Even for Talkies, the Women Who Wrote Worked Silently
By Cari Beauchamp
Frances Marion was America's highest-paid screenwriter -- man or woman -- from 1916 through the mid-1930's. She wrote 200 films, covering every genre, and won two Academy Awards. Irving Thalberg of MGM said he "adored her and trusted her completely." Her fellow writer Adela Rogers St. Johns called her "the senior all of us sophomores wanted to be." Yet over the years Marion and her once powerful female colleagues have been lost in the footnotes of Hollywood history. Now the Museum of Modern Art is trying to set the record straight by honoring them with a retrospective of their films.
"Frances Marion and Her Circle" is a two-part series, featuring more than 60 films written by women between 1912 and 1939. Beginning tomorrow and running through July 20, the first part will focus on their films with sound; the second part, in the winter, will look at their silent films.
"Examining the woman writer from the beginning of cinema gives us an opportunity to see the incredibly creative role they played in the first three decades of the development of film," said Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of film and video at the Modern, who organized the series, which also looks at the work of writers like Rogers St. Johns and Anita Loos.
Hollywood in the teens was a magnet for creative and entrepreneurial misfits of both sexes. Filmmaking was initially not taken seriously as a business, so doors were wide open, and the skyrocketing demand for product created an atmosphere that welcomed women and in many cases nurtured their talent in a collaborative setting. Women were directors, producers and editors, but they flourished as writers, and by the time Wall Street was seriously investing in the industry, they were the seasoned professionals.
Women had always found sanctuary in writing. It was work accomplished in private, requiring only a pen and some paper, and it gave them a creative vent when little else was allowed or expected of them. Marion, who was born in 1888 and died in 1973, called writing "the refuge of the shy," putting a positive spin on the anonymity that went along with the role. Half of all films written before 1925 were written by women, but writers' names rarely appeared on the screen. In fact, this figure is available only through the copyright records at the Library of Congress, where writers' names had to be included.
It is fitting that Ms. Bandy's choice to open the retrospective is the classic 1930 prison drama "The Big House," because it immediately disproves the myth that Marion wrote only sentimental weepers. Indeed, it was for this film that she won her first Academy Award for writing achievement. The movie, directed by George W. Hill and starring Wallace Berry, Robert Montgomery and Chester Morris, gave audiences their first experience of hearing prison doors slam shut, tin cups clanking on mess-hall tables and prisoners' feet shuffling down corridors. Two years later, Marion won her second Oscar for the definitive boxing film "The Champ," directed by King Vidor. (It will be shown on Thursday evening.)
The novelist Meg Wolitzer says that Marion's life had "a panoramic, novelistic sweep, like a Hollywood version of 'Ragtime' in which famous names and events are constantly making cameos." And there is plenty of evidence to back up this conclusion. Marion wrote Gary Cooper's first film, "The Winning of Barbara Worth" (1926), and Rudolph Valentino's last one, "The Son of the Sheik" (1925). "The Secret Six," which will be shown on Saturday, features two young actors she took under her wing, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, billed fourth and seventh, respectively.
But Marion's greatest professional triumphs and personal rewards came through her collaboration with the era's most famous female stars, like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were also her closest friends. Some of the finest examples of their work are in the retrospective, and many of the films are being shown on the big screen in New York for the first time in 70 years.
Marion turned to the movies in her mid-20's after being a successful commercial artist in her native San Francisco. Moving to Los Angeles in 1912, she was soon hired as an assistant by the director Lois Weber at $15 a week, and she learned every aspect of production before teaming up with Pickford. Clarence Brown, the assistant director of "The Poor Little Rich Girl," remembered the "spontaneous combustion" that Marion and Pickford created on the set of that film. After its commercial success 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 called Marion "the pillar of my career" -- and Marion did write most of Pickford's classic silent films, like "Pollyanna" and "A Little Princess" -- yet to label the two women simply as a star and her writer does not begin to explain their creative relationship. They were so close that Marion ghost-wrote the syndicated newspaper column that ran daily as "Mary Pickford's Daily Talks." Marion was at Pickford's side the first time the star met Douglas Fairbanks, whom she would marry, and it was Pickford who two years later introduced Marion to Marion's true love and third husband, the Army chaplain she turned into a cowboy star, Fred Thomson.
The two couples even honeymooned together in Europe in 1920. By 1932, when Marion wrote "Secrets" for Pickford, she was helping her friend to answer the headlines that linked Fairbanks romantically with other women. "Secrets," which will be shown on Thursday, was a platform for Pickford to express her love and forgiveness to Fairbanks as she plays a woman who stands by her husband at every turn, into old age. This was Pickford's last film, and she divorced Fairbanks two years later, but the friendship between Pickford and Marion lasted more than 50 years.
Marion came to William Randolph Hearst's attention because he credited her with Pickford's stardom, and he hired her to write for the actress Marion Davies, his mistress. Frances Marion was quick to tell him that until he stopped casting Davies as an innocent in glamorous costume epics and let her natural comedic talents blossom, Davies didn't have a chance to be a real star. Hearst respected Marion for her honesty and considered her one of his closest friends, but their tug-of-war over Davies's career continued for 15 years.
In the films Marion wrote for Davies, like "Zander the Great," which will be shown on Tuesday, and "Blondie of the Follies" (Friday), that comedic talent smiles through, and it's clear how very little the real Marion Davies had in common with Susan Alexander, the character based on her in Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane."
Lillian Gish was perhaps the friend closest to Marion in sensibility. They were personally secure women in a sea of people who depended desperately on others for verification, and they both respected filmmaking as an art form.
At least three MGM writers had turned in scripts for Gish in "The Scarlet Letter" when Thalberg called in Marion. She read through the rejects and quickly determined that they had focused on the character of Dimmesdale and his conflicted path to confession while proposing a variety of happy endings. Marion instead stayed true to the heart of Hawthorne's novel and made it Hester Prynne's, and therefore Gish's, story. They collaborated again the next year (along with the director Victor Seastrom and the actor Lars Hanson) to create the classic silent film "The Wind" (1928), which will be shown on Tuesday.
The friendship of Marion's that on the surface seems the most incongruous and yet was the deepest and most unconditional was with Marie Dressler. The two women had met in 1911 when Dressler was at the peak of vaudeville stardom and was particularly kind to Marion. Almost 20 years later, when Dressler was forgotten and ready to take a job as a housekeeper, Marion came to her rescue with an MGM contract. While Dressler was thrilled just to have a paycheck and be back in front of the cameras, that wasn't enough for Marion.
Thalberg had entrusted her with writing Greta Garbo's first sound film, "Anna Christie," and Marion used her power to have him and the director, Clarence Brown, cast Dressler in the supporting role of Marthy. Watching Dressler on the set for this film, it occurred to Marion to write a starring role that would truly highlight Dressler's dramatic and comedic talents. Then, in typical Marion fashion, she thought of another friend she might help at the same time.
The opportunity came at a meeting with executives in which Marion was describing her story -- about a gruff waterfront woman with a heart of gold -- that would become the movie "Min and Bill," starring Dressler. Marion told the executives that her idea had come from a novel by her friend Lorna Moon, a writer suffering with tuberculosis who needed money for a stay in a sanitarium.
Marion knew that the MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, and his half-dozen male supervisors rarely read books. And true to their reputation, no one at the meeting had read Moon's, a stream-of-consciousness novel about a young Scottish girl who commits suicide. They agreed to pay Moon for the rights to her story, unaware that it bore no similarity to Marion's screenplay for "Min and Bill."
Dressler went on to win an Academy Award for her performance; it was, she said, "the role I had been waiting for all my life." And the credits of "Min and Bill" still read "based on the novel 'Dark Star' by Lorna Moon."
The story behind the making of "Anna Christie," which will be shown on June 30, and "Min and Bill" (next Sunday) exemplifies what made Marion so extraordinary: she created characters with depth who grabbed audiences, while almost always finding something more to care about than the job itself.
After Thalberg, whom Marion called "my rock of Gibraltar," died in 1936, she quickly lost the freedom to create a story, help cast the film, and be on the set and in the editing room. Whereas Thalberg had produced 50 films a year with a half-dozen supervisors, 10 years later it took 40 producers to create the same number. Marion's frustration grew as she was ordered to doctor other writers' scripts, and she finally left MGM in 1946 to follow writers like Loos and Rogers St. Johns to New York to write plays and novels.
Only now, 50 years later, are women once again present in meaningful numbers at every level of film production, the distant heirs to that first pioneering wave of Hollywood women whose work has returned to the screen in "Frances Marion and Her Circle."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times
Withouth Lying Down: Frances Marion and The Early Powerful Women of Hollywood
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