“I spent my whole life searching for a man to look up to without lying down.”
That’s a pretty gutsy statement for any woman to make, but even more so, given the time it was said. It was the early 1900s, and this mantra was spoken by Frances Marion, Hollywood’s highest paid screenwriter at the time. Those words offer insight into this woman’s independent nature and savvy spirit.
Frances Marion and many other women began their careers on the east coast working for Thomas Edison Productions and other offshoot motion picture companies. In 1913, when Edison’s Trust was in full swing, many actors, screenwriters, directors and producers moved to the west coast. Their goal was to put 3,000 miles between them and the miser who was trying to monopolize the movie making industry.
Edison wasn’t really interested in the artistic angle of the business. He only wanted to sit back and collect royalties on the rental fees produced by his film and viewing apparatus. He had locked up the production end of the business by gaining patents to all things necessary to making movies — except the actors.
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Despite his stronghold on the business, it was a way for many to get their feet wet while working in Edison’s Black Maria (Ma-Riah), located on a dreary corner on the grounds of the Edison Laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey. A large number of this group of actors were women who had waded into these waters simply because it was a way to make a living.
During this time, immigrants and women were welcomed into the working world of the movie studio known as the Black Maria. The first motion picture studio was nothing more than a large, black, irregularly-shaped box covered with tar paper. It rotated on an oval track so that the retractable roof could catch the sun from different angles. One actor compared the dismal working environment to a large outhouse.
Women in the early days of Hollywood — working both behind and in front of the camera — had started their careers in this simple fashion, making short, silent films on the east coast in dark studios. When the movie business moved west to Hollywood, they followed. According to Cari Beauchamp, the Los Angeles-based author of [amazon_link id="0520214927" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Without Lying Down, Frances Marion and Other Powerful Women of Early Hollywood[/amazon_link], “California provided a better climate, diverse scenery and an opportunity to make money for men and women alike.”
Beauchamp’s book discusses how women supported each other during this transitional time. Most had been born in various locations across the United States and Canada, but had found themselves living in Los Angeles where it was definitely not a chauvinistic man’s world. Women had the same opportunities and earning power as their male counterparts.
Frances Marion, Lois Weber, Mary Pickford, Adela Rogers St. John, Anita Loos, and others formed a lasting bond and rose through the ranks, many times standing on one another’s shoulders to rise in their careers and crying on them at other times of professional and private crisis. Whence comes Marion’s immortal words, “I have been searching my whole life for a man to look up to without lying down.” She relied on her talent, tenacity and female friends for the most part. The old-girl network served to sustain and promote one another.
In a few short years, Frances Marion and another strong, self-sufficient Hollywood woman would have something and someone in common. Gloria Swanson was a silent film star and because of her diminutive stature, just five feet tall, she literally did look up to most men. But there was one man in particular who she looked up to both lying down and standing up. His name was Joseph P. Kennedy, a banker from Boston. In Cari Beauchamp’s book, [amazon_link id="B005ZOELYM" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Joseph P. Kennedy Presents[/amazon_link], she shines a light on the years he brought his dark side to Hollywood.
According to Beauchamp, “I was formerly a private investigator, and that helped me dig up facts.” Newly accessible archives have opened up some of Kennedy’s correspondence written during his years in Hollywood, 1926 to 1930. Letters annotated by his granddaughter, Amanda Smith, describe his life during those years. His papers deeded to Kennedy Library at Harvard University in 1995 also give evidence to another side of the man who would become known more for his political prowess and Wall Street successes.
Money was being made in Hollywood, and Joseph P. Kennedy was willing to buy his way into town. He purchased a movie studio and positioned himself as president, bringing with him the business mind and genteel manners of someone from the east. Betty Lasky, daughter of movie producer, Jesse Lasky, said “Kennedy was the first outsider to fleece Hollywood.”
Since the breakup of the Edison Trust in 1916, hundreds of small film companies shot up, mostly in California. At this time, no one was taking the movie industry seriously. Things were there for the taking, and Kennedy had his hand out on a daily basis ready to do so by wiping out entire studios, slashing jobs and devastating careers.
One of the first in a series of fatalities caused by Joseph P. Kennedy was that of the career of Fred Thomson, possibly the first and only man Frances Marion ever looked up to.
At this time, Frances Marion was on top, literally. Her career was at its pinnacle. Her husband and his horse were box-office draws. Frances was writing and producing most of these low-budget westerns and wanted her husband to have his own career, not one attached to hers. Always able to sniff out a softy, Kennedy arranged a meeting in New York where he offered Fred Thomson a personal deal. One that would cost Thomson his career and shortly thereafter, his life.
The good old boys network, headed by Kennedy and four friends dubbed the gang, had a mission: to make millions and not bother to look back. They set up shop on 14 acres of back lots on the corner of Gower and Melrose. This is where Fred Thomson became a star, earning $15,000 a week before Kennedy and his clones pulled the rug out from under him.
In 1927, Thomson was such a money-maker that United Artists asked him to join them, but he liked his arrangement with Kennedy and didn’t want to switch studios. And besides, he’d been promised total creative control and a lucrative contract. Little did he know that Kennedy was working behind the scenes with another studio to produce what he termed as “a new standard in the field of westerns,” a field that did not include Fred Thomson.
Tom Mix would become Kennedy’s new cash cow. Unable to work because of his legal entanglement with the old Kennedy contract, Fred Thomson lost his will to live and died six months later on Christmas Day, 1928. According to Beauchamp, “Frances Marion hated Kennedy.” And so his first fatality had left a woman to raise two sons alone after losing the love of her life.
Now for the other fatality orchestrated by Kennedy. No death was involved, but the result was a devastation of a woman’s life personally, professionally and financially. Known as “Kennedy’s Client,” Gloria Swanson was also his mistress, trusting him to control her career and finances. At the time, Kennedy controlled Pathe’ and would soon control its biggest star.
Gloria Productions was a company formed by Kennedy and Swanson that furthered their financial, professional and personal involvement. Seeing dollar signs in Swanson’s exotic eyes, Kennedy decided she would be perfect as the heroine in his newest endeavor, Queen Kelly, a silent film directed by Erich Von Stroheim. Partly due to Kennedy’s artistic meddling and bad script, it was a flop.
Since Kennedy had control over all of the money earned and spent by Gloria Productions, Swanson rarely looked at the books. But when she did, her eyes were opened. Apparently, all of the gifts Kennedy had given to Swanson throughout their relationship were billed to Gloria Productions. This included homes, fur coats, cars and jewelry — all presents thought to have been personally paid for by Kennedy.
Even the millions of dollars of debt incurred by failed films were billed to the company, leaving Swanson responsible for all of it. When she confronted her lover and business partner, he stormed off. In a week’s time, Kennedy had left town and curtailed all participation in filmmaking by sending out a notice that read, “Gloria Productions, Inc. announces Mr. Kennedy’s retirement from the active management of that company.” Gloria Swanson never fully recovered financially or professionally from this blow.
In both of her books, Cari Beauchamp has pointed out how strong women can be when they rely on their strength, and how vulnerable they can be when the right — or many times wrong — man steps into their limelight. Frances Marion and Gloria Swanson were both successful before and continued to be so, even in the wake of Kennedy’s financial and personal wreckage. Only now both of their perspectives had been forced to change. They realized that if you’re going to take a chance and look up to a man, you better make sure he’s worth a second look.
In 1997, a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, focusing on women in film entitled “Frances Marion and Her Circle” featured more than 60 films written by women between 1912 and 1939. It showcased this strong group who according to Beauchamp, “were welcomed and in many cases nurtured in a collaborative setting.” Women were producers, directors, editors and writers flourishing during this time.
Commenting on this showing, Beauchamp said, “Only now, more than fifty years later, are women once again present in meaningful numbers at every level of film production, the distant heirs to the first pioneering wave of Hollywood women whose work was resurrected on the screen in ‘Frances Marion and her Circle.'” By chronicling these careers, Beauchamp says, “I feel like a small link in the chain of women’s history.”
On March 11, 2009, another star shone bright at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City when Gloria Swanson was seen in The Trespasser. It was the first time the movie had been shown since its premiere in 1929. The showing followed the release of Beauchamp’s book, Joseph P. Kennedy Presents. Ironically, the movie tells the story of a woman taken advantage of by a wealthy man.
Art does imitate life. And thanks to the lives of all of these women of early Hollywood, we’re left with a wonderful legacy of strength and survival.
More Reading: Check out Jane Boursaw’s 2006 story, Film Fatales, in Moviemaker Magazine.