By Bee Garner
In this day and age female screenwriters still face barriers within the film industry. In fact, a study conducted in 2017 found that women represented just 11 per cent of the writers on the United States’ top 250 films. They fared a little better in the world of Television, where they made up 33 per cent of television writers during the States’ 2016-17 season. One has to wonder what the great screenwriter Frances Marion would have to say about these figures.
There’s a high chance that you haven’t heard of Marion, but her screenwriting attributes have had a long-lasting impact on cinema and helped shaped the language of storytelling on the big screen. She wrote the stories and scenarios for over three hundred films in a career that spans from early days of cinema and into the sound era. Her work earned her two Academy Awards for screenwriting. However, unlike her peers and like so many female influencers in the silent era and the golden age of Hollywood, her achievements have pretty much gone unrecognised and she has never gained the acknowledgement that she so rightly deserves.
Marion is often credited for defining the careers of such stars as Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, as well as collaborating with the likes of Mary Pickford as well as her husband Fred Thomson. The early days of cinema were vastly different to the industry we know today, it was a time when women like Frances Marion could go on to have an incredibly successful career.
According to Erin Blakemore for Time, “In the pre-studio era, women were involved in all kinds of activities on set. Many movies didn’t have screenplays at all. Instead, informal “scenarios” acted as a sort of road map for directors and actors. Since life on set was relatively relaxed, women could—and did—define roles for themselves in the new medium.”
“There’s a high chance that you haven’t heard of Marion, but her screenwriting attributes have had a long-lasting impact on cinema and helped shaped the language of storytelling on the big screen.”
Born Marion Benson Owens on November 18, 1888, to Len D. Owens and Minnie Benson, Marion was their second child. She dropped out of school at age 12, after having been caught drawing a cartoon strip of her teacher. She was then transferred to a school in San Mateo and then to the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco when she was 16 years old. Before her career in screenwriting took off, Marion was a model as well as an actress herself, before working as a commercial artist and a war correspondent and eventually making her way to Hollywood.
Despite having ‘Film Star Looks’ Marion was more interested in what went on behind the camera rather than starting in front of it. In 1914, she became the assistant to the director of Lois Weber, who was at the time the most successful female director in Hollywood and began to learn every aspect of film production. When Lois Weber went to work for Universal Pictures, she offered to bring Marion with her. Marion decided not to take Weber up on the offer.
Soon after, her close friend Mary Pickford offered Marion a job at Famous Players-Lasky, which she accepted and began working on scenarios for films like “Fanchon the Cricket”, “Little Pal”, and “Rags”. Marion was then cast alongside Pickford in “A Girl of Yesterday”, a film where Pickford played against type and starred in a role where she was an older woman and her brother Jack was her co-star. Sadly, the film is now considered a lost film.
1915 also saw Marion working with Pickford on the film “The Foundling”. Marion sold the script to Adolph Zukor for $125. The film was shot in New York, and Moving Picture World gave it a positive pre-release review. Sadly, the film negative was destroyed in a laboratory fire before prints could be made. It was remade as in 1916 with the same principal cast, but with a different director.
Having travelled from Los Angeles to New York for the premiere, Marion applied for work as a writer at World Films and was hired for an unpaid two-week trial. For her first project, she decided to try recutting existing films that had been shelved as unreleasable. Marion wrote a new prologue and epilogue for a film starring Alice Brady. The film sold for distribution for $9,000, and as a result, Brady gave Marion a $200/week contract for her writing services.
Soon Marion became the head of the writing department at World Films, where she was credited with writing a staggering number of 50 films. She left in 1917 when, following the success of “The Poor Little Rich Girl”, comedy-drama film directed by Maurice Tourneur. which was adapted by Marion from the 1913 play by Eleanor Gates, and starred Pickford as an 11-year-old girl who is left by her rich and busy parents to the care of unsympathetic domestic workers at the family’s mansion.
After the filming was finished, Famous Players-Lasky signed her to a $50,000 a year contract as Mary Pickford’s official scenarioist. Marion was reported at this time to be “one of the highest-paid scriptwriters in the business.” Her first project under the contract was an adaptation of “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”. The film was based on the classic American 1903 children’s novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin that tells the story of Rebecca Rowena Randall and her aunts, one stern and one kind, in the fictional village of Riverboro, Maine. It was an acclaimed box office hit.
When America entered WW1, Marion made the decision to work as a journalist and served overseas as a combat correspondent. She filmed women’s contributions at the front for the US government and, on this assignment, became the first woman to cross the Rhine after the Armistice. From a story she heard in Italy after the war, she wrote the script for “The Love Light” (filmed in 1921, which Marion directed as well), a project that starred Pickford alongside her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and present Pickford in an adult role as a young woman who discovers that her lover is a German spy.
“Famous Players-Lasky signed her to a $50,000 a year contract as Mary Pickford’s official scenarioist. Marion was reported at this time to be “one of the highest-paid scriptwriters in the business.”
Upon Marion’s return from Europe in 1919, William Randolph Hearst offered her $2,000 a week to write scenarios for his Cosmopolitan Productions. While at Cosmopolitan, Marion wrote an adaptation of Fannie Hurst‘s “Humoresque”. Her success in adapting the novel and her friendship with Hurst led to her adapting another Hurst story, “Superman,” for her directorial debut named “Just Around the Corner“, which was a commercial hit for the studio.
Marion would go on to win the Academy Award for Writing in 1931 for the film “The Big House”, and a year later she received the Academy Award for Best Story for “The Champ”, both films featured Wallace Beery. She also co-wrote “Min and Bill” starring her friend Marie Dressler and Beery in 1930.
For many years she was under contract to MGM Studios. Her last credited picture is the 1940 film ”Green Hell’, a lavish jungle adventure film directed by James Whale, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (son of Fairbanks Sr.) and Joan Bennett. The film was labelled as being one to worst pictures of the year. Douglas Fairbanks Jr said the film was “hell. Every jungle cliche was trotted out…” and that Director James Whale ”had just lost it. He didn’t care about it at all.”
By the 1940s, Marion felt her creative control slipping away and grew frustrated with new production and censorship guidelines (known as the Hays Code) applied to the major studios that forced her to write what she considered simplistic stories. Independently wealthy, Marion made the decision to leave Hollywood in 1946 to devote more time to writing stage plays and novels.
Marion went on to teach screenwriting and also wrote a textbook, How to Write and Sell Film Stories, and in interviews often commented not only on the evolution of screenwriting but on the writers’ working conditions as well. She would later go on to publish a memoir Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood in 1972. And, in the same year in the City of Los Angeles named her the “dean of Hollywood screenwriters.” Marion died the following year of a ruptured aneurysm in Los Angeles.