The Woman Who Invented the Hollywood Screenwriter

The Woman Who Invented the Hollywood Screenwriter

It’s hard to imagine Hollywood without Frances Marion. The story of the screenwriter’s career is entwined with the story of Hollywood itself, from its pioneer days to the Golden Age. Part of Marion’s skill as a writer was how her mind conjured images and action as easily as it did words, but her career was shaped as much by a series of deep friendships and loyalties as by her instinctive understanding of the new medium’s possibilities. Talented and popular as well as noted for her beauty, Marion was the toast of the film business, commanding the highest salaries and most breathless publicity. At the end of the 1920s, Photoplay called her “one of the very few scenario writers whose name meant anything at the box office,” and at the start of the following decade, she won two Oscars back to back. If her name is less well known now, it is because she was sidelined once the studio system was entrenched, despite being one of the many remarkable women who were respected in early Hollywood.

Marion Benson Owens was born in San Francisco in 1888. Her father divorced her mother when Marion was almost ten and remarried just a few years later. She was sent to a Christian boarding school, which only confirmed her aversion to organized religion and coaxed out her rebellious streak. The opening line of her memoir would read: “By the time I was ten years old I had been thoroughly schooled in all the social hypocrisies.” Young Marion was a keen writer and sketcher, and her mother encouraged her artistic talents, sending her to the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco as a teenager. In the comparatively liberated years that followed, Marion began selling her stories, poems, and artwork to magazines, as well as exploring the more bohemian quarters of the city and falling in love with her art teacher, Wesley de Lappe, to whom she became engaged after a short courtship. They were on a date together when the famous earthquake shattered San Francisco in April 1906, and they were married that October.

Cari Beauchamp suggests, in her essential and expansive biography Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, that the reason there were so many female screenwriters during the silent era is that “women had always found sanctuary in writing” in times when “little was expected or accepted of a woman other than to be a good wife and mother.” Unlike other film jobs that require training and experience, writing could be done in private without going anywhere near a film studio. In any event, Marion was happier working at home than in an office or on a set (and given her stature, studios allowed her the choice), but she was not a recluse by nature. Her work also reveals the mind of a woman who traveled, worked, and loved with passion. Such adventurousness was no doubt in her character, but its influence on her work can also be traced back to an early lesson from a famous friend of her family. Jack London advised Marion, back when she was a teenage newlywed, and just beginning to get published: “If you expect to write stories pulsing with real life, or put upon canvas compositions that are divinely human, you must go forth and live. Study human nature by rubbing elbows with the people. Go out and work with them, eat with them, dream with them.”

So Marion went out to work, picking up shifts in a fruit cannery and as a telephone operator—jobs that didn’t last long but did provide material for short stories. The hours that Marion devoted to her drawing and writing left her little time for her husband, and they were divorced after four years of marriage, which is when she began working as a commercial artist and as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. From this point on she would earn her living with her creative talents, which were no longer her outlet but her business.

Her second husband, Robert Dickson Pike, promised her a future in New York and Paris, but in 1912 they moved to Los Angeles for his job instead. Marion was to work for Oliver Morosco designing theatrical posters, and by a happy coincidence, she arrived in Hollywood just around the same time that the film industry was making a foothold there. In 1914, she ran into a woman she had interviewed and sketched for the Chronicle three years earlier: the vaudeville star Marie Dressler, who was in town to film Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Mack Sennett.

The two women had clicked in the interview, and now Dressler took Marion under her wing and offered to introduce her to her new friends in the “flickers.” Dressler said making movies was exciting, like “sitting in the middle of a cement mixer,” and that Marion clearly had the looks to be an actress. It was the beginning of a close friendship, and a professional relationship that endured until Dressler’s death in 1934. Time and again throughout her career, Marion would write roles for stars she admired that captured their best qualities and stretched their talents: she could be an actress’s best ally, as Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, and Lillian Gish could testify. Journalist Adela Rogers St Johns, another of Marion’s Los Angeles pals from this time, said: “Behind a Madonna-like face and a shy-and-ladylike manner, Frances Marion had the rugged determination of a boa constrictor where a friend was concerned.” Marion, who maintained a strong female network throughout her career, put it another way: “women progress more with civilization than men, and reach out to others like plants to the sun, but men at work get swept into the vortex.”

Marion hadn’t taken up Dressler’s offer straight away, but the circles she moved in gradually included more movie folk. At a party she met Pickford, who commissioned her to paint her portrait. Shortly afterward, Adela arranged for Marion to meet director Lois Weber, who was looking for a “refined type” starlet. She requested to work on the “dark side” of the camera instead, but nevertheless signed a contract to work for Weber, under her newly assumed name: Frances Marion.

Marion didn’t just act: she also shifted scenery, wrote press releases, and cut film. This was her film school, and the place where she fell in love with making movies and realized that she wanted to write them. Pickford finally gave her the job she wanted, as a screenwriter at the Famous Players-Lasky studio, writing especially for her, on an enviably high salary. The professional and personal union of Pickford and Marion weathered many changes of studio and fortune over the years: the films they made together are practically the model of how to protect and expand upon an established star persona. Marion and Pickford shared a sense of fun, and an energy that audiences found attractive. If Pickford’s fans liked her in little-girl roles, the two women put together films in which she could play irreverent, spirited, or even naughty variations on the archetype: The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Stella Maris.

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Changes were on the horizon, though. Toward the end of the war, Marion spent a year in Europe as a war correspondent. Pickford sobbed to Motion Picture Magazine: “It isn’t only that there never will be another writer like her—that without her scenarios I’ll lose the biggest inspiration I have­—but I am losing my best friend, the dearest chum I ever had.” After her return, in 1919, Marion divorced Pike and married her third husband Fred Thomson, a chaplain who went on to be a cowboy star, just as the following year Pickford divorced Owen Moore and married Douglas Fairbanks. Marion and Thomson joined them on honeymoon.

Her successes with Pickford in the 1910s gave Marion a grand entrance in 1920s Hollywood, leading to her reign as one of the business’s most esteemed writers—­and one of the movie colony’s leading behind-the-scenes women, alongside fellow screenwriters and friends June Mathis and Anita Loos. In 1920 she had a huge hit with the Fannie Hurst adaptation Humoresque, and in 1921 directed two films herself, Just Around the Corner and The Love Light, a war epic informed by her time overseas, which starred Pickford and Thomson. Marion soon discovered she preferred writing to the pressures of running a film set, and she was in her element at her desk. She wrote some of the greatest Hollywood films of the 1920s, including such screen spectacles as the desert western The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), with its unforgettable flood climax. The tent city built for the filming required around 2,000 laborers to build, but Marion’s greatest challenge was engineering a love story for stars Vilma Banky and Ronald Colman into a story about irrigation and desert reclamation. She then had to rework her script midshoot, downplaying the role taken by a young and unexpectedly charismatic actor called Gary Cooper (“this guy is going to steal the picture,” she warned director Henry King and producer Sam Goldwyn), so as to make Colman’s romantic triumph credible. All in a day’s work for a Hollywood screenwriter, while a town was erected and destroyed around her, and a future star was born.

Although Marion flexed her talent across several genres, including the western, her best-remembered silent features will always be her astonishing female-led melodramas: Stella Dallas in 1925 for United Artists, and Lillian Gish’s best films at MGM, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). With these three films, Marion refined her ability to translate a novel into a collection of strong images, with a swift pace and a heart-stopping finale. Belle Bennett as Stella Dallas standing outside her daughter’s wedding in the rain; Gish and Hanson standing on the scaffold at the climax of The Scarlet Letter, his chest branded with an A-shaped scar; or again in the open door at the close of The Wind.

Stella Dallas

In an article for Photoplay in 1926 Marion described the process of adapting great novels for female stars, but with a touch of self-deprecation or tongue-in-cheek humor: “We tear it down, we reconstruct it, we make the woman dominate, and the male character as passive as every woman would like to have her husband. We end up with a splendid vehicle for a woman star—and the cyclone-wrecked story.” Her script for Stella Dallas was so tight, it was hardly changed for the Barbara Stanwyck remake in 1937, while the others are equally unimprovable. 

The Scarlet Letter is an ingenious reworking of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel. More than just a conversion of the text into film imagery, Marion’s adaptation is framed around its leading lady, just as she joked in Photoplay, but here that is all to the film’s advantage, foregrounding Gish’s sensitive portrayal of Hester Prynne. It also finessed the novel’s adulterous plot in order to placate the sensibilities of the Hays Office. Famously, The Wind too had to be given a softer ending than the one in the source novel. Marion fought Irving Thalberg on the point, and then wrote something perfect. Nevertheless, even pragmatic Marion was bruised by the process, saying it was “the last film to which she gave her heart as well as her head.” Shortly after its release, the love of Marion’s life, Thomson, died on Christmas Day 1928.

A theme emerges in Marion’s 1920s work of lost or adopted babies and unorthodox parents—from the stolen child in The Love Light to Vilma Banky’s foundling in The Winning of Barbara Worth, Stella Dallas’s sacrifice of her maternal role, Min’s protection of Nancy in Min and Bill, the estranged father and daughter in Anna Christie (1930), and Wallace Beery’s single dad in The Champ (1931). You could even include Norma Shearer’s horror of her putative mother-in-law in Their Own Desire (1929). Marion and Thomson had had one child and adopted another, and in her work she seems to be exploring the many forms that motherhood can take.

The Champ

The Champ (1931), one of Marion’s earlier talkies, is especially interesting in this light: it’s a boxing film that is also a male melodrama, playing out like an update of Chaplin’s The Kid, and a precursor to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Wallace Beery, so often playing a thug, is here a sympathetic father to his young son (Jackie Cooper), even if he is a drunk; by contrast his ex-wife is a respectable society woman, but she has little experience of parenting. Marion shows us that mothers come in a variety of guises, and often splits the mothering role into two characters: the Champ and his ex-wife, Stella Dallas and Helen, Min and Bella. And this theme neatly ties in to one of Marion’s other pet subjects: the sympathetic outcast. Hester Prynne, Stella, Min and Bill, Anna Christie—and even Billie Dove’s fallen chorine in the Marion Davies vehicle Blondie of the Follies (1932).

Initially, Marion seemed unfazed by the coming of sound. She started the 1930s strong, with consecutive Oscars for The Big House (1930) and The Champ, and wrote Greta Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie (1930), another tale of an outcast woman and her isolated father. When adapting Eugene O’Neill’s play Marion inserted a sequence set in Coney Island to open up the drama, but she made sure to keep in her character’s memorably dry first line: “Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.” 

She was also married once more, briefly, to George Hill, who directed The Big House. She researched this crusading prison drama by taking a tour of San Quentin, proving that she never lost the habit of “elbow-rubbing” that she picked up from London. The visit was a grueling experience, made worse by a patronizing warden who smirked, “I’ll be curious how a little woman like you handles this situation,” and offered to show her an execution. But Marion considered it worthwhile, and she deployed what she learned and the characters she met in her Oscar-winning screenplay. A few years later, when she came to write Riffraff (1936), in which Jean Harlow plays a cannery worker falling for Spencer Tracy’s tuna fisherman in the midst of union wrangles, perhaps she drew on the memory of her brief stint as a fruit-canner too.

Riffraff

Marion continued her loyalty to her first friends in Hollywood. Marie Dressler, who had been so sympathetic to a shy reporter from the Chronicle one day in 1911, could count on Marion’s support at the twilight of her career, in an always ageist industry. Marion wrote smash-hit roles for the sixtysomething Dressler, including the jaded dockside landlady who cares deeply for her adopted daughter in 1930’s Min and Bill (Dressler said it was “the role I had been waiting for all my life,” and it won her a best-actress Oscar), and the peerless Carlotta, the graciously aging theater dame in the sublime society comedy Dinner at Eight (1933).

Pickford and Marion’s collaboration was not over yet either: it bowed out with the actress’s final film, Secrets, in 1933. This movie was based on a play Marion had adapted for Norma Talmadge in 1924, and hadn’t much cared for, but Pickford requested a new Secrets for her screen finale, saying: “Please come do this, you are the only one who can write for me,” Marion couldn’t refuse. “It was the kind of movie a star would love,” she said later. “She felt it would be the vehicle through which she could prove herself all over again.” So Marion returned to Secrets and fine-tuned the drama to Pickford’s comic strengths. It’s the story of a marriage, told in episodes from courtship, through the pioneer days in the west, to an anniversary celebration with their adult children. Pickford plays the wife and Leslie Howard the husband. There’s a splash of the visual comedy she and Marion reveled in, thanks largely to some slapstick with cumbersome crinolines, but also tense action in a western shootout, and tragedy too. Pickford isn’t at the peak of her silent-era powers, but she’s relaxed and credible at every age. The final shot shows Pickford’s character radiant as a happy new bride, on a covered wagon heading west—an optimistic note for the coda of the star’s swan song. The film became a testament to her own career, and to the writer who supported her through it almost every step of the way.

Sadly, as the 1930s wore on, Marion was becoming dissatisfied with screenwriting (“you have four or five notes and, when those are used, you have the same four or five notes all over again”) and her status in the industry would soon slip. The memories of the silent era, and the powerful women who worked at that time, seemed to embarrass Hollywood in the time of the talkie, when there were far fewer women in prominent creative roles. Marion, and the memory of her great achievements in the silent days, also fell from favor. It’s as if Hollywood forgot how much it owed to her talent in the first place. Marion remembered that while she, Loos, and Bess Meredyth were consulted on most of MGM’s 1930s screenplays, they were forced to hide their work, to prevent snide comments about “the tyranny of the woman writer.”

Marion’s screenplays were increasingly cocredited to colleagues who worked on the dialogue, although her talent for narrative construction and dramatic action had never diminished. Just remember Dressler yomping round the harbor in a speedboat in Min and Bill, the riot and the roach race in The Big House, yet more riots in Riffraff. There’s a set piece in Knight Without Armour (1937) worthy of a prestige silent epic. The setting is revolutionary Russia and Dietrich is an aristocrat, standing on her lawn confronted by a horde of Bolsheviks who have come to abduct her. They pause, daunted by her boldness. Finally, the peasant women break through the ranks of their male comrades—“She’s only a WOMAN”—and the skirmish begins.

Marion’s name can be found on more than 130 films. Her last screenplay credit was 1940’s Green Hell, an Amazon adventure directed by James Whale, but she continued to work, and was under contract to MGM, although her contributions to scripts in that decade often went uncredited, and she was finally let go in 1946. It was not the end of her writing career. Outside of the film business, she was increasingly turning her hand to novels and plays. Her first work of full-length fiction, 1925’s Minnie Flynn, had been a cautionary tale about a young girl who enters the movie business. “I call it propaganda,” she said, “but the publishers call it a novel.” Her last published book was her memoir Off with Their Heads!: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood, published a year before her death in 1973. It’s a bracing read, which recounts many of her friends’ tumultuous lives in the film industry.

Marion moved east for a decade or so after leaving MGM, living and writing in New York and then Connecticut, but when she returned to Los Angeles in 1962, she picked up all her old friendships, with Pickford, Davies, Gish, and Gloria Swanson, who wrote the foreword to Off with Their Heads!. In that foreword, Swanson called Marion “an original,” adding that “what she became did not exist in 1913.” Marion had invented the role of a Hollywood screenwriter, just as she created so many roles for her friends. And that role outlived her, as she ceded the stage to a new generation.

Throughout her career, Marion had found a way to tell stories of female strength and to explore the lives of marginalized people, all while creating spectacles of pure excitement and remarkable tenderness on the big screen. The history of Hollywood would look very different without Marion, one of its finest and most thrilling storytellers, whose films always had the pulse of real life that she sought off the screen.


A selection of films written by Frances Marion are streaming on the Criterion Channel through July 31, 2020. Watch the series trailer below:

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