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Celebrating Forgotten Female Movie Pioneers

Television: TCM's festival includes restored prints and a documentary about Oscar-winning writer and director Frances Marion.

August 01, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has taken the new millennium for female film pioneers to finally achieve some of the recognition they have long deserved. Names like Frances Marion, Lois Weber, Alice Guy, Helen Gardner and Dorothy Arzner are taking their rightful place in the annals of film history. At a time when most women were housewives, mothers or secretaries, these plucky and brave women were writing, directing and producing films when the medium was in its infancy.

And Hollywood seems to be celebrating these women in a big way this year. The latest is Turner Classic Movies. Every Thursday this month, TCM is turning the spotlight on cinema's unsung heroines with its ambitious "Women Film Pioneers" festival.

Earlier this summer, American Movie Classics premiered a documentary about four female filmmakers. And next month, Milestone Film and Video as well as Kino on Video are releasing several movies made by these women whom history had all but forgotten.

During TCM's tribute, the cable channel will feature more than 100 women--writers, producers and directors who helped shape American cinema. The festival kicks off with the new documentary "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women," which chronicles the life and career of the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, who during her heyday was the highest-paid scribe in Hollywood.

Other highlights include the TCM restoration of the 1926 classic "The Scarlet Letter," starring Lillian Gish and adapted by Marion. Twenty minutes of newly discovered footage have been added to this version of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Turner also funded the George Eastman House restoration of the 1912 "Cleopatra," which was one of the first feature-length films made and produced by a woman.

Also making its world TV premiere is the Library of Congress restoration of director Weber's controversial 1916 film "Where Are My Children?", which dealt with birth control. In total, 37 films written, directed or produced by women will be shown--several are world or U.S. TV premieres.

And just what does this festival mean to today's female filmmakers?

"It is so liberating to find you are a link in the chain," says Cari Beauchamp, who produced "Without Lying Down," based on her award-winning book of the same name. "You are not alone. You have a history. It just makes things a little easier--though it is never ever easy. It gives you a safety net of sorts. Obviously, it is our hope people will feel part of a larger community."

Bridget Terry, who wrote, directed and produced "Without Lying Down," believes this newfound interest in early female filmmakers is "not even [historical] revisionism, it is just excavating some things that we have overlooked."

"I don't think really it is a male or female thing," Terry adds. "But we have a tendency in our history books to do a male-based perspective on things. I have a feeling the evolution of the last century just brought us to this."

For more than 20 years, Marion was creatively and financially successful in Tinseltown. "She enjoyed a great life in Hollywood and was very well-respected, but for some reason she didn't get into the history books," says Terry.

That these women like Marion disappeared from memory has always bewildered noted film historian Kevin Brownlow. "Of course, it has taken forever for some of the films to make their reappearance," he says. "Some of them have been totally unattainable. Some of them have been available in appalling prints. Frankly, some of them shouldn't be attainable at all."

One thing these women had in common was versatility. None could be accused of strictly making "women's pictures."

Beginning her career writing films for Mary Pickford, including "Daddy Long Legs," Marion could write comedy ("Dinner at Eight"), dramas ("Stella Dallas") and gangster pictures ("The Secret Six") with amazing ease.

Also during the silent era, Anita Loos wrote several movies for dashing Douglas Fairbanks, including "His Picture in the Papers" and "American Aristocracy." Dorothy Farnum penned the period drama "Beau Brummell" for matinee idol John Barrymore. And it was June Mathis who wrote several of Rudolph Valentino's greatest action romances, including "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" and "The Sheik."

Marion won back-to-back Oscars for screenplay--the first writer to accomplish that feat--for the 1930 prison drama "The Big House" and the 1931 boxing melodrama "The Champ."

"She actually wrote more films for Wallace Beery than she did for Mary Pickford," says Terry. "She could write anything."

"They were all so different," echoes Beauchamp of Marion. " 'Dinner at Eight,' I am laughing my head off. 'Camille,' I am crying. Is there anything this woman couldn't do?"

Marion also directed three films, including 1920's "The Love Light," which stars Pickford and Marion's husband, Fred Thomson, who became a popular western star.

"She was such an incredible, healthy being," says Beauchamp. "It was a joy and a privilege to excavate this life."

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