Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
THE GIRLS IN THE PICTURE
By Melanie Benjamin
448 pp. Delacorte Press.
Recent events have shown that it’s tough to be a woman in Hollywood. So it seems timely to come across a book about two remarkable women who helped shape the industry in its early days: Frances Marion and Mary Pickford.
If they aren’t familiar to you, it’s probably because you’re too young for the silent film era, but you better believe that these people were big names during their time. In her heyday, Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” and she’s considered the first major movie star of all time. Frances Marion is one of the most renowned screenwriters (originally called “scenarists”) of the century. At one point, she was also the most well-paid among her contemporaries. Both women – constant friends and colleagues, often collaborating on successful projects – worked their way to the top through a combination of talent, ambition, and sheer grit and perseverance.
However glamorous Hollywood may be today, it wasn’t always that way. In the early days, there were no fixed sets or soundstages – the “flickers” were shot out in the streets. “Actors” were looked down upon, and it was thought to be almost sacrilegious for theater artists to work in films. Actors weren’t even known by name, because title cards only showed the studio name.
Mary Pickford was one of the first “named” actresses. Born Gladys Smith, she learned the tricks and trades of the stage to be the sole breadwinner of her family. She would become known as “the girl with the curls” because of her famous blond curls. (Interesting trivia: she would wash it with champagne to lighten her hair to a perfect golden shade!)
Frances, who had moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco after two divorces, falls in love with the movie industry, and eventually meets Mary. They strike up an instant friendship, and soon Frances and Mary’s collaborations are the most successful films of their time – classics such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and The Poor Little Rich Girl. It’s wonderful to read about how they fought for control every step of the way – from butting heads with directors about creative vision, to getting studio executives to finance their projects.
“It occurred to me that we were always the only girls in the picture—or even the room.”
This biographical fiction is a slow burn of a novel, taking its time to build up the characters against the backdrop of the movie industry in the early decades of the 20th century. The Girls in the Picture is a story of two female trailblazers, but it’s also a fascinating look at a complex and complicated relationship between two strong women – a strange mixture of admiration, respect, insecurity, and mutual dependency. It’s most evident when they both fall in love – Frances with Fred Thomson, an Army soldier and minister; Mary with Douglas Fairbanks, a fellow actor. During World War I, Frances heads to the front lines to film the stories of women in the war, while Mary and Douglas are catapulted to Hollywood royalty status. (Fun fact: their celebrity portmanteau “Pickford” predates “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” by almost a century!) Though they end up spending an awkward joint honeymoon together after their marriages, Frances and Mary eventually drift apart.
As you learn the great tragedies of their lives, you are left to marvel at the sacrifices these women made in order to succeed – whether it was having a proper childhood, or raising a family, or having their own privacy. They were always the only girls in the picture, the only women calling the shots – at great cost. They rose to the top, only to fall from greater heights. It’s heartbreaking to read about how Mary eventually succumbed to depression and alcoholism after the failure of her marriage to Douglas, and the decline of her career upon the advent of “talkies”.
“An entire generation was now invading Hollywood; a generation that didn’t remember a time before Charlie Chaplin wiggled his nose onscreen. A generation that had no idea how far we’d come, how hard we’d worked to pave the way.”
In the end, The Girls in the Picture offers an enlightening and intimate portrait of the close friendship and creative partnership between two fascinating women.
The Girls in the Picture is now available at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]