Book Review – The Girls in the Picture; Bringing Early Female Film Pioneers to Life

SYNOPSIS

It is 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband and her Northern California home for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist. But the word on everyone’s lips these days is “flickers”—the silent moving pictures enthralling theatergoers. Turn any corner in this burgeoning town and you’ll find made-up actors running around, as a movie camera captures it all.

In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing stories for this wondrous new medium. She also makes the acquaintance of actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have earned her the title “America’s Sweetheart.” The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by their mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution.

But their ambitions are challenged by both the men around them and the limitations imposed on their gender—and their astronomical success could come at a price. As Mary, the world’s highest paid and most beloved actress, struggles to live her life under the spotlight, she also wonders if it is possible to find love, even with the dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks. Frances, too, longs to share her life with someone. As in any good Hollywood story, dramas will play out, personalities will clash, and even the deepest friendships might be shattered.

With cameos from such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, The Girls in the Picture is, at its heart, a story of friendship and forgiveness. Melanie Benjamin brilliantly captures the dawn of a glittering new era—its myths and icons, its possibilities and potential, and its seduction and heartbreak.

MY THOUGHTS

Every now and then my interests perfectly align for a serendipitous moment. The Girls in the Picture entered my life at just the right time when I found it on sale. I might not have picked it up otherwise. But I am right in the middle of a film biography book cycle. I also just watched a fascinating documentary on Mary Pickford and the beginnings of the film industry not too long ago. As if two coincidences weren’t enough, I also recently viewed Pickford in The Love Light, a film written and directed by her friend Francis Marion.

One of the things I really loved about this book is that it was written about real historical figures. So often when I read this genre, the characters are fictional, but placed within actual historical events. Not so, here. Reading a fictionalized account of Pickford and Marion made them come alive in a way a biography or documentary isn’t quite able to do. It ascribes emotions to facts and events and places me into their personal experiences.

There’s something interesting going on—no, it isn’t only interesting; it’s exciting, delirious; something that comes along only once every century or so. It’s the birth of a new art form. How exciting it is to witness it!

Both women were not only pioneers in the early days of motion pictures, but were also founding figures in a way. Through their work they set the standard for all that was to come later. This is especially remarkable since they did this within a male dominated industry. Besides being women what makes them unique within their industry is the special friendship they shared. In their minds, they were a team, forging a path, creating art in the face of all the men who not only belittled their contribution, but sometimes rooted for them to fail.

I was nearly forty; pragmatically, I knew I’d probably missed my chance at motherhood. And in that way, wasn’t I exactly like everyone else? We’d all put our careers first, we brilliant, beautiful women. We all sacrificed something. Marriages. Children. Things a man never had to sacrifice.

But this story is not just a glimpse into their professional lives or even their personal lives and relationships. This is a deep exploration into the emotional lives of women who were trail blazers, visionaries and artists. This is where author Melanie Benjamin shines. Because those emotions are all of her creation. The facts are available, but what Pickford and Marion felt about their careers and lives is solely the domain of Benjamin’s imagination. But it all feels true and real.

Love, for a woman, it’s—”

“Stifling?”

“Complicated. Isn’t it? Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything else they do; it gives them even more cachet. It adds something to them. But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

The viewpoint of this novel alternates back and forth between Pickford and Marion by chapter. So we get to see certain events from their two different perspectives. I found myself enjoying Marion’s chapters a bit more, because she had a more independent nature. Thanks to her formative years of poverty and her emotional dependence on her mother, Pickford is in essence a tragic character. Despite all of her fame and success, she seems extremely insecure and scared to break out of her beloved public image. This eventually becomes her prison. It was at times difficult to read her chapters, because of this. Not to mention, she comes across as completely obtuse and insensitive to others at times. But, one can’t help but think, she really didn’t know any better.

…don’t ever forget that being an actress is a privilege, a rare thing to be. You’re providing for your family. You’re continuing a noble profession. Still, there are rules about people like us. Real society, they don’t want to have anything to do with us, except to let us pour our hearts out onstage, make them laugh and cry and live, just for a bit.

I knew even less about Frances Marion going in to this novel, but have gained a deep admiration for her. I love her courage, her ability to make big life changes when necessary and without any guarantees. Her loyalty to Mary Pickford in an extremely competitive industry is inspiring. Just as Pickford subjugated her real life identity to her screen image as a little girl, Frances subjugates some of her career desires in order to support Mary. She shows Pickford understanding and compassion, acts as her cheerleader and really her only true friend. It’s a beautiful portrait of friendship.

“I wanted to be known, yes—with every ounce of ambition I possessed—but not recognized.” Marion

Reading this book is a bit like stepping behind the scenes of Hollywood history.  It gave me a better understanding of how the film industry grew and progressed, why Pickford and Marion’s contributions were so important, and even why certain films are still deemed pivotal in the development of Hollywood. It’s also fun to see the women’s lives as they intersect with other luminaries of that time, like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Anita Loos, Lois Weber and others.

Though The Girls in the Picture glosses over or completely ignores certain events and relationships, I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Would I have loved to see more of Pickford’s interactions with her siblings? Yes. And of course aside from Marion’s third marriage, there is very little about the other men she married or even her relationship with her sons. But, I think Melanie Benjamin accomplished what she meant to do – she resurrected the stories, the strength and the friendship of two women who deserve to be remembered. As a film fan, I’m so thankful for that.

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4 Replies to “Book Review – The Girls in the Picture; Bringing Early Female Film Pioneers to Life”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. I’ve seen it in the bookstore, and now I’ll be going back to pick it up. I don’t know all that much about Marion’s career, so it’ll be interesting to see her fleshed out as a character in a novel.

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