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The Art of Screenwriting: Frances Marion

Entering the realm of writing can be a daunting journey for aspiring writers, as crafting a full-fledged script demands a level of skill and dedication that’s not easy to do. Crafting a captivating storyline, often with uncertain outcomes, necessitates significant time and effort. Thankfully, we can analyze and learn from plenty of greats, with Frances Marion being one of the pioneers.

Frances Marion's legacy is inseparable from Hollywood's history, spanning its early days as a pioneering industry to its illustrious Golden Age. By the late 1920s, she had established herself as a prominent figure in the film world, with her remarkable talent validated by back-to-back Oscar wins at the dawn of the 1930s.

However, despite her significant contributions and the respect she garnered among her peers, Marion's prominence waned as the studio system solidified its hold on Hollywood. Alongside many other remarkable women of early Hollywood, she was sidelined, her name fading from the limelight despite her enduring impact on the industry.

Photo credit: Little White Lies


Born in San Francisco, Frances Marion was a notable screenwriter of the 20th century and garnered respect across Hollywood for her exceptional talent. Initially involved in modeling, acting, and commercial art with moderate success, she ventured into journalism and served as a combat correspondent during World War I.

Upon moving to Los Angeles, Marion found her calling in the film industry when she joined director Lois Weber as an assistant. Under Weber's mentorship, she honed her skills and became a screenwriter.

Her breakthrough came when she caught the eye of Mary Pickford, leading to a fruitful collaboration and a lasting friendship. As Pickford's official screenwriter, Marion penned numerous iconic silent films and contributed to the success of many acclaimed pictures throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Her talent earned her two Oscars for her work on "The Big House" (1930) and "The Champ" (1931), while her scripts notably revitalized Marie Dressler's career and enriched Marion Davies's filmography. During her tenure at MGM, Marion enjoyed substantial creative freedom, but the decline of Irving Thalberg, MGM's creative head, in 1936 marked a shift in her influence.

In 1946, Marion bid farewell to Hollywood and redirected her focus towards plays and novels. She had been married to 1920s cowboy star Fred Thomson and later to director George W. Hill. Her legacy endured long after she died in 1973, cementing her status as one of the most respected figures in the annals of Hollywood history.

Prolific Writing

Part of what made Frances Marion’s career is how prolific of a writer she was. For example, Marion extended her influence through teaching, authoring a textbook titled "How to Write and Sell Film Stories." In interviews, she frequently offered insights into the evolution of screenwriting and the working conditions faced by writers in the industry.

During Hollywood's silent and early sound periods, Marion was acknowledged for contributing to over 130 produced films. Her works, often centered around strong female protagonists, celebrated women's strengths and captivated audiences with their storytelling prowess.

Prolific writing in the case of Marion is a reminder that cultivating a daily writing routine will empower you to hone the abilities necessary to complete a 90 to 120-page script within a few months. If the prospect of writing 500 words seems daunting, begin with a modest goal and maybe aim for three sentences daily.

The Wind and Writing Silent Films

From a technical standpoint, comparing Marion’s early work to our techniques today is challenging since many of these films were made around 100 years ago. One of my favorites from Marion is 1928’s "The Wind", which many regard as one of the best silent films of the 1920s.

The film is a peculiar, haunting, and magnificent piece of cinematic mastery. At its core lie themes of love, desire, insanity, and death. It exudes intensity and moodiness, blending genuine artistry with widespread appeal and influencing the psychological dramas we love today.

Like many writers, Marion utilized many themes from her own life in her writing. For example, many regard The Wind as an early feminist and women’s issues piece, specifically with its central character, Letty, played by Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish's performance is truly remarkable. Despite her escalating anxiety throughout the film, she never succumbs to the role of a helpless damsel. Instead, she portrays a character of strength, independence, and depth–a portrayal many credit to Frances Marion.

Although it’s unlikely you’ll be making a silent film yourself, many of these films from Marion laid the groundwork for nearly every style and genre of filmmaking in the 20th and 21st centuries. Moreover, the silent era was groundbreaking from a technical standpoint as well, in case you hope to direct it.

Best Frances Marion Films

Immersing oneself in his films is undoubtedly the most enriching way to glean insights from the filmmaker. For your enjoyment, I've curated a selection of Frances Marion’s films and their loglines. Dive into them and keep honing your writing skills to the best of your ability. There’s a lot to learn as writers, and these films are some early greats to examine.

A frail young woman from the East moves in with her cousin in the West, where she causes tension within the family and is slowly driven mad.

A convict falls in love with his new cellmate's sister, only to become embroiled in a planned break-out, which is sure to have lethal consequences.

Affluent Millicent and Oliver Jordan throw a dinner for a handful of wealthy and well-born acquaintances, each of whom has much to reveal.

Angela maintains a coastal lighthouse in Italy, where she awaits the return of her brothers from the war. She learns they are casualties and takes solace in the arms of an American sailor washed ashore.

A young woman reunites with her estranged father and falls in love with a sailor but struggles to tell them about her dark past.

Washed-up prizefighter and his adoring son struggle to survive in a rough and tumble world.


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