The Rear-View Mirror: Spontaneous Combustion, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford (1917)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Frances Marion and Mary Pickford

When Mary Pickford and Frances Marion met in 1914, Marion may well have believed that fate was playing a hand in her favour. Not long before she had met and befriended Marie Dressler, the famous vaudevillian. Marion was then a cub reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper. The interview was probably a joke at Marion’s expense: Dressler despised Hearst and everything connected to him. Marion, however, pleaded with Dressler, “I will lose my job!”, she insisted. “Is that what those bastards told you?!” replied Dressler, and granted Marion the interview. Marion would never forget the kindness, the women became lifelong friends, and much later she would return the favour. And now she had an opportunity to meet a rising star, whose quality films already stood out for Marion, Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford

Even better, in the summer of 1914, she was hired by the legendary director/producer Lois Weber, who had taken over production from Hobart Bosworth. At the Bosworth Company, everyone was required to do a little bit of everything. Weber was mainly interested in having Marion as an actress, gorgeous as she was. Marion’s mind, however, was made up. Her path was as an artist on the other side of the camera. Her job, in practice, was more that of a general assistant. She guarded the continuity of films, wrote little lines of dialogue for extras, rode horses, lugged decor and whatever else was required. But at least she was writing for the movies, albeit just a little.

Lois Weber

When the actor, and husband to Mary Pickford, Owen Moore was cast by the studio opposite comedienne Elsie Janis, Mary was suspicious. She made it a habit to visit by the studio often, to keep an eye on her Lothario of a husband, and by and by the friendship between Marion and Pickford solidified. This friendship would last until after they had both remarried: Pickford to Douglas Fairbanks and Marion to Fred Thompson. The two couples even honeymooned together. But filming The Love Light in 1921, for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan, with Marion as director and both her best friend and her husband as leads, led to a chill in the friendship. By then the first World War was over and, quite apart from new marriages and adjusted loyalties, the war had changed them both.

When Bosworth became too ill to run the studio, Weber and most of the others went to Universal. Marion, however, wanted to blaze her own trail. She went to Balboa where, again, she was mostly used as an actress, much to her chagrin. Recognising her friend’s unhappiness, it was Pickford who offered Marion a new job and promised her there would be opportunities for her to write.

Frances Marion

Although modern audiences tend to think Pickford always played children, the first time she actually did so was in The Poor Little Rich Girl, released in 1917. This collaboration between Pickford, Marion and Tourneur, was based on a serious melodrama. But in the Pickford-Marion collaboration, comedy scenes were spontaneously added during filming: the so-called “Pickford-Marion spontaneous combustion”. As soon as The Poor Little Rich Girl was screened for the all-male group of executives, however, they weren’t laughing. When the women were informed that the execs thought the film a disaster, and they would shelve it, rather than jeopardising Mary’s career, both Marion and Pickford felt gutted and humiliated. The studio was forced to release it despite their misgivings, however, as the movie had already been pre-sold to theatres, and Zukor could not pull the film. So one night, incognito, the two friends decided to view it with a live audience at The Strand. Between Pickford’s wonderful comedy and Tourneur’s gorgeous dream sequences, the audience was delighted with the film. To them, it felt fresh and new. The two friends promised themselves, they would never allow the confidence in their abilities to be sapped by executives again. A real audience, that was what mattered.

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Mary Pickford really deserved the moniker “America’s sweetheart”. It hadn’t been made-up as a brand. It had been her audiences who lovingly bestowed what was at first just a fact, and only later used as advertising. She took this seriously, considering herself first and foremost, a servant of “her people”, the fans. It is easy to forget how big and versatile a star she was. She could do anything. A natural comedienne, she was equally wonderful in melodramatic roles. She was also smart, tenacious, and extremely tough. Dedicated to her career, her art, craft, her fans, family and friends, Pickford would rise to become the focal point of the entire industry. Though Pickford’s personality is very far removed from characters such as Polyanna, which was adapted for her much later by Marion, “her” people most loved to see her as the typical Pickford “Little Girl” and she was mostly happy to oblige.

Mary Pickford

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm cast Pickford as a child again. It was announced by Famous Players Lasky in May 1917 as the first of a series of films, with Marion as screenwriter and starring Pickford. This announcement was the pair’s vindication after the success of The Poor Little Rich Girl, and cemented Marion’s position as one of the best paid scenarists in Hollywood.

With Mickey Neilan at the helm at Pickford’s request, the three had a great time, filming Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Though Pickford and Marion were extremely disciplined and working very hard at the film, Mickey happily incorporating their “spontaneous combustion”, this new found freedom must have been exhilarating. By that time Pickford had another reason to be giddy. She was in love, and was involved in a long-standing affair with the ebullient Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was also working under the Lasky-Zukor banner by the time Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was being made, and so Mary and Douglas were now practically working for the same studio. Marion, known to have many lovers, was not one to judge, though she had her misgivings. She was glad though, that Mary looked so happy, and even helped out with their secret assignations. This romance moreover cemented the friendship between Marion and Anita Loos, another brilliant screenwriter, who also played her part in keeping the affair hidden.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm became a smash hit. “A masterwork that is going to stand supreme for several years to come.” gushed Variety. The same year Marie Dressler was also back in Hollywood, in dire financial straits, making cheap “Tilly” two-reelers for Goldwyn, to Marion’s perturbation. In Hollywood, producers told eachother, audiences wanted youth and beauty and love. No homely old women to clutter up the scene, Dressler would write later. She returned to Vaudeville in 1918.

Marie Dressler

After the Great War, in which Frances Marion was a war correspondent and famously the first woman to cross the Rhine after the Armistice, she went to write scripts and direct for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, sharing a house with her friend Anita Loos. It was with that studio that she directed The Love Light starring Mary Pickford and Fred Thompson. Frances was ambitious for her husband, Fred, and this led to rumours that she spent an inordinate amount of time on him. Fairbanks was being troublesome and jealous. Hedda Hopper quoted Mary as saying she felt neglected, as Frances spent so much of her time making sure Fred was well presented on screen. To the detriment, it was implied, of Mary herself. Ultimately, the film was panned by critics. The two would remain friends, but the closeness of earlier years was gone. More than 10 years would pass before they once again worked together on a film, and Frances never again directed one.

Frank Thompson, Mary Pickford and Frances Marion

Frances Marion, during her lifetime, would write 325 scripts. And when the 3rd Academy Awards rolled around, she won her Oscar for The Big house, a talking picture. She had seen the transition from silent films to talkies and worked in both, she had seen the war up close, she had seen Hollywood change. She was the most famous and best paid scenarist in Hollywood. She was much loved by a great many dear and talented friends, and when she was in a position to help them, she did. At the 4th Academy Awards the next year, her friend Marie Dressler was finally honoured with a Best Actress Oscar for the Marion-penned Min and Bill. Marion had been the one to convince Thalberg at MGM of Dressler’s great talent. And she must have felt some satisfaction in aiding the career revival of this most beloved of actresses, and her great friend, who had helped her out so many years ago.

“I owe my greatest success to women.” Marion has said. “Contrary to the assertion that women do all in their power to hinder one another’s progress, I have found that it has always been one of my own sex who has given me a helping hand when I needed it.”

As always this article owes a great debt to the wonderful film historians who wrote about these unique stories of film:

  • Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, and the documentary Without Lying Down by Milestone
  • Jeanine Basinger, Silent Stars

For more on Dressler, check out the wonderful You Must Remember This podcast and Make Me Over by Farran Nehme

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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