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The Great Screenwriters: Part 27 – Frances Marion

By Martin Keady · February 17, 2020

It says everything about the status of women screenwriters for most of the 20th century that the woman generally regarded as the greatest female screenwriter of them all, Frances Marion, is so little-known today, even in comparison with male contemporaries such as Ben Hecht and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Fortunately, Marion is now being rediscovered in a 21st century in which at least the idea of gender equality is being seriously contemplated for the first time. Consequently, the creator of such classic movies as The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1931), both of which she won Academy Awards for, is belatedly being given her due. 

A Little History

Marion was born Marion Benson Owens (she would take her first name as her surname when she began writing) in pre-Hollywood California – San Francisco in 1888. Little of substance is known about her early life, other than that she was apparently kicked out of school at age 12 for having drawn a cartoon of her teacher, which was a kind of foreshadowing of the later “storyboarding” that she would do for her movies. Thus, at the very start of the 20th century, Marion was forced to find work to support herself, her mother and her two siblings, her parents having divorced a few years earlier. 

Like many great screenwriters, Marion tried her hand at many trades before she finally became a full-time writer. In her case, of course, as she was not just a woman but a teenage girl trying to find work, her options initially appeared to be even more limited than those of young male authors. However, from the first it was obvious that Marion was astonishingly driven and was determined to make something of herself, even in what was then the male-dominated world of work.  

Having started work so young (which seems unthinkable today but was certainly not uncommon a hundred years ago), Marion worked in a variety of jobs and industries; her “career path” apparently lacking any kind of coherent pattern other than that she always seemed to be working either with words or pictures, two passions that she would eventually combine in her screenwriting. She worked as a photographer’s assistant (even doing some modelling herself, as she was an extremely pretty young woman) and a commercial artist, before finally finding the job that would lead to her long and distinguished career in cinema. 

An Important Connection Established

At almost exactly the same time that World War One was beginning in Europe, Marion was hired by one of the great female pioneers of the early American film industry, Lois Weber. Weber was less than 10 years older than Marion, but was already almost a female equivalent of D.W. Griffith, having acted in, written and even directed several hundred movies (most of them shorts, as most movies were then). However, just as Marion herself has largely been forgotten in film history, so Weber has largely been “written out” of most histories of Hollywood. Nevertheless, she was belatedly credited with the first use of the “split screen” technique, to show different activities taking place simultaneously, in Suspense (1913), and even experimented with the use of sound, which of course would not be perfected until The Jazz Singer (1927), more than a decade later. And among her many other achievements, Weber seems to have been the first person to identify Frances Marion’s exceptional ability for writing films. 

It has often been said that Weber provided Marion with the most extraordinary apprenticeship, one in which she learned the art (and business) of making movies from the bottom up. At Weber’s studio, Marion was variously an assistant, an assistant director and even an actress. However, for all her undoubted beauty, which is evident from the few photographs that survive of her from this period, Marion, like Weber herself, soon realized that the real power in film lay behind the camera and not in front of it. Consequently, she stopped acting and started writing.

However, before Marion’s film career could really take off, she would enjoy an extraordinary diversion. When America belatedly entered World War One in 1917 and the whole country was effectively mobilized, Marion converted her nascent screenwriting ability into a job as a war reporter. While in Europe, she did not concentrate solely on soldiers but also wrote about the women involved in the war, principally as nurses forced to deal with the horrifying physical and mental injuries inflicted upon so many young men. This first-hand experience of armed conflict, as well as the experience and professionalism gained from her first regular writing job, were to prove absolutely essential to Marion when she returned to California after the war ended, ready to resume her fledgling screenwriting career. Indeed, there is something almost Gatsby-esque about her subsequent successful reinvention, Gatsby, of course, being another American whose remarkable reinvention began in Europe during World War One. 

In fact, there are several similarities between the fictional Jay Gatsby and the real-life Frances Marion. Like Gatsby, who was originally plain old Jimmy Gatz, Marion’s reinvention began with the acquisition of a new name, as “Marion Benson Owens” became “Frances Marion”.  Like Gatsby, with that new name there soon came hitherto undreamt-of success; and finally, just as Gatsby’s story really began with the patronage of a millionaire whose boat he saves from sinking, so Marion enjoyed the patronage of America’s first ever “First Lady of Film”, Mary Pickford, to the extent that she effectively became Pickford’s personal screenwriter. 

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

Marion’s first major writing credits came on Pickford films such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl (both 1917), in which Pickford perfected her screen image as a beautiful young woman who faced enormous difficulties (some of them, such as unwanted male attention, arising from her beauty) but ultimately overcame them all. Pickford was only a few years younger than Marion and it seems that Marion was able to channel some of her own experience of being an attractive young woman trying to make it in a male-dominated world when writing her scripts. The writer and actress dovetailed beautifully, with Pickford garnering all the attention and Marion happily typing away tirelessly in the background to write the scripts that made Pickford such a star. 

In the process, Marion eventually became one of the best-paid writers of the silent era, so much so that by the 1920s she was earning the staggering annual salary of $50,000. That made her not just one of the most highly paid Hollywood screenwriters but one of the highest-paid writers of any kind in the world. Eventually, like so many screenwriters, she became a writer-director, notably on The Love Light (1921), another Mary Pickford melodrama, for which the most famous image is not one of Pickford on screen but that of Marion herself sitting in a director’s chair (complete with her name on the back), which has become almost the defining image of the often-forgotten female influence on American cinema. 

It was at the end of the 1920s, with the belated arrival of sound in cinema and the not coincidental introduction of the Oscars (the first Academy Awards were given in 1929), that Marion’s screenwriting career reached its peak, as she became not just the first woman to win two Oscars for writing, but the first writer of either gender to do so. 

Great Success and Denouement 

Marion’s great “one-two punch” began with The Big House (1930), a prison drama starring Wallace Beery, a former silent star who, like so many silent stars, had initially floundered with the arrival of sound. However, he literally found his voice in Marion’s depiction of and dialogue for “Butch”, a violent criminal who, more than the Prison Governor or Guards, rules the prison. Beery won a Best Actor Oscar and Marion won the marvelously named “Academy Award for Best Writing Achievement” for her script. 

Marion followed The Big House with an even more successful film, indeed one that was so successful that it has been remade several times since and become an enduring influence on other films of its kind. The Champ (1931) was the first of the great boxing movies that Hollywood would eventually become so adept at, from The Harder They Fall (1956) through to Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). That tradition really began with The Champ, in which Beery again starred, but this time in a much more sympathetic role as a former boxing champion trying to fight his way back to the top, not just for financial reward but so that he can win back the family he has lost through anger and alcoholism. This time, Marion won the Academy Award for Best Story, having come up with the plot for The Champ herself rather than adapting it from a play or novel. And that story has become almost the template for all of Hollywood’s “rags to riches, while fighting between the ropes” stories, as is evident in the two remakes of The Champ (in 1952 and 1979), not to mention its obvious influence on films such as Rocky. 

From this artistic and commercial peak at the start of the 1930s, Marion, like most successful screenwriters, eventually experienced a gradual but inevitable decline during the rest of the decade. Although she continued to write screenplays and was extremely well paid for it, she no longer seemed to write with the passion and clarity with which she had written her best work, from Poor Little Rich Girl to The Champ. It was as if the sheer hunger (and like so many early film pioneers, she had experienced genuine hunger as a child, especially when she began working while most of her peers were still at school) that had initially driven her so far and so fast had finally been sated.

Marion Thomas wrote her final script (or at least the final script for which she was credited) in 1940. Thereafter she retired from Hollywood to concentrate on writing plays and novels. However, she never came close to replicating her success as a screenwriter on the stage or page, and so it is her finest scripts, in particular those for The Big House and The Champ, that remain her enduring legacy. Unlike so many of the early films that she wrote, including some for Mary Pickford, those two films still survive, and they provide a powerful reminder that Hollywood was never just a place for men. In fact, a few incredibly brave and talented women acted, directed, produced or, as in Marion’s case, wrote their way to the top. It is only now, in the #MeToo era, that their influence on early American film-making is deservedly being heralded.  

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”


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