Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood

The silent film renaissance has spawned its latest book, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (Lisa Drew Books/Scribner, 1997), by Cari Beauchamp. Aside from loving the title, I wholeheartedly recommend this brilliant biography of the legendary Frances Marion and other famous women of her time in Hollywood. Ms. Beauchamp is part of an excellent new wave of authors who have researched their subjects in ways that were not readily available previously. To tackle and write meaningfully about personalities from Hollywood’s silent past, especially non stars, and elevate them to a star status that has been long overdue is a courageous and admirable effort.

Strangely enough (or perhaps not), Ms. Beauchamp and I shared the experience that prompted her initial reason for covering the life of Frances Marion. I too had seen her name on numerous films of merit from the golden age of silent and sound cinema. It was through reading Frances’ memoirs, Off With Their Heads! A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood (Macmillan, 1972), that I became more deeply acquainted and fascinated with this prolific female screenwriter. I felt a sense of frustration, desiring to know more. Surely, Frances Marion was leaving out important events and revelations through hindsight. After all, she did not lock herself up in an attic like Emily Dickinson. She was a worldly woman. Indeed, she was a pioneer, a role model and, in the larger picture of financial and artistic success in the movie industry, an anomaly. Plainly stated, she was the highest paid screenwriter in the history of films before the end of the studio era. Frances loved men, but resonated better around women with fine minds. She was dedicated to her women friends and assisted their professional efforts. She was surrounded, both professionally and socially, by the greatest women artisans that Hollywood has ever launched: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Marion Davies, Colleen Moore, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Even today, with what we have learned and practiced concerning equality and feminism, the genuine bonding between professional women could take a page out of Frances Marion’s book of ethics.

The early motion picture industry was a man’s world, or so historians tend to portray. The Women were there, but there is little elaboration on their lives and contributions. These women include screenwriters like Fannie Hurst, Frances’ closest influence and friendliest rival, in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, who was probably best known to the public for her soap-opera novels and screenplays like The Younger Generation (Columbia, 1929), Backstreet (Universal, 1932) and Imitation of Life (Universal, 1934); Clara Beranger, who wrote such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920) and also collaborated with William C. DeMille on Miss Lulu Bett (Famous Player-Lasky, 1921), Men and Women (Famous Players-Lasky, 1925) and Craig’s Wife (Pathe Exchange, 1928), she eventually married him after seven years of collaboration; Jeannie Macpherson, Cecil B. DeMille’s screenwriter, paramour and closest professional collaborator on such films as The Little American (Artcraft, 1917), Male and Female (Famous Players-Lasky, 1919) and The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille Productions, 1927); Bess Meredyth, screenwriter of such “he-man” fare as Ben-Hur (M-G-M, 1925), Don Juan (Warner Bros., 1926) and The Sea Beast (Warner Bros., 1926); Jane Murfin, screenwriter and producer in the silent and sound era who wrote White Fang (R-C Pictures, 1925), What Price Hollywood (RKO, 1932) and The Women (M-G-M, 1939), cowritten with Anita Loos; and June Mathis, who died before the end of the silent era and wrote the best of Valentino’s swoonfests as well as Souls for Sale (Goldwyn Pictures, 1923), coscripted Ben-Hur and cowrote Greed (Metro Pictures, 1924), along with Erich von Stroheim and Rex Ingram. These behind-the-camera women were dedicated and prolific in their endeavors. I suppose if there are too many “anomalies,” then what is created is a special breed of individual. Ms. Beauchamp places these women back into the historical context from which they have been excised – the complete tapestry of artisans that make up all the textures of film production and the town that was Hollywood. She sheds a deserving light on many of these aforementioned women, and a few more. These are the women who helped create an industry, and their stories should be required reading in all film schools.

In comparing Without Lying Down to Frances Marion’s autobiography, Off With Their Heads!, it is apparent that Frances declined to discuss major events in her life. One such event was her fourth marriage to director George W. Hill, their divorce and his subsequent suicide. Even a candid individual like Frances failed (as many do in their personal memoirs) to document her own life completely. Although she was married four times, she would have one think that her only marriage was to Fred Thomson, cowboy star and stuntman who left her widowed with two young sons. His untimely death occured when they both were at the pinnacle of financial success and living better than most superstars. Despite this tremendous loss, she keeps her grief in check. She would have you think that it was solely her practical strength of character served her through her tragedies. You can feel the woman’s passion, but it is not adequately expressed. What is desired is for her to really let her hair down.

Frances was a sociable person, but kept her socializing to a more elite crowd. Her sentimental screen treatments invite a warm perception of her demeanor. However, her real life personal takes towards people and situations she felt beneath her give her a patina of elitism. If her memoirs belie her deep feelings concerning the tragedies in her life, Beauchamp has opened the intimate door to Frances’ heart and finishes what she left unsaid. She reveals the private Frances Marion through her research in contacting and interviewing her surviving family members. She also had the complete cooperation of surviving family members of the women with whom Frances had direct contact, such as the families of Anita Loos and columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns. Both of these women were close to Frances, and were as deeply involved in getting Hollywood on paper and on film.

Without Lying Down is also enhanced by an unprecedented victory for film historians – Cari Beauchamp breached the walls of the fortress that are the M-G-M legal files. These are the heavily protected, sacred files that hold more secrets than the Sphinx has forgotten. She is the first researcher to have accomplished this feat and uses this privileged information to shed a new light on her subjects. Perhaps most inspiring of all was the support that Beauchamp received from fellow contemporary writers; components of the new wave I referred to at the beginning of this review. The ability to share and enhance one another’s research is the only way to create the upgraded history of film that is under construction and so long overdue. Without Lying Down is, in a word, superb. This book is not only a major resource, it is an absorbing read. Beauchamp presents the past in a manner that stimulates dialog for the present. This dialog will shape the future for aspiring women in the fields of filmmaking and film history.

How gratifying it is in the 1990’s that women have advanced to the forefront of classic film. We are presidents of major fan clubs, archivists, writers, historians, editors, producers and directors. We have a legacy of strong role models from the glorious past. Call them pioneers, role models or anomalies. What would Frances Marion call them? Without Lying Down is an important book and should be a major staple in any fan’s library, for it gives an intriguing look into Hollywood; but, more importantly, Cari Beauchamp’s treatment gives us an even rarer insight into the powerful women of Hollywood.

Madison Morrison