The Screenwriting Queen of the Silent Screen - Frances Marion
Written by Kerry at The Film Detective
“I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.” - Frances Marion
It’s the early 1900s. Hollywood is the toddling new entertainment medium compared to its sophisticated older sibling, the theater. Film existed as a largely unclouded market, an open space where women could enjoy the flexibility of developing their own stories, and playing a key role in seeing a film through from start to finish.
There are many figures that characterized the silent era, the household names of Chaplin, Griffith, and Keaton surely, bet let us not forget the woman who took Hollywood screenwriting by the reins, shaping the voice of filmmaking for multiple decades - Frances Marion.
Frances Marion, born Marion Benson Owens, came into the world on November 18, (likely in 1888 - however, the date is up for debate) in San Francisco. A talent with a pen and paper from a young age, Frances took her skills to The San Francisco Examiner in her late teens, working as a reporter. Outside of Hollywood, Frances also dabbled in modeling and illustration and even served as a combat correspondent during World War I.
If the shear diversity of Frances’ professional talents doesn’t give you the empowerment-chills, let’s discuss some of the women who helped her on her journey to success. Friendships were the secret-sauce that could make or break a Hollywood career, and Frances found two of the finest friendships in Hollywood heavyhitters, Mary Pickford and Lois Weber.
Arriving in Hollywood in the 1910s, acclaimed director-producer Lois Weber took Frances under her wing as an actress, screenwriter, and general assistant. As much as the camera loved Frances as an actress, Frances’ true passions remained with screenwriting. Her ability to play into the performers' own strengths in her writing went unmatched, and earned her over 300 screenwriting credits over the course of her career.
Frances quickly bonded with one of Hollywood’s most prominent leading ladies, Mary Pickford. The pair formed one of the most powerful screenwriting-acting teams of the age (not to mention the highest paid), turning the dream of making movies with your best friend and conquering the film industry into a seemingly seamless reality.
The two capitalized on Pickford’s appeal to audiences as “America’s Sweetheart,” often appearing as a young spitfire, despite being well into her twenties and thirties for her films. Together, the pair made some of the best works of either of their careers, including The Little Princess (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and Pollyanna (1920). Mary never turned down an opportunity to vouch for her friend, insisting Frances not only act as screenwriter, but also director for Mary’s 1921 drama The Love Light.
In turn, Frances often took it upon herself to build the support of women in the film industry in the same way so many had already supported her. She hosted parties for women in all facets of filmmaking, where women could meet, build friendships, and give each other a leg up in their professional lives.
Frances was also recognized as a powerhouse in Hollywood outside of her friendships with Mary Pickford and Lois Weber. Known for screenwriting efforts for Marion Davies, Ronald Colman, Rudolph Valentino, and Marie Dressler, Frances is often credited with bringing Greta Garbo into the soundies, serving as screenwriter for Garbo’s first sound picture, Anna Christie (1930). Additional notable works include Stella Dallas (1925), Dinner at Eight (1933), and The Scarlet Letter (1926).
Rightfully so, the Academy did not ignore Frances’ efforts in Hollywood. She was honored with the Academy Award twice throughout her career, one for The Big House (1930) and one for The Champ (1931). A final Academy Award nomination came in 1933 for The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933). Adept in both original screenplays and adaptations and unafraid to directly address topics that were considered only to be talked about by men, Frances Marion wrote the book on writing successful film stories. Quite literally...she published How to Write and Sell Film Stories in 1937.
With March being Women’s History Month, Frances Marion stands as a stark reminder that we can all take a page from her book, whether that book be How to Write and Sell Film Stories or more seriously, how filmmaking is at its finest when everyone gets a seat at the table.
Catch Frances Marion’s directorial and screenwriting efforts in The Love Light (1921), starring her dear friend Mary Pickford on The Film Detective!