Frances Marion

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Frances Marion
Marion directing The Love Light , which she also wrote, 1920
Marion Benson Owens

(1888-11-18)November 18, 1888
DiedMay 12, 1973(1973-05-12) (aged 84)
  • Screenwriter
  • director
  • journalist
  • author
Years active1912–1972
Wesley de Lappe
(m. 1906;div. 1910)
Robert Pike
(m. 1911;div. 1917)
(m. 1919;died 1928)
(m. 1930;div. 1933)

Frances Marion (born Marion Benson Owens; November 18, 1888 [1] – May 12, 1973) was an American screenwriter, director, journalist and author often cited as one of the most renowned female screenwriters of the 20th century alongside June Mathis and Anita Loos. During the course of her career, she wrote over 325 scripts. [2] She was the first writer to win two Academy Awards. Marion began her film career working for filmmaker Lois Weber. She wrote numerous silent film scenarios for actress Mary Pickford, before transitioning to writing sound films.


Early life

Marion was born Marion Benson Owens in San Francisco, California, to Minnie Benson and Len Douglas Owens, an advertising and billboard executive ("billposter"), [3] later, developer of Aetna Springs Resort, Aetna Springs, Pope Valley, California. [4] [5] She had an older sister, Maude, and a younger brother, Len. [5] After Len D. Owens' health failed, [6] Marion lived in Pope Valley, California and later used it at the setting for her 1935 book Valley People. [7]

"Her father divorced her mother when Marion was almost ten and remarried just a few years later. She was sent to a Christian boarding school..." [8]

She dropped out of school at age 12, after having been caught drawing a cartoon strip of her teacher.

"She was suspended from elementary school when she was twelve for drawing satiric pictures of her teacher and was sent to St. Margaret’s Hall, [9] a private boarding school in San Mateo. At sixteen, she transferred to the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco" [10]

She then transferred to a school in San Mateo and then to the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco when she was 16 years old. Marion attended this school from 1904 until the school was destroyed by the fire that followed in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. [11]

"In 1906, she married her 19-year-old instructor from the Art Institute, Wesley de Lappe. Following the advice of family friend and acclaimed writer Jack London, to "go forth and live" so that she could capture the human spirit in her art, Marion undertook a series of odd jobs such as telephone operator and fruit cannery worker." [12]


Circa 1907-1911, in San Francisco, Marion worked as a photographer's assistant to Arnold Genthe and experimented with photographic layouts and color film. Later she worked for Western Pacific Railroad as a commercial artist, then, at 19, as a "cub" [13] reporter for the San Francisco Examiner . After moving to Los Angeles, in 1912, [14] Marion worked as a poster artist for the Morosco Theater [15] as well as an advertising firm doing commercial layouts. [1]

Marion, 1915 Frances-marion-1915.jpg
Marion, 1915

In the summer of 1914 she was hired as a writing assistant, an actress and general assistant by Lois Weber Productions, a film company owned and operated by pioneer female film director Lois Weber. She could have been an actor, but preferred work behind the camera.She learned screenwriting from Weber.[ citation needed ]

When Lois Weber went to work for Universal, she offered to bring Marion with her. Marion decided not to take Weber up on the offer. Soon after, close friend Mary Pickford offered Marion a job at Famous Players–Lasky. Marion accepted, and began working on scenarios for films like Fanchon the Cricket , Little Pal , and Rags. Marion was then cast alongside Pickford in A Girl of Yesterday . At the same time, she worked on an original scenario for Pickford to star in, The Foundling. Marion sold the script to Adolph Zukor for $125. The film was shot in New York, and Moving Picture World gave it a positive pre-release review. But the film negative was destroyed in a laboratory fire before prints could be made. [16]

Marion, having traveled from Los Angeles to New York for The Foundling's premiere, applied for work as a writer at World Films and was hired for an unpaid two-week trial. For her first project, she decided to try recutting existing films that had been shelved as unreleasable. Marion wrote a new prologue and epilogue for a film starring Alice Brady, daughter of World Films boss William Brady. The new portions turned the film from a laughable melodrama into a comedy. The revised film sold for distribution for $9,000, and Brady gave Marion a $200/week contract for her writing services. [17]

Marion (right) with Marshall Neilan and Mary Pickford in 1917 Marshall Neilan, Mary Pickford, and Frances Marion.png
Marion (right) with Marshall Neilan and Mary Pickford in 1917

Soon Marion became head of the writing department at World Films, where she was credited with writing 50 films. She left in 1917 when, following the success of The Poor Little Rich Girl, Famous Players–Lasky signed her to a $50,000 a year contract as Mary Pickford's official scenarioist. [18] Marion was reported at this time to be "one of the highest paid script writers in the business." [19] Her first project under the contract was an adaptation of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm .

Marion in her war correspondent uniform, 1918 Frances Marion in war uniform.jpg
Marion in her war correspondent uniform, 1918

Marion worked as a journalist and served overseas as a combat correspondent during World War I. [20] [21] She documented women's contribution to the war effort on the front lines, and was the first woman to cross the Rhine after the armistice. [22]

Upon Marion's return from Europe in 1919, William Randolph Hearst offered her $2,000 a week to write scenarios for his Cosmopolitan Productions. Marion shared a house with fellow screenwriter Anita Loos on Long Island. [23]

While at Cosmopolitan, Marion wrote an adaptation of Fannie Hurst's Humoresque which was Cosmopolitan's first successful film, and also was the first film to win the Photoplay Medal of Honor, a precursor of the Academy Award for Best Picture. [24] Marion told her best friend Mary Pickford the story she heard during her recent honeymoon in Italy for which Pickford said it was the next movie she wanted to do. Pickford insisted that Marion not only be the writer but also the director of the film, and the result was Marion's directorial debut The Love Light. [25] Her earlier success in adapting the Fannie Hurst novel and her friendship with Hurst contributed to her decision to adapt another Hurst story, "Superman," as her next movie to direct. The resulting film, Just Around the Corner, was a best-seller for the studio. [26] Marion directed only one more movie The Song of Love, co-directing it with Chester Franklin.

She won the Academy Award for Writing in 1931 for the film The Big House , she received the Academy Award for Best Story for The Champ in 1932, both featuring Wallace Beery, and co-wrote Min and Bill starring her friend Marie Dressler and Beery in 1930. She was credited with writing 300 scripts and over 130 produced films.

"Half of all films written before 1925 were written by women, but writers' names rarely appeared on the screen. In fact, this figure is available only through the copyright records at the Library of Congress, where writers' names had to be included." [27]

Personal life

Mary Pickford, and Frances Marion, writer and director, on location, for The Love Light, 1920 The Love Light (1921) - 2.jpg
Mary Pickford, and Frances Marion, writer and director, on location, for The Love Light , 1920

In 1914, Marion befriended Adela Rogers St. Johns, [28] Marie Dressler, [29] and Mary Pickford. [30] [31]

Marion attended this pre-election parade for women's suffrage in New York City, October 23, 1915 Pre-election parade for suffrage in NYC, Oct. 23, 1915, in which 20,000 women marched LCCN2001704302.tif
Marion attended this pre-election parade for women's suffrage in New York City, October 23, 1915

On October 23, 1915, Marion participated in a parade of more than thirty thousand supporters of women's suffrage in New York City.[ citation needed ]

After her success in Hollywood, Marion often visited Aetna Springs Resort in Aetna Springs, California, using it as a personal retreat and often bringing several film-industry colleagues with her on vacations. The resort, in fact, was directly connected to her own family's history, for Marion's father had built the resort in the 1870s. [32]

Mary Pickford (center) with newlyweds Fred Thomson and Frances Marion (1919) Fred Thomson, Frances Marion, Mary Pickford - Dec 1919 EH.jpg
Mary Pickford (center) with newlyweds Fred Thomson and Frances Marion (1919)

Marion was married four times, first to Wesley de Lappe and then to Robert Pike, both prior to changing her name. In 1919, she wed Fred Thomson, who co-starred with Mary Pickford in The Love Light in 1921. [20] [33] She was such close friends with Mary Pickford that they honeymooned together when Mary married Douglas Fairbanks and Frances married Fred. [34]

During the 1920s, Frances Marion and Fred Thomson lived at the 15-acre [35] The Enchanted Hill, in Beverly Hills, designed by architect Wallace Neff. [36]

In early December 1928, Thomson stepped on a nail while working in his stables, contracting tetanus, and died in Los Angeles on Christmas Day 1928. [37]

After Thomson's unexpected death, she married director George Hill in 1930, but that marriage ended in divorce in 1933.

She had two sons: US Navy Captain Richard G. Thomson (adopted), [38] and Frederick Clifton Thomson [39] who earned a PhD in English at Yale, taught there and later joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina, later becoming an editor of the writings of George Eliot, publishing editions of Felix Holt, the Radical in 1980 and later.

Later years and death

In 1945, Molly, Bless Her, the 1937 novel written by Frances Marion, was adapted by Roger Burford, as the screenplay for the comedy film, Molly and Me , directed by Lewis Seiler and starring Monty Woolley, Gracie Fields, Reginald Gardiner and Roddy McDowall, released by 20th Century Fox.

For many years she was under contract to MGM Studios. Independently wealthy, she left Hollywood in 1946 to devote more time to writing stage plays and novels.

Frances Marion published a memoir Off With Their Heads: A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood in 1972. Marion died [40] the following year of a ruptured aneurysm in Los Angeles. [41]

Selected filmography

YearTitleFeatured StarsNotes
1912 The New York Hat Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish Contributing writer
1915 Camille Clara Kimball Young, Paul Capellani, Robert CummingsScenario
A Girl of Yesterday Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, Glenn L. MartinActress
1916 The Foundling Mary Pickford, Mildred Morris, Gertrude NormanWriter
The Gilded Cage Alice Brady, Montagu Love, Alec B. FrancisScenarist/writer
1917 A Little Princess Katherine Griffith, Mary Pickford, Norman Kerry, ZaSu Pitts, Theodore RobertsWriter
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Mary Pickford, Eugene O'BrienWriter
The Poor Little Rich Girl Mary Pickford, Madlaine Traverse, Charles Wellesley, Gladys FairbanksWriter
1918 Stella Maris Mary PickfordPhotoplay
How Could You, Jean? Mary PickfordScenario
M'Liss Mary PickfordWriter
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley Mary Pickford, William Scott, Kate PriceWriter
The Temple of Dusk Sessue Hayakawa, Jane Novak, Louis Willoughby, Mary Jane IrvingWriter
1919 The Cinema Murder Marion Davies, Eulalie Jensen, Anders Randolf, Reginald BarlowScenario
Anne of Green Gables Mary Miles MinterWriter
1920 Pollyanna Mary PickfordAdaptation
The Flapper Olive Thomas, Warren CookScreenplay, story
Humoresque Gaston Glass, Vera Gordon, Alma RubensScenario
The Restless Sex Marion Davies, Ralph KellardWriter
1921 The Love Light Mary Pickford, Evelyn DumoDirector, story (uncredited)
Just Around the Corner Margaret Seddon, Lewis Sargent, Sigrid HolmquistDirector, scenario
1922 The Primitive Lover Constance Talmadge, Harrison Ford Scenario
The Toll of the Sea Anna May Wong, Kenneth Harlan, Beatrice BentleyScenario (uncredited), story
1923 The Famous Mrs. Fair Myrtle Stedman, Huntley GordonAdaptation, screenplay
The Song of Love Norma Talmadge, Joseph Schildkraut, Arthur Edmund CareweDirector, screenplay
1924 Secrets Norma TalmadgeAdaptation
Cytherea Alma Rubens, Constance Bennett, Norman Kerry, Lewis Stone, Irene RichAdaptation
The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln George A. Billing, Ruth Clifford, George K. Arthur, Louise FazendaStory, screenplay
1925 Stella Dallas Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Lois MoranAdaptation
A Thief in Paradise Doris Kenyon, Ronald Colman, Aileen Pringle Adaptation
Thank You Alec B. Francis, Jacqueline LoganWriter
Lightnin' Jay Hunt, Wallace MacDonaldWriter
1926 The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish, Lars HansonAdaptation, scenario, titles
The Winning of Barbara Worth Ronald Colman, Vilma BánkyAdaptation
Son of the Sheik Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Bánky, Montagu Love, Karl Dane, George FawcettAdaptation
1927 The Red Mill Marion DaviesAdaptation, screenplay
Love John Gilbert, Greta GarboContinuity
Madame Pompadour Dorothy GishWriter
1928 The Wind Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, Dorothy CummingScenario
The Awakening Vilma Bánky, Walter ByronStory
Bringing Up Father J. Farrell MacDonald, Polly Moran, Marie DresslerWriter
1929 Their Own Desire Norma Shearer, Belle Bennett, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Helene MillardScreenplay
1930 Min and Bill Marie Dressler, Wallace BeeryDialogue, scenario
The Big House Robert Montgomery, Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, Lewis StoneDialogue, story
Won the Academy Award for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Good News Mary Lawlor, Stanley SmithScenario
The Rogue Song Lawrence Tibbett, Catherine Dale OwenWriter
Anna Christie Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion, Marie DresslerWriter
1931 The Secret Six Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, John Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Ralph Bellamy, Marjorie RambeauDialogue, screenplay
The Champ Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich, Roscoe AtesStory
Won the Academy Award for Best Story
1932 Blondie of the Follies Marion Davies, Robert Montgomery, Billie DoveScreenplay, story
Emma Marie Dressler, Richard Cromwell, Jean Hersholt, Myrna LoyStory
1933 Peg o' My Heart Marion Davies, Onslow Stevens, J. Farrell MacDonaldAdaptation
Dinner at Eight Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Billie BurkeScreenplay
The Prizefighter and the Lady Myrna Loy, Max Baer, Walter Huston, Primo Carnera, Jack DempseyStory
Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story
Going Hollywood Marion Davies, Bing Crosby, Fifi D'Orsay, Stuart ErwinStory (uncredited)
Secrets Mary Pickford, Leslie HowardWriter
1936 Camille Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel BarrymoreScreenplay
Riffraff Jean Harlow, Spencer TracyScreenplay, story
Poor Little Rich Girl Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Jack Haley, Gloria Stuart, Michael Whalen, Claude GillingwaterWriter
1937 Knight Without Armour Marlene Dietrich, Robert DonatAdaptation
Love from a Stranger Ann Harding, Basil RathboneAdaptation
1940 Green Hell Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Vincent Price, Joan Bennett, Alan Hale Sr., George Sanders, John HowardOriginal story, screenplay

Published works

"The book’s portrayal of the community as isolated inbreds bent on self-destruction and domination understandably ruffled many feathers" [42]


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