Thursday, May 28, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1928-29: Frances Marion (The Wind)

From 1915 to 1933, two-time Oscar winner Frances Marion was the highest paid and most respected writer in Hollywood, earning $3000 a week at the height of the Great Depression, and shaping the screen images of some of Hollywood's greatest stars including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler.

Born Marion Benson Owens, Frances Marion was the daughter of one of San Francisco's wealthiest families, hobnobbing with the likes of Jack London, but at the age of 27, she abandoned that life for Hollywood's fledgling film industry and its promise of opportunities denied women in other walks of life. Her beauty landed jobs as an actress and as a model but she disdained work in front of the camera, and sought jobs behind the scenes, first painting advertising posters for movie studios then writing for the movies themselves.

Eventually she became close friends with Mary Pickford (so close that she, Mary and their respective husbands, actors Fred Thomson and Douglas Fairbanks, honeymooned together) and Marion shaped Pickford's image as America's Sweetheart with screenplays for Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm, Stella Maris, Pollyanna and Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley.

Pickford's insistence that Marion write the screenplay for Poor Little Rich Girl over Cecil B. DeMille's objection may have led to the first instance of a star firing her director, but the result was so successful that Pickford forced the studio to renegotiate her contract, thereafter earning Pickford $10,000 a week, half of all her films' profits and complete creative control.

Screenwriters who could tell their stories through images were highly prized during the Silent Era and no writer was more prized than Frances Marion. In 1926, legendary producer Irving Thalberg approached Marion to adapt The Scarlet Letter to the screen for star Lillian Gish. Where other writers couldn't solve the problem of how to bring Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel to the screen, Marion hit upon a way to remain faithful to the story while giving Hester Pryne a modern woman's desire to make her own choices—inventing, for example, a scene of Hester admiring herself in a mirror hidden under a needlework sampler embroidered with an admonition against vanity.

The movie was such a success that Gish gathered the same cast and crew—actor Hans Larson, director Victor Sjöström, producer Thalberg and writer Marion—to adapt Dorothy Scarborough's novel The Wind for the screen. The result, a tale of repressed desire that explodes into violence, was the last great silent movie without Charlie Chaplin's name on it to emerge from Hollywood.

The difference between writing novels and writing movies is that movies are primarily visual: the screenwriter has to think of storytelling as a series of pictures that convey information. Snappy dialogue is a bonus but not a necessity, and, in fact, in a silent movie, dialogue (which required cutting away from the action to title cards) was not only not a bonus, it was a distraction.

That Frances Marion found a way to tell what is essentially a psychological story through images and action while only rarely falling back on dialogue and title cards is a testament to the skill that made her so sought-after during the Silent Era.

In this story, about a sheltered virgin, Letty (Gish), whose repressed desire slowly drives her insane in the forbidding environment of the frontier West, Marion establishes a visual pattern that links the ever-present danger of the Texas prairie's wind and sandstorms, where men are killed and wild horses driven mad, with the threat Letty's sexuality represents to herself and to the tight-knit social order she has invaded. The images are simple—she smiles at a man, she gets a face full of blowing sand; she lets her hair down and starts to undress on her wedding night, and the wind kicks up—but their repetition and juxtaposition with moments when Letty is about to indulge her desire establishes both in her mind and in the mind of the audience that sex represents danger and death.

The wind also traps the inhabitants of this land into close quarters and again through simple, easy to interpret images, Marion establishes that passion and seething paranoia is the natural result. In one comical bit, a couple comes into a town dance followed by a half dozen identically-dressed little girls, each a half head shorter than the one before, like a set of Russian nested dolls, a visual way of saying that in this godforsaken country where the wind blows 24 hours a day, sex is the only way of passing the time. In other scenes, the wife of Letty's step-brother becomes convinced Letty is there to supplant her and she gives Letty the choice of marrying a man she doesn't love or wander homeless.

The screenplay initially envisioned a dark ending where an insane Letty wanders into a sand storm to be consumed by the desert, but when studio heads saw the initial cut, they insisted on a happy ending. The cast and crew reluctantly shot a new ending but as it turned out, it didn't much matter. Audiences rapidly acquiring a taste for talkies weren't interested in silent movies anymore or, for that matter, Lillian Gish whom they regarded as a relic of a previous age. The movie bombed at the box office. Nevertheless, The Wind has gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest movies of the Silent Era and almost certainly the best movie of Lillian Gish's long career.

Despite the film's commercial failure, Marion's career soared. She adapted the screenplay for Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie, won an Oscar for her searing exposé of prison life, The Big House, won another Oscar for the Wallace Beery classic, The Champ, wrote Marie Dressler's Oscar-winning turn in Min and Bill, and scripted Dinner At Eight, which helped make Jean Harlow a star.

Her Oscar for The Big House was the first ever won by a woman in a non-acting category.

Her professional success, however, was balanced by personal tragedy. On Christmas Day, 1928, Marion's husband, Fred Thomson (who riding his horse, Silver King, became the biggest cowboy star of the Silent Era), died suddenly of tetanus, leaving Marion a widow raising two young sons.

In 1933, at the top of her creative and earning power, Marion formed the Screen Writers' Guild. In retaliation for her union-organizing activities, MGM dropped Marion's contract and when Thalberg died three years later, Marion's career in Hollywood was abruptly over.

It was a common end for many women in Hollywood during the Depression as the studios changed from wide-open try-anything enterprises, when half the screenwriters were women and there were more women directors than there are now, to factory-style boys-only clubs where women need not apply.

Marion abandoned Hollywood, turned to sculpting and painting and died in 1973 at the age of 84. All told, she wrote more than 160 movies and is still regarded as one of the greatest writers to ever work in Hollywood.

Note: When I mentioned to Katie-Bar-the-Door that I planned to give the award for best screenplay to Frances Marion, she reasonably asked whether Marion was related to General Francis Marion, a.k.a. "The Swamp Fox," who led American guerrilla forces against the British during the Revolutionary War. Disappointingly, as far as I can tell from my research, she was not, but if I turn up anything to the contrary, you'll be the first to know.


Michael Powers said...

Frances Marion should have written a screenplay about Francis Marion! Her husband could've been cast in the lead. Instead of a tri-corner hat with a "tail" (huge feather) on it worn in the Disney/Leslie Nielsen television incarnation, the real Swamp Fox wisely wore a cooking pot on his head, a forerunner of the modern helmet. By the way, you mention Wallace Beery in this essay, one of my own great favorites. Any musings about Beery and his brother Noah Beery, Sr. and nephew Noah Beery, Jr.?

Trudy Thomson said...

Thanks for writing this article. I actually wrote a thesis paper about 2974 when I was in graduate school about the Wind. Not quite sure why I picked it, I recall I noticed many visual metaphors. Then about five years later I met her grandson, Rick Thomson and married him. He died unexpectantly around 1998 at a young 49 years old. It broke my heart. I have recovered and remained happy now with a life that moves on with art..