This month’s Dame in the Game, Frances Marion, was part of an early group of women writers in Hollywood who dominated the industry, writing over half of the scripts copyrighted between 1911 and 1925.
Frances Marion was a standout in this group of trailblazing female writers—writing over 325 scripts (covering every genre) in her lifetime, working as an overseas journalist in World War I, and serving as the only woman on the first board of directors of the Screen Writers Guild. Marion was also a true champion of fellow women, pushing for her fellow writers and directors to get hired, as well as working to write nuanced, dynamic material for actresses.
Frances Marion was born Marion Benson Owens on November 18, 1888 in San Francisco. From a young age, she wrote poems and short stories (publishing them in local papers, Sunset magazine, and more), as well as enrolling in art classes, which led to jobs as a commercial artist. Marion pursued work as a journalist, hoping working under deadline would improve her abilities as a writer. This led to a position as a reporter with the San Francisco Examiner, which led to her first encounters with actors and jump-started a prolific career.
Marion moved to Los Angeles with her second husband where she encountered the fledgling film industry as it worked to stake a claim as a legitimate art form. There, she befriended screenwriter Adela Rogers who introduced her to successful female filmmaker Lois Weber. Marion longed to learn the art of filmmaking and approached Weber, who helped to run Bosworth studios. While Marion yearned to be behind the camera, Weber insisted on hiring the beautiful Marion as an actress with the promise of her learning the trade from the set. True to her word, Weber put Marion to work learning the business from the ground-up, doing everything from writing press releases to painting sets to cutting film, and learning about every aspect of filmmaking.
At Bosworth, under Weber, Marion also got her first crack at writing for the screen. A stickler for detail, Weber noticed that extras were having conversations onscreen entirely unrelated to the action, so she enlisted Marion to write dialogue for the extras and appear among them onscreen. When Weber moved to Universal, Marion decided to strike out on her own, but still found her writing dreams squashed as she was enlisted to continue acting in minor roles.
During this time, Marion also befriended screen star Mary Pickford, and they would become close friends and invaluable partners, supporting and elevating each other’s careers. Pickford invited Marion to work with her as an actress at Famous Players, where Marion used downtime to write a screenplay designed to showcase Pickford. This would become her first full-length script, which she sold successfully to Adolph Zuker for $125. The film, The Foundling, received immense positive buzz, but the negative burned in a studio fire before its premiere, denying Marion the career starter she craved.
In an act of courageous desperation, Marion wrote prominent New York producers, including William Fox, offering to work for two weeks at no salary with the promise that if her work was satisfactory, they would hire her to a one-year contract at $200 a week – the highest salary for a screenwriter by over $100. Fox initially dismissed her for her looks telling her she should be “wearing beautiful furs and jewelry, not thinking about a lowly writing job.” Marion smiled and responded, “I’m paid to think, Mr. Fox. Two hundred dollars a week. As a scenario writer.” Fox offered her a position at eighty dollars a week, but Marion refused to take another job that was not on her terms.
Her letter had also caught the attention of William Brady, a major producer with World Films, and he offered her the desired two-week trial, during which she wrote revisions for a film starring Brady’s daughter that earned the studio a $9000 profit. The day after this film sold for distribution Marion saw her name in the headlines of New York papers, “Highest paid scenario writer in America signs with William A. Brady for reputed salary of $200 a week.” Marion not only secured her dream job, but became the highest-paid screenwriter in America with little tangible experience to recommend her.
Within six months, she was promoted to the head of the scenario department at World, where her responsibilities far exceeded those of the screenwriter. In addition to writing her own films, she reviewed all of the studio’s scripts, helped cast films, supervised screen tests, and even directed scenes.
Marion continued to work with Mary Pickford, serving as her ghost writer for Pickford’s syndicated column “Daily Talks,” which appeared in papers around the country five days a week, offering advice, beauty tips, and biographical reminiscences. This would develop into an even more beneficial professional relationship with Marion writing and advising on Pickford’s most successful films, including The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and The Little Princess (1917). Marion even inadvertently discovered a way of lighting Pickford to make her appear younger in films where she played a child. In 1917, Marion was hired by Famous Players Lasky at $50,000 a year specifically to write films for Mary Pickford and stay by her side throughout production. Marion wrote stories that showcased Pickford’s strengths as an actress, while also allowing her to take on a dynamic range of roles. Pickford and Marion also shared politics, campaigning together for suffrage and regularly supporting the advancement of women’s rights.
With the outbreak of World War I, Marion became determined to return to her journalistic roots to serve her country. In 1918, Marion abandoned her hefty salary at Famous Players to volunteer in the army; she traveled to Paris with troops and was named a lieutenant. Her job was to film the work of Allied women working overseas and document their contributions on the front lines. She found herself accompanying transports and riding with soldiers all over war-torn Europe, and she became both the first American woman and the first war correspondent to cross the Rhine following the armistice.
Following the war, Marion returned to Hollywood with no shortage of work, at various times taking a job for $100,000 working for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan studios, as well as working in non-exclusive contracts as a writer and producer for Samuel Goldwyn and MGM. Throughout her career, she worked to promote the careers of various actresses in her writing, earning a washed-up, 61 year old Marie Dressler an Oscar for Min and Bill (1930); adapting The Scarlet Letter into a sympathetic starring vehicle for Lillian Gish (1926); and writing scripts for Cosmopolitan Studios that showcased Marion Davies’ natural comedic talents. At MGM, she wrote the script for only the second-ever color film, enjoying writing scenarios specifically designed to exploit the use of color. Ultimately, Marion would sign a contract at MGM that not only gave her $3000 a week, but allowed her to supervise the production and editing of her films – her guarantees for using her name in screen credits and publicity exceeded those of most stars. She also wrote and oversaw the production of numerous Westerns starring her third husband, soldier turned cowboy star Fred Thomson.
Marion also directed two films, Just Around the Corner (1921) and Mary Pickford’s The Love Light (1921), both of which were well-reviewed and box office hits. As a director, Marion was a perfectionist, nearly losing her assistant director in their efforts to realistically film a shipwreck in a storm. However, Marion did not find the public authority of directing well-suited to her more introverted personality and quickly returned to her love of writing.
Marion also won two Academy Awards for her writing, becoming the first woman to win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Though much of her early work was noted for being women’s pictures, designed to pull at the heart strings, her entire body of work denoted a much broader skill, writing everything from Westerns to her Oscar-winning story of a prize-fighter The Champ (1931). Her first Oscar was for prison drama The Big House (1930), which was declared “savagely realistic” in its depiction of conditions inside a prison. It was instrumental in generating a nationwide push for prison reform. Marion did firsthand research for the script, visiting San Quentin, walking through death row as a defiant response to a warden who patronized her saying, “I’ll be curious how a little woman like you handles this situation.”
Marion was also a charter member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as a vocal force in the establishment of what would become the Screenwriter’s Guild. In the 1930s, screenwriters faced salary reduction and an increase in short-term contracts that left screen credit at the mercy of pleasing the right director or producer. Marion saw this as a threat for new screenwriters trying to make a name for themselves and eagerly attended the first meeting of a revived Writer’s Guild, being elected unopposed as vice president in 1933. Additionally, seeing the Academy as a means for studio heads to prevent unionization, she resigned her membership. Even when threatened by MGM and accused of communism, Marion refused to abandon her position as Guild vice president, insisting, “We’re not flying a red flag. We’re only asking for help for a lot of helpless people.”
As Hollywood’s emphasis shifted from artistic pursuit to commercial endeavor, Marion became increasingly disillusioned with the business. Frustrated with the studios’ decision to no longer place writers on contract, but rather hire them on a film-to-film basis, Marion felt her control slipping away. The rise of the production code and censorship also angered her, leading her to feel forced to write simplistic, infantile stories. She would return to MGM in the 1940s as an editorial assistant to Louis B. Mayer, where she was expected to supervise the development and writing of new scripts and serve as a mentor to producers, directors, and writers. This job did not give her the satisfaction of her days as a screenwriter with complete control over a picture from top to bottom. Describing screenwriting as “writing on the sand with the wind blowing,” she felt cinema had ceased to be a writer’s medium.
Marion continued to write outside of the movies, writing well-received novels and a book entitled How to Write and Sell Film Stories that became a must-have for students studying film. The book was a textbook on film writing technique that included anecdotes from her own experiences. She also penned an autobiography, Off with Their Heads, and pursued an active interest in sculpting and art in her later life. In 1972, the City of Los Angeles named her the “dean of Hollywood screenwriters” and she was awarded lifetime membership in the Writer’s Guild.
Marion’s legacy as a screenwriter is largely invisible today – despite writing over 325 films, many of her films have been lost to the ravages of time. Still, her place in Hollywood history endures, as a groundbreaking figure in the industry, but most importantly as a woman whose career was kick-started and shaped by fellow women, who in turn helped elevate the careers of actresses and female writers she knew. Until her death, she worked to combat the myth of women standing in each other’s way in Hollywood, stating in an interview, “I owe my greatest success to women. Contrary to the assertion that women do all in their power to hinder one another’s progress, I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who has given me a helping hand when I needed it.”
This article would not have been possible without the incredible research and work of Cari Beauchamp in her book “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion ad the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.”