester Morris. Her research included visiting San Quentin for the atmosphere and lingo of the inmates. The movie gave audiences their first experience of hearing prison doors slam shut, tin cups clanking on mess-hall tables and prisoners’ feet shuffling down corridors.
Frances also received the Academy Award for Best Story for The Champ in 1932. The tearjerker chronicled the relationship between a washed out boxer (Wallace Beery) and his young son (Jackie Cooper). Marion was credited with writing 300 scripts and producing over 130 films.
Born Marion Benson Owens (November 18, 1888) in San Francisco, California, she worked as a journalist and served overseas as a combat correspondent during World War I. On her return home in 1910, she moved to Los Angeles and was hired as a writing assistant, and actress by “Lois Weber Productions”, a film company owned and operated by pioneer female film director Lois Weber. (more on Lois Weber in Part 2 of the series)
Frances was quite beautiful and could have been an actress but preferred to work behind the camera. She learned screenwriting from Lois Weber and went on to become the highest paid screenwriter, woman or man. Hollywood moguls competed for her stories and stars of the day Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino brought her characters to life on the screen. From 1919 – 1939 her star was ascendant, born at the right place and the right time, honing her craft during one of the most liberating eras for women in film.
When Marion met Mary Pickford (actress, producer, screenwriter) they became best friends with Marion writing screen adaptations of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Poor Little Rich Girl for Pickford. As a result of the commercial success of “The Poor Little Rich Girl” in 1917 Marion was signed as Pickford’s “exclusive writer” at the salary of $50,000 a year, an unprecedented arrangement for that time.
Pickford was the celebrated “America’s Sweetheart” and in 1919 together with her swashbuckler actor husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., director D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) and “The Tramp” Charlie Chaplin established “United Artists” pictures. These four were the leading figures in early Hollywood and this was their stand for independence against the powerful studio system. Mary was also one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1921, Frances Marion directed a film for the first time with Just Around the Corner. That same year, she directed her friend Mary Pickford in one of her own scripts entitled The Love Light. Their relationship was more than just writer and star, they were collaborators and the friendship between Pickford and Marion lasted more than 50 years.
Married four times, Frances Marion had two children with third husband, actor Fred Thomson. This was her longest marriage, lasting from 1919 until Thomson’s sudden and tragic death from a Tetanus infection in 1928. Frances’ great friend Mary Pickford had introduced them. Frances said it was love at first sight.
For many years she was under contract to MGM Studios, but, independently wealthy, she left Hollywood in 1946 to devote more time to writing stage plays and novels. Frances Marion published a memoir Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood in 1972.
Frances died on May 12, 1973 leaving a legacy of innovation, independence and inspiration for future aspiring female writers. The documentary, Frances Marion: Without Lying Down,” is an insightful profile of her life and achievements in Hollywood.
Narrated by “Pulp Fiction” actress Uma Thurman and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, who gives voice to the screenwriter’s own words taken from her letters, diaries. and memoirs. The documentary also features footage from more than twenty of Marion’s movies, with commentary by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, and film critic Leonard Maltin.
I was fortunate enough to catch it on Turner Classic Movies and it was very enlightening on women’s roles in Hollywood. It’s also available for purchase at Amazon.com. I highly recommend checking it out!
“I’ve spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.” Frances Marion
It took more than 60 years before women were once again present in meaningful numbers at every level of film production.