More From Hollywood
By DeWitt Bodeen – 1977
More From Hollywood! – is about eleven who worked in both the silent and sound media and four others who worked only in sound pictures. In point of time they begin with Blanche Sweet, D. W. Griffith’s “Biograph Blonde,” who made her debut in the first decade of this century, starting as an extra at Biograph and rising to top stardom before she left Griffith to work for Cecil B. DeMille at the Lasky Feature Play Company; and the newest star is the contemporary number one box office star and director, Clint Eastwood, who likewise began as an extra at Universal and is now a multi-millionaire independent.
Of all the arts and crafts that contribute to the creation of a movie, screenwriting has been the least appreciated, and, except for occasional oratorical pats on the back, almost all of which include the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word,” screenwriters have been unmentioned men — and women. Their contributions to particular films are usually underestimated, and their importance in film history has been almost totally suppressed.
One screenwriter whose place in motion picture history is beginning to be recognised is Frances Marion, who wrote the scenarios of some of Mary Pickford’s major pictures and of such other important silents as Lillian Gish’s The Scarlet Letter and The Wind; Valentino’s The Son of the Sheik; “Photoplay’s Best Pictures of the Year.’’ Humoresque (1920) and Abraham Lincoln (1924); and the screenplays of such important sound films as Garbo’s Anna Christie and Camille; Pickford’s last picture, Secrets; Cukor’s Dinner at Eight; and the Oscar-winning The Big House and The Champ.
In addition, she was the wife of one of the great Western stars — Fred Thomson — and theirs is one of the real love stories of Hollywood.
Frances Marion Owens was bom in San Francisco on November 18, 1888, and was named after a—collaterally—paternal ancestor, the Revolutionary War general, Francis Marion, known as “The Swamp Fox.’
Miss Marion was then at the peak of her career. Every scenario she devised for M-G-M became a money-maker, whether an adaptation of a comic strip (Bringing Up Father) the Garbo-Gilbert Love (adapted from Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina’’), or Lillian Gish’s version of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.’’
Her reputation in Hollywood was then so great that when it became known she was going to Europe for her vacation (summer of 1928), Joseph Schenck asked her to drop by Salzburg and give him an objective opinion of the story Max Reinhardt was planning to film with Lillian Gish. Fred Thomson was getting ready to shoot Jesse James and couldn’t go with her, and she sailed for Europe accompanied by her favourite niece and Hedda Hopper.
Reinhardt’s story had been outlined by Hugo von Hoffmanstal and was based on the history of a contemporary peasant girl, Theresa Neumann, who had suffered the stigmata of the Holy Cross on her hands.
“I was appalled,’’ Miss Marion confesses. “Reinhardt, von Hoffmanstal. and all their confreres had sold Lillian an idea that could never be filmed. Lillian looked enchantingly lovely and spiritual, with her hair down to her waist and pearls intertwined throughout its length. I hated doing it, but I had to send back a very negative report on the venture to Joe Schenck.’’
It was in the summer of 1928 that Warners released their first all-talkie. Lights of New York, but when Miss Marion returned to Hollywood, and to “The Enchanted Hill,” the talkies were not yet the ominous cloud they soon became. Even Louella O. Parsons had predicted they were a fad and would never last.
The talkies’ advent had obliged the studios to re-negotiate, or liquidate, the contracts of writers as well as the contracts of players, directors, et al, but Miss Marion had a friend at court: Irving Thalberg. He respected not only her screenwriting ability but her advice on production problems, and in time he came to depend on her judgement of every script he produced. Miss Marion thought Thalberg second only to Samuel Goldwyn in what a film producer should be.
Her opinion of Louis B. Mayer was quite different. She had first worked for Mayer early in 1922, when he had his own company, and engaged her to adapt a popular post-war play, “The Famous Mrs. Fair.” According to Bosley Crowther’s “Hollywood Rajah,” Mayer, at his first meeting with Miss Mar¬ ion, indicated the silver-framed photographs of his wife and two daughters, Edith and Irene, and said: “I’m determined that my little Edie and my little Irene will never be embarrassed. All my pictures are moral and clean.” This won Miss Marion’s respect at the time, but by 1929, when she resumed her career at M-G-M she knew him much better. He had not only encouraged her to buy stocks on margin in the disastrous year of 1929, but she had several personally unpleasant experiences with him. Once in the studio commissary, as she passed his table, where he was eating his favourite matzo ball soup, he looked up and grinned, and then pinched her well-groomed derriere. She paused to look at him. “Mr. Mayer,” she said, “Be careful, or you may find your face in that matzo ball soup.”
When she returned to work after Thomson’s death, it was Thalberg who claimed her services and assigned her to the screenplay of Their Own Desire, which was an adaptation of a Sarita Fuller novel, and starred Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer.