By Paul J. Bradley
One of the most successful and acclaimed screenwriters before and during Hollywood’s Golden Age was Frances Marion, who is cited frequently as one of the most important screenwriters in the development of the motion picture. Many today forget that talented female screenwriters such as Frances Marion, Anita Loos, and June Mathis wrote more than half of all the scripts during the silent era. Frances Marion became increasingly powerful and innovative in this male-dominated industry, but her remarkable legacy is now often overlooked.
Born Marion Benson Owens in San Francisco in 1888, Frances went to art school whilst still in her teens. After graduating, Frances held several jobs in California such as being a photographer’s assistant, a commercial artist, a reporter, and an advertising artist.
Frances became involved with the film industry in 1914 when she worked at Lois Weber Productions, where she became a writing assistant and an actor. Frances took up journalism again at the outbreak of the First World War when she became an overseas reporter.
Success in the Film Industry
After returning to the United States, Frances continued her success and is credited with writing more than 300 scripts. She was also a producer of more than 130 movies and also directed a few. Frances built friendships with other prolific female Hollywood artists, especially actor Mary Pickford.
Despite her busy schedule as a writer, producer, and director, Frances was an active member of the Suffragettes.
Becoming renowned for her impressive film adaptations such as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Pollyanna (1920), A Thief in Paradise (1925), Anna Christie (1930), and Camille (1936), as well as her textbooks such as How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937), Frances Marion had become one of the industry’s most prolific and successful talents.
The Champ and Dinner at Eight
Two of Frances Marion’s movies, The Champ (1931) and Dinner at Eight (1933), are the subjects of two informative Classic Movie Recall podcasts/video presentations by Classic Movie Recall’s on-air radio host Lara Scott and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll.
Frances Marion won her second Oscar in 1932 for The Champ in 1931, having won the Best Writing Oscar for The Big House in the previous year. When Frances wrote the screenplay, she had Wallace Beery in mind, following his acclaimed performances in her scripts The Big House (1930) and Min and Bill (1930).
MGM production head Irving Thalberg had initially wanted Frances to write a western, but she had made two films with her recently divorced husband and had wanted more creative independence. Thalberg suggested another genre, and Frances agreed.
A Creative Trip to Mexico
Frances soon travelled to Mexico on a working vacation and was inspired by her time in Tijuana and Ensenada, towns she had usually avoided on her previous trips.
On one occasion, Frances witnessed a large drunken man being thrown out of a saloon, with a young child trailing behind and clearly shouting to the crowd outside, “Can’t you see the Champ needs some air?” The boy’s adoration, the ragged clothes, and the way the drunken man began to shadow box on hearing the words “the Champ” painted a picture for Frances of his former glory. This was a vital moment of inspiration. She now had found the characters, the setting and the genre of her new screenplay.
Casting and Direction
Beery would play the washed-up alcoholic boxer Andy “The Champ” Purcell, and his adoring son Dink would be played by Jackie Cooper, who was a success in Skippy earlier that year. King Vidor was hired to direct, which was a relief for Frances because she did not wish her work to be directed by fellow MGM employee George Hill, her ex-husband who had directed her previous three features.
Frances Marion’s screenplay does not praise the protagonist and does not worship masculinity. The Champ is not male hero but a loser, a gambler, and an alcoholic. The Champ takes his son to bars, gambling houses and racetracks. The dominant and steady forces are the female characters such as Linda (Irene Rich), the mother to Dink and ex-wife of The Champ.
Reception of The Champ
The Champ premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York on November 9th, 1931. The film, and the onscreen chemistry between Beery and Cooper in particular, has been praised by many critics throughout the years, but not by all. Critic Mordaunt Hall was critical of Frances Marion’s contribution in his lukewarm review of the film in The New York Times on November 10, 1931, saying that Frances “has written one of those tried and trusted affairs that were all very well in the days of old silent pictures, but something more novel and subtle is needed now.”
The success of The Champ at the box office, with the Academy, and from most critics of the day proved that Frances Marion’s “tried and trusted” screenplay was still very much in demand.
(Part 2 coming soon!)