March 6, 2015
What will it take for women to prove themselves behind the camera in Hollywood? Some version of this question always lurks around the edges when discussion turns to the “Celluloid Ceiling” in Hollywood. The term refers to (not just but especially) the American movie industry’s dismal record when it comes to women working as directors, producers, cinematographers . . . basically, any aspect of movie production other than acting (where there also exists a gross imbalance between mainstream movies focused on men and boys and those focused on girls and women). Every year, Martha M. Lauzen and her colleagues at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University issue reports that lay out the sad numbers and charting what progress—or lack of progress—they represent. They’ve recently issued The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2014, and the numbers remain discouraging: “In 2014, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 (domestic) grossing films. This is the same percentage of women working in these roles in 1998.”
With numbers like that, no wonder some may wonder, “what will it take for women to finally break through in Hollywood?” But if a student were to take away only one thing from reading through Screen Ages, it would be this: the question is not when or if women will break through and prove themselves, but how they have been systematically excluded from an art form and industry—the American movies—that they were centrally involved in creating and in which they participated in every aspect of production. Simply put, there’s nothing to “prove.” No women, no American movies. In Screen Ages, you can find profiles of some of these giants of the first quarter century of American movies, including Alice Guy Blaché, Lois Weber, and Mary Pickford. On this blog, I’m going to be featuring other important artists who helped make Hollywood, Hollywood, beginning today with Frances Marion.
If you love movies but have never heard of Frances Marion, you’re not only missing out on learning about one of the most prolific and influential American movie makers, but you’re also experiencing how our collective senses of American movie history have worked to reinforce the exclusion of women from Hollywood. Frances Marion was one of the important screenwriters in the history of American movies. In an active Hollywood career starting in the early teens, when she got her start working for the director and studio owner Lois Weber, and lasting until the early 1940s, when the changing business practices of Hollywood studios made it harder and harder for her to be as involved in all aspects of movie production as she had been for decades, Frances Marion’s output was astounding. She wrote hundreds of scripts and was involved in the production of over one hundred movies. A quick look at her IMDB credits is almost overwhelming.
Although she was known primarily as a screenwriter (or “scenarist,” as screenwriters were known in the silent era), “writer” doesn’t really capture the breadth of her contribution to the movie production process. The fantastic web site of the Women Film Pioneers Project quotes Marion from a 1919 magazine article describing her job: “Stories, working scenarios ready for the director to proceed, tarrying with him through every scene as it is filmed; editing and cutting the complete product and title-writing every bit of it.” In the screen ages before the studios era, jobs on the movie set were not as narrowly defined as they would be later (part of the process that, as Marion’s case demonstrates, began to limit the power and influence of women filmmakers). Stars would work closely with specific writers and directors, and the synthesis and synergy of their combined creative talents really defined the “authorship” of movies in the teens and twenties.
Marion enjoyed a particularly close and productive relationship with Mary Pickford, one of the biggest stars of the silent era and still one of the biggest stars to every appear in Hollywood movies. The two worked on some of Pickford’s most definitive movies, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), and Stella Maris (1918). At least three times Marion also directed her own scripts, including The Love Light (1921) starring Pickford and Marion’s then-husband, the star Fred Thomson (who died tragically young in 1928 at age 38). As you can see from the poster, Marion’s credit as both writer and director were selling points for the movie, showing just how famous Marion was among film fans as well as movie pros.
This picture of Marion and Pickford, taken at the height of their popularity and influence, shows not just two of the most powerful filmmakers in 1920s Hollywood, but two of the most powerful in American movie history. Arriving in Los Angeles soon after the movie industry had moved to the west coast, Marion and Pickford as much as D.W. Griffith or Charlie Chaplin were responsible for the creation of “Hollywood” as an idea and as a synonym for the movies in general. Marion’s writing and influence shaped what we think of as a “movie” and defined the art form of American cinema. As both she and Pickford demonstrate, when it comes to women in movie production, there’s nothing to prove.