There may not be a statue for screenwriter Frances Marion, but Turner Classic Movies is helping to make sure her remarkable legacy is remembered. All through August, TCM will be broadcasting films made by Frances Marion and other influential women filmmakers. Viewers can now sample through Marionís directorial effort The Love Light (1920) on August 3 or her remarkably intelligent silent adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1926) on August 31.
Many of these films are not currently available on video and have never before been seen by television viewers. This previous neglect is particularly troublesome for the work of Frances Marion because she was one of the more innovative and skilled filmmakers of any gender. She penned the innovative prison drama The Big House and based her work on visits to real prisons. Her work on that film and The Champ made her the first multiple Oscar-winner. She was also Hollywoodís highest-paid screenwriter and was a favored scribe for stars like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Wallace Berry, Greta Garbo and MGM production head Irving Thalberg. With almost 200 filmed scripts to her name, itís a wonder she also had time to be a painter, a sculptor, a World War I correspondent and a single mother after the death of her husband, cowboy actor Fred Thompson. Her accomplishments seem even more remarkable because they occurred during a time when little was expected from women.
Writer Cari Beauchamp has been helping to keep Frances Marion in the spotlight. She penned the biography Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, which was chosen as one of the most Notable Books of the Year (1996) by The New York Times. It was also named Outstanding Book of the Year by the National Theater Library Association. With director Bridget Terry, she has produced and written the documentary Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Early Hollywood. Narrated by Uma Thurman, the film features interviews with Beauchamp, Brownlow, Leonard Maltin and contemporary filmmakers like Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose) and Robin Swicord (Little Women, 1994). It also includes brief samples of Marionís work read by actress Kathy Bates. Beauchamp was preparing for a New York screening and panel discussion of the documentary when reached at her home in Los Angeles.
Dan Lybarger: I was pleasantly surprised when you got to make this documentary because Frances Marion, despite the fact that she was a major filmmaker, is not a household name.
Cari Beauchamp: Not only that, but one of the things that was brought up in some of the pitch meetings was that her story wasnít particularly sexy: She wasnít a loner; she wasnít a victim. In fact, itís a complicated story to tell because her friends were such an important part of her life. Itís different in that way, and it was more of a challenge to "sell."
DL: Turner Classic Movies is not only broadcasting your documentary, but theyíre also going to be showing a lot of the work by Frances Marion and other women filmmakers.
CB: Theyíre showing a night of Frances Marion films, about four or five of them. Theyíre showing a couple that havenít been seen [on television] before like The Secret Six. Then of course, Turnerís also restored The Scarlet Letter and put in 20 minutes of footage thatís been missing for decades. Theyíve commissioned a new score for it. I couldnít be more thrilled than to have it back in one piece again because itís one of Lillian Gishís finest works. It hasnít been screened because so much was missing. It was so chopped up. To have it restored is such a pleasure.
Half the films are silent including Lois Weberís Where are my Children? You think of what Lois Weber was doing in 1915 and 1916 with split screens and her filming on location in real houses. She was an innovator, and we donít think of that now.
We look at The Big House now, and if you look at it out of context, you think, "My goodness. What a bunch of clichťs!" No, The Big House was the first prison movie. There were no such clichťs because never before had the audience heard the prison door slam or 900 prisoners shuffling down the hallway. This was the first time.
DL: The documentary covers that adaptation of The Scarlet Letter in some detail. When I was reading your book, I was continually struck by how some of the scripts that preceded hers bore a frightening resemblance to the Demi Moore version of the movie.
CB: There were at least three full scripts that were turned in before Frances came in, also a variety of letters and conference notes that went with them. My personal favorite was the script that suggested they change the letter "A" to a different letter that represented something less offensive. They were self-censoring at that point. One of (the scripts) had a happy ending with everybody getting on the boat and heading off to England [Starting to laugh]. There were no limits to the changes they were willing to make, and [Irving] Thalberg wasnít willing to make the changes, so he called in Frances Marion.
I was sitting there by myself in the USC reading room. I was all by myself except for this poor work-study student who had to sit there just because Iím in there reading these valuable scripts. Youíre reading for hours on end, and when I ran across the suggestion that they change the letter "A" to something less offensive, I literally heard myself think "Oh, my God!" and just started to laugh out loud. The poor [student] looked up and thought Iíd gone crazy.
DL: In the documentary you demonstrate how director Victor SjŲstrŲm followed Frances Marionís script to the letter in many cases, even her instructions on shot selection and editing.
CB: He had the lighting and obviously set the wonderful mood. The four of them -- Frances Marion, Victor Sjostrom, Lars Hanson, and Lillian Gish -- had a gold mine together because they got along well and worked well together. It was a collaborative effort.
Having said that, Kevin Brownlow says how much easier it was writers to write a talkie than a silent film. It was less restrictive for writers to use dialogue because before they had been limited to writing pantomime. They had to be able to write movies that moved. One of the games Frances would play with herself was to use the fewest number of titles possible. She wanted to be able to show the character in pantomime. What we do with The Scarlet Letter in the documentary is have the voice of Frances Marion [played by Kathy Bates] literally reading from her script. Her script is down to "Mid Camera Angle," "cut to Bells tolling," "long shot of puritans walking." Her script for The Scarlet Letter is loaded with set decoration and camera angles, and thatís more or less followed. When we have the scene where Frances is talking from her script and Lillian is acting, Lillian is following [Marionís] script word-for-word. Thatís not to take away from Lillian Gishís brilliance. I think itís one of her finest performances, but she is following what Frances wrote in that script.
DL: After watching her movies, itís obvious that Frances Marion had radar concerning what to keep and cut from her source material.
CB: The Scarlet Letter is, I think, the pinnacle of her adaptations. She had done Stella Dallas. The silent is much more moving than the later talkie. Stella Dallas was maybe more difficult because itís told in flashback, and [Marion] "un-flashbacks" it. In The Scarlet Letter, she had to make a modern heroine out of Hester Prynne. Here she was trying to sell this story, an 1850 novel about Puritan New England, to a Jazz-Age audience. Itís not the story that one would expect to have audiences lining up around the block to see [laughs]. Itís also a very passionate story, and [recalling] the challenge of adapting it is one of the joys of doing the book first. Read her script. Read the novel. Go read her script again. You see what she leaves out. You see that the novel is Dimmsdaleís story. In the movie, itís Hester Prynneís story. The novel is Dimmesdaleís tortured mental path toward confession. Pages and pages of the novel are his own monologue in his own mind. This not stuff thatís made for movies, but I think the essence of the story is very clearly there. [Marion] gets it down but tells it in a different light.
DL: Whatís also interesting about Marionís movies is that even the villains are three-dimensional.
CB: Any good writer knows that your hero or your heroine has to have a flaw or two, but Frances always took that one step further and gave her bad guys sympathetic quirks, and almost always in the first ten minutes of the film. You could never totally root against the bad guys. In The Secret Six, Wallace Beery in the great crime lord of Old Chicago, and yet heís always the little boy who always drinks milk. In The Big House, [Beery] is the most violent prisoner on the block in San Quentin, and yet thereís this bluster when he pretends that heís able to read when he really canít, and that pulls at the heartstrings a bit. When he talks about his mother when after he learns sheís died, you have some sympathy for this guy who has a sensitive side.
DL: In the documentary, you prove thereís no such thing as a "womanís" film. Frances Marionís output was remarkably diverse.
CB: Her two Oscars were both for two films that immediately put the lie to the idea that women only write "womenís" films and "matinee weepers." The Big House was the first real talking film to take place in prison, and The Champ was the classic boxing film. It really shows that not only she could, but that [women] were encouraged to do every single genre. June Mathis wrote Ben Hur, and Bess Meredith finished it. June Mathis did The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and a huge series of films starring Strongheart, the predecessor to Rin Tin Tin, Adela Rogers-St. Johns wrote comic westerns as well, and Bess Meredith wrote Zorro. They did everything.
DL: One of the more effective moments in the documentary is when you recall how the male executives despised Frances Marion and Mary Pickfordís first movie together, Poor Little Rich Girl, but audiences loved it. It matched what a lot of contemporary women filmmakers seem to go through now.
CB: They thought that what they had done was very clever and fun. They had never had more fun on a set, and then were greeted with that kind of fear. The situation with [producer] Adolph Zukor was if it works, weíll make money. If it doesnít work, Iíve got Mary Pickford right back under my thumb, which is where she belongs. They thought it was so bad because it was so different. That was the film that created the little-girl persona of Mary Pickford.
There was an interesting piece in The New York Times by Molly Haskell about a spate of films that have come out about young womenís sexuality from women directors. It was an aspect that had just not been on the screen before. Again though, one of my screenwriting friends says, "Iím still waiting for the call to adapt Elmore Leonard." Women writers and directors are much more slotted today than they were in the twenties. You have to admire [director] Betty Thomas. Sheís doing films like The Brady Bunch, Doctor Doolittle and Private Parts. [Women filmmakers] have to be free to do those things, too.
DL: Marion was also a noteworthy talent scout.
CB: One of my favorite Frances quotes is, "My boys come first, and then itís a photo finish between your work and your friends." Now her friends would have said it wasnít a photo finish at all. She gave more to her friends than she did to her work. Although she would make light of her work, she would get up at five in the morning to write. She cared very much about what she wrote. I do, however, think that one of the reasons she was so successful over so long a time and being able to write such incredible characters was that she really cared about people. If she had gone through a day without helping people, it wasnít a full day. It was part of her joy in filmmaking to nurture someone.
When [producer] Sam Goldwynís secretary said, "My boyfriend wants to be in the movies. Could you just take a look at him?" She looked out the window and saw this 6í2" guy standing there and went, "Hm, hm, hm." She said, "Sure. Bring him in, and letís see his test." Sam Goldwyn didnít think he had anything going for him, and Frances fought for him to the point to where she brought in all the secretaries, and when Gary Cooperís screen test came on, the "ahís" were audible. Because of that, he was cast as Abe Lee in The Winning of Barbara Worth. Frances always said that she didnít know if she felt sorrier for Sam Goldwyn because didnít have the faith to sign him to a long-term contract or for Goldwynís secretary who very shortly afterwards lost Gary Cooper to Clara Bow. The night after that movie was screened, Paramount signed him to a long-term contract.
Frances also fought hard to have Clark Gable cast as the romantic lead in The Secret Six. When he wasnít, she went back and methodically rewrote the part to give him a little bit of comedy and show of that smile and to show him as, "the kind of guy who wasnít a good guy and wasnít threatening to men but was attractive enough to women that they would say, ĎIf I could get my hands on him, I could straighten him out.í" Thatís exactly the kind of character she wrote for him. Again, he took off. He always went back to Frances with every script he was given. One of the fights he got into with [Louis B.] Mayer was about Parnell [one of Gableís rare flops]. She said he shouldnít be in that. The other that she said there was nothing there for him was Adventure, the movie with the slogan, "Gableís back, and Garsonís got him." He was back from [World War II], and she said, "Youíve got to give him more to do than mooning over some babe even if itís Greer Garson.Ē" [Marion] went to the mat for him. They stayed friends forever. She loved him because he was not at all pretentious. He took his work serious, but he never took himself seriously.
DL: How did you and director Bridget Terry split duties?
CB: We co-produced and co-wrote it. We really co-wrote it. Bridget directed, and itís based on my book. It does get a little old. "Written and produced by Bridget Terry and Cari Beachamp. Directed by Bridget Terry. Based on the book by Cari Beauchamp." [Laughs] When you are writing a documentary, itís entirely different than writing a book because your writing is dictated in part by: one, the interviews; two, the era footage that you have, and three, youíre showing a story, not just telling one.
DL: What kind of impact have you had with the book and the documentary?
CB: When the book first came out, Lynda Obst [the producer of Contact and author of Hello, He Lied] greeted me with this huge hug and said, "My God! I thought it started with [fifties B-movie director] Ida Lupino.Ē" [Paramount Pictures Chairman] Sherry Lansing called and said, "Thank you for giving me my history." I just find time and time again in different ways [women filmmakers] instead of viewing themselves as isolated incidents, the ability for women to see themselves as a link in a chain just gives them tremendous strength and courage. Even a residual effect of this if fabulous.
I do think men take for granted their history. They know their history. They know there have been all these other men who done all these things. Iím not saying that men have it easier in any way because they have a set of expectations put on them that I would never want to have to deal with. Having said, that [Without Lying Down] is not a revisionist history. Itís an excavated history. It was always there. It just hasnít had the spotlight on it, and this documentary allows us, albeit briefly, to turn the spotlight on a group of women at a brief wonderful time when Hollywood was a magnet for creative women. It was not only a magnet; it nurtured creative women.
DL: Isnít ironic that the person who paid for half of this documentary is Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner?
CB: Yeah, but you know, my thinking was heíd already made the money [lets out a loud chuckle], and there are a lot of ways he could spend it. The fact that he could spend it on this makes me very happy. Heís my new best friend.