Publicity photo, Frances Marion c. 1918. Private Collection.
In 1919, when Moving Picture World asked her what her work meant, Frances Marion said, “Stories, working scenarios ready for the director to proceed, tarrying with him through every scene as it is filmed; editing and cutting the complete product and title-writing every bit of it.” The native San Franciscan, born Marion Benson Owens, worked in every facet of film production and wrote the stories and scenarios for over three hundred films in a career that spans from early cinema to the sound era and netted her two Academy Awards for screenwriting. Trained by director-producer Lois Weber, Marion worked with nearly every major player over the years, and maintained ongoing collaborations with Mary Pickford, Irving Thalberg, and William Randolph Hearst. She excelled at writing scripts that accentuated the strengths of specific actors and is often credited with defining the careers of Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Pickford as well as her husband, cowboy star actor Fred Thomson.
Mary Pickford with Frances Marion (left). Private Collection.
Marion’s high profile during her own lifetime and her close relationships with star actresses such as Pickford — for whom she wrote character-defining films including The PoorLittle Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and The Little Princess (1917) — have resulted in a well-documented life and career.In addition to several period articles and interviews she conducted for magazines such as Photoplay, we are fortunate to have Marion’s own engaging memoir Off With Their Heads! as well as Cari Beauchamp’s definitive biography Without Lying Down and its 2001 companion documentary film. The available material on Marion goes far beyond recovering the historical record of her career. Her own writings, as well as Beauchamp’s work, restore the cultural contexts of the silent cinema era and open up the field for new angles of analysis, exemplified by Jennifer Parchesky’s recent discussion of Marion’s use of automobiles in the 1925 film Zander the Great (180).
Poster, Stella Dallas (1925), written by Frances Marion.
Throughout her career, which spanned 1915–1946, Frances Marion both adapted other texts and wrote original scenarios, sometimes as a freelance writer but most notably under studio contract. Her Hollywood tenure was spent mostly in the screenwriting department at the premiere major studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she worked closely with producers Samuel Goldwyn and Irving Thalberg. Marion’s relationships with writers, actors, directors, and executives as well as the crew and staff show an enormous generosity that extended beyond position or power. Her attempts to revive the career of comedienne Dressler and to improve the fortunes of failing screenwriter Lorna Moon are legendary. The published letters of Valeria Belletti, Samuel Goldwyn’s secretary, also illustrate the way Marion’s generosity extended to all studio employees in the story of how she encouraged Belletti’s writing ambitions.
Prolific and skilled in the craft of scenario writing, Marion taught, wrote a textbook, How to Write and Sell Film Stories, and in interviews often commented not only on the evolution of screenwriting, but on the writers’ working conditions as well. For instance, she told Elizabeth Peltret of Photoplay in 1917 that she preferred writing at home, asking, “how can they expect a poor scenario writer to plunge into deep and silent study when Rome is burning on the lot across the street” (31). Eventually, in 1933, she was instrumental in urging the Screen Writer’s Guild to address the more serious of these conditions (Beauchamp 1997, 307). But the socially conscious side of Frances Marion was not made available to the public; rather, the articles in fan magazines and trade publications like Moving Picture World treat her in a fashion similar to the motion picture stars for whom she wrote, publishing glamorous photos and reporting on her industry successes, personal milestones, and every career move, as in the 1919 article, “Frances Marion Returns to Task” (1013).
Publicity photo, Frances Marion c. 1924. Private Collection.
Frances Marion is credited with directing two motion pictures—The Love Light (1921) and Just Around the Corner (1921). During World War I, she had filmed women’s contributions at the front for the US government and, on this assignment, became the first woman to cross the Rhine after the Armistice (Beauchamp 1997, 98). From a story she heard in Italy after the war, she wrote the script for The Love Light, a project that would capitalize on the public’s fascination with Pickford ’s marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and present Pickford in an adult role as a young woman who discovers that her lover is a German spy (Beauchamp 1997, 124). Pickford insisted that her friend direct The Love Light, and Marion began by moving the production to Monterey, California, where the cypress trees on the coast stood in for those in Italy (Beauchamp 1997, 128).
Ad, The Love Light (1921), directed and written by Frances Marion.
Using the Pickford-Marion formula of adding slapstick comedy to drama, the film begins with Angela (Pickford) as an Italian peasant girl chasing her brothers around several inebriated farm animals. This scene is singled out by the Photoplay reviewer as the best thing he remembers except that the film “takes the nation’s sweetheart out of her curls and short frocks and makes a woman of her” (77). Marion uses beautifully framed long shots of the coastal overlook to show the lighthouse, which is left for Angela to manage when her brothers go off to war. One day, after a storm, Joseph (Fred Thomson) washes up on shore and is taken in by Angela, who does not know that he is a German spy. Thinking that he is a deserter from the American Navy, she hides him, but they quickly fall in love. Beauchamp reports stories of friction on set between Pickford, Thomson—by now married to Marion—and the first-time director, but suggests that these stories originated from a crew who may have had difficulty taking commands from a woman (1997, 129). Pickford’s performance shifts from passion, as Angela and Joseph secretly marry, to heroic pathos, as she finds out that he has tricked her into using the lighthouse to send messages to German submarines.
The Love Light (1921). Private Collection.
She turns him over to the angry villagers and again Marion’s chiaroscuro exterior shots tell the story of his death. The last part of the film shifts again as Angela gives birth to Joseph’s baby and is stricken with grief at the loss of her two brothers, who die in the war. The plot devolves to a climatic shipwreck, which Marion chose to film during a real storm with a real ship, putting her assistant director in peril (Beauchamp 1997, 129). In Off With Their Heads! Marion writes, “If only women’s lib had been active in those days!” in response to a reviewer who nearly fifty years earlier had dismissed the scene with “A man wouldn’t try to get away with that phony miniature” (103). The visual aspects of Marion’s direction as well as Pickford’s performance have perhaps been underrated and deserve further study. Cari Beauchamp claims Marion was never again the sole director, but just how much she contributed to the direction of other films in a collaboration with others warrants more attention.
Frances Marion. Private Collection
Despite evidence of Marion’s hands-on involvement in many stages of the motion pictures she wrote, she is credited with codirecting only the extant film The Song of Love (1923), on which she worked with Chester M. Franklin. Later in Frances Marion’s life, after a career of writing for the film industry, she told DeWitt Bodeen, “[I]t was apparent that if a writer wanted to maintain any control over what he wrote, he would have to become a writer-director, or a writer-producer. Writing a screenplay had become like writing on sand, with the wind blowing” (113).
Just Around the Corner. Dir./sc.: Frances Marion (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1921) cas.: Sigrid Homquist, Margaret Seddon, Lewis Sargent, Edward Phillips, Peggy Parry, Rosa Rosanova, William Nally, Fred Thomson, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
2. Frances Marion as Co-Director and Screenwriter
The Song of Love. Dir.: Chester M. Franklin, Frances Marion, sc.: Frances Marion (Norma Talmadge Productions US 1923) cas.: Norma Talmadge, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund Carew, Laurence Wheat, si, b&w, 35mm, 8 reels. Archive: Library of Congress, Deutsche Kinemathek.
The Dawn of Tomorrow. Dir.: James Kirkwood, sc.: James Kirkwood and Frances Marion (Famous Players/Paramount US 1915) cas.: Mary Pickford, David Powell, Forrest Robinson, Margaret Seddon, Blanche Craig, Robert Cain, si., b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: BFI National Archive, Svenska Filminstitutet.
Mistress Nell. Dir.: James Kirkwood, sc.: Frances Marion (Famous Players Film Co US 1915) cas.: Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Arthur Hoops, Ruby Hoffman, Amelia Rose, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Museum of Modern Art.
The Crucial Test. Dir.: John Ince and Robert Thornby, sc.: Frances Marion (Paragon Films, Inc. US 1916) cas.: Kitty Gordon, Niles Welch, J. Herbert Frank, W. Cahill, Winifred Harris, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: George Eastman Museum.
The Gilded Cage. Dir.: Harley Knoles, sc.: Frances Marion (Peerless Pictures US 1916) cas.: Alice Brady, Irving Cummings, Arthur Ashley, Montagu Love, Gerda Holmes, Clara Whipple, Alec B. Francis, Sidney D’Albrook, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum, BFI National Archive.
On Dangerous Ground. Dir.: Robert Thornby, sc.: Frances Marion (Peerless/World US 1917) cas.: Gail Kane, Carlyle Blackwell, William Bailey, Stanhope Wheatcroft, Frank Leigh, John Burkell, Florence Ashbrook, si, b&w; 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
The Rise of Susan. Dir.: Stanner E. V. Taylor, sc.: Frances Marion, cost.: Lucy Duff-Gordon (Peerless Pictures US 1916) cas.: Clara Kimball Young, Eugene O’Brien, Warner Oland, Jenny Dickerson, Marguerite Skirwin, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum.
Captain Kidd, Jr. Prod.: Mary Pickford, dir.: William Desmond Taylor, sc.: Frances Marion (Pickford Film Corp. US 1919) cas.: Mary Pickford, Douglas MacLean, Marcia Manon, si, b&w, 35mm, 5 reels. Archive: Library of Congress, George Eastman Museum.
The Flapper. Dir.: Alan Crosland, sc.: Frances Marion (Selznick Pictures Corp. US 1920) cas.: Olive Thomas, Theodore Westman, Norma Shearer, si, b&w, 35mm, 6 reels. Archive: George Eastman Museum.
Straight is the Way. Dir.: Robert G. Vignola, sc.: Frances Marion (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1921) cas.: Matt Moore, Gladys Leslie, Mabel Bert, Emily Fitzroy, Van Dyke Brooks, si, b&w, 35mm, 6 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
Back Pay. Dir.: Frank Borzage, sc.: Frances Marion (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1922) cas.: Seena Owen, Matt Moore, J. Barney Sherry, Ethel Duray, Charles Craig, Jerry Sinclair, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
East is West. Dir.: Sidney A. Franklin, sc.: Frances Marion (Constance Talmadge Film Co./First National US 1922) cas.: Constance Talmadge, Edward Burns, E.A. Warren, Warner Oland, si, b&w, 8 reels. Archive: EYE Filmmuseum.
The Eternal Flame. Dir.: Frank Lloyd, sc.: Frances Marion (Norma Talmadge Films Co. US 1922) cas.: Norma Talmadge, Conway Tearle, Adolphe Menjou, Kate Lester, Irving Cummings, si, b&w, 35mm, 8 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
The French Doll. Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard, sc.: Frances Marion (Tiffany Productions US 1923) cas.: Mae Murray, Orville Caldwell, Rod La Rocque, Rose Dione, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: Gosfilmofond, Jugoslovenska Kinoteka.
The Nth Commandment. Dir.: Frank Borzage, sc.: Frances Marion (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1923) cas.: Collen Moore, James Morrison, Edward Phillips, Charlotte Merriam, si, b&w, 35mm, 8 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
Potash and Perlmutter. Dir.: Clarence G. Badger, sc.: Frances Marion (Goldwyn Pictures Corp. US 1923) cas.: Alexander Carr, Berney Bernard, Vera Gordon, si, b&w, 35mm, 8 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
In Hollywood withPotash and Perlmutter. Dir.: Alfred E. Green, sc.: Frances Marion (Goldwyn Pictures Corp. US 1924) cas.: Alexander Carr, George Sidney, Vera Gordon, Betty Blythe, Belle Bennett, si, b&w, 35mm, 8 reels. Archive: Library of Congress.
The First Year. Dir.: Frank Borzage, sc.: Frances Marion (Fox Film Corp US 1926) cas.: Matt Moore, John Patrick, Kathryn Perry, Frank Currier, Frank Cooley, si, b&w, 35mm, 6 reels. Archive: Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman Museum.
The Winning of Barbara Worth. Dir.: Henry King, sc.: Frances Marion (Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. US 1926) cas.: Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, Gary Cooper, si, b&w, 35mm., 9 reels. Archive: Cineteca del Friuli, Library of Congress.
The Callahans and the Murphys. Dir.: George Hill, sc.: Frances Marion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp US 1927) cas.: Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Sally O’Neil, si, b&w, 16mm 7 reels; 6126 ft. Archive: Library of Congress (fragment).
Madame Pompadour. Dir.: Herbert Wilcox, sc.: Frances Marion (Paramount US 1927) cas.: Dorothy Gish, Antonio Moreno, Henry Bosc, Jeff McLaughlin, Nelson Keys, Cyril McLaglen, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: BFI National Archive.
The Red Mill. Dir.: William Goodrich, sc.: Frances Marion (Cosmopolitan Productions US 1927) cas.: Marion Davies, Owen Moore, Louise Fazenda, Karl Dane, Snitz Edwards, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: Library of Congress, UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Bringing Up Father. Dir.: Jack Conway; sc.: Frances Marion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. US 1928) cas.: J. Farrell MacDonald, Jules Cowles, Polly Moran, Marie Dressler, Gertrude Olmstead, Grant Withers, si, b&w, 35mm, 7 reels. Archive: George Eastman Museum.
The Cossacks. Dir.: George W. Hill, sc.: Frances Marion (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. US 1928) cas.: John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, Ernest Torrence, Dale Fuller, Mary Alden, Paul Hurst, si, b&w, 35mm, 10 reels. Archive: George Eastman Museum.
A Girl of Yesterday, 1915; The Wild Girl from the Hills, 1915.
2. Frances Marion as Screenwriter
A Daughter of the Sea, 1915; Esmeralda, 1915; Little Pal, 1915; All Man, 1916; The Battle of Hearts, 1916; Bought and Paid For, 1916; The Feast of Life, 1916; Friday the 13th, 1916; The Revolt, 1916; The Social Highway Man, 1916; The Summer Girl, 1916; Tangled Fates, 1916; Then I’ll Come Back to You, 1916; A Woman’s Way, 1916; The Yellow Passport, 1916; The Amazons, 1917; As Man Made Her, 1917; The Beloved Adventuress, 1917; The Crimson Dove, 1917; Darkest Russia, 1917; The Divorce Game, 1917; Forget-Me-Not, 1917; The Hungry Heart, 1917; The Social Leper, 1917; A Square Deal, 1917; The Web of Desire, 1917; A Woman Alone, 1917; The City of Dim Faces, 1918; He Comes Up Smiling, 1918; How Could You Jean?, 1918; The Temple of Dusk, 1918; Anne of Green Gables, 1919; The Cinema Murder, 1919; The Misleading Widow, 1919; A Regular Girl, 1919; The Dark Star, 1919; The Restless Sex, 1920; The World and His Wife, 1920; Minnie, 1922; The Primitive Lover, 1922; Sonny, 1922; The Stranger’s Banquet, 1922; The Famous Mrs. Fair, 1923; The Love Piker, 1923; The Voice from the Minaret, 1923; Cytherea, 1924; The Flaming Forties, 1924; Tarnish, 1924; Through the Dark, 1924; His Supreme Moment, 1925; The Dark Angel, 1925; Simon, the Jester, 1925; Thank You, 1925; A Thief in Paradise, 1925; Paris at Midnight, 1926; Partners Again—Potash and Perlmutter, 1926; The Awakening, 1928; Excess Baggage, 1928; The Masks of the Devil, 1928.
C. DVD Sources:
Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers. DVD/Blu-ray. (Kino Lorber US 2018) - contains The Song of Love (1923)
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley. DVD (Image Entertainment US 2000)
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley with The Dream. DVD. (The Milestone Collection US 2000)
M'liss. DVD. (Milestone US 2005)
Rags & Riches Mary Pickford Collection. DVD. (Milestone US 2015) - contains The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
The Flapper. DVD in The Olive Thomas Collection (Milestone US 2005) DVD.
The Winning of Barbara Worth. on Gary Cooper MGM Movie Legends Collection DVD (MGM US 2007) DVD.
Stella Maris. DVD (Image Entertainment US 2000)
The Son of Sheik. DVD (Image Entertainment US 2002)
A Little Princess. DVD (Milestone US 2003)
Stella Dallas. DVD. (Warner Home Video 2013)- contains Stella Dallas (1925) as an extra
The Scarlet Letter. DVD (Reel Classic Films US 2007).
The Wind. DVD. (Bach Films France 2013)
The LoveLight. DVD. (Milestone US 2001)
Before Hollywood, There was Fort Lee, N.J. DVD. (Image Entertainment US 2003) - contains 30 minutes of A Girl's Folly (1917)
Tillie Wakes Up. DVD. (Grapevine Video US 2014)
Treasures From the American Film Archives. DVD. (National Film Preservation Foundation 2005) - contains The Toll of the Sea (1922)
Without Lying Down:Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood. DVD. (Milestone US 2003) - documentary on Marion, includes A Little Princess (1917)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. DVD. (Alpha Video US 2014)
Mary Pickford Collection. DVD (St. Clair Vision US 2008)
Stella Maris (1918) is streaming online via The Internet Archive
Excerpt of The Love Light (1921)
Trailer for EYE Filmmuseum's recent restoration of East is West (1922)
While Frances Marion was working at Bosworth in 1914, both Lois Weber and Elsie Janis made a number of films that Marion likely worked on as a writer and/or an actress, however, these titles can’t be confirmed. Several titles are now incomplete: Just Around the Corner, The Rise of Susan, The Stolen Paradise, Straight is the Way, The Eternal Flame. FIAF does not list the following films on its website: Fanchon, The Cricket, Dawn of Tomorrow, Camille, La Vie de Boheme, The Crucial Test, The Goat, Captain Kidd, Jr., East is West, In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter, Sundown. Marion is not credited on FIAF for the following films: The Flapper, Straight is the Way, French Doll, Lazybones, Madame Pompadour, Bringing Up Father,The Callahans and the Murphys, and The Cossacks.
Ruvoli, JoAnne. "Frances Marion." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-kvq5-gm17>