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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Frances Marion (originally published 7/97)

For most of its history, the movie industry has been almost entirely male dominated. Only in recent years have women begun to move into positions of real power, and even that progress has been limited and maddeningly incremental. There was a time, however, when the influence of women in the industry was considerable. In fact, during the heyday of the silent film in the twenties, female screenwriters were so dominant in the field that their male counterparts could occasionally be heard grumbling about the inequity of it all.The big names in script writing included June Mathis, Anita Loos, Jeannie Macpherson, and Bess Meredyth, all enormously talented women reaping the fruits of their creative abilities.

At the top of the pyramid sat Frances Marion, one of early Hollywood’s most colorful, interesting, and gifted figures. The past couple of months has seen a renewed interest in Marion’s life and career, beginning with the publication of Cari Beauchamp’s biography, “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood” (Scribner, 1997). Patrons at the Museum of Modern Art have recently been treated to a Marion retrospective, entitled “Frances Marion and Her Circle,” at which thirty of her films were screened. If, however, you don’t have the luxury of flying to New York for MOMA screenings, take heart. With a little help from the corner video store, you can have your own private Marion retrospective. Look for these titles on video.

“Poor Little Rich Girl” (1917). Marion had a knack for befriending some of the most talented actresses in the business; that’s the “circle” referred to by the MOMA series title. One of her very best friends was Mary Pickford, the single biggest female star of the silent era. She became known as “America’s Sweetheart,” typically playing little girl roles until she was well into her twenties. This film, scripted by Marion, was largely responsible for the “Little Mary” image that shaped the rest of Pickford’s stellar career. Pickford plays a child of wealth and privilege who has nevertheless remained unspoiled and sweet-natured, a theme most recently reprised in “Richie Rich” (1994) with Macaulay Culkin.

“The Son of the Sheik” (1926). Rudolph Valentino’s reign as Hollywood’s greatest heartthrob of the silent era began in 1921 with “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and was solidified later that same year with the release of “The Sheik.” The sequel to that film, adapted by Marion from Edith M. Hull’s novel, would prove to be the last screen appearance by Valentino before his untimely death. It’s a fine swan song, loaded with action and romance and leavened with a tongue-in-cheek tone that invites you to enjoy the ride without taking it too seriously.

“Min and Bill” (1930). Silent star Marie Dressler’s career had fallen on hard times. Because she had been kind to Marion at a difficult time in her life, Marion determined to help Dressler make a comeback. After securing a part for Dressler in “Anna Christie” (1930), Marion wrote “Min and Bill” for her. Playing opposite Wallace Beery as Bill, Dressler creates the role of Min Divot, a tough, grizzled waterfront innkeeper. Her performance was rewarded with an Academy Award. The film's promotional trailer is reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

“The Big House” (1930). This dramatization of the brutishness of penitentiary life is the prototype for all subsequent prison movies, from Cagney right down to “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). Wallace Beery stars as the tough convict who rules the roost at the big house. Marion’s screenplay earned her the first of her two Oscars.

It is utterly impossible in this short space to do justice to Marion’s remarkable career. She wrote scripts for just about every imaginable genre, boosted the careers of innumerable Hollywood stars, and was a trusted consultant to such legendary studio heads as Sam Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. If I’ve piqued your interest, I can only recommend that you look for Beauchamp’s biography, as well as Marion’s own autobiography, “Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood” (Macmillan, 1972). You’ll read about many more of the nearly 150 films she contributed to, including early film versions of “Anne of Green Gables,” “Pollyanna,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Camille.” And you might just find yourself wishing for the return of the good old days when women needed no passport into the upper ranks of the film industry except their native talent.