Women of Hollywoodland celebrates the pioneering female filmmakers at the dawn of Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s. This episode focusses on one of the most successful screenwriters of all time, Frances Marion.
Without Lying Down – the definitive biography of Frances Marion, by Cari Beauchamp
Hello! I’m Claire and welcome to the very first episode of Women of Hollywoodland. The idea of this podcast is to uncover and celebrate the women who were working at the dawn of Hollywood – women hardly anyone knows existed anymore. We think of Hollywood as the original boys’ club, right? Every couple of years, there’s a flurry of discussion about how we can get more female voices into cinema — in fact, for the past couple of years, Hollywood has been under investigation by the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission for its woeful track record in hiring women for key creative roles. And even when there’s some good news – when a female driven film is successful, like Bridesmaids, we talk about it as though it’s a fluke – as though as though film is just a guy thing, and it always has been. But it hasn’t.
In 2015, 11% of Hollywood movies were written by women, and 7% directed by them. But up until 1925, a full 50% of films were written by women – and for many of those years, women were directing around half too. For the first two decades of the movie industry – from the turn of the 20th century until the early twenties or so – women were writing, directing, producing and editing films in numbers we can only dream of today. According to Karen Ward Mahar’s exellent book “Women in Early Hollywood” – which I really recommend, by the way – “At the height of their activity, between 1918 and 1922, women directed forty-four feature-length films, headed more than twenty production companies, wrote hundreds of produced screenplays, became the first agents and held positions as editors and heads of scenario and publicity departments.”
In 1920, Ladies Home Journal declared “within five years, the feminine influence will be fully fifty-fifty in Studio land.” Obviously by five years, they meant 97 years – and counting.
And these women weren’t just there — they were pioneers. Female stars could expect top billing, had control over who directed and wrote for them, and were paid as much — and often more — than their male counterparts. The first star to sign a million dollar contract to a studio was a woman. The first studio head was a woman. The first screenwriter to win multiple Oscars was a woman.
And people were aware of this as a thing – this brand new industry that was all about the ladies. In fact, in 1915 Motion Picture Supplement published an article called Women’s Conquest in Filmdom: “In no line of endeavor has woman made so emphatic an impression than in the amazing film industry. One may not name a single vocation in either the artistic or business side of its progress in which women are not conspicuously engaged. In the theatres, in the studios and even in the exchanges where film productions are marketed and released to exhibitors, the fair sex is represented as in no other calling.”
This started to change around the early twenties- for reasons we’ll get into a little bit in this podcast – but even in 1930, out of the four big nominated films at the third annual Academy Awards The Big House, The Divorcee, Anna Christie and All Quiet on the Western Front, only one – the last one – didn’t have a woman credited on the screenwriting team. Can we say the same about last night?
The winner that night, was Frances Marion for The Big House. The following year, she’d win again, for The Champ – making her not only the first woman to win an oscar, but only one of 6 screenwriters ever – in 89 Academy Awards – to win multiple times. The record holder is Woody Allen with three, there’s also Charles Brackett who wrote Sunset Boulevard and The Lost Weekend, Paddy Chayefsky who wrote Network, Quentin Tarantino and Billy Wilder.
So why don’t we ever talk about the fact that there’s a woman on that list? Well one of the reasons is a simple technicality – unlike the five men, Frances Marion never won “Best Original Screenplay” – because that award didn’t exist in her time. She won “best writing” and “best story.” So she’s not technically one of the record holders.
Frances Marion was ultimately credited with writing over three hundred screenplays – admittedly many of those were what we’d call today shorts, but still – that’s staggering. She was involved in the direction and production of at least half a dozen – sometimes uncredited because in those days, roles were quite fluid. She wrote career launching or defining roles for Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo – in addition to her own awards, she wrote Oscar winning performances for Garbo, and vaudeville star Marie Dressler. And she was known for mentoring aspiring screenwriters – particularly women. In 1926, Sam Goldwyn’s personal secretary, Valeria Belletti, wrote home to a friend:
This has been one of the happiest days of my life, therefore I must write to you. Miss Marion sent her car down to my hotel to bring me to her home to have lunch with her. I was so thrilled! Miss Marion and I spent the whole afternoon together, and she was so affectionate towards me. … before I come back (Valeria was about to take a three month trip to Italy), I am to notify her about 2 months in advance,a nd if her own secretary is sufficiently well known to go on as a scenario writer, she is going to take me and develop me into a scenario writer and I am to live with her. Irma – it seems impossible that I of all people should have won her confidence and regard to such an extent that Miss Marion, the dean and peer of scenario writers, should want me as her protégé.
How amazing is that – “the dean and peer of scenario writers” – are there any women around today we would call that?
So – Marion Benson Owens was born on November 18, 1888 in San Francisco, into a wealthy, bohemian family – her father was one of the early pioneers of advertising, and the writer Jack London was a family friend. At age twelve, just after her parents divorced, she was caught drawing cartoons making fun of her teachers on the blackboard, and expelled “from all public schools.” After art school, she married her first husband at age 19, then she worked at a peach cannery, as a telephone operator and as a photographer’s assistant, then finally as a reporter on the San Francisco Examiner. In 1912, she moved to Los Angeles with her second husband – Marion would marry four times in total, and once say that she had spent her life searching for a man she could “look up to without lying down.”
In Los Angeles, she worked as a portrait and commercial artist, and formed the original Hollywood girl gang with Adela Rogers St Johns, Anita Loos and rising star Mary Pickford, who would become arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood when she opened her own studio – United Artists in 1919 — and Marion’s best friend and close collaborator.
It was Adela Rogers St Johns who introduced Marion to Lois Weber – then arguably the top female director in Hollywood, and often considered one of the three “great minds” of the era, alongside Cecil B Demille and DW Griffith. Weber hired Marion as her assistant, thus beginning her Hollywood career. In those days, everyone involved in a movie did a bit of everything – Lois was personally involved in every aspect of production, and as her assistant, so was Marion. It was also while working for Lois Weber that she changed her professional name from Marion Benson Owens to Francis Marion – though a couple of years later, producer William Brady thought it sounded like “a whorehouse madam” and called her Pete.
By 1917, Frances Marion was well on her way to becoming *the* hot screenwriter. She’d written smash hits starring Mary Pickford, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl, and was already the highest paid contract screenwriter, on a whopping $200/week from World Film Productions in New York – this at a time when the average weekly wage was around $10. But on April 2, 1917 the US entered the First World War, and Marion headed across the Atlantic to report, amongst other things, on the contributions of women to the war effort. After Armistice, she was the first woman to cross the Rhine into the former German territory. While in France, she met a young American soldier named Fred Thompson who would become her third husband – and probably the love of her life. After the war they headed back to Hollywood, where Frances worked for Paramount and the Hearst Film Corporation (as in Hearst magazines, she was a lifelong friend of William Randolph Hearst and his longtime mistress Marion Davies). Frances and Fred had two sons (Marion worked right up until she gave birth to their first son, and they adopted the second), and Fred became a major cowboy star and a bit of a hearthrob, until his tragic death from tetnus in 1928.
It was for the Hearst Film Corporation that Marion officially directed her first film, Just Around the Corner in 1921 – before settling at the newly formed MGM, where she would stay more or less for the rest of her career. There she started on $2000/week, soon rising to $3500/week – solidifying her reputation as Hollywood’s highest paid script writer. There, she churned out hit after hit – the smash hit weepie, “Stella Dallas” “Son of the Sheik” with Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky, and almost single handedly got the entire world obsessed with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert’s affair, by writing the ever so sexy “Flesh and the Devil” and “Love” which was based on Anna Karenina. Apparently they changed the title purely so the movie posters would read Greta Garbo and John Gilbert – in Love. Later she wrote Garbo’s first talkie Anna Christie, featuring the immortal line “gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby.”
Marion was known as an ‘actors’’ writer, and specialised in writing great vehicles for the studio’s stars, including — deep breath — Mary Pickford of course, Mary Miles Minter, Marion Davies, Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, Rudolph Valentino, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. She was involved in discovering both Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. According to Cari Beauchamp’s definitive biography of Frances Marion, Without Lying Down: “Hedda Hopper claimed that he [Gary Cooper] was so her type of man that when Frances first saw him standing against the wall of the studio building, – quote –
“she gave him a second look – and as she went through the door, even risked a third.”
In the early 30s, she became the only woman on the board of the newly formed Screenwriters Guild, wrote one of the first how-to screenwriting books How to Write and Sell Film Stories and taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California. She retired from Hollywood in 1946 to write plays and novels, and in 1972, the year before she died, published a memoir, Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood.
One of the many things that fascinates me about Frances Marion, is that she just seems so real. So many of those early pioneers of cinema — Cecil B Demille, DW Griffith, even Mary Pickford — seem like these distant, demi-gods, but with Frances Marion, you get the impression that she really worked to become who she did. Not that she wasn’t a naturally phenomenally talented writer, she obviously was, but she learned, and she hustled, and she wasn’t infallible. Take this story, for example:
To set the scene, it’s 1915, Marion has basically blagged her way into a job with William Brady, who was one of the most powerful producers in New York at the time – he produced the very first film version of Little Women in 1917. She arrives for her first day of work, is shown to an office, and, according to Without Lying Down:
“For the next two days, Frances concentrated on being as inconspicuous as possible while staring at a blank sheet of paper. Reality set in and with it came self-doubt and consternation over her audacity.
Then her practical side took hold and as she pondered her past, she seized on one of the first lessons she learned from Lois Weber: “a good editor can make even a mediocre film seem important.” Perhaps World has some movies that had been shelved as unreleasable that she could somehow doctor.”
She managed to find such a film in the vault, and as a bonus, it starred the producer’s daughter, Alice Brady – who would go on to be a successful Hollywood actress, thanks in part to Marion salvaging this early film. Marion turned the overwraught melodrama into a comedy, polished it up and Brady sold it for a massive profit of $9000.
And it’s stories like that that make me love her – she was a problem solver. She hustled her way into jobs and then she made it work. What writer can’t identify and sympathise with staring at a blank sheet of paper for two days and thinking ‘oh my god I actually have no talent whatsoever what am I going to do?” But how many of us would be both ingenious and humble enough to come up wit her solution?
The other thing I love about Frances Marion is her friendships. If I could time travel, lunch with that original Hollywood girl gang of Frances Marion, Anita Loos, Adela Rogers St Johns, Mary Pickford, would be my first stop. They supported one another for their entire careers, taking turns helping each other out as notoriously fickle Hollywood fortunes turned. Marion’s first mentor Lois Weber – for reasons we’ll get into in next week’s episode – died penniless and – horrifyingly – all but unknown in 1939. Marion paid for her funeral. As Cari Beauchamp says, “her friendships were as legendary as her stories.” Powerful women, particularly in tough industries like Hollywood, are so often portrayed as competitive and back stabbing, but Frances Marion said this: “I owe my greatest success to women. Contrary to the assertion that women do all in their power to hinder one another’s progress, I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who has given me a helping hand when I needed it.”
And speaking of women helping women, albeit in this case unknowingly – we would know almost nothing today of Frances Marion if it weren’t for the tireless work of film historian Cari Beauchamp. If you’re interested to learn more, I really recommend you check out her books Without Lying Down, and also Adventures of a Hollywood Secretary, which is a collection of letters Sam Goldwyn’s secretary wrote home to a friend.
Thanks so much for listening to this first episode of Women of Hollywoodland. I hope you enjoyed it, and that you’ll join me next week to get to know Lois Weber, *the* female director of the teens. If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear from you – just pop over to Hollywoodland Series.com. And if you enjoyed the show, please subscribe, rate or review on Itunes – and please let your friends, followers, random passersby on the street know about it. Thanks again, and see you next week.