Marion, Frances (1888–1973)

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Marion, Frances (1888–1973)

American screenwriter who was the first female writer to win an Academy Award . Name variations: (pseudonym for westerns) Frank M. Clifton. Born Marion Benson Owens in San Francisco, California, on November 18, 1888; died on May 12, 1973, of an aneurysm; daughter of Len Douglas Owens (in advertising business) and Minnie Benson Hall Owens; married Wesley de Lappe, on October 23, 1906 (divorced 1911); married Robert Dickson Pike (an industrialist), on November 14, 1911 (divorced 1917); married Fred Thomson, on November 2, 1919 (died 1928); married George Hill, in January 1930 (divorced 1931); children: (third marriage) Fred Thomson, Jr. (b. December 8, 1926); (adopted) Richard Gordon Thomson (1927).

Won Academy Award for Screenwriting for her original story The Big House (1930); won second Oscar for The Champ ; served as vice president and only woman on the first board of directors of the Screen Writers Guild; wrote 325 scripts.

Women were powerful in the early years of Hollywood; half of all copyrighted films between 1911 and 1925 were written by women. "With few taking moviemaking seriously as a business, the doors were wide open," writes Cari Beauchamp . By the time Frances Marion won a 1930 Academy Award for her original story The Big House, she was the highest-paid screen-writer in Hollywood. That evening, four of her films had nominees for Best Actress or Actor: Wallace Beery for The Big House, Lawrence Tibbett for The Rogue Song,Norma Shearer for Their Own Desire, and Greta Garbo for Anna Christie; the following year, Marie Dressler would take Best Actress honors for appearing in another Marion screenplay, Min and Bill. By then, Frances Marion had written over 100 produced films, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna, A Little Princess, and a dozen others for Mary Pickford . She had also penned Stella Dallas, Poor Little Rich Girl, Dinner at Eight, Camille, and The Champ. But that night in 1930, when she returned to her seat with Oscar in hand, Marion sized up the statuette: "I saw it as a perfect symbol of the picture business: a powerful athletic body clutching a gleaming sword, but with half of his head, the part which held his brains, completely sliced off."

Frances Marion was born Marion Benson Owens on November 18, 1888, in San Francisco, California, the middle child of Len and Minnie Owens ; her sister Maude was two years older; her brother Len, Jr., two years younger. Len, Sr., was successful in advertising and owned a drug company, and the family was firmly ensconced in San Francisco society. Len loved the outdoors and organized a bicycle club; Minnie, whose parents were musicians, preferred life indoors, maintaining her household on O'Farrell Street as a hub for such artists as Luisa Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba , and Enrico Caruso. Minnie's uncle and aunt, George and Jane Benson , also lived with the family.

In the fall of 1898, when Marion was ten, her parents divorced; two years later, Len married Isabel Preston . Though Marion was generally a well-behaved child who had, in her own words, learned the "hypocrisies of social graces," a few months after her father's wedding she was caught at her classroom blackboard, drawing caricatures of her teachers, and was expelled from "all public schools."

With her days thus free, Marion became the channeler for the weekly spiritualist sessions held by Aunt Jane, and Uncle George, a retired seafarer, took his niece with him to his favorite haunts, the saloons of the Barbary Coast. She was then waylaid by polio for several months and turned to reading, as well as to writing in her secret diary. After her recovery, she was sent to the exclusive preparatory boarding school, St. Margaret's Hall in San Mateo, an Episcopalian enterprise that promised to raise girls to "noble womanhood." Summers, she traveled with her mother to such places as Alaska. Marion was in Mexico when she first saw the disparities between the wealth of the Church and the poverty of the poor. She began to loathe hypocrisy and was an early student of human behavior.

At St. Margaret's, Marion excelled in writing, and friends of the family, Jack London and Ella Wheeler Wilcox , encouraged her to send her stories to magazines. "California's Latest," an ode to Luther Burbank, was printed in Sunset magazine in May 1905. Marion also took to art at school, under the tutelage of Charles Chapel Judson. When he transferred to the Mark Hopkins Art Institute, 16-year-old Marion followed and once again lived at home in the rarified society of her mother, while at the same time taking advantage of San Francisco's bohemian community. She also fell in love with her art teacher, Wesley de Lappe, who had just been hired to draw for the San Francisco Chronicle. On April 18, 1906, while sitting together on a park bench, Marion and de Lappe heard a loud rumbling sound. The San Francisco earthquake leveled 250 city blocks and killed 1,000. Workers and socialites pitched in side-by-side to save the city. Though her parents' home was left standing, Marion claimed that the family "lost everything" in the quake; it was the end of the Mark Hopkins Art Institute and her father's drug company. With hopes of college in the East dashed, 18-year-old Marion wed 19-year-old de Lappe on October 23, 1906, and the cash-strapped couple lived with her family.

I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.

—Frances Marion

Marion continued to write but, at the urging of Jack London, took odd jobs to study human behavior. She pitted peaches at a cannery, operated a telephone switchboard, and then signed on as an assistant to well-known photographer Arnold Genthe, who not only did informal portraits of society's elite but took his camera to the streets of the city. Marion, who was 5'2", with chestnut hair and deep blue eyes, was considered a beauty, and Genthe, who was struck by her looks, used her as a model. She also learned layout and color photography and met many of the theatrical elite who sought out Genthe for portraits.

Economic stress hampered her marriage, however, and the de Lappes were divorced in 1910. Hungry for experience, Marion became a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, but "her sympathy for victims," writes Beauchamp, "prevented her from writing flamboyantly enough for William Randolph Hearst's news desk, and she was transferred to the theater department." One of Marion's first interviews was with Marie Dressler, in town on a theatrical tour, and the two hit it off.

Marion then met Robert Dickson Pike, a member of the Bohemian Club and an up-and-comer in his father's steel firm. For Marion, Pike offered economic security and social respect; her father's approval, a rarity, was an added bonus. Married in November 1911, the newlyweds moved to Los Angeles, where Robert opened a branch office for his father, and Marion was hired to paint posters for Oliver Morosco, owner of the Morosco theater. But unlike sophisticated San Francisco, Los Angeles was provincial, and Marion was soon appalled at the bias against Jews, actors, artists, and anyone in the burgeoning movie industry. Her conservative husband tended to side with the "conscientious citizens" who deplored the outcasts who worked in the "flickers." Since husband and wife were rarely together, however, the inevitable breakup was postponed. Marion was learning that she preferred work to the life of a society matron. When she bumped into Marie Dressler, who was in Los Angeles to film Tillie's Punctured Romance for Mack Sennett, the two picked up their conversation where they had left off.

Marion, who would mother a retinue of women friends, also became close to Mabel Normand as well as Adela Rogers (St. Johns) , an old friend from San Francisco who was now writing for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. On first meeting Mary Pickford, Marion sensed the vulnerability of the young actress, writes Beauchamp, and "instantly developed a fiercely protective attitude toward Mary that was to be a hallmark of their friendship." The new confidants soon shared the truth about their failed marriages. Marion's second would end that year.

In the summer of 1914, 26-year-old Marion was hired by the director Lois Weber at Bosworth Studio to do a little of everything: write press releases, paint backdrops, learn to edit film, and, despite her protests, act. Though Marion Benson Owens was handed the new name of Frances Marion for the screen, she wanted to write, not act. Then Weber moved to Universal, and Marion joined the writing department at Balboa Studios. To her consternation, she found herself in front of the cameras once more. Marion was baffled; as far as she was concerned, she was a "tall, gawky girl" on screen, "a stranger who made a few grimaces and then dashed off." But when Pickford said "come act" at Famous Players, "we'll have fun together," Marion readily complied. Pickford had also agreed to let her friend dabble with scenarios. In short order, Frances Marion wrote The Foundling for Pickford, and Adolph Zukor bought the script for $125. "I ceased walking on this earth," wrote Marion. But just as the film shoot was wrapping up in New York, the negative burned in a studio fire. No prints had yet been made.

A devastated Marion, who had been counting on the film to establish her writing credentials, remained in New York, taking a small room at the Algonquin, and was soon working for William Brady at his World Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She was earning $200 a week, an unheard-of salary for a scenarist, writing films for Clara Kimball Young, Doris Kenyon , and Alice Brady . She was also ghostwriting a syndicated column for S.S. McClure's "Daily Talks" for Mary Pickford, who then lived in New York.

Meanwhile, Pickford had reshot The Foundling, and it was released in 1916 to popular acclaim. Marion then wrote Woman Against the Sea for Fox for $5,000; by the time filming began, the woman against the sea was being played by William Farnum and was called The Iron Man, but Marion retained her $5,000. By March 1916, she was head of the scenario department at World and was casting films, directing scenes, and supervising screen tests for fresh faces. But Marion was overworked and exhausted. When her 30-year-old sister Maude put a.22 to her head and killed herself, Marion broke down and was hospitalized. It was Marie Dressler who nursed her back to health. After a month, Marion returned to her work at World, but she stopped writing the Pickford column and tried to slow down. She also added two more women friends, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Anita Loos , to her close-knit group.

When Pickford signed for Poor Little Rich Girl, to be filmed by Cecil B. De Mille in Fort Lee, she demanded that Frances Marion write the scenario. De Mille was adamant that he would choose the scriptwriter; soon De Mille was out and a new director, Maurice Tourneur, was in. But during the shoot, to Tourneur's annoyance, Pickford and Marion repeatedly added bits of comedy. The women were devastated when, at the private screening for executives, not one man laughed. So, with little advance publicity, Poor Little Rich Girl was shown at the Strand on Broadway. The audience roared. Pickford and Marion vowed that they would never again question their instincts because of the disapproval of the powers that be. The film was a major success, and Marion signed a contract with Famous Players-Lasky at $50,000 per year to write for Pickford. Their next project, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was another smash; they followed that with an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett 's The Little Princess. By then, Marion had written 50 films and returned to Los Angeles to much favorable press. Movies had become respectable.

With Europe at war, Pickford talked her friend into writing Johanna Enlists. While securing the 143rd Field artillery unit to appear in the movie, Marion met Lieutenant Fred Thomson, the unit's chaplain and a world-class athlete. It was love at first sight; she had fallen, she said, for a Boy Scout. Fred sailed off to war, Pickford went on bond-selling tours, while Marion headed for France and the front as a correspondent for the Committee on Public Information. Her job was to film the work of Allied women—over 20,000 were serving overseas as army and navy nurses, entertainers, decoders, and interpreters for the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and YMCA. Marion was the first correspondent to cross the Rhine, days before the Armistice; the outcome was her 15-reel serial, American Women in the War.

Back home again, Frances Marion adapted four stories from Lucy Maud Montgomery 's "Anne of Green Gables" series into one scenario for Mary Miles Minter . She then signed with William Randolph Hearst's studio in New York, Cosmopolitan, to write for Marion Davies . Now proclaimed in studio ads as "the highest salaried photoplaywright in the industry," Frances Marion shared a house with Anita Loos on Long Island and wrote The Cinema Murders, leaving plenty of room to showcase Davies' comedic talents despite Hearst's tendency to cast her in costume epics which did nothing for her career. Marion, maid of honor when Loos married John Emerson in the summer of 1919, moved back to the Algonquin where she wrote the scenario for A Regular Girl for Elsie Janis . Frances Marion was then loaned out to work once more with Pickford: they chose to do Pollyanna but soon found the storyline too simple for their tastes. "I hated writing it and Mary hated playing in it," said Marion. Nevertheless, the critics and the public were again enthralled.

On November 2, 1919, despite bitterly regretting her "two marital indiscretions," Marion married Fred Thomson because, she said, she "couldn't get him any other way." Spending time shepherding her friend Mary through divorce and marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Marion then adapted Fannie Hurst 's Humoresque for Davies. To William Randolph Hearst's amazement, the film, which was set on New York's Lower East Side and concerned a Jewish mother's love for her son, was a huge success. Wrote the critic for the New York Herald Tribune: "It is doubtful if a better picturization has been placed on the screen in a decade." Frances Marion made her directorial debut with another Fannie Hurst short story, Just Around the Corner. When one of the actors failed to show up during production, Marion convinced her husband to replace him. Marion's film did well at the box office, and Fred Thomson would go on to appear in an adventure series 2-reeler and in westerns for Monogram; at one point, with his loyal mount Silver King, he was the highest-paid western star in films.

Frances Marion's next major venture was directing Thomson and Pickford in The Love Light, based on a true story Marion had stumbled on while in Europe. It concerned an Italian heroine, a lighthouse keeper's daughter, who pulled a German from the sea during World War I, fell in love, then betrayed him when she learned that he was sending signals to German allies from the lighthouse. But directing her best friend and her husband may not have been wise; working so closely put a damper on the Pickford-Marion friendship, and though they remained loyal, they did not work together again for over ten years. It was also Frances Marion's final film as solo-director. Having withstood a violent storm off the rocky coast of Carmel to film the shipwreck, almost losing her assistant director to the waves in the process, she was devastated when one reviewer commented, "Only a woman director would use such an obvious miniature in that phony storm."

Frances Marion's continual disagreement with William Randolph Hearst over the way to best showcase Davies wore thin, and she moved on as a freelancer. She wrote two movies for Constance Talmadge , The Primitive Lover and East Is West for First National, and four for Norma Talmadge : Smilin' Through, The Eternal Flame, The Voice from the Minaret, and Within the Law. She then wrote the second all-color movie, Toll of the Sea, for Anna May Wong , and the epic 12-reeler The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, one of the few films of which she was truly proud. By 1924, Marion was back on Hearst's payroll with two more movies for Davies, both comedies. She also wrote a pair of films for Norma Talmadge and Ronald Colman for Samuel Goldwyn. To gain more control, Frances Marion turned to producing, resulting in The Flaming Forties, Simon, the Jester, and Paris at Midnight. She soon learned, as she had with directing, that producing took too much of her time and energy.

With a great deal of money coming in, the Thomsons bought property in Beverly Hills, building a large estate with a waterfall. Marion began to work on Fred's successful westerns under the pseudonym Frank M. Clifton. In 1925, Goldwyn obtained the rights to Stella Dallas, a story of mother love and sacrifice; Marion tried, she said, to walk the "thin line between convincing sentimentality and lachrymose melodrama." Writes Beauchamp: "She mixed comedy scenes with drama in such a sophisticated way that her script was barely tampered with" in the Barbara Stanwyck remake 12 years later. The original film, starring Belle Bennett , took in over $1 million, bringing Goldwyn his highest gross to date.

Irving Thalberg signed Frances Marion to write the scenario for The Scarlet Letter for Lillian Gish . Her next, The Winning of Barbara Worth, cast with the then-unknown Gary Cooper, was another hit. Marion then adapted the Victor Hubert musical comedy The Red Mill for Marion Davies. Her The Son of the Shiek for Rudolph Valentino premiered in L.A. on July 9, 1926, five weeks before Valentino died.

After ten years of what was from all accounts a successful marriage, Marion gave birth to a son, Frederick Clifton Thomson, Jr., on December 8, 1926; the Thomsons adopted another boy the following year, and Marion decided it was time to settle down. Instead of jumping from one lot to another, she signed with Thalberg at MGM to write, help supervise, and edit her own productions. Her first assignment was The Wind with Lillian Gish, now considered one of the last great films of the silent era. Both women were adamant that the story they were doing would not have a typical Hollywood happy ending. Thalberg agreed to back them. Then The Wind was previewed, and Louis B. Mayer demanded they change the ending. Gish was "heartbroken" and left the studio. Marion, who admitted to Gish that she'd write a happy ending for Romeo and Juliet if told to, was also devastated; she told Gish that it would be the "last film to which she gave her heart as well as head."

From literary agent Elisabeth Marbury in New York, Marion learned that her old friend Marie Dressler was down on her luck and contemplating taking a job as housekeeper for a Long Island household, so Frances wrote an original story of battling female buddies, The Callahans and the Murphys, for Dressler and Polly Moran . Though Thalberg was reluctant to use Dressler, he went along. Despite the backlash from the Catholic community over the obviously Irish Catholic characters, the film put Dressler's career back on track, and Marion wrote a sequel for Moran and Dressler, Bringing Up Father, based on the popular syndicated cartoon characters Maggie and Jiggs.

Her next venture was the script for Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for Greta Garbo. After some discussion, Metro's honchos wanted to rename the movie Heat, but Marion pointed out that the marquee would read "Greta Garbo in Heat"; they settled on Love. They also asked Marion, to her continued chagrin, to change Tolstoy's ending: though Anna leaves for the train station, she turns up alive three years later. Love opened in November 1929; it was a huge hit.

Meanwhile, Fred was caught in a snare. His producer, Joseph P. Kennedy (father of the future American president), had him tethered to an impossible contract. When Kennedy signed Fred's major competitor Tom Mix, he priced Fred's movies out of the market, effectively killing his career. Following an operation for kidney stones on Christmas Day 1928, Fred Thomson died suddenly from tetanus. The 40-year-old Marion, who always remained convinced that the dealings with Kennedy led to her husband's death, was left with two children, ages two and one. Devastated, she sold off all her holdings, kept her books and clothes, moved into a furnished apartment with her sons, and continued to be, as one friend put it, "prodigal in her generosity" to others. Friends were fearful of complimenting her on anything she owned, because it would be wrapped and waiting at the door for them when they took their leave.

After writing two sound movies for Norma Shearer, Their Own Desire and Let Us Be Gay, Marion adapted Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie for Garbo's first talking picture and successfully plugged for Marie Dressler to play the part of Marthy, a waterfront hangabout. With ads proclaiming GARBO TALKS, the movie broke box-office records. Then Marion began to date an old friend, director George Hill; intent on spurring prison reform, they worked together on the movie The Big House. Following a tour of San Quentin, Marion wrote the script and recommended Wallace Beery for casting. The movie, shot realistically, earned raves, but the Marion-Hill marriage that took place in January 1930 would last less than one year. George turned out to be a periodic drinker and a menacing drunk. Marion placed him in a house she owned as an investment in Venice, bought a two-story house on Selma Avenue, just off Fairfax, added a Saint Bernard and a pair of baby lambs, and settled in.

Throughout her career, Frances Marion was an inveterate helper of friends. When screenwriter Lorna Moon was battling tuberculosis and low on funds, Marion borrowed a storyline from one of her novels, writes Beauchamp, concerning a "rough-and-tumble boardinghouse owner with a heart of gold and … her old curmudgeon sailor boyfriend cum straightman." Marion rewrote it to fit the talents of Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler and talked the studio into paying a delighted Lorna a then whopping $10,000 for the story. (Sadly, within weeks, Moon was dead.) Min and Bill was a smash hit and helped save MGM from financial disaster during the first stages of the Depression. Frances Marion won her second Oscar for her original story for The Champ, a tearjerker that starred Beery and little Jackie Cooper. Soon after, on March 18, 1932, Marion collapsed from overwork. While she lay in bed recovering, she learned of the plight of the financially strapped Lois Weber and agreed to work for Goldwyn on Cynara if she could hire Weber to assist in the adaptation.

David Selznick, now at MGM, hired Marion for the screenplay for Dinner at Eight which would star Dressler, Beery, Jean Harlow , and John and Lionel Barrymore. But with the arrival of Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and the closing of the banks, Louis B. Mayer was claiming poverty and Marion took a paycut. Aware of Hollywood's metamorphosis into very big business, Marion felt it was time to protect the writer. In 1933, Frances Marion, Anita Loos, Bess Meredyth , and a few others revived the moribund Screen Writers Guild, with Marion its first vice president. Within a year, the group went from a membership of 100 to nearly 750. Despite Thalberg's fury over Marion's seeming betrayal with the union, he hired her to adapt Pearl S. Buck 's The Good Earth, and, prodded by Marion, hired her ex-husband George Hill to direct. But in quick succession Marie Dressler died of cancer and George Hill, after quitting the picture in a drunken rage, committed suicide. Saying she needed a change of scene, Marion went back to San Francisco; on her return to L.A. with family and friends, the driver of their car lost control after a blowout and swerved into an oncoming car. A young boy in the other car was killed. Marion experienced internal injuries, a crushed shoulder, and a broken collarbone, and she was in a cast for months. While recovering at her father's home in Napa Valley, she wrote a series of short stories about the women of the valley, published under the title Valley People; she saw it as a "tribute to my suffering sex." Marion then wrote another novel, Molly, Bless Her, based on her good friend Marie Dressler. With an agreement with Thalberg in her pocket to write, direct, and produce for him, Marion left for a six-month vacation in London; she learned of Thalberg's death while she was there.

On her return, she was unhappy with the contract offered by MGM, and, though she tried to make it work, things were different without Thalberg. Sick of the studio power plays and disgusted over the way a friend was being used by Mayer, she broke her contract. Frances Marion, now 48, again became a freelancer. Her first project was her book How to Write and Sell Films. She also wrote a film advice column for Cinema Progress, a magazine published by the American Institute of Cinematography at the University of Southern California.

After a deal with Harry Cohn at Columbia did not pan out, Marion returned to MGM, but she spent most of her time there doctoring scripts written by others. Then Lois Weber died at age 56 with Frances at her bedside, and Marion felt the old Hollywood receding; many of her friends had died. Intent on a sea change, she left MGM and put her energy into sculpting; it was refreshing, she said to have "total control of the result."

Just after Pearl Harbor, young Fred graduated from high school and joined the navy. Marion, who needed money, returned to MGM in 1943 as "editorial assistant to Louis B Mayer." Her earnings had been reduced by two-thirds, and she had the feeling that the new generation of writers saw her as a "pre-Columbian artifact." The work she so loved had become a job. On October 23, 1946, by mutual agreement, she quit MGM for the last time. In April 1948, with her children grown, she moved to New York. That June, she published Westward the Dream and co-authored a play with Loos, Red Lamp in My Window, but Loos could not agree with the director over the third act and the project was quietly dropped. Marion returned to California for awhile on the death of her mother, then moved to Woodbridge, Connecticut, to be near her son and his family.

There she wrote her autobiography, Off With Their Heads (1972). "I hope my story shows one thing—how many women gave me real aid when I stood at the crossroads," she told DeWitt Bodeen. "Too many women go around these days saying women in important positions don't help their own sex, but that was never my experience. The list is endless, believe me." Added Beauchamp, "And of course, she didn't mention all the women she in turn had helped." Frances Marion died on May 12, 1973, of an aneurysm. She was 84.


Beauchamp, Cari. Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. NY: Scribner, 1997.


Papers in the cinema library at the University of Southern California.

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Marion, Frances (1888–1973)

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