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PICKFORD: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. By Eileen Whitfield . University of Kentucky Press: 410 pp., $25 : WITHOUT LYING DOWN: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood. By Cari Beauchamp . Scribner: 476 pp., $30

September 28, 1997|JEANINE BASINGER | Jeanine Basinger is the author of "A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960." She is the chairwoman of Film Studies at Wesleyan University

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.")

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