While today’s female filmmakers are demanding equality for women, Frances Marion (1888-1973) was one of the most in-demand screenwriters of her time, alongside Anita Loos and June Mathis. (Side note: Mathis was the first female executive at MGM at the age of 35 as well as the highest-paid executive in Hollywood.) Perhaps we need to roll back the clock and allow history to repeat itself.
Frances Marion wrote the highest-grossing feature of 1930, Anna Christie, starring Greta Garbo, and was the very first woman to win an Oscar for “Best Adapted Screenplay” (1931) for The Big House, and then again in 1932 for The Champ, back when the award was called “Best Story” instead of “Best Original Screenplay.” These recognitions occurred in just the third year of what would become Hollywood’s most premier spectacular award event.
It would be another ten years before a female writer would win an Oscar, that was Claudine West, along with George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Arthur Wimperis, for their shared writing credit for Mrs. Miniver in 1942. It would be 1986 before another woman graced the stage to accept a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar–Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for Room with a View.
Before reaching screenwriting success, Marion worked as a war correspondent during World War I, documenting women’s contribution to the war effort on the front lines. In 1914, she began work as a writing assistant, actress and general assistant for legendary female film director Lois Weber. Under Weber’s guidance, Marion penned her first screenplay, only to set it into flames. By the 1920s and 30s, she was famous for writing many films for and with actress/filmmaker Mary Pickford, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Poor Little Rich Girl.
With writing credits for over 300 scripts and 130 produced films, it’s reported she earned $50,000 a year–a shocking amount of money at that time. Despite her financial and creative success, she often tired of the Hollywood system. Of her film collaboration with Mary Pickford, Pollyanna, Marion famously stated, “we proceeded with the dull routine of making a picture we both thought nauseating. I hated writing it, Mary hated playing it.”
By 1946, after a wildly lucrative career and four marriages, she left the filmmaking world to focus on writing stage plays and novels. Her final work was a memoir released in 1972, Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood. Only a year later, she passed in Los Angeles from a ruptured aneurysm.
Here’s hoping Frances Marion’s successful writing past can be the future for more female filmmakers!