PICKFORD: The Woman Who Made Hollywood.<i> By Eileen Whitfield</i> .<i> University of Kentucky Press: 410 pp., $25</i> : WITHOUT LYING DOWN: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood.<i> By Cari Beauchamp</i> .<i> Scribner: 476 pp., $30</i>
Of all the popular misconceptions of film history, from the trivial (the mistaken quote of “Play it again, Sam”) to the titanic (the idea that there had been no sound heard in a movie until “The Jazz Singer”), my least favorite is the one that says women play no role and have no influence in movies.
When movies were invented in the late 1800s, they came with no employment gender bias. Jobs were neither male nor female. Women applied and were hired. They were reliable, industrious and flexible, able to do all kinds of things. In the early days, women worked predictably as actors, costumers, makeup and wardrobe personnel, secretaries, continuity experts and designers but also in such key roles as editors, writers, producers and directors. Women were a strong force in silent film. The door was open to them, and they went through it in astonishing numbers and with great success.
Two new books, both highly readable, tell the stories of a pair of the most remarkable and influential of these women, Mary Pickford and Frances Marion. Pickford’s career represents the birth of superstardom and of the female executive, and Marion’s, the legions of women screenwriters who collectively wrote half of the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925. Pickford and Marion were strong women with serious credentials, and the very titles of these books demand respect. “Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood” and “Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood” put a female name up front, tell you one “made Hollywood” and the other was “powerful” and, in doing so, reduce that awesome cultural entity, Hollywood, to second billing. Beauchamp adds an ironic twist with one of Marion’s best lines on the usual perception of how women in show business get ahead: “I spent my life searching for a man I could look up to without lying down.”
Whitfield’s task is perhaps more difficult than Beauchamp’s because so much has been written on Pickford (no respectable book on silent film can exist without mentioning her). In particular, there was a definitive biography, “Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart,” by Scott Eyman, published as recently as 1990. Yet despite the attention Pickford continues to command, her work is widely misunderstood. Many think of her as a silly woman who pretended to be a child long after she was grown, and some refer to her as a symbol of Victorian repression. Nothing could be further from the truth, both off screen and on. Mary Pickford was a modern woman before there was such a concept. She was a great actress, capable of both comedy and drama, and a pioneer businesswoman who co-founded United Artists. She was famous not only for knowing everything there was to know about making motion pictures but also for being a tough, hard-bargaining business woman. (In his autobiography, Adolph Zukor, former head of Paramount Pictures, said, “I am convinced that Mary could have risen to the top in United States Steel if she had decided to be a Carnegie instead of a movie star.”)
On screen, Pickford was also nobody to mess with. Although some of her films may seem old-fashioned today, her characters are fresh, feisty and fun. She takes no nonsense from anyone, kicking men in the behind, socking them on the jaw, slogging ever onward through a swamp full of alligators, hauling an orphan on her back, even while being pursued by villains. She never gives up. As a role model for women today, she could put us all to shame, and that includes everyone from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Xena, the warrior princess. There will never again be a female star to equal Mary Pickford’s record of popularity, box-office success and business accomplishment. Today’s marketplace won’t allow it.
Whitfield’s book carves out original territory by bringing a woman’s point of view to Pickford’s life. After her first dutiful chapters in which she chronicles Pickford’s early years, Whitfield’s writing shows an irreverent sense of humor. She reveals the irony in “Little Mary’s” wedding to her last husband, Buddy Rogers (he was 12 years her junior). Pickford, wearing ice-blue crepe, stands sweetly under a sycamore tree hung with calla lilies. She firmly promises only to love and honor; at her specific request, the word “obey” had been omitted from the vows.
Whitfield is a keen observer of her subject’s sense of self-drama. Whenever Pickford described a big event, it always came out sounding suspiciously like a D.W. Griffith scenario. (At her father’s deathbed, her mother was “a horrifying vision . . . beating her head against the wall, cutting herself, shrieking.”)
Whitfield suggests that Pickford’s reputation was sullied by the popularity of Shirley Temple, who had her own golden curls and who remade some of Pickford’s biggest hits (including “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “The Little Princess”). She believes that Temple’s ascendancy erased Pickford’s popularity, even though only a few short years separated their careers. (For her part, Pickford adored Temple, sighing, “Oh, she was the cutest baby.”) Whitfield correctly states that Pickford’s work was completely different from Temple’s because “Little Mary was a far more complicated creature, informed by temper, violence, tragedy, street sense, optimism and slapstick.” However, Pickford also contributed to her own disappearance by not allowing her films to be shown because she feared they would be ridiculed as passe.
Three things really mattered to Pickford: her work, her husband and her family. Between 1927 and 1936, she lost all three. The coming of sound, combined with the inexorable fact of aging, ended her career. Her glamorous husband and fellow celebrity, Douglas Fairbanks, drifted away, and they subsequently divorced. Her beloved mother and two dissolute younger siblings, brother Jack and sister Lottie, all died. At first, Pickford put on a brave face. She bowed off stage with a kind of simple elegance, stating in the coldly analytical way she had of evaluating herself, “I left the screen. . . . The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.” She kept busy with old friends (among them Frances Marion), United Artists and her charities. Finally, she seems to have just taken to her bed, lying around her famous mansion, Pickfair, in a reportedly inebriated condition. The last sad sight anyone had of her before her death in 1979 was her filmed 1976 acceptance of an honorary Oscar. She sat huddled on a couch, looking cadaverous and almost frightened, an absurd wig perched on her tiny head. Without something purposeful to do, the little girl, who had worked all her life, was clearly lost.
Frances Marion’s story has a happier ending because she kept busy and never looked back. Writing her story is a different task from writing Pickford’s because Marion is not as widely known, yet she is one of the most important figures in film history and certainly deserving of her own book. She was not just a successful female screenwriter; she was the highest-paid screenwriter, male or female, in Hollywood for nearly 30 years. Between 1916 and 1946, she wrote more than 200 scripts and won two Oscars (for “The Big House” and “The Champ”). Marion’s story is an astonishing mini-history of the 20th century as she turns up, Zelig-like, at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; in World War I (as an army lieutenant assigned to film the 20,000 Allied women who served overseas); at film’s transition to sound; front and center for the first Oscar ceremonies; and at the birth of the Writers Guild (as its first vice president) in 1954. Marion knew everyone, from Jack London to Irving Thalberg to William Randolph Hearst. She was also as beautiful as any of the movie stars she wrote for, dressing with style, speaking two languages fluently and impressively playing a concert-style piano.
Why doesn’t someone turn this book into a movie? It has two villains (Joe Kennedy and Louis B. Mayer), a troupe of Eve Arden-ish wisecracking sidekicks (Anita Loos, Hedda Hopper and Adela Rogers St. Johns) and a truly touching love story. Marion’s beloved third husband was the extremely handsome western star Fred Thomson, a real heartthrob atop his pure white horse, the famous Silver King. His unexpected death from tetanus at 38 broke Marion’s heart.
“Without Lying Down” is broader in scope than “Pickford.” Although its basic subject is Marion, Beauchamp uses her as a link to the lives of other women pioneers. In addition to Loos, Hopper and St. Johns, Marion was close to writers Bess Meredyth, Lorna Moon and Fannie Hurst, and she became pals with stars like Marion Davies, Norma Talmadge, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow and, of course, Pickford. For those who know nothing about silent film, Beauchamp explains who all the players are. She accomplishes a great deal of amplification with a minimum of fuss. Her book is solid history, full of colorful anecdotes but free of gossip.
The beauty of Beauchamp’s fascinating book is that she makes Marion’s life into a story about her friendships with other successful women. Near the end of her life in 1973, she told an interviewer, “I hope my story shows one thing--how many women gave me real aid when I stood at the crossroads.” Marion herself was a great friend, writing an Oscar-winning role for Marie Dressler, whose career had sagged; putting Lorna Moon’s name on one of her own scripts when Moon needed the money; and never failing to listen to another woman’s lament. She was there for her friends, and they were there for her.
The lives of Mary Pickford and Frances Marion are colorful stories from a colorful era, with much to tell us about the film business and the role of women in its history. They are triumphant tales of two unique women who made it to the top of their professions. That’s a story still rare enough today to warrant our attention as well as our respect, and these two books do Pickford and Marion proud.