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Friday, September 18, 2009

Choice Book --- Without Lying Down

I’ve been reading Cari Beauchamp’s book, Without Lying Down, about screenwriter Frances Marion and the Hollywood she knew. Marion was among that group of women who thrived during the silent era (and partly into sound) before, says Beauchamp, studios became rigidly corporatized and male dominated. Some lived long enough to bear witness from decades out as to filmic gamesmanship as they experienced it. Anita Loos and Adela Rogers St. John were contemporaries of Frances Marion and both spun embellished accounts of incidents in which all other participants had long passed on. St. John lost sight altogether of where truth and her embroideries parted company. Frances Marion's reflections are more reliable for being culled from private diaries and journals she kept, and which Beauchamp had access to. Marion got an early break writing for Mary Pickford. For several years, they were professionally inseparable. I’m fascinated by Beauchamp’s account, but can’t for the life of me shine up to Pickford. Amarilly Of Clothes-Line Alley is supposed to be one of the better ones Pickford and Marion teamed on, but was tough sledding for me. Maybe I need to commit to a week or so of Pickford, with stops at eight or ten of her features (at least that many are on DVD) before attempting an informed opinion. The problem is she just doesn’t intrigue me on screen. If they’d made films about Pickford's climb up stardom’s ladder (more like a catapult) or the marriage to Fairbanks and its collapse, I’d be more receptive. Further data about her reclusing years at Pickfair would also be welcome, as those stories of withdrawl with Buddy Rogers as gatekeeper are pearls of filmland Gothica. How many fans are out there who still watch Mary Pickford movies? I actually wish I were one, because a lot of them survive (thanks to the star’s own conservation efforts) and you can’t say that about most silent-era legacies.

Without Lying Down is a terrific book, well-researched and full of insight into lives of that vanished period. Among those (many) invisible now is Frances Marion’s tragic husband Fred Thomson, otherwise a screen cowboy that some claim out-performed Tom Mix as king-sized boyhood idol to fit all. Every western Fred made, save one, is lost today and he did over two dozen. It’s like his stardom was wiped off the cultural map. Pretty tough reviving a name when there’s so little film to back your argument. Thomson is mostly just stills now, like so many silent lights gone dark. He fascinates me for two reasons. One is how he died. Beauchamp gives the best account of that in Without Lying Down. Fred had been a crack athlete, WWI vet, and Presbyterian minister who got into movies somewhat reluctantly. This perfect specimen died at 38 of tetanus. I don’t know about others of you, but that word always gave me chills. How many times was I warned growing up to wear shoes so as not to step on a nail and get tetanus? It’s said to be the most horrific of deaths and always hopeless once you’re infected. Then there’s lockjaw for a chaser, just to assure an agonizing exit. The story I’d heard about Thomson through the years was that, indeed, he stepped on a nail. Beauchamp questions that, and says doctors found no evidence of an open wound. Medicine being what it was in 1928, you could enter a hospital with seemingly minor problems and never come out. Fred was being treated for kidney stones as well as tetanus. Both were potential killers then. Maybe, as was the case with Valentino a couple of years before, they could have saved Thomson had he access to modern medicines we know. Succeeding generations merely finished the job of erasing Fred by letting his films go to dust.

Frances Marion silent partnered her husband in terms of writing most of his westerns along with helping out on edit work. Her contributions were quiet, as neither wanted focus on the town’s highest-paid scribe steering program westerns gratis. Would the Thomson oaters stand tallest for her more than capable participation? Imagine them all turning up and proving to be the very best outdoor series of the whole silent era. That notion intrigues me. On the other hand, who’s likely to care much about ancient cowboy shows in any rediscovered capacity? The twenty-first century is a pretty big echo chamber for remaining adherents of silent film, let alone those who’d thump for Fred Thomson. Frances Marion kept working after her husband died. Her peak came during early sound, with Irving Thalberg a head champion. Projects she delivered in ribbons gave Metro star-based cycles they’d ride for decades after. Reading Beauchamp’s account convinces me that Marion’s genius was what created Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, for it was she that majorly penned Anna Christie, Min and Bill, The Big House and The Champ. The latter two were stories Marion created from ground up. Dressler was the absolute high priestess of America’s boxoffice for those few star years she had before early death intervened at a peak. I watched Min and Bill for the first time recently. It’s short and funny and moving. Why folks loved it is no mystery. Dressler acts from the heart and is so authentic as to merge as one with viewers. There wouldn’t be anything so honest and natural as her again. Beery had a slobbery realness as well, so long as vehicles were as finely written as ones Frances Marion turned in. If she’d acted upon invitations to direct (rather than bowing out early on after a few stressful tries), Marion could have been the feminine auteur to lead a 30’s charge. As it is, they squeezed her typewriter dry after Thalberg died and took front-office protection with him. Marion disdained Louis Mayer and he returned the sentiment. Metro committees wanted her to reheat the Beery formula she’d invented, but now the star was hung with braying Marjorie Main for a partner who could never replace long-gone Dressler, and lesser talents were freely rewriting Marion. The latter toiled along margins and finally drifted out of movies in favor of art and sculpture at which she also excelled. Her whole story is splendidly told in Cari Beauchamp’s book. Read it and learn lots about the Hollywood Frances Marion’s talent enhanced (there are used hardcovers on Amazon starting at $1.90).
Coming in Part Two: Fred Thomson Rediscovered --- Or Not? A North Carolina Collecting Story


Blogger Classic Maiden said...

I'll have to check this book out - sure sounds fascinating.

I look forward to part II.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I kinda came late to the Mary Pickford appreciation corps. Saw a screening of M'LISS at Cinefest sometime in the 90's, and was blown away. Have been gorging myself on every available title since, as well as biographies, documentaries, etc. I don't think she was simply the first movie superstar. The evidence would seem to indicate she pretty much invented movie stardom, the whole idea of honestly portraying a diversity of roles while injecting each with a well beloved, over-sized persona. We're talkin' mega charisma here. She was a fair straight actress, but I'd rank her among the greatest of the silent screen clowns. No, really. Not one of her star vehicles was a truly great film, but virtually all contain at least one fabulous comedy sequence (often several). Like the biggies, she could use her whole body as a comic instrument. And nobody save Chaplin got as many laughs out of their feet (check out THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, MY BEST GIRL and even the Frances Marion directed weeper, THE LOVE LIGHT, one of her most turgid films... hilarious stuff in the first reel). Grab some Pickford DVDs and set aside time to give her a chance. She's one of the greatest!

4:59 PM  
Blogger Jenny Lerew said...

Agree with everything Dave K had to say...I'd add that personally, "Amarilly" is one of the films I'm not as keen on for whatever reason, and not one I'd pick to convert anyone to Pickford. For me, the big revelation was seeing her in "The Hoodlum" in a restored version that hasn't been released on DVD(there's a very dupey copy around though). She certainly did have IT in spades. I was astonished at the subtlety of her acting and the wit of her comedy--for all her occasional "moues".
She said it herself-she really was a "thinking" actress-she is totally believable in her expressions onscreen, and has incredibly graceful command of her body at all times without seeming affected.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Pickford, like Colleen Moore or Al Jolson, is sometimes so overflowing with energy that it can be frightening. We're used to stars who keep a little in reserve, make us curious; Pickford works us over like a Swedish masseuse. Still, My Best Girl is one of the great silents as far as I'm concerned, indeed, one of the great silent comedies; start there and see if you can't see why she was beloved.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I agree with Michael about My Best Girl; if you're not sure you much care for Mary Pickford, that's the one to see before you make up your mind. It also has something that I think should not go unremarked: Pickford was the star and the producer, and the movie is very much a vehicle for her, but notice how, right at the very climax, she graciously steps aside and lets Lucien Littlefield (as her beleaguered father) all but steal the picture from her. Mary Pickford may have been a crafty little minx, but she was no camera-hog if she thought someone else deserved a chance to shine.

3:38 PM  
Blogger normadesmond said...

i've always been amused how most photos of the later mary show her with the same expression, kind of a, "oh no, you caught me" look.

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Brett said...

Another vote here for MY BEST GIRL. It's a favorite, and the one picture I'd recommend to anyone who doesn't "get" Pickford.

5:21 PM  

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