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The Girls in the Picture


The Girls in the Picture

According to Academy Award-winning screenwriter Frances Marion, “Perhaps the simplest formula for a plot is: invent some colorful personalities, involve them in an apparently hopeless complication or predicament, then extricate them in a logical and dramatic way that brings them happiness.” And she should know. New York Times bestselling author Melanie Benjamin has taken careful notice of her subject’s recipe in her latest novel, THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE, about the long friendship and collaboration between silver screen star Mary Pickford and famed screenwriter Frances Marion.

Pickford (born Gladys Louise Smith) begins a career on the stage at a young age to help support her family after the death of her alcoholic father. Touring the country from coast to coast in lieu of a more traditional childhood gives Pickford the seasoned chops to take her career to the next level, which she does when she starts appearing in the “flickers,” the earliest version of movies. With her golden curls and angelic smile, she quickly becomes America’s Sweetheart and the queen of the fledgling movie business.

"In addition to being an engrossing and enlightening read, the book offers great comfort of the things women (or any dreamer) can accomplish if they first possess the desire to create and then the will to see it through."

At the age of 25 and with two failed marriages behind her, Marion (born Marion Benson Owens) moves from her native San Francisco down to Los Angeles, where this burgeoning business of “movies” is getting off the ground. It isn’t unusual to come across people filming in the streets, and happening upon such an event has a profound effect on young Marion: “[W]as it the dawning realization that I was watching people joyfully working together to create while the camera turned steadily, recording the result --- movies? Finally, I had seen them for myself… they did exist, after all. And they were doing something, something rare and wonderful, right here on this ordinary street I walked down every day.” And just like that, a Hollywood hopeful is born.

A chance encounter with Pickford’s husband, Owen Moore, leads to a meeting with Pickford herself, and the friendship between the two ambitious women blossoms. Through Mary’s encouragement, Frances starts writing little scenarios for Mary to reenact in her films, and a route toward a stellar career has begun. After the two attend a screening of D.W. Griffith’s revolutionary film, Birth of a Nation, they become even more galvanized in their chosen paths, especially young Marion: “I wanted to go back to that theater… I wanted to relive how it had felt to be both part of the audience gasping at something never before seen and part of the industry that created it; the pride, the astonishment. And the fever to create something like that myself.”

But those paths are not without strife and sacrifice. Pickford often laments to her friend that in choosing a career in the movies, the price they’ll pay may be dear: “I wonder if…if I’ll ever feel about any man the way I feel about my career, the movies. The passion I know, whatever passion I possess, I mean, in my heart --- it’s all caught up in this… Sometimes I wonder if I’m less of a woman because I love my work so much, because it’s all I want to talk about, think about. We’re not supposed to do that, are we? We women. We’re not supposed to love something more than we’re capable of loving a man…. Complicated. Isn’t it? Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything they do… But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

Between the two of them, there are seven marriages. But while in the throes of it, neither seems to mind the cost. Pickford proves herself masterful in handling the heads of the studios to garner what she wants. And in a time when the weekly salary for a woman is $10, she is earning over half a million dollars a year. And Marion is at the forefront of a select crop of female screenwriters, herself earning a salary around $50,000, and is the first to win two Academy Awards.

THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE vividly chronicles an exciting and not widely known era in Hollywood’s history. Decades before the #MeToo movement and stories of harassment that dominate the headlines these days, women were the power brokers in this nascent industry. They could call the shots and run their own shows. But much like their female counterparts today, these ladies quickly learned that there was a price to pay for so much power and freedom. In addition to being an engrossing and enlightening read, the book offers great comfort of the things women (or any dreamer) can accomplish if they first possess the desire to create and then the will to see it through.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 19, 2018

The Girls in the Picture
by Melanie Benjamin

  • Publication Date: January 22, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam
  • ISBN-10: 110188682X
  • ISBN-13: 9781101886823