Screenwriter Frances Marion began her autobiography Off With Their Heads!: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood by recounting a lecture she was given as a child and an anecdote. “By the time I was ten years old," she wrote, “I had been thoroughly schooled in all the social hypocrisies." She remembered the advice of an adult: “You must never let your elders know by word or gesture what you really think about their looks, speech, or actions. Merely listen to them and learn." She received explicit instructions: “If the subjects they are discussing bore you, don’t yawn, scratch, or crack your knuckles." Then she shared the answer to a question she had asked: “No, a compliment that shades the truth is not a lie, it’s to keep from hurting anyone’s feelings." The instructions concluded with a scolding: “For instance, when I told Mrs. Jack London that her new hat was charming, you blurted out, ‘I hate it! It’s covered with little dead hummingbirds.’ Remarks like that are unpardonable, and if you don’t learn to hold your tongue you’ll go through life a social outcast."
Born Marion Benson Owens in 1888, Frances Marion was thrown out of San Francisco’s Hamilton Grammar School at twelve years of age and prohibited from enrolling in any other public schools because she had been caught drawing cartoons making fun of her teachers. According to film historian Cari Beauchamp, rather than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, Marion felt a certain pride in this expulsion because she believed it differentiated her from those she considered ordinary. She was also likely rebelling against her father who had divorced her mother and married a young socialite that landed him in the Blue Book right around this same time period. Whatever the motivation, Marion’s lifelong pursuit of social satire had begun.
The budding artist didn't have too much free time to cause trouble, however. She fell ill with polio and was tutored at home. Spending so much time in the house, she forged even closer ties with her colorful great aunt and uncle who lived with them. In large part, they stoked the fire of Marion’s creative imagination and storytelling skills. Her aunt held séances as Marion voiced the dead relatives. When she was feeling well enough to go out, her uncle, a retired seafarer, took her to bars up and down the San Francisco Barbary Coast where she heard wild accounts of voyages across the seas. This exposure to a red-light district at such a young age must have fueled her passion for adventure and tall tales. It likely also gave her a high level of tolerance for people with different views and from different backgrounds than her privileged upbringing. She kept a diary of these stories as well as her experiences with the many artists her mother brought into the home. Here, on these pages hidden underneath her mattress, her writing skills were developed and honed.
When Marion had fully recovered her health, her mother sent her to the elite, expensive St. Margaret’s Boarding School in San Mateo, which was renowned for preparing girls for the prestigious northeastern women’s colleges. During the summers, Marion traveled with her mother to locations as varying as Alaska and Mexico. She even hiked into the mountains with a band of Yaqui Indians. Through her travels and her schooling, she was polishing her languages, her writing, her drawing, and her music — she was an accomplished pianist. When one of the artist teachers at St. Margaret’s was hired at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute, Marion, then sixteen, returned to San Francisco where she lived with her family and transferred to the Institute. Daily, she was drawing and writing.
Luminaries who attended her mother’s soirees such as Jack London and Ella Wheeler Wilcox encouraged Marion to submit her work for publication. In 1905, Sunset magazine featured a poem she wrote called “California’s Latest" as well as her drawings — they devoted a full page to her work. According to Beauchamp, Marion found herself attracted to her art instructor, Wesley de Lappe. One day, she was sitting with him on a park bench when the San Francisco earthquake hit followed by the great fire. Marion’s family lost a great deal of their financial stability after this epic tragedy—her father had worked in advertising and built out the water industry at Aetna Springs.
Discouraged, Marion knew she wouldn't be able to afford the elite women’s colleges in the northeast after all, and she turned to marriage. De Lappe sketched for the San Francisco Chronicle while Marion performed odd jobs such as pitting peaches and answering telephones. She hoped that going out amongst the people would strengthen her drawing and writing skills — advice she had gotten from her family friend, Jack London — and probably an understanding she developed while visiting the Barbary Coast with her great uncle. She finally settled in as an assistant to the acclaimed photographer, Arnold Genthe, even modeling for him. But when he started to spend more time in Carmel and she and de Lappe had trouble making their bills, the marriage eventually ended in divorce.
Marion moved on to commercial assignments for railroad companies and the like as well as working as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner where she interviewed Marie Dressler when she was a big stage star. The actress originally turned Marion away—she had a distaste for William Randolph Hearst who owned the paper. Marion told Dressler she would lose her job if she didn't get sketches and an interview; thus, the actress obliged. Who could hurt a young girl’s chances to succeed? How interesting to note that Marion was able to return the favor years later when she was a star screenwriter and Dressler was out of work. Marion wrote The Callahans and the Murphys then Min and Bill for the struggling actress, who won the best actress Oscar for the latter in 1931.
Tired of the struggling artist’s life, Marion became engaged to Robert Pike, son of a steel magnate. The two moved to Los Angeles, so Pike could run his father’s office in that burgeoning city. But she soon became bored—there really was no “society" to speak of — especially not as compared to San Francisco. Referred by a friend, she sought out a local theater owner, Oliver Morosco, and was hired to do the poster artwork for the theater. She also did commercial art for advertising firms.
One of Marion’s assignments for the theater was to paint a portrait of the New York stage actress Kitty Gordon, billed as having the “most beautiful back in America." But once the posters went up, they were vandalized as scandalous nudity. Letters were sent to newspapers, and leaflets were distributed. The focus of the protesters’ ire was not actually the stage actors; they didn't like the people who made the “flickers" taking over their town, and this poster got caught up in the outrage. Marion recounted one of her first memories upon moving to Los Angeles. It involved seeing a sign on an apartment house that read, “No Jews, actors, or dogs." She was incensed. One committee that was very active in banning her poster and the new movie people called themselves “The Conscientious Citizens"; Marion and her friends renamed them “The Constipated Citizens." Note how similar these names are to the “Righteous Ones of the Valley" Marion profiles in her book of fiction Valley People. Clearly, she had no patience for what she would term “hypocritical," judgmental folk.
This battle between the citizens who viewed themselves as moral and Marion who viewed her imagination and her view of social hypocrisy and social justice as aligned with true ethics would be in lifelong conflict as each disagreed with the values of the other — while both believed themselves to be on the side of the righteous. As an adult, Marion was to find that certain social rules and regulations would control her professional career as well, not just her childhood, and the same rebelliousness she displayed as a child — letting Mrs. London eat a small inch worm in her salad to avenge the hummingbirds — would be displayed in her professional work as a Hollywood scenarist, as a novelist, and as a nonfiction writer. Thus censorship was a complicated issue for Marion. On the one hand, she viewed herself and her work as socially responsible, but she also felt compelled to tell the truth of life and not put out what she called “sugarcoated yarns."
In 1914, at a party, Marion met Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s husband. Although she didn't care for him or his belittling remarks about his wife, she was amiable enough to encourage him to set up a meeting with Mary, so Marion might draw her portrait, make movie posters, or otherwise find work with the actress. When Marion first met Pickford at her studio, she was sitting in a dark room editing. Marion was immediately impressed to see Mary take so much time, effort, and interest in her own career, literally learning and doing every aspect of pre-production, production, and post production. The Santa Anas were blowing; thus it had been too windy to bring her portfolio to Pickford, but the two found a side room and chatted away, and Mary promised to be in touch once she returned from New York. Pickford and Marion would go on to be the best of friends throughout their time together in Hollywood. Indeed, historian Claude Tieber credits Marion as collaborator in crafting Pickford’s image both on screen and off — with the screenplays as well as the “Daily Talks" newspaper column Marion ghost-wrote for the star.
One of Marion’s running mates in those days was a local reporter Adela Rogers (who would later become the famed interviewer and writer Adela Rogers St. John). Adela was friends with a prominent director at the time, Lois Weber, who worked at Bosworth Studios. Marion had been on the Inceville lot and had also heard Dressler rave on about Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) over tamales in a Mexican restaurant. Bitten by the movie bug, Marion longed for a job at a studio. Rogers was able to set up a meeting between Weber and Marion — Weber hired her on the spot — likely struck by Marion’s good looks despite her protestations that she did not want to work as an actress in front of the camera but as a writer or scene painter behind the camera. (Weber may also have wanted to get on well with her friend, Rogers, a well-placed reporter.) At the Bosworth studio, Marion did a little of everything, as so many of the young people (she was twenty-five) did in the industry during those early days. And she didn't have to chase Mary Pickford down, either. The actress frequently stopped by the studio to keep an eye on her philandering husband whom she had caught holding hands with a starlet of stage and screen, Elsie Janis, while she was filming at Bosworth and co-starring with Moore.
As Beauchamp notes, Bosworth took time off for his health, Weber went to Universal, and Marion thought she was going to work in the writing department at Balboa in Long Beach, but the promise of writing dried up as she was cast in minor roles in their films — a job she still did not want. At twenty-six, Marion and her second husband divorced; he had already been back in San Francisco for about a year. Marion left Balboa for Pickford’s company and moved into a courtyard bungalow where Mary and her mother lived.
From Pickford, Marion learned discipline and hard work; the two women were at the Famous Players studio before seven a.m., but Marion still found herself cast in small roles when what she really wanted to do was write. In her off time, she scripted The Foundling, which Pickford gave to Adolph Zukor. Although this film would be destroyed in a fire, it did give Marion confidence: she had sold a script to a well known producer with a well known star attached. She had been paid, and the script had been produced.
Marion then sent an audacious letter to several producers and found herself hired by William Brady at World Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey — with a two week tryout period — Lewis Selznick was Vice President and Manager. Frustrated with staring at blank paper, she decided to go through some produced but unreleased films, remembering Lois Weber’s advice that a good editor could salvage a film. Marion had also first met Pickford in an editing room and well knew the power of a good storyteller/editor. After watching several reels, Marion came across one that she learned upset Brady the most. Why? He had spent $9000 on it, and it made a mockery of his daughter Alice’s talents. Marion transformed the overly melodramatic mess into a comedy with an entirely new prologue and epilogue. Brady shot the new scenes and sold the film for a profit. The next day, a caption in the New York papers read, “Highest paid scenario writer in America signs with William A. Brady for reputed salary of $200 a week." By 1916, Beauchamp explains, Selznick left World to form his own company, and Brady promoted Marion to head of the scenario department. She was only twenty-seven years old.
After her sister’s suicide back in San Francisco, Beauchamp states, Marion collapsed from stress, fatigue, and overwork, so she took a month off from World to recoup at Dressler’s country home. When she was feeling better, she went back to the studio, but worked at a slower pace. At her request, Brady loaned her out to Zukor and Pickford at Paramount to write the scenario for The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917). The film was a huge hit and Marion signed with Famous Players for $50,000 a year in 1917, which meant returning to Los Angeles. During that period, Marion wrote many hits for Pickford including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Little Princess (1917), and Stella Maris (1918).
As World War I ramped up, many Hollywood players contributed to the war effort, and Marion was no exception. She went to Europe as an official government war correspondent and a lieutenant. According to Beauchamp, another reason Marion wanted to go to Europe was to see Fred Thomson — the chaplain of the 143rd — also a champion athlete who had made his mark at Occidental College and Princeton. She had met him a month or so earlier, and they already had plans to marry after the war. Marion’s job was to make a film about the women’s contributions to the war effort, but the terrible destruction she saw both in terms of human life and buildings turned to rubble made the work very difficult for her. She was never one to turn back, however, and her forward-leaning ways resulted in her being the first correspondent and first Allied woman to cross the Rhine at the end of the war. Marion celebrated the armistice in Paris.
After the war, the writer fell very ill from the flu epidemic that struck in 1918. Recovering in Paris, she was able to spend the holidays with Thomson who had been detached from his regiment and had been named chaplain for a Bordeaux camp. They rang in the new year together. Then in early 1919, Marion was on a ship to New York — and soon after, a train back to Hollywood. That same year, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith were forming their own independent production company, United Artists.
As Marion recovered from another round of the flu, she received a letter from William Randolph Hearst offering her $2000 a week to write for his Cosmopolitan Studios in New York. Marion agreed and soon found herself rooming with screenwriter Anita Loos in a big country home while writing scripts for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. Once Loos married, Marion moved back to the Algonquin (she had stayed there when she first started out with World). Soon United Artists was starting production, and Hearst loaned Marion for Pickford’s first picture at her own production company.
After the Allied games, which Thomson had arranged — and at which he even set a world record for grenade throwing — he returned to the states. Marion took the train from Los Angeles and met him on the dock. They were married soon after in late 1919 and took a European honeymoon in 1920. First, they traveled with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, but when it became clear that the fans would not stop stalking the star couple, Marion and Thomson went on alone. When they returned, they bought a Hollywood mansion next to Harold Lloyd, and with his horse Silver King, Thomson began working as a cowboy star akin to William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, and Tom Mix. The days of a sleepy, idyllic orange grove town were over though. Hollywood had become big business with an even bigger celebrity publicity and scandal machine. This machine was powered in large part by newspaper publishers such as Hearst and magazines such as Photoplay, fomenting dissent in state censor boards, women’s clubs, and religious organizations alike.
The Fatty Arbuckle case in 1921 coupled with the William Desmond Taylor murder and the gossip over William Reid’s drug addiction — as well as several other scandals — caused more public furor that the women and girls of Hollywood were “abandoned creatures" and the men “licentious." In her autobiography, Marion explained that the studio heads huddled and formed what she called a “Censor Board." In April of 1922, she recalls they elected Will Hays as head of “Hollywood Censorship at the Hollywoodish salary of $100,000 a year."
The moguls thought they had chosen a tepid man whom they could manipulate, but Marion states that Hays “turned all his ammunition on the movie-makers and started to clean up the studios." She remarks that the moguls were “powerless to counteract this poison which they themselves had brewed." Six months into his appointment, Hays visited the front lines of Hollywood from his offices in New York and was welcomed among an audience of 1500 at a lush banquet in the Ambassador Hotel. Always the cynic, Marion believed the colony turned out to show itself as supportive more for the press coverage and outward appearance than for any other reason.
She was perennially skeptical of the formation of the MPPDA and thought the moguls were foolish to think this move was going to solve all their problems — rather than just cause more. Soon she found herself in arguments with New York critics who argued some pictures were “imbecilic and fit only for consumption by ten-year-olds." Marion and the other writers mailed the critics the “cuts" required by the censors. She quoted a few of the most common: “No woman’s legs should be shown above the knee. No married couples must be seen in a double bed. Twin beds are permissible. Be careful not to suggest sex in love scenes." She quipped sarcastically, “Have you ever tried that?" and believed censorship existed just so “the virtuous" could relax “in their pews."
Marion recounted an anecdote about another scenario she had written: she showed pioneer women bathing children and otherwise preparing them for bed before helping the men load muskets to ward off an attack by Indians. She received the scenario back from the Hays office and explains, “A red pencil had circled ‘bathing the children.’ At the bottom of the page was this decree: ‘Be careful not to show children’s genital organs.’" Marion viewed this note as ridiculous. She never saw herself or her work as part of the misbehavior that needed monitoring and resented its impact on her storytelling. Indeed, she admired men such as Cecil B. DeMille for outsmarting the censors. He made films like The Ten Commandments full of what she called “saturnalia," yet the “minister or pious old lady could not condemn a man who vividly brought before them the divine preachment of Moses."
Marion hungered for the respect she finally found in Irving Thalberg when he came to work for Louis Mayer. She recounts that Thalberg told her, “A picture is only as good as its writer. A writer only as good as [her] inspiration." She also recollected that he said, “I don’t want to dictate what you’re to write, or impose too many of my ideas on it." Of course, we know that Thalberg may have felt this way toward her creative energy, but he was very much a part of the formation of the censoring guidelines such as the Don'ts and Be carefuls. Still, Marion admired him. “Irving had elevated us to positions of considerable power," she wrote. “No picture was ever cast unless the actors chosen met with our approval."
The actors had to wrangle with the censors as well. When Lillian Gish wanted to bring Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter (1926) to screen at MGM — Frances Marion wrote the adaptation after Thalberg had employed several others who had failed — Will Hays informed the actress that the book had been blacklisted by religious groups, especially the Methodists. According to film historian Scott Eyman, even Mayer didn't want the picture made. He didn't think Gish was right for the part; he didn't understand how they could show the sexual relationship on screen; and he didn't think the film could ever make it past the censors. He also challenged Gish to tell him how she thought the churches might react to a story such as The Scarlet Letter.
Beauchamp explains that Gish presented her case to religious leaders and women’s groups and received their endorsement of the project as long as she would remain “personally responsible" for the film. The reformers were consulted: they were invited to the set, allowed to read the script, and invited to a special preview. Religious leaders gave their blessing to the film, and this action along with Gish’s esteemed reputation no doubt helped smooth the road for Marion’s scenario and the film’s opening.
Screenwriters such as Marion often had disagreements with Thalberg and Mayer. For example, once The Callahans and the Murphys was pulled from theaters because the Irish Catholics believed they were being ridiculed, Mayer became fearful that Texans might protest a drama they were producing for Lillian Gish, The Wind (1928). “What’s the idea of showing their state as nothing but sand and wind?" Mayer asked Marion who was writing the script. “Wouldn’t it be tactful not to mention the state?" he added. Marion defended her setting, but “Mayer’s temperature was rising." “Go ahead," he shouted, “break your damned Wind in Texas, only don’t hound me about it if we get in a jam. You Callahans and Murphys you!"
Marion had more trouble than censorship in 1928, however; her husband, the love of her life, passed away after just nine years of marriage. Following an operation for kidney stones, doctors finally realized the real problem was tetanus (informally called lockjaw). Fred Thomson died in the hospital on Christmas day. Marion and Thomson had built a Hollywood mansion, The Enchanted Hill they called it, with stables and horses, a swimming pool, and a tennis court that now all had to be sold, and Marion would be raising their two sons — one adopted — as well as the niece she had taken over after her sister’s suicide — all on her own. Screenwriting had come to mean incessant compromise to Marion. During her years on The Enchanted Hill, she would only sigh when asked for script changes and make some sardonic remark that at least “it" had built the swimming pool. Now even that little comfort — jokes such as “this is the house that bunk built" — would be irrelevant as Marion downsized for her new life.
By the time Marion was offered The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel, she was so used to censorship interference she was not surprised by it and had resigned herself to it. After beginning her work on the story, “Irving called [her] into his office" and told her to shelve the script; the Turkish government was threatening. “Seems we can’t afford to lose Turkey," he told her. Marion met with Mayer and believed he imagined himself as an ambassador to the country and didn't want to offend the government, potentially ruining his chance for such an auspicious position. He had no real concerns about the story.
Not only her upbringing but also her time in Hollywood, Marion would have asserted, schooled her in what she referred to in the opening of her autobiography as all the “social hypocrisies."
From Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Pepperdine University