From the Editors: Star-Crossed Fortunes
With print, as with celluloid, the most interesting material occasionally finds its final resting place on the well-littered floor of the proverbial cutting room. Such was the fate this month of a few brief but ultimately extraneous paragraphs in our piece on Napa Valley’s Aetna Springs (page 152) that detailed the link between the 19th-century resort and Old Hollywood. The link in question was a woman by the name of Frances Marion, whose father, San Francisco businessman Len Owens, owned the property for a time.
According to actress Gloria Swanson, Marion had "more muscle than most women in Hollywood"—and, she might have added, most men. Born Marion Benson Owens in 1888, Marion eventually migrated south to Los Angeles, where, like legions of others, she pursued cinematic ambitions. Landing a job as a writing assistant for a fledgling production company, she discovered she had a gift for inventing characters and plots—priceless commodities in the Hollywoodland of 1917, which teemed with studio heads hungry for storylines that would transform silver-nitrate images into box-office gold.
Marion launched her career with a spate of silent classics that included Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Pollyanna, both of which starred Mary Pickford. Some 130 of her scripts were produced over the next two decades, making her the highest-paid screenwriter of the time, at a reported $17,000 per week. She built one of the largest houses in Beverly Hills, not far from Pickfair, the residence of Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks—both of whom were known to accompany Marion on holidays to Aetna Springs, where they set a very different tone from that established by the habitués of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Marion was, as Swanson later wrote in her memoir, "a gold mine of ideas—ideas that could become stories that could . . . become films that could save careers, lives, and corporations."
And many of the careers—and lives—of Marion’s Beverly Hills neighbors would require saving. As the Silent Era faded, so did the shiniest of its stars. After her 1927 role in It, Clara Bow, for instance, became one of the industry’s top five box-office draws. (She would thereafter be known as the It Girl.) Yet within a few years of her zenith, the It Girl was out. Even if her famous Jazz Age face could make the transition to sound, her voice—like that of her supposed lover, leading man John Gilbert—could not: A pronounced Brooklyn accent shattered the siren’s mystique, banishing her to obscurity and a future darkened by mental illness.
Even the most talented of Marion’s neighbors were vulnerable. Buster Keaton, whose deadpan expressions prompted the press to nickname him the Great Stone Face, elevated slapstick to an art form, combining the physical comedy he had learned in vaudeville with technical innovation. His success led him to marry Natalie Talmadge, sister of screen stars Norma and Constance, and to build a fabulous villa in the hills near Pickfair and Marion’s estate. Yet in the 1930s, situational comedies displaced the comic style of which Keaton was master, and the studio system slowly ground the Great Stone Face into dust. He lost his wife and his house—though the latter proved to be his work’s salvation: The discovery of a cache of forgotten negatives in a hidden vault would spark, decades later, a Keaton revival.
By contrast, with their demand for dialogue and ever-more-complex plots, the talkies were kind to Marion, who in turn did her utmost for those whose livelihoods sound had torn asunder. In one case, she even managed to save two birds with one script. By the 1920s, another former vaudevillian, silent actress Marie Dressler, was out of work and money. Marion concocted a bait-and-switch plot in which she persuaded MGM to purchase the film rights to a novel written by a writer friend in need of medical care; in her pitch, she substituted the book’s unappealing storyline with one of her own, tailor-made for Dressler. Marion would write the adaptation. The film, Min and Bill, earned Dressler the 1931 Oscar for Best Actress and the novelist a hefty fee. Marion had flexed her famous "muscle," and both a career and a life were saved.