The latest Celluloid Ceiling report continues to show the dismally low number of women in key positions in Hollywood: women made up 11 percent of the writers of the top 250 grossing films of 2015, a figure which hasn’t moved much since 1998. Hard to imagine, then, that almost a century ago, as Cari Beauchamp tells us, “Almost half of all films written before 1925 were written by women.”
An award-winning author of six books of film history and a documentary filmmaker, Beauchamp reclaimed this neglected history in Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. Through it, she resurrects the figure of Frances Marion, a woman who reigned as Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter for two decades. Marion navigated the gender politics of her time as women filmmakers continue to do today. Despite her long tenure in the catbird seat, Marion once sighed about her career, “If only we’d had Women’s Lib in those days!” With her book nearing its 20th anniversary, we talk to Beauchamp about how she rescued Marion for filmmakers today.
As the Credits Roll
Beauchamp is not dissimilar to the dynamic women she portrays in Without Lying Down. Precise, witty, with a peppery laugh, she strides in with large sunglasses on, and as I realize later, never takes them off. She’s the type of person who will be one of the last ones in the movie theater, reading the credits. Beauchamp confesses to having been an avid credit reader as far back as the tender age of 8: “I remember my excitement when I found out that the producer of [the TV show] Perry Mason was a woman — Gail Patrick Jackson. [I thought,] A girl can do this, a woman can do this!”
In the ’70s, she would work with Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug for the Equal Rights Amendment. Later on, as a film scholar, she would come to know intimately the lives of the women “in the credits of the movies she liked,” such as Adela Rogers St. John, Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), and Bess Meredyth (The Mark of Zorro). Beauchamp kept seeing Frances Marion’s name on the credits of big classics such as Dinner at Eight, The Champ, and The Big House, so much so that she began to look around for information about her: “But there was nothing.”
On one memorable day at the Strand Bookstore in the East Village, she came across a memoir entitled Off With Their Heads! The author: Frances Marion. Beauchamp went home to devour the book, only to find Marion wrote mostly about other people, and very little about herself.
“I got to the point where she gave…one paragraph to the death of her husband…I turned the page and it read: ‘When I returned to the studio, talkies were coming in in full force,” Beauchamp recalls. After making sure her book had no missing pages, she let out an incredulous “What? What? You can’t do this to me!”
A private investigator in an earlier career, she decided then to find out “what had been up in Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s that allowed these women to percolate to the top.” While she wanted to write about half a dozen women, she realized the central character in the story was Marion, whom Adela Rogers likened to “the senior all of us sophomores wanted to be.”
“[Marion] is still the only woman to win two Academy Awards for original screenwriting. From 1915 to 1935 she was the highest paid screenwriter, male or female. She wrote over 200 films,” Beauchamp adds.
As the big banks rolled in to finance costlier motion pictures with sound, the studio system became more compartmentalized. Although her scripts had “built studios and made stars,” Marion began to be pushed out, along with other women. In Without Lying Down, Beauchamp describes the heartbreak of Marion’s increasing lack of creative control. Often uncredited for her writing, or witnessing its “disgorging,” Marion compared herself to a “Penelope with her needles,” whose weaving would be undone by others. Discovering that the disappointed Marion “turned to sculpting as something over which she had complete creative control,” Beauchamp became determined to get her name “out of the footnotes of history once and for all.”
Frances Marion found her biographer in Beauchamp, who gave her the scholarly attention she deserved. Beauchamp’s job might have been easier if she’d chosen a subject more concerned with legacy: “Cecil B. DeMille saved every letter he ever wrote and every letter he got back. His archives were incredible.” By contrast, Marion, modest, shy, oftentimes called a genius, would distress her secretary by dumping out papers and artwork: “It’s just stuff,” she would say to her secretary’s protests. “I’m moving on.”
“[It] was a lovely phrase and I appreciate it,” says Beauchamp. “I tell you, I can look at a paragraph in that book and realize I had to go five places to get the information that’s in that paragraph. I say, ‘Do film history and see the world.’ ”
In the time before the Internet, this was a labor of love. Beauchamp went from coast to coast, painstakingly gathering research from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to the Turner MGM archives in Atlanta, to county records in northern California. In “little places” like the San Mateo historical society, Beauchamp uncovered information on the boarding school Frances attended for a year. Beauchamp remembers it “felt literally like digging,” especially looking for the scarce records “around the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.” Beauchamp disappeared into newspaper offices, libraries, courthouses, each time emerging with a few more hard-earned details.
“The wonderful thing is that now, it’s changed. You can sit at your desk and pull up [the] June 26, 1922 New York Times in three minutes — thank you, ProQuest. But when I was writing Without Lying Down, it was going to the library and looking at the microfilm.”
“It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle,” she reflects. “You do a little of the cloud, a little of the flower, and gradually it all comes together.”
What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant, beautiful woman (Marion decided to forgo an acting career to write) who used her power to help others. Beauchamp observes, “I would say one of her most dominant personality traits was her incredible generosity.” When her friend Marie Dressler, the former vaudeville star, was near poverty and about to take a job as a house cleaner, Marion wrote her a part and helped her make a comeback. Beauchamp notes drily, “I’m not sure if incredible generosity serves people all that well in Hollywood today.” Fortunately, Marion was savvy about navigating studio politics, and her generosity led to lifelong friendships that outlasted both marriages and careers.
Your Link in the Chain
I ask her about how friendship contributed to the success of Marion and silent film star Mary Pickford, then known as “America’s sweetheart.”
“The joy of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford together is that here is Frances, the highest paid screenwriter, and Mary Pickford, one of the highest paid actresses, and they’ve teamed up. One’s behind the camera, one’s in front of the camera…They have very different backgrounds, and yet — it’s one of those instances where one and one makes three.” Together, they made a dozen films which were big successes, such as The Little Princess, The Girl with the Curls, Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Pollyana.
With her clout, Pickford insisted on having Marion as her personal writer; Marion customized the stories to suit Pickford’s strengths and to expand the range of her dramatic roles. William Randolph Hearst wanted Marion to create the same success for his mistress, the chorus-girl turned actress Marion Davies. Beauchamp reveals how Marion had an insight into the strengths and potential of each actress, while Adolph Zukor (founder of Paramount Pictures) or Hearst remained limited by their vision of what the women should represent on film.
Marion’s circle of women friends shared heartbreaks, successes, drinks, and advice, balancing family and career with copious laughter. Beauchamp thinks there is a lot to learn from them: “I think it is so important to know that these women were incredibly powerful, that they formed this great community of friendship, and they stayed friends their whole lives. They were able to blend the work and personal in a way that I find inspirational.”
Producing The Documentary
Beauchamp and Bridget Terry, her friend and co-producer, got Turner Classic Movies on board to create a companion documentary to Without Lying Down. “We had a lot of meetings in Atlanta. They agreed to put up half the money but we had to find several hundred thousand dollars elsewhere.”
The rest of the funding came from an unlikely source: “And lo and behold…[there was] Hugh Hefner. If you ever want to hear an audience laugh — because I didn’t really notice it until I was screening it at BFI on the big screen in London — [the credits reading] ‘Hugh Hefner Presents… Without Lying Down.’ ”
“It wasn’t exactly the tone you wanted to set for the documentary, but god love him! I’ll tell you, he turns out to be the single biggest individual donor to the UCLA preservation fund. He asked half a dozen questions, I answered them all, and he said ‘Fine. Here’s the money.’ So it was the easiest producing gig I’ve ever been able to get.”
The documentary was narrated by Uma Thurman, with Kathy Bates as the voice of Marion, and featured interviews with director Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose) and writer Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) among others.
“It was a joy for me to bring together the women that I loved and so many of them are no longer with us, and I miss them so much. Fay Kanin, who was president of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] and fought for women in films for so long, and wrote wonderful films for women. Mary Lea Bandy, who headed the Museum of Modern Art in New York and was the head of the film department there.”
It was Bandy who had called Beauchamp when the book came out saying “I have been waiting for this book…because I’ve been waiting for a reason to go full tilt and curate a full set of films written by women.” MoMA screened over 40 films written by women. Beauchamp remembers the “hairs standing up” when she saw how the films stood the test of time: “I remember the thrill of showing films like Zander the Great…Realizing it was probably the first time in 75 years that that film had been shown and the audience was [still] laughing in all the right places.”
Then as Now
Surveying the present media landscape, Beauchamp calls it depressing: “Hollywood has become so corporate. The studios are all owned by other major corporations. Often, the studio is just a minor part of this larger corporation, so that makes it all the more important to speak to the question of profit. One of our frustrations has to be when films like The First Wives Club — a huge hit — [is] viewed as a fluke, and when Adam Sandler has a miserable box office, that’s viewed as a fluke. The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, HUGE financial hit. [And the reaction is,] ‘Well, I dunno, could that ever really be duplicated?’
Beauchamp likens the rapid changes in the silent era to those today, explaining that in 1909, films were 10 minutes long and used as chasers to clear the audience out of vaudeville theaters. As people started to stay for the chasers, Variety began to review them. Nickelodeons that played the movies sprang up, and the 10-minute vignette became the two hour epic.
“We’re going through a similar period,” she says. “In terms of changes happening so fast that we barely can keep hold of them and grasp them. The speed in which those changes are happening I think bodes well for the possibility of broader stories, more content, creative diversity in the content. So if you can kind of not be depressed, it’s a very exciting time!”
“There is this idea that somehow every movie has to be made for 14- to 20-year old males, and obviously they don’t. The demand for content is so big that maybe our stories are finally going to be told.”
I ask her about the impact of Without Lying Down, almost two decades later. “As Martha Coolidge says in the film, ‘I went to NYU film school and I’m a graduate! Why did I never know about these things? Why did I never know about these women?’ It’s a sense of dismay as well as a sense of liberation to learn this as a very real history that they’ve somehow been denied.”
“After the documentary was shown at the Writer’s Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, a woman came up – just went through the people I was talking to — and gave me a big hug. Never seen her before, never seen her since. She just pulled back and said. ‘I just want you to know, I’m a writer and I’m never going to feel alone again.’ ”
For more information about Cari Beauchamp, please visit: www.caribeauchamp.com