By Melanie Benjamin
There’s a scene in my novel, The Girls in the Picture, that was the most frustrating, and inspiring, scene I’ve written in a novel to date. And it’s entirely based on a true event.
In the book, my heroines Mary Pickford and Frances Marion have just made their first major feature film together. The year is 1916. Mary is the reigning star at Famous Players Lasky, the film studio that eventually became Paramount. The studio heads – all men – have come to resent this little upstart actress. Her popularity can’t be denied and she’s smartly parlayed that into one of the most actor-friendly film contracts to date. She has her own production company and can hire her own director and writer, and make the films she wants to make—not the films she is told by the studio head to make. Her first film under this agreement is a film called The Poor Little Rich Girl. In this film written by her closest friend, Frances Marion, for the first time, Mary Pickford plays a little girl on screen. The film is magical; it’s a stunning combination of farce and pathos. No one has seen anything like it.
When Mary and Frances screen the film for these studio heads, they’re stunned by the reaction. The verdict is unanimous: The film is terrible. It shouldn’t be released, but they’ve already booked it. The men in the room—Frances and Mary are the only women—berate the two: What were they doing? What were they thinking? This is what comes when you let an actress have her way. This is what happens when a woman is in charge. The film’s director—chosen by Mary—defends himself by blaming the two women for “interfering” with his authority on set.
Mary and Frances leave the meeting with their faith shaken in themselves—and each other. As punishment, Mary has to make a film with Cecil B. DeMille. And before she leaves for that set, she is forced to write a letter to DeMille promising to be a docile little girl and not question his authority. She promises simply to do her job—which is to act as he tells her, when he tells her. She feels she has no choice to do otherwise.
However, during a break in the filming, she returns to New York, where The Poor Little Rich Girl is about to premiere. She and Frances decide to attend one of the first showings, incognito. They do—and they experience one of the most triumphant moments I’ve ever written. The audience adores the film and after the standing ovation at the end, they recognize Mary Pickford—the poor little rich girl herself!—in their midst. It’s the first time (although it will not be the last) that Mary Pickford is literally in fear for her life as the crowd, in their loving frenzy, tries to touch her, hug her, weep over her. A mogul is born.
And so is a professional partnership. Because among the congratulatory telegrams awaiting the two women when they finally tear themselves away from the movie theater under police escort, is a begrudging one from Adolph Zukor, the head of the studio, the man who made Mary write that stomach-churning letter to DeMille. The Poor Little Rich Girl is a triumph, one of the biggest hits the studio has ever had. And so Mary and Frances embark on a period of incredible creative power and output. In the years 1916-1920, the two of them, along with their friend and director, Mickey Neilan, make the most successful movies coming out of Hollywood.
Cut to the title card: A hundred years later….
Women are not making the most successful movies coming out of Hollywood. Or, let’s put it another way: When they are allowed to make movies, they’re successful. Patty Jenkins. Kathryn Bigelow. Sofia Coppola. But so few women are ever given the opportunity. What happened in the hundred years since these two women—Frances Marion, the screenwriter, and Mary Pickford, the actress and producer—were among the most successful and prolific artistic duos in Hollywood?
#TimesUp would like to know. #MeToo has some ideas.
Recently, CBS’s Les Moonves was removed as head of the network and is facing lawsuits. He allegedly worked the casting couch full time, destroying careers. He allegedly barred one of the most successful female television writers and producers, Linda Bloodworth Thompson, from working for decades. Simply because she wrote strong women (Designing Women). Simply because she is a strong woman.
Even when Mary Pickford and Frances Marion (and their female colleagues like Anita Loos, Lois Weber, Adela Rogers St. John and so many other women who are forgotten now) were inventing Hollywood, side-by-side with their male colleagues, they were fighting powerful men. Still, in the years before Hollywood became international business, there were opportunities for these women. When an art form is being born, gender isn’t as important; imagination, passion, talent matter more. When there’s no money at stake, why not trust a woman to direct, to write, to produce? In the very early years of Hollywood, women were just as influential as men.
But as the 1910s turned into the 1920s and then the 1930s, something changed. By this time, studio heads weren’t creatives, they were businessmen, which meant, of course – no females allowed. The sole exception was our girl, Mary Pickford, who became the first female head of a major Hollywood motion picture studio when she, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, founded United Artists.
When art becomes business, money—money made, money lost—becomes more important than talent and creativity. And women simply did not have the same access to that money as men did. But what are you to do with the established female star who dares to assert her power, who wants to control her own career? By the 1920s, the studio heads had come up with the perfect solution: The morality clause.
Every actress and actor had to sign one, or else. This gave the studio control over every aspect of their lives, right down to who they could marry. It also gave the studio the right to cancel their contract on any suspicion of immoral behavior. Actresses, of course, suffered more than actors. After all, it’s in a leading man’s best interest to be seen with as many women as possible. He’s just being a man, a regular guy, a stud! But a woman who has an affair? Who dares to get pregnant? Her audience will never accept it. Neither will the studio.
Of course, many stars did live the lives they wanted, but they cooperated fully with the studios, allowed the fixers to hush things up, keep things out of the press, provide the occasional abortion. Which indebted these actresses further to the studio, ceding any notion of control over their careers to the studio heads. It was blackmail, pure and simple.
Do you know who didn’t have to sign any morality clause? The moguls, the Louis B. Mayers, Daryl Zanucks, Jack Warners. The men who literally had a casting couch in their offices. Who dangled those promised plum roles over the heads of luscious starlets who would never give them a second look outside of the industry. This is one way of keeping women in line. It became the main way of keeping women in line, so inbred that “casting couch” is synonymous with Hollywood today.
And when women are consistently viewed only as playthings, no matter how many movie tickets they sell, the true seats of power are denied them. By the mid-1930s, almost all of the female pioneers of Hollywood were out of the business. And they were replaced by men, almost exclusively.
And what is at first alarming and outrageous becomes, over the decades, the accepted norm. Even Shirley Temple wasn’t immune; she accused Arthur Freed, one of the most influential producers at MGM, of exposing himself to her when she was twelve. Once in a while, someone speaks up. Women say no.
And they are punished. Jean Peters rebuffed Louis B. Mayer’s advances, and married a powerful agent, Charles Feldman. Mayer retaliated by banning Feldman from the lot and not allowing any of his clients to work at his studio. Joan Collins says that she missed out on the lead in “Cleopatra” because she refused to sleep with the head of 20th Century Fox.
Mary Pickford and Frances Marion may have triumphed, but it was in an earlier era, an era before World War I put Hollywood on the international map, before sound changed everything and made the East Coast bankers—all male—look westward with big dollar signs in their eyes and bags of money in their hands. Before two world wars convinced these predominantly-male moviemakers that the only stories worth telling on screen were male stories—a fallacy that we still contend with today.
We can live vicariously through Mary and France’s moment of victory over petty, angry men, but it took place so long ago. Too long ago. Victories for women in the industry have been all too rare in the ensuing decades.
Until now. This moment.
The landscape seems to be changing. Slowly. What was accepted behavior is no longer tolerated. Actresses are paving the way once again and using their names and influence to shine the spotlight on the iniquities and crimes of the industry; it will take longer for female screenwriters, producers, and directors to regain their influence. Inroads are being made, though, even now; Patty Jenkins, Ava Duvernay, Reese Witherspoon, Diablo Cody, Amy Sherman-Palladino. These women make successful movies and television series. And attention is being paid.
Mira Sorvino, Ashley Judd, Eliza Dushku, Rose McGowan and so many more brave women—thank you. Thank you for your courage, your leadership, your willingness to share your pain. Thank you for allowing us to share in your moment of triumph as we see these men finally held accountable for their actions against women, and for giving us the hope that the future will be different.
Melanie Benjamin is the author of the New York Times and USA Today bestselling historical novels The Swans of Fifth Avenue, and The Aviator’s Wife. Her historical novel, The Girls in the Picture, is about the friendship and creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female legends—screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford. Her latest novel, Mistress of the Ritz, is a love story set in Nazi-occupied France about two key figures of the French Resistance. Her previous novels include ‘Alice I Have Been’ and ‘The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb’. Her novels have been featured in national magazines such as Good Housekeeping, People, and Entertainment Weekly, and optioned for film. She lives in Chicago with her husband, near her two adult sons. Check out her Author Website and follow her on Twitter.