March 28, 2003 -- "Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood" is an interesting documentary film about the role of women in early days of the Hollywood film industry. It reveals that women had real power as screenwriters, directors and producers before they had the right to vote in the U.S. It was only when men found out there was big money to be made in the film industry that the women were forced out and their power was diminished. Also included on the same videotape or DVD, the silent film classic "A Little Princess" starring Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts, screenplay adaptation written by Frances Marion.
The documentary centers on the life of screenwriter, director and actress Frances Marion. Born in San Francisco, she moved to Hollywood at an early age after a brief modeling career. She was also a talented artist and sculptor, but her first love was writing. From 1915 to 1939 she was one of the most powerful and wealthy talents in Hollywood, along with her best friend, international movie star Mary Pickford. Marion was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as the highest paid screenwriter in the world. She wrote 200 screenplays during that period, up to 50 per year. She won two academy awards (both for best screenplay, one for "The Champ," and the other for "The Big House"). At the time of her greatest influence, about half the directors and screenwriters in Hollywood were women.
Marion remained a power in Hollywood right up to the time when she helped to start the Screenwriter's Guild, and MGM retaliated by terminating her contract. Marion's story is told through vintage film clips, stills and interviews with surviving family, friends and employees who knew her, as well as interviews with current women directors, film historians, critic Leonard Maltin, and her biographer, Cari Beauchamp. Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates provides a narrative voice for Marion in the film (with words taken from Marion's letters, diaries and memoirs) and the rest of the narration is provided by Uma Thurman. The film is based on the book "Without Lying Down" by Cari Beauchamp, and the film is also co-written and produced by Beauchamp. The title refers to a quip by Marion: "I've spent my life searching for a man I could look up to without lying down."
The film provides a valuable feminist history of early Hollywood. It notes that during this same period, Mary Pickford became the first woman to direct a major Hollywood studio (she was one of the founders of United Artists). This is history that has been forgotten over the years. I also found it interesting that some 20,000 women served overseas during World War I. Marion volunteered in the war effort, as did Pickford. Pickford raised an incredible $5 million for the war effort in a single day! Marion and her film crew accompanied the Allied forces into Germany. She was the first woman to cross the Rhine with the Allied forces. This is a very informative documentary for anyone interested in the early days of movies, and for film historians in particular. It is also a particularly useful case study for those in academic women's studies and feminist studies programs or research in those areas. It is a side of history seldom told. An oddity: Hugh Hefner was the executive producer of this film, in association with the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
The stills and period film clips are of good quality. The narrative flow of the documentary holds together pretty well. Of particular interest is one scene in which we hear Marion's screenplay on the soundtrack as we watch the silent scene for which it was written on the screen. This scene, and the intricate directions given for it in the screenplay make a compelling argument that writing a screenplay for a silent film is much more difficult than writting a screenplay for a sound film. Another interesting scene shows some of Marion's fine paintings and sculptures that she created later in life. These show the incredible range and depth of her talent. This film rates a B.
Also on the same tape or DVD is a silent film written by Frances Marion and starring Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts, the delightful "A Little Princess," based on the famous story by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The film features a nice piano score by Jon Mirsalis. The print appears to be in good shape, with a few rough spots here and there. The transfer is excellent. The 1917 film does not appear to run too fast, and the motion is smooth. Pickford and Pitts provide compelling performances as poor, hungry workers in a London girl's school headed by a wicked headmistress. They dream of someday escaping their lot in life. The movie uses some double exposure ghost images to good effect, as well as a creative stop-motion animation scene. This is an enjoyable film. It rates a B.
Both films are in full-screen format. The documentary was probably made for TV, since it is 56 minutes long, while the silent film (62 minutes long) was originally created in the full-screen format. Films did not go wide screen until after the advent of television. The only extra on the DVD, besides scene selections, is a collection of stills.
This videotape or DVD is available from Milestone film and video (tel. 800-603-1104 or www.milestonefilms.com). Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.