I blame Melanie Benjamin. It was my discovery of her fictionalized portrayal of the friendship between Mary Pickford and Frances Marion in The Girls in the Picture, that sparked my interest in Marion. In a serendipitous moment, I also just happened to watch the Marion directed, Pickford starring silent film The Love Light around the same time. Recently, I happened across Cari Beauchamp’s biography of Marion and that spark has now grown into a flame.
ABOUT THE SUBJECT
Frances Marion is a fascinating subject for a biography. There are the obvious reasons; her talents (which were many and varied), her experiences and contributions during the infancy of the film industry, her intelligence and more. But of great interest to me was her role not just as a main contributor, but as an observer of early Hollywood luminaries, New York cultural intelligentsia, the killing fields of WWI and life in general.
Marion’s early life did give her an advantage. Her father’s wealth and social standing and her mother’s cultural interests exposed her to a wide array of ideas and people such as the author Jack London.
In fact, Marion always seemed to be at the right place, at the right time, or perhaps she just had a gift for connecting with people, because for most of her life, people of influence and talent seemed to find their way into her orbit and generally liked and trusted her. She attracted acquaintances such as Dorothy Parker (of the Algonquin Round Table), Rachmaninoff (from whom she rented an apartment), as well as friends, most of whom she retained for a lifetime.
Most people are aware of Marion’s friendship and partnership with Mary Pickford, but she also cultivated important relationships with other women. And she was nothing if not loyal and unselfish, using her success as a way to serve and promote the people she cared about. While she may not have experienced as simpatico of a relationship as she did with her female friends, she also managed to earn the respect of powerful and influential men like William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Kennedy, Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg. In any case, her generosity was legendary as was the amount of respect she engendered from some very difficult personalities.
Though Marion’s recognized talent as a writer eventually made her the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, I wonder if her truest talent was in human connection. Perhaps, that is what made her such a great writer. And while she certainly had talent and an innate understanding of human nature, it is also her discipline which ensured her success. She worked hard, long hours to establish herself, displaying a strong work ethic.
Personally, she also pursued other interests, taking up languages, learning to sculpt and play the piano. During WWI, she put her Hollywood career on hold to work overseas as a journalist, eventually becoming the first American woman to cross the Rhine, with a military escort of course. She never shied away from investigating and sharing the human condition.
Marion was married four times, but only once with any significance. She met her soul mate in third husband Fred Thompson, whose religious background did not preclude him from becoming a very successful Western actor. Though his films are now lost, he was at one point the highest paid cowboy star of his time. Together they had two sons, one who was adopted, before tragedy struck and Marion lost the love of her life to death. His loss affected her profoundly. Even though she married once more after his passing, she never stopped loving Thompson. She continued to care for his mother and made sure his legacy was passed on to their sons.
Beauchamp’s well researched biography of Frances Marion features source interviews with family, friends and co-workers as well as access to Marion’s own words in the form of an original script for her autobiography which was never published.
The writing style is engaging and well-paced. It’s easy to fall into its’ rhythm, which is not always the case for me with non-fiction material.
The author touches on the highlights of Frances Marion’s life while occasionally exploring in more depth important circumstances and events which impacted and influenced Marion. At the same time, Beauchamp also paints a picture of the evolution of Hollywood and the film industry as seen through the eyes of Marion in her tenure as a screen writer in the pivotal early decades. It was a time of great creativity, innovation and experimentation.
It’s interesting to learn how much more welcoming early Hollywood was to women in the ranks of production than it seems to be even now. There was a lot more freedom and collaboration as a whole and not just among the women.
Ultimately, as much as I relished learning more about the fascinating Frances Marion, I believe the biggest contributions this biography makes is in sharing the spotlight with her female friends in the industry and in the glimpse it gives into the early years of Hollywood.
Through Marion’s perspective, the reader is introduced to the unique perspectives of influential women like Anita Loos, Adela Rogers, Lillian Gish, Marie Dressler, Lois Weber, Mary Pickford, Zasu Pitts and even Hedda Hopper, to whom Marion was surprisingly devoted. Beauchamp devotes considerable pages to these women as they intersect with Marion’s work and even gives the reader closure at the end by describing the final years and legacies these women left behind.
Overall, Without Lying Down is the book I never knew I wanted to read and one I would highly recommend to any classic film fan, especially those interested in female contributions in Hollywood’s formative years.
This is one of several classic film book reviews I will be posting for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past.