Mary Pickford and Frances Marion

Bringing back Frances Marion’s lost novel Minnie Flynn

This is a guest post for Silent London by Ben Smith.

When Kevin Brownlow was in LA in the 1960s, interviewing cinema veterans for his unrivalled history of the Hollywood silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, there was one important figure who declined to be interviewed, Frances Marion. Brownlow admits he would have pursued her much more vigorously if he had only known then what he does now. At that time Marion was writing her memoir, Off With Their Heads!

Marion wrote some of the silent era’s biggest hits, among them screenplays for Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Early on she established an extremely successful working relationship with Irving Thalberg, and became MGM’s premier screenwriter. She found love with a former Presbyterian Minister, Fred Thomson, and helped build his career as an actor who starred in 24 westerns. Thomson’s fame in 1927 was second only that of Tom Mix, but his stardom was cut short by a contract wrangle with the banker and film financier Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s father and a man who both simultaneously swindled and reformed the studios).

Fred Thomson’s death in 1928 – variously recorded as the result of tetanus, gallstone surgery and tuberculous – left Frances Marion a bereft widow and the single parent of two children. Marion, was more than stoic in her refusal to be held back by tragedy and continued to stay at the front of her craft, being the first woman to get a solo screenwriting academy award for The Big House (1930) and another for The Champ (1931).

Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), which was written by Frances Marion

In 1925, the year that F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, Marion published her debut novel Minnie Flynn, the story of an uneducated working class girl who gets a break in the New York movie world before finding fame and fortune in Hollywood. Like Gatsby it was a story about new money, unfettered morals and collapsing class boundaries. Unlike Gatsby it wore its debt to melodrama on its sleeve. This unusual book, unique among the quietly burgeoning genre of the Hollywood novel for depicting the New York/New Jersey film industry, has been forgotten by history.

Published in 1925, it slipped out of print, never to emerge again, apart from a curiously revised edition entitled The Passions of Linda Lane in 1946, one among a number of cheap paperbacks with lurid covers seeking to capitalise on Hollywood’s never ending reputation for sleaze and cheap thrills. The character of Minnie Flynn is not only uneducated but ignorant of her own needs and abilities –  responding only to her ambition and desire for success. Marion worked into her narrative many portraits of contemporaries, lifting much of Pickford’s family dynamics in the transfer of the Flynn clan, and a ne’er-do-well brother, from Midtown Manhattan to Hollywood.  As Minnie moves from extra-girl to star, the embers of ego-mania fanned along the way, Marion captures the period as only a firsthand eyewitness could.

1931-the-champ
Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper in The Champ (1931), written by Frances Marion

In 1998 Cari Beauchamp’s biography of Frances Marion, Without Lying Down revealed a fascinating tale of opportunity, ambition, talent and a gift for collaboration that characterised the life of a screenwriter with 188 screen credits. It showed Marion and her peers redefining personal morality; shedding 19th-century mores to marry multiple times, pursue decades-long professional careers and expanding the possibilities and achievements of the newest art form.

As Frances Marion’s reputation continues to grow, and her films find new audiences it would be fantastic to ensure that her Hollywood fiction finds it own place in our burgeoning understanding.

MINNIE FLYNN 3d book

Original copies of Minnie Flynn change hands for hundreds of dollars, but with this Kickstarter I intend to produce an affordable new edition, limited in number but available globally, in order to provoke further interest in this significant historical work. The book costs just £20 with free postage and packing, and we need only 35 people to back the Kickstarter for it to be successful.

Ninety years on it is time to give Minnie Flynn another chance to see the sun and find its readership.

Ben Smith

 

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