Hollywood Babble On
By Alison Macor
JULY 28, 1997: It's no big secret that during its heyday from the Twenties until the late Fifties, Hollywood was dominated by men in key decision-making roles. What is not as well known, however, is that many influential women also shaped this period in the history of American cinema. Screenwriter Frances Marion was one of these women, and in Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood by Cari Beauchamp (Simon & Schuster, $30 hard), a fascinating chronicle of Marion's rise to prominence is presented as not just a successful, pioneering screenwriter but as a woman deeply committed to her core group of female friends that included other prominent writers such as Adela Rogers St. Johns and Anita Loos, director Lois Weber, and legendary film star Mary Pickford. The commitment that all of these women shared with one another was crucial to ensuring their survival -- not to mention their sanity and self-esteem -- in Hollywood.
Beauchamp's title refers to a line Marion once quipped: "I spent my life searching for a man to look up to without lying down." Although she did find that man in the late teens when she met her third husband, world champion athlete and chaplain Fred Thomson, Marion's statement also relates to her experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Despite the fact that Marion's ability to tell a smart, funny, and socially relevant story earned her an unprecedented $3,000 per week while working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1920s, she spent much of her career having to prove herself again and again to male superiors such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer. As the son of one of Marion's close friends remarks, "They conducted themselves like ladies," but Beauchamp is careful to point out that these women, no matter how successful and well thought of, were never completely accepted by their male counterparts.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Marion began her career as a photographer's assistant, but her real interest was writing. After an interview for the San Francisco Examiner with the legendary stage and screen star Marie Dressler led to a fast friendship and Marion's entrance into acting for movies, it was not long before Marion met and befriended Mary Pickford and Lois Weber. It wasn't until Pickford hired Marion to work for her, however, that she began to write scenarios for the screen. So, at the age of 26, Marion began writing screenplays, and within a few short years she became known as the highest-paid screenwriter in the business.
Beauchamp's research and interviews with the friends and relatives who have outlived Marion (who died in 1973) present a fairly cohesive portrait of a professional known as much for her generosity to friends in need as she was heralded for her conscientiousness, her talent, and her finely honed work ethic. In addition to her writing, Marion also found time to devote to industry-wide improvements, such as the formation of the Screen Writers Guild in the 1920s as a means of community and a form of legal protection for the writers in Hollywood who often labor for little or no credit. During the height of her career in Hollywood, Marion wrote over two hundred scripts spanning a number of genres. She received much acclaim for her grittily realistic portrayal of the prison system and her ability to adapt her script for sound (a new technique at the time) through her inclusion of dramatic sound effects in George Hill's The Big House. Marion won an Academy Award for her moving portrayal of the relationship between an ex-prize fighter and his son in King Vidor's The Champ. Her talent for witty dialogue shines through in George Cukor's Dinner at Eight. Beauchamp attempts to recreate the situations that led to these and other projects on which Marion worked, and in doing so she provides a more complete picture of the person than Marion herself was able (or willing) to do in her 1972 autobiography, entitled Off With Their Heads.
While Marion's rapid ascent up the ladder of success in Hollywood is fascinating in its own right, equally interesting is Beauchamp's ability to tease out a theme of sisterhood and solidarity that seemed so crucial to Marion and her colleagues and friends. Beauchamp's research proves comprehensive, and Without Lying Down provides the "other" history of the Hollywood studio system, one that includes the women whose achievements often have been marginalized, ignored, and misrepresented over time. Without Lying Down functions more as Marion's biography, but Beauchamp weaves her colleagues' achievements and setbacks into each chapter so as to update readers not only on Marion's personal and professional development, but also to provide a context for this life and career that spanned the most productive time in Hollywood's history.
Ultimately, Without Lying Down delivers much of what it promises in its subtitle. It is the story of Frances Marion's development and unprecedented success as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but the biography also manages to represent the stories of other influential women who befriended and worked with Marion. After finishing the book, readers get a sense that life hasn't changed all that much for women who strive both for careers and fulfilling personal lives. Beauchamp's comment that "a large part of their long-term survival in the studio system was due to their practiced art of avoiding conflict" seems to apply just as much to contemporary women who work in the "new" Hollywood. Marion herself remarked of her autobiography that "I hope my story shows one thing -- how many women gave me real aid when I stood at the crossroads. Too many women go around these days saying women in important positions don't help their own sex, but that was never my experience. The list is endless, believe me." Without Lying Down reinforces this theme while suggesting that it should not be dismissed as such an old-fashioned, outmoded concept.
Camaraderie as a means of survival surely exists for men as well; there's a reason that descriptive phrases such as "the old boys' network" have assumed such a familiar place in the English language. Who the Devil Made It by Peter Bogdanovich (Knopf, $39.95) is an exhaustive compendium of conversations with 16 directors that celebrates and explains the Hollywood system, an old boys' network if ever there was one. The sheer size of this 813-page book makes it problematic as a beach-bound summertime read, but Bogdanovich's rich knowledge of film history and his own infectious enthusiasm and respect for the industry that groomed him make Who the Devil Made It a compelling reading experience.
Bogdanovich begins Who the Devil Made It with a helpful introduction that not only details the book's project but also situates his own role in Hollywood. The book grew out of interviews that Bogdanovich conducted as a writer and critic for various publications such as Film Quarterly and Esquire magazine during the Sixties and Seventies. In addition to these freelance writing assignments, Bogdanovich rose to the position of director of films such as The Last Picture Show and What's Up, Doc? through a series of jobs that included apprenticeships with some of the directors he interviews here. His interest in movies began early, and his admission that he used to keep file cards on films that he saw (going so far as to develop an elaborate rating system for these movies) underscores his investment in the project. The publication of this book also is timely, given the various celebrations that have taken place over the last few years commemorating the cinema's 100th anniversary.
Given the encyclopedic nature of Bogdanovich's book and the kind of historical/anecdotal information that comprises each chapter, reading it from start to finish may not provide the most satisfying experience. In fact, Bogdanovich himself suggests that his is a "book for dipping in and out of." In fact, sampling these directors' stories in this way comes closest to Leo McCarey's recipe for the perfect film. At the end of his interview with Bogdanovich in 1969, the director laments, "There are moments I like in all my films. If only I could make a picture out of just the favorite moments." However, for those readers who appreciate coherence, the book is arranged chronologically and each chapter (devoted to a single director) contains an introductory essay by Bogdanovich that contextualizes the director's place in film history and in Bogdanovich's own life, and explains the source of the interview(s) and offers a general "take" on each director. Obviously some directors are more forthcoming than others. A few chapters such as those on Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang, and Howard Hawks are much longer than others, in part because of Bogdanovich's relationship with these men but also because he previously has published books on their films and careers.
Just as Cari Beauchamp's biography of Frances Marion provides a sense of film history from the viewpoint of one person's experience, Who the Devil Made It offers a kind of kaleidoscopic history from 16 different viewpoints. Much of what these men discuss individually in terms of their experience in Hollywood specifically and with filmmaking in general corroborates accepted histories of motion picture development. What the interviews tend to do is add color, expression, and humor to history, providing tantalizing tidbits such as Raoul Walsh's revelation that Clark Gable wore false teeth that he once cleaned in a nearby lake during the shooting of Walsh's The King and Four Queens in 1956.
Don Siegel is one such director who worked within the system but found studio executives' demands frustrating and often ridiculous. Speaking about the tacked-on beginning and ending to his 1956 science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Siegel remarks, "The studio felt, as pods will feel, I suppose, that you can't have comedy in a horror film, and so they wanted clarification. They insisted on a prologue and an epilogue, which I shot in self-defense. If I didn't, they were going to have one of their pod directors do it, and they had quite a few." Such thinly veiled contempt for studio interference spices up standard histories, personalizing periods in film history -- such as the Fifties -- that have achieved mythic status.
Bogdanovich's focus solely on directors implies another kind of mythic status, and his respect (and in some cases, adoration) for these directors is apparent. For Bogdanovich, whose career came of age during the 1960s when French directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were promoting forgotten American directors by way of the auteur theory (which acknowledges the director of the film as its sole "author"), crediting the director comes naturally. He stakes out his position quite clearly in the introduction. However, it should be noted for those readers who find this approach problematic that many of the directors interviewed are willing to share credit for their films by discussing the contributions of various cinematographers, screenwriters, and actors.
Additionally, Who the Devil Made It becomes all the more valuable for its attempt to include marginalized, independent, or B-level Hollywood directors such as Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour), Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy), and Frank Tashlin (best-known for the Walt Disney cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s and his films with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin such as Artists and Models). Bogdanovich's final interview with Sidney Lumet offers the most contemporary reflections on Hollywood filmmaking. Lumet's involvement in television production also acknowledges the significant role that television played in Hollywood's development after the breakup of the studio system in the late Fifties. By concluding the book with Sidney Lumet's interview, Bogdanovich provides a segue from the old Hollywood of the studio system to the new Hollywood of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
Moving between Cari Beauchamp's feminist biography Without Lying Down and Peter Bogdanovich's testosterone epic Who the Devil Made It may seem like an exercise in futility, but the two books complement one another in interesting ways. Together they provide a comprehensive, richly illustrative sense of how Hollywood filmmaking has and has not changed since its beginnings at the turn of the century. As companion books, they work off one another, filling in the gaps of Hollywood history and attempting to set the record straight.
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