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Silent Partners

Though their names didn't always appear on screen, some of the most powerful writers in early Hollywood were women. A LACMA retrospective honors their neglected legacies.

April 04, 1999|CARI BEAUCHAMP | Cari Beauchamp is the author of "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood" (UC Press) and will introduce Marion's films Saturday

It's hard to imagine today that there was a time when almost half the films made were written by women, but this was true of Hollywood in the teens through the mid-1920s.

And no one was more in demand than Frances Marion, America's highest-paid screenwriter, male or female, from 1915 to 1933 and winner of two Academy Awards. She wrote 200 films for stars so luminous we need only their last names to recognize them: Pickford, Harlow, Gish, Gable, Cooper, Valentino and Garbo. Yet Frances Marion's name and those of her once-famous colleagues like Jane Murfin, Tess Slessinger, June Mathis, Anita Loos and Bess Meredyth have been so long forgotten that they don't even have stars on Hollywood Boulevard.

Spotlighting the powerful role these writers played in Hollywood's early years, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has assembled 16 films from the period for a retrospective that runs from Friday to May 1 at the Bing Theater.

"We are pleased to have the opportunity to help reinstate them to their proper place in history," says Ian Birnie, director of the film department at LACMA.

"Their incredible influence is seen in the fact that their work spans all genres," Birnie adds. "Epics like 'Ben-Hur,' 'Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,' the definitive boxing film 'The Champ' and the groundbreaking prison drama 'The Big House' were all written or adapted by women. They were well-paid, participated in casting and were welcomed on the set and in the editing room."

Women had long found refuge in writing. It required only a small investment in paper and pencils, was accomplished in private and provided a creative outlet when little else was expected or accepted of them. At the turn of the century, many of the popular novelists were women; later, Hollywood became a creative magnet of hurly-burly activity where few of the old rules applied.

Movies were an idea one week, in front of the cameras the next and in theaters within a month, and with very few people taking the business of movies seriously, the women were welcomed. Their names didn't always appear on the screen, but Library of Congress copyright records reveal that women wrote close to half of all the silent films made.

They honed their skills during this era of phenomenal growth. So, when sound arrived, film costs soared and Wall Street seriously invested in the movie business in the late 1920s, they were the seasoned professionals.

Hollywood was a small company town, and many of the writers being recognized in the series were close friends as well as professional colleagues.

Marion said she found "it has always been my own sex who has given me a helping hand when I needed it," and she found her greatest rewards, both professionally and personally, in her collaborations with actresses who were also her dearest friends, like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Marie Dressler. After adapting the wildly successful "Poor Little Rich Girl" for Pickford, Marion was hired as her exclusive screenwriter in 1917 at the then-unprecedented salary of $50,000 a year, and together they turned out more than a dozen classics, including "The Little Princess," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "Pollyanna."

Turner Classic Movies is planning a documentary on Marion, and actresses as diverse as Bette Midler, Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder have expressed interest in her story.

Two delightful and recently restored results of what director Clarence Brown called "the Pickford-Marion spontaneous combustion" will be screened April 23: "Amarilly of Clothesline Alley" and "Johanna Enlists."

The series also offers surprising revelations, one of which is that Marion Davies was much more talented than the sad floozy depicted in the character Susan Alexander in "Citizen Kane." Over the decades Orson Welles' fabrication and W.R. Hearst's real-life "constant companion" have become one and the same in peoples' memory.

Two films by Marion, "Zander the Great" (1925) and "Blondie of the Follies" (1932), set the record straight. Davies' bicycle-riding scene, which opens "Zander," reveals a comedian worthy of Sennett or Chaplin (with whom Davies was reportedly enjoying a fling at the time).

While the focus is on the writers, one of the penumbral effects of this retrospective is the chance to see the stars of early Hollywood in films that in some cases have not been shown on the big screen for decades. If the Barbara Stanwyck version of "Stella Dallas" brought tears to your eyes, bring a box of Kleenex to see the original with Belle Bennett portraying the mother who loves her child so much she pretends to reject her. In begging Sam Goldwyn to cast Bennett, Marion entreated, "Belle Bennett is Stella Dallas," for she was one of the few who knew that the teenage "younger brother" Belle nursed as he lay dying just before filming began was in actuality her son.

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