Archive for Frances Marion

The Mother of Them All

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2016 by dcairns


Our Indiegogo campaign is finished, and we scored 94% of our £5000 target, which is damned good. Anybody who still wants to donate and was waiting for payday can get in touch and contribute by Special Arrangement. The money raised will make our ambitious music score possible (Jane Gardner and her trio plus a roomful of early electronica) and cover the fact that our sound mix is going to cost twice what was initially budgeted, and reward our lowly effects artists, who are starving in their respective garrets and working longer on this thing than anybody else. We’ll also be assisted in publicising the film and getting it out to festivals. Anybody out there good at designing posters and postcards?


Finished picture editing early enough yesterday to make it through to Bo’ness for the closing gala of STELLA DALLAS, the 1925 version directed by Henry King, not the better-known Stanwyck. Composer Stephen Horne is a great fan of this one and he fulfilled an ambition by scoring it — his multi-instrumental accompaniment supplemented ably by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on harp, resulting in a sensitive and versatile score which enhanced the film’s humour as well as its obvious effectiveness as a weepie of “mother picture” as the contemporary press called it.

By crazy coincidence, in between edit and screening, my bathroom copy of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema fell open at Henry King, who made it into the chapter Subjects for Further Reasearch despite a write-up from the arch-auteurist that makes it sound like the world would be a better place had King been strangled in his cradle. It’s true that, side by side with vigorous stylists like Sun Yu (channeling/ripping-off Sternberg and Borzage) or E.A. Dupont, King’s coverage might seem prosaic at times, but he has his finger on the emotional pulse of the story and stages the climax in grand style. The true auteur is scenarist Frances Marion, and then we have Arthur Edeson as cinematographer and Stuart Heisler as editor to back King up.

Belle Bennett has the role of a lifetime as Stella, with Ronald Colman as her husband, and an embryonic Douglas Fairbanks Jnr pops up, looking very junior indeed. Jean Hersholt conceals his humanitarian tendencies as the unappealing Mr. Munn.


Confession: I’ve never seen King Vidor’s remake. But I felt fine about that last night, as it meant I was experiencing the story fresh, and can now see how it was covered in the 1937 version.

Excellent intro and programme notes by Pamela Hutchinson, making the excellent point that Olivia Higgins Prouty’s source novel features characters whose perception has been influenced by cinema (“Laurel had seen too many closeups of faces not to recognize that look!”) The film’s climax (above and top) is all about the emotion of the act of looking, and the huge picture window through which Stella watches a wedding appears like nothing less than an illuminated motion picture screen.

A Life in Intertitles

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , on August 8, 2010 by dcairns

THE FLAPPER, written by Frances Marion (THE SCARLET LETTER) and directed by Alan Crosland (BELOVED ROGUE), is an intermittently amusing, very watchable comedy, made both fascinating and melancholy by the appearance of star Olive Thomas. Not only is Thomas’s life at cruel odds with the lighthearted movie she stars in, the intertitles keep butting up against the facts of her story in a way that seems cruel, suggestive, mysterious and discomfiting. And since those are all emotions I can enjoy at times, I thought I’d bring you the Olive Thomas story, in illustrated intertitle form.

Information lifted wholesale from the IMDb and Wikipedia.

She was born Oliva R. Duffy, or possibly Oliveretta Elaine Thomas, in 1894. She was brought up in a working-class home in Pittsburgh. Her father died when she was young and she had to leave school to help support her family. She married at 16 but it didn’t take — she divorced two years later and went to New York.

Working in a Harlem department store, Olive responded to a newspaper contest seeking The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City — and won!

This led to a modeling career, including landing the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Artist Harrison Fisher recommended Olive to Florenz Ziegfeld, and she joined the Follies, and the racier Midnight Frolic, where she performed clad only in balloons. Alberto Vargas painted her nude.

Olive signed with the International Film Company and began her movie career appearing in the serial BEATRICE FAIRFAX, with Harry Fox, “inventor” of the foxtrot. She went on to work with directors John Francis Dillon, Frank Borzage, Ralph Ince and Alan Crosland.

In 1916 she became engaged to Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, eloping with him shortly after. It proved to be a stormy relationship.

In 1918, she signed with David O Selznick.

“But I want to create a certain role, you see Mary is the kid in pictures; Norma does drama; Constance is the flippant, flighty wife; Dorothy the hoyden; Nazimova is exotic and steeped in mystery, my Jack does boys, while I–I–why don’t you see, I am just nothing at all!” In fact, Olive was the first movie flapper, or “baby vamp”.

Olive’s tendency to drink and wild partying increased during her marriage to Jack, resulting in several serious car accidents.

Drugs were also rumoured.

In August 1920, the pair embarked on a second honeymoon in Paris, attempting to repair their strained marriage. On the night of September 9th in the Ritz Hotel, Olive drank what she apparently thought was a sleeping draught, but confusion with the labels of various bottles apparently meant that she took a mercury bichloride solution, prescribed for Pickford’s syphilis and not intended for ingestion. It can also be used as a cleaning product.

She died a few days later, aged just 25. It was the first time a young Hollywood star had died at the height of their fame. Rumours abounded of suicide or murder.

Although she died in Paris, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Hotel Theater, New York.

“I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. I feel the same about other things as I do about death. I don’t think you can change anything that is going to happen to you any more than you can change anything that has happened to you. That’s why I never worry, and that is why I don’t think people should get conceited and think themselves better than others.”

“Life’s too short and fate too funny to get upstage, Today they may be showering us with roses on Broadway and tomorrow some fool director who used to be a waiter may be rejecting us as atmosphere in a five reel five cent feature…”

The Sunday Intertitle: America’s Sweetheart

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by dcairns

Mary Pickford is another of those massive stars, like Tom Mix, that I knew of but hadn’t really gotten to grips with. So I ran AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY, directed ably by Marshall Neilan, and written by Frances Marion with an eye to every stereotype of Irish-American life that can be fitted into a film intended for family viewing (and a few that might raise eyebrows today).

Marion was possibly the top writer in Hollywood in the teens and ’20s (and I enjoyed reading about her fictional adventures in Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside) and her work on this romcom had me pondering if there’s a difference between male and female ideas of comedy. Maybe so, but only in general, i.e. rather useless, terms.

What I suspect is that male comedy, if boiled down to its essence, filtering out all subtleties and nuance, would come out all knockabout violence and bodily functions — in somewhat the way that autism is regarded as an exaggerated form of a certain male tendency, pee and poo and thump-on-the-head comedy is the masculine expression of that. There are plenty of men who enjoy this kind of basic apeman stuff, but many prefer it mingled with its counterpart —

Female comedy, boiled down to its essence, discarding all the nuance that is generally there, is concerned with emotions and stuff. Often the laughter comes from situations of social embarrassment. There’s likely to be less conflict, and often less surprise. Modern romantic comedies of the kind I can’t stand seem to hinge more on accepting a shared understanding of what’s supposed to be amusing, rather than actually being hit with anything startlingly funny. The laughter of agreement.

(Although Damon Wayans is male, and Nora Ephron is female, and although male and female audiences flock to these respective genres, I’d like to think that the division is largely a creation of the market. Just as I find stereotypically uber-macho and hyper-girly types boring, I find these films unappealing, but clearly the majority of people of both sexes fall somewhere in between. Psychologically, as far as anyone can tell, we all inhabit a spectrum between Mars and Venus.)

Both these extremes, like the extremes of social realism on one hand and George Lucas fantasy on the other, are pretty sterile on their own. What we seem to find with someone like Chaplin, as Sunnyside suggests, is somebody consciously blending the two, competing with Mary Pickford’s cuteness and emotional appeal, and adding in some kick-in-the-pants vulgarity. (Although there’s obviously a lot more to Chaplin than the novel combining of two stale flavours.)  It takes us out of the deadening zaniness of Keystone, and the deadening precitability of… well, AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY.

The first half hour of this film, to give you an example of its gentle pace, shows in parallel the lives of Amarilly, a dirt-poor Irish lass in an American slum, and Gordon (Norman Kerry, who was Phoebus in the Chaney HUNCHBACK), a rich and feckless sculptor. A collision is inevitable, but we wait for it quite some time. And no story is unfolding meanwhile to occupy our attention, and it becomes apparent that nothing can happen until the two meet. But still we wait.

A Chaplin moment of pathos from Mary — before she gives a little kick and prances off…

By way of complication, both parties have prospective lovers in their own social class, so once things do get moving there are lovers’ quarrels and some blustering from the rich nobs about their boy carrying on with a cleaning woman. And here we finally arrive at an unpredictable stage, where it seems like the swiftest path to a happy ending would be to reunite Amarilly with her Irish beau, and let Gordon wed the society lass, yet this seems unsatisfactory, as it confirms the rigidity of the class system in a positively unAmerican manner. We’ve seen PRETTY IN PINK, there has to be more to it than this.

But there really isn’t — the film’s solution is to have the working class boy shot by accident, collapsing on Amarilly’s floor as she serves him a brimming plateful of Irish stew (and here I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling, since Pickford plays her failure to understand that the guy’s seriously injured, not just drunk, in the same breezy, pleasantly comedic manner she uses for everything else). He’s nursed back to health, we forget all about the film’s, you know, narrative, and then it’s six years later and they’ve got a couple of kids, The End.

“You can say anything you like about me. Just don’t say I love my work, that makes me sound like Mary Pickford, that prissy bitch!” ~ Mabel Normand.

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley