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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
The Champ

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