Frances Marion: One of the First Hollywood Screenwriters
Over half the scripts written during Hollywood’s silent era were written by women. The women came from a variety of backgrounds when they entered the industry. Some were actors, some came from Broadway and others started off as journalists, to name a few professions. Largely unknown to a modern film audience, Frances Marion was one of the first well established and sought-after screenwriters in American cinema. During the 1910s to late 1930s, she penned many scripts for films that are now considered classics. She wrote across many genres and even received academy awards for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931).
Born on the 18th of November 1888, in San Francisco, her parents named her Marion Benson Owens. She would later be inspired and take her screen credit from famous American Civil War soldier Frances Marion. She started out as a journalist, model, career artist and World War I correspondent before eventually moving to Los Angeles.
Marion’s Hollywood career began in the early 1910s when she was hired as a writing and general assistant at Lois Weber Productions. The company was started by Florence Lois Weber, herself a pioneering film director. It was here that Marion learnt about the film industry and honed her script writing skills.
Written with Anita Loos, her first screenplay was The New York Hat (1912). It was directed by the legendary D. W. Griffith and starred the day’s most well-known actress Mary Pickford. The experience was great exposure for Marion and started a powerhouse partnership (and friendship) with Pickford.
Marion and Pickford had similar mindsets and worked extremely well together. Director and acquaintance Clarence Brown noted their strong chemistry and compared their ability to create new material together as being “spontaneously combustible”. It wasn’t long before they became close friends and regularly spent time together outside of work. Pickford soon hired Marion as her exclusive writer. Some of their greatest collaborations include The Little Princess (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Stella Maris (1918) and Pollyanna (1920).
On the production of The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Marion and Pickford were creating comedy material that clashed with director Maurice Tourneur’s vision. He felt the subject material was too dark in nature to make funny. But because Pickford was the star and had creative authority, Tourneur’s objections were overruled. Based on a play by Eleanor Gates, the story follows a young girl – Gwen (played by Pickford) – in a middle-class family who is lonely and unwanted. Her parents make no time for her and the housing staff, who are responsible for Gwen’s wellbeing, push her around and abuse her. Producers were also not happy with the film’s final cut and thought it was in their best interests not to release it. Marion was distraught that she had possibly destroyed Pickford’s career. The two campaigned, the producers gave in and the film was distributed. It was a success and was responsible for Pickford’s trend of playing young children in comedy roles. She was twenty-four when she played 11-year-old Gwen.
By the 1920s, Marion was one of the most popular Hollywood screenwriters with a string of hits to her name. She was the highest paid screenwriter earning $3000 a week (no figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation), an astronomical amount never heard of before in the industry at the time. Marion gained critical acclaim for Stella Dallas (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). She even had a hand in directing with Just Around the Corner (1921), The Love Light (1921) and The Song of Love (1923).
Marion retired from screenwriting in the late 1930s. She was disillusioned by the state of Hollywood screenwriting and described it as “like writing on sand with the wind blowing”. She found it very restrictive in its rigid, structured approach. At this stage in her career, she had written over 100 scripts and won countless awards. She wrote Pickford’s last starring film, Secrets (1933), before Pickford retired from acting to focus on producing. Their partnership had lasted nearly twenty years. In 1937, Marion wrote one of the first guides on American screenwriting, How to Write and Sell Film Stories. The book was taught as part of the film curriculum at the University of South California.
Marion spent her later years writing stage plays and novels. She passed away in 1972. Her academy award winning script, The Champ, was remade in 1979 and starred Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway. Marion will be played by Julia Stiles in an upcoming Mary Pickford biopic, The First (2017).
By: Matthew J. Healy
Frances Marion – Biography.com (https://www.biography.com/people/frances-marion-214110)
Frances Marion – IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0547966/)
Profile - Frances Marion (https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-frances-marion/)
Julia Stiles To Play Scribe Frances Marion In Mary Pickford Pic ‘The First’ (http://deadline.com/2013/01/julia-stiles-frances-marion-mary-pickford-the-first-418595/)
The Poor Little Rich Girl: Mary Pickford and her wordsmith. (https://trueclassics.net/2012/06/03/the-poor-little-rich-girl-mary-pickford-and-her-wordsmith/)
This Forgotten Female Screenwriter Helped Give Hollywood Its Voice (http://time.com/4186886/frances-marion/)