Published On: Thu, Feb 27th, 2020

Hollywood Pioneer Frances Marion

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Half of all U.S. films copyrighted from 1911-25 were written by women. Leading the pack was Frances Marion, who turned out over 200 scripts between 1916 and 1946. She also directed and produced films and was the only female board member of the first Writer’s Guild.

Frances’ Early Years

Marion Benson Owens moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in January 1912. Within a year and a half she had an acting contract and a new name, but she really wanted to write scripts. So best friend and screen idol Mary Pickford, known as “America’s Sweetheart,” talked Marion into moving over to Famous Players where she was promised a crack at the screenplays.

When the 1915 film Poor Little Rich Girl, written by Marion and starring Pickford, became a box office smash, Marion was hired by World Studio in New York to head its script department. She salvaged bad unreleased films by writing new scenes, reviewed all scripts, wrote scripts, helped with casting, supervised screen tests, and directed scenes. Plus she ghost-wrote “Mary Pickford’s Daily Talks,” a syndicated newspaper column that ran five days per week. Frances Marion wasn’t yet 28 years old and, at $200 per week, she was the highest paid scenario (script) writer in the U.S.

Famous Players Lasky lured her back to L.A. in May 1917 with a $50,000-a-year salary, but media titan William Randolph Hearst doubled that number in 1919 when he made Marion a writer-director at his New York-based Cosmopolitan Studio. By 1926, she was the undisputed screenwriting champ: Sam Goldwyn had her on the payroll at $3,000 per week.

Six Degrees of Frances Marion, the Writer’s Writer

Hollywood Pioneer Frances Marion

Her father was friends with the likes of Jack London, so it was a foregone conclusion that Marion would be well-read. As Hollywood’s top scribe, she adapted the works of Alexandre Dumas, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte, Honore de Balzac, Pearl S. Buck, and Agatha Christie. She worked with such popular novelists as James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) and James Hilton (Goodbye, Mr. Chips).

She wrote for humorist Will Rogers and director John Ford. She scripted the final film of Rudolph Valentino (Son of the Sheik) and the first sound film of Greta Garbo (Anna Christie). Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, and Ralph Bellamy found their first major roles in a Frances Marion screenplay. And she helped make Gary Cooper a star. But Marion still made time to oversee the scripts for the Joseph P. Kennedy-produced westerns starring her husband, Fred Thomson (the Number Two box office draw in 1927).

Indeed, Marion couldn’t turn around without bumping into a famous (or future famous) person. She was friends with writer H.G. Wells, journalist H.L. Mencken, and comedian Harold Lloyd. While at World Studio she met teenager David O. Selznick (future producer of Gone with the Wind) and befriended notorious columnist Dorothy Parker. When she gave a party at the NYC apartment she was subleasing from composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, young George Gershwin performed a work-in-progress called “Rhapsody in Blue.” She rented houses to playwright Moss Hart and King Kong star Fay Wray. And when George Bernard Shaw gave his only U.S. interview (to Louella Parsons), the British playwright insisted that Marion be in the room, even though he’d only met her that day.

She was a good friend to have, and her closest pals were especially thankful for her devotion. When she learned that Marie Dressler was living in poverty in Florida, Marion immediately brought the former slapstick star back to Hollywood and got her parts in several films. By 1931, Dressler was an Academy award winner and MGM’s top moneymaker. Marion helped close friend (and future gossip columnist) Hedda Hopper when she hit financial hard times in the thirties, and later became a loyal fan of the TV show Perry Mason, which starred Hopper’s son William as private investigator Paul Drake. In the 1960’s, Marion publicly defended Mary Pickford against rumors of alcoholism; privately, she grew frustrated with her friend’s genuine drinking problem.

Frances Says Goodbye to Hollywood

Marion’s MGM contract was terminated, by mutual agreement, in October 1946. She moved back to NYC in the spring of ’48 to write novels and plays. She was still famous enough to be recognized in clubs by the likes of young Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan. She celebrated W.R. Heart’s 88th birthday in April 1951 and attended his funeral that August. She continued studying foreign languages and learned to sculpt, even producing a bust of close friend Lillian Gish.

In 1966, the University of Southern California presented Marion with its first Pioneer Film Award; she reciprocated by willing her private papers to USC’s cinema library. And L.A. named her “dean of Hollywood screenwriters” in August 1972, just nine months before a ruptured aneurysm claimed her life at age 84.

According to novelist Meg Wolitzer, Frances Marion’s life had “a panoramic, novelistic sweep.” She marched for women’s suffrage in NYC. She served as a combat correspondent during World War I. And she was the first female screenwriter to win two Academy awards, for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1932). But she used her Oscar statuettes as doorstops and nutcrackers, proving that Frances Marion had little idea of her monumental importance to cinema history.

About the Author

- I am an internet marketing expert with an experience of 8 years.My hobbies are SEO,Content services and reading ebooks.I am founder of SRJ News andTech Preview.

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