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Ben Smith on "The Long Way Round to a Frances Marion Kickstarter"

Frances MarionI’m a huge Howard Hawks fan.

It’s my project to see every film he ever made - and without splurging box-set style, but instead to eke them out across the decades. I go for a new one every few years, as I'm in no rush to deny myself future pleasure. So it should come as no surprise that, a couple of years ago, I was filling in time by reading Todd McCarthy’s excellent biography of the man, Hollywood’s Grey Fox. From it, I learnt that Hawks had been part of Douglas Fairbanks' circle of energetic young men.

So then I searched out a Fairbanks biography, which was pretty remarkable, and then that led me to my first encounter with Frances Marion, named as one of his screenwriters and a close confidant of Mary Pickford.

Naturally, I then happened upon another book in a remainders shop, Joseph P Kennedy’s Hollywood Years, about JFK’s father - a banker, film producer, US ambassador and Nazi sympathiser. It contained an incredible story about Frances Marion and her husband’s ill-treatment at Kennedy’s hands. So I then picked up that author's other biography, this one about Frances Marion. Without Lying Down is so called because Marion spent her whole life looking for a man she “could look up to without lying down”.

I was completely sold on her. 

Frances Marion was silent Hollywood’s pre-eminent and highest paid screenwriter, worked with many of the era’s leading stars, was a collaborator of Irving Thalberg and was the lead author for 1920s MGM. She even made the transition to the sound era, winning two Academy Awards in a row, one for a prison movie, the other for a boxing picture.

I have a degree in film studies and had somehow never heard of Marion before this random chain of bookish events. Something was clearly amiss, and my shallow knowledge of silent film clearly needed considerable work to get up to scratch.

Of the many remarkable details of Frances Marion’s life and career, the one that really stopped me in my tracks was the fact that, in 1925, Marion had published a 'Hollywood Novel' – about the rise and fall of a movie star, the eponymous Minnie Flynn. As a Golden Age movie fan and reader, I had assumed that I had already read the canonical first Hollywood novels: Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished Last Tycoon and Pat Hobby stories, Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust... But here was a novel published more than a decade earlier.

There was only one thing to do: try to get a hold of a copy.

...which was easier said than done, Minnie Flynn had only one edition and the prices for it were in the hundreds of dollars (and it was all dollars). I was stuck. So I started researching other books from the era, and found that there were a clutch of novels from the period - some as early as the late teens. Unlike Minnie Flynn, some could even found had for tens, not hundreds, of pounds. That led to me the delights of Merton of the Movies, 365 Nights in Hollywood, Souls for Sale and then to the British Library... my list of early Hollywood novels grew and grew.

Meanwhile, a single, solitary, ex-library copy of Minnie Flynn had appeared for sale online just within my price range (mostly), so I pounced. A couple of weeks later, my package finally arrived. Bibliophiles know all about the power of smell; the rich scent of history and the lingering sense-memory of past readers. In my case, book that slipped out of the bubble wrap stank. It reeked to high heaven of cigarette smoke, as if decades of smokers had hung out at the library placing their ashtray on its open pages.

Undeterred I read on in astonishment, discovering that this was not simply any Hollywood Novel. Rather, Minnie Flynn chronicled the early days of movie-making in the United States, which were based in New York and New Jersey. Marion painted a portrait of her uneducated protagonist, practically stumbling into the infant industry. She's caught up in its gears thanks to her beauty, and in no small part, her own cupidity. Marion, despite being a native Californian, had got her break in the New York film world and depicted it from the inside – a setting unrepeated in fiction of the time, or indeed since. The novel then moves, as the film industry did, to Hollywood, where the recognisable lineaments of the business we are familiar with come to the fore.

It many ways the book shared the themes of the definitive Jazz Age novel, The Great Gatsby - Fitzgerald’s masterpiece which was published barely three months after Minnie Flynn, depicting an America where class boundaries were being shattered. Marion’s novel, however, shares much with her screenplays and inhabits the leading genre of the time - melodrama.

Even before I had closed the covers I wanted to find a way to raise the profile of Minnie Flynn and the Kickstarter I have now launched is the result. Thanks in no small part to Cari Bauchamp’s biography and ongoing research, Marion’s work is again finding its profile on the rise. Stella Dallas, which many scholars and film buffs regard as her masterpiece, is frequently revived, and her contribution to the movies and the medium’s development is being recognised.

Hopefully, this new edition of Minnie Flynn will play a small part in contributing to this. And what’s more, none of these new editions will come with the smell of nicotine.

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The Kickstarter for Frances Marion's Minnie Flynn is live now. [I backed it! - Jared]

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