Frances Marion: Foundational Female of Filmdom

Along with her mentor Lois Weber and her colleague Anita Loos, Frances Marion (Marion Owens, 1888-1973) is widely revered for being not just one of the first successful and powerful women in Hollywood, but one of the most influential og whatever gender. At one point she was Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter; she was the first writer to win two Oscars.

I find it significant that Marion’s training was in the visual arts. A San Francisco native she attended the Mark Hopkins Art Institute as a teenager, until the place was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. While it’s true that she had been a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, and therefore was no stranger to crafting language, her work as a commercial artist, poster designer, model, and photographer’s assistant no doubt habituated her to thinking in pictures. She learned the film game at the knee of Lois Weber, and quickly made a name for herself helping to craft vehicles for a succession of top female stars, especially Mary Pickford (who became her best friend), Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, and Marie Dressler (whose career she is credited with helping to revive in the early days of talkies). For Mary Miles Minter she wrote the script for Anne of Green Gables (1919). For Olive Thomas, The Flapper (1920).

Classics that carry her imprimatur include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), M’Liss (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Stella Dallas (1925), Lightnin’ (1925), The Scarlet Letter (1926), Son of the Sheik (1926), The Red Mill (1927), The Wind (1928), Min and Bill (1930), The Big House (1930), Anna Christie (1930), The Champ (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Peg o’ My Heart (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933), Camille (1936), and Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). She retired from working full time in Hollywood after 1937 to work on books, although she kept a hand in over the decades, contributing uncredited work on numerous more films over the decades.

While primarily associated with women’s pictures, you’ll notice several of those classics I listed starred men (in fact a couple of them are boxing pictures!) From 1919 to 1928 she was married to western star Fred Thomson, and severeal of the movies she wrote or co-wrote for westerns, not unusual for a California native. (How significant is it that she chose as her nom de plume a name reminiscent of The Swamp Fox, the Revolutionary War hero later played by Leslie Nielsen for Walt Disney?) After Thomson died she married George Hill, director of The Big House and Min and Bill, although that only lasted until 1933.

Marion was especially prized for her adaptations of literary works — her ability to “crack the back”, as we now call it, of the original, and start fresh, with a new focus and a new simplicity. Many believe that she wrote the book on Hollywood screenwriting. (Well, she literally did that too. It’s called How to Write and Sell Film Stories). While she authored several books her best known today is the last to come out of her pen, her 1972 memoir Off With Their Heads!: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood.

For more on silent and early film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.