Last year, I bestowed my first annual Muse awards on Ida Lupino, Gene Tierney, and Gloria Grahame. As I mentioned then, only Lupino ever won an Oscar, and their collective accomplishments remain obscured by the femme fatales they played. I write about strong women all year long, from Barbara Stanwyck in last year’s Paramount blogathon to my summer-long tribute to Jean Arthur. The often overlooked actors and filmmakers are another passion of mine, in my Supporting Actors and Behind the Camera series, I highlight them, including my favorite character actors like Gail Patrick. For this year’s Muse awards (idea lovingly stolen from New York Women in Television and Film) and as part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon Snubs weekend, I would like to introduce Marion Benson Owens, better known as Frances Marion.
Now those of you who know your film history are saying Wait a minute, Frances Marion was the first female screenwriter to win an Oscar! She was even the first person to win two! She can’t fit into the Snubs category! I would contend that Marion’s other work: her screenplays for husband Fred Thomson which she wrote under a pseudonym, her war reporting in Europe during World War I, and her longevity in the motion picture business qualify her for this award on this weekend.
Born Marion Benson Owens in San Francisco in 1888, she was the middle child of three. Her parents divorced when she was young. Marion was kicked out of grammar school a few months after her father’s remarriage. She also suffered from polio, spending several months at home in bed. After her recovery, she was sent to boarding school outside San Francisco. As a teenager she also traveled with her mother to Mexico and Alaska, and was invited to join her mother’s dinner parties and mingle with the adults. At sixteen, she returned to San Francisco to attend the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. While Marion was a voracious reader and writer, she really wanted to paint. She married an instructor at the Art Institute, Wesley De Lappe, when she was eighteen. Wesley was occasionally employed as an artist, and Marion took a job as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Working for Hearst started a lifelong working relationship, even if her first marriage did not last. At the age of 23, already a divorcee, Marion married Robert Pike, who worked for his father’s successful steel firm. The two moved to Los Angeles.
Still more interested in painting than the infant motion picture business (this was 1912), Marion took a job painting posters for a theatre. When laid off, she worked freelance in advertising. Through acquaintances, Marion met Lois Weber, one of the first female directors, who offered her a position as ‘one of my little starlets.’ While Marion was interested in costume and set design, those in Weber’s unit often crossed from designer to actress to writer, and Marion became an actress, changing her name to Frances Marion.
After Weber moved to Universal, Marion signed on with Mary Pickford, as an actress, with the possibility to write. Robert had gone back to San Francisco, the marriage over, and Marion moved in with Mary and her mother Charlotte. Marion’s friendship with Mary Pickford would last a lifetime and would be an incredibly successful working partnership. Marion’s first solo script for Mary was The Foundling, for which she was paid $125. Marion moved to New York in 1915, to the famous Algonquin and landed a job at former Broadway producer William Brady’s World Films. She was head of their scenario department at twenty-seven years old. In 1915, she also participated in a march for women’s suffrage. At The Algonquin and at work, Marion rubbed shoulders with actors and producers who would become household names. She had met Marie Dressler as a cub reporter in San Francisco, and the two had now become close friends. If you were a friend of Marion’s, you were a friend for life.
In 1918, Marion met an Army chaplain named Fred Thomson and fell in love at first sight. The war in Europe had already begun, and now with a sweetheart overseas, Marion wanted to help with the war effort. She was commissioned with the Committee on Public Information, reporting on women’s activities overseas. She spent most of 1918 in France, between Paris and the front, and returned to New York in early 1919. Marion returned to writing scenarios and later that year, married Fred.
With Marion’s encouragement, Fred co-starred with Mary Pickford in one of Marion’s screenplays, Just Around in the Corner. The couple moved back to Los Angeles, and Fred launched his career as a movie cowboy and action hero. Marion continued to write scenarios, working with almost every major player in Hollywood at the time and being paid more each time. But she still found time to make sure Fred’s scenarios were up to snuff, working under the pseudonym Marion Jackson. Fred and Marion built a ranch in the hills and while Marion was often frustrated with the economics of the motion picture business and thought of leaving to write novels, she kept a close eye on her husband’s career.
After the birth of their first child, Marion accepted a contract at MGM and settled in. Tragically, Fred died in 1928 of tetanus, at the age of 38. Frances was devastated. She took several months off of work and moved out of their ranch home. A little over a year later, in 1930, Marion married George Hill, a director and longtime friend. After their marriage, Marion found out George was an alcoholic.
It was also in 1930 that Marion won the Academy Award for her screenplay of The Big House. She had attended the first Academy Award ceremony the previous year and found the evenings long and long-winded. She was back at work at MGM the next morning.
Marion and George divorced in 1933, and less than a year later, George killed himself in the home Marion had provided for him. Suffering several tragedies as well as financial worry and struggles with the studio during the Depression, Marion’s health suffered. She was hospitalized several times for collapse, exhaustion, and overwork. She began to work from home, in bed. She worked off and on for MGM, returning for stretches in 1935 and 1937, and for the last time in 1943. Each time her contract and benefits were reduced, and in 1946 she left for good – moving to Warner Brothers to work with fellow female screenwriter Bess Meredyth and her husband Michael Curtiz.
She worked sporadically for various producers between 1946 and 1960 and in 1965, wrote her memoir, later to be titled Off With Their Heads: a Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood and published in 1972. She died of an aneurysm in 1973 at eighty-four.
Through her career, Frances Marion made friends with starlets, producers, fellow writers, politicians, and proved herself to be a loyal friend, as well as a talented businesswoman. She worked hard to find jobs for her friends: Marie Dressler before her success with Wallace Beery and George Hill throughout his career to name only two. She raised two sons, Fred Jr. and Richard (who she adopted with Fred Thomson). Fred Jr. married and had a son in 1948; he was also a George Eliot scholar with a PhD from Yale. Richard joined the Navy and studied engineering. Marion also wrote several acclaimed novels and short story collections: her first Minnie Flynn was published in 1925 and the last The Powder Keg in 1953. Several, including The Powder Keg were adapted into films (it became Caged with Eleanor Parker). She is given credit for over 300 screenplays.
Information for this post was drawn from Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp, which I highly recommend for its accounts of Marion’s private life, friendships with other early female screenwriters, and filmography and bibliography of Marion’s work.
As a side note, this is my 100th post on Spoilers!