Frances by Pam Munter

Frances Marion, screenwriting powerhouse of Hollywood's golden age, longs for intimacy with her self-destructive superstar friend Mary Pickford; by Pam Munter.

The irony didn't escape Frances that though she was the premier screenwriter of her time she couldn't find the right words to describe how she felt about Mary. Or why.

It didn't seem like that many years ago. World War I was raging but Hollywood was thriving, existing in a cocoon. Frances had come to the editing room at Biograph and found Mary alone. She was startled when Mary turned around, her petite frame dominated by her big blue eyes and long, curly blonde hair. "I know we're going to be best friends," Mary had said within minutes of their meeting. "I don't have many friends," she had confided. "No time."

Frances knew it had to be more than that. Mary was an international icon, untouchable, unreachable some would say. And the most powerful woman in the industry. That was more likely the issue. "I would like to be your friend," Frances echoed, carefully. She felt an unfamiliar jolt come and go from within, like a blast of hot air. It wasn't at all unpleasant but surprised her with its intensity.

Now, some 15 years later, Frances looked forward to seeing Mary again, even though she was unsure what she would find in that house tonight. She remembered a time when there was no ambivalence or anxiety about her dinners there. They were fun, lively events full of lawn games, alcohol and opium. She was amused that Hollywood's highest paid stars would find it hilarious to shoot home movies of each other, each trying to outdo the other with outrageousness. It was about making each other laugh and it wasn't hard to do. Someone would always be thrown into the huge pool in their evening clothes or go down the slide backwards.

That night, Frances had invited Bill, her fourth husband, to go with her. But it had been a half-hearted gesture on her part.

"It'll just be another night of drinking," he said, his face stern.

"Since when has that bothered you?" She gestured to the wet bar that dominated the east wall of their spacious, well-appointed Hancock Park living room. So much unfinished business between them. All those times Bill would disappear into the night, returning a day or two later without explanation or apology. In spite of her best efforts, she had married another alcoholic. How had this happened again?

"You know what I mean. This whole town is drowning in booze."

Frances knew he was right. Prohibition hadn't affected the community at all, it seemed to her. And now that it was gone, the use of all chemicals, illegal and legal, ramped up right on schedule.

"You're not worried about driving in Beverly Hills, huh?"

"No. The studio is taking care of the ticket. They always do." She knew she could trust the power of MGM's publicity honcho Howard Strickling to handle any difficulties with the law, no matter how severe. Even director Busby Berkeley's running down that poor, elderly woman on the sidewalk when he was drunk was finessed by the studio. Frances wasn't worried about her own intake, anyway. That wasn't her poison. In fact, she knew she would confront her much more forbidden addiction that very night.

"What will you do while I'm gone?" she asked even though she knew his response would be a lie. His latest girlfriend was probably eagerly waiting down the block, watching for Frances to leave.

"Oh, I dunno. Probably just listen to the radio and look through magazines. I might go to bed early."

Looking over at his stooped frame, she wondered why she had married Bill after knowing him such a short time. He wasn't smart, their sex was a cruel joke, and the more she thought about it, she didn't like him much personally, either. There must be a reason she had gone through four husbands, each impotent in his own way - perverse, inept, clumsy or drunk. She wasn't sure what it was but now and again, inklings of possibilities caused her too much discomfort to pursue the thoughts any further.

It had been at least a decade since Frances had been invited to Pickfair, the Beverly Hills home of iconic silent movie stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. There hadn't been a falling out, not really, but the distance between Frances and Mary had seemed to grow imperceptibly over the years. Hollywood itself had gone through cataclysmic transitions. Just five years ago, silent movies had abruptly given way to the talkies. Major studios had morphed into rapacious whales, gobbling up all the smaller fish. Even Mary's United Artists had experienced pressure from the biggies. And poor little Mary. She was a casualty, too. She had quit the movies. Or did they quit her? Frances' screenwriting career had taken off and she was now the highest paid in the business. Is that what happened?

Frances eased herself into her newly waxed burgundy Auburn Phaeton convertible. It had taken most of her screenwriter's salary from "The Champ" to pay for it. For her, the car wasn't just a Hollywood status symbol but a reflection of her conspicuous success in the industry. It made her feel almost invincible. She turned the key in the ignition and the roar of the engine revved her thoughts back to that first day, the morning she met Mary so many years earlier. Frances was looking for a job as an artist, hoping to create portraits of Mary for movie posters. Instead, she was surprised and a little thrilled at how quickly their friendship had happened. They were almost combustible together - thoughts, ideas, shared experiences sparking the air almost from the start.

Frances drove down the darkened and nearly deserted Sunset Boulevard toward Pickfair, keeping an eye out for any motorcycle cops who might be looking for her car. There had been enough "episodes" that they likely were on the lookout for her. For just an instant, she thought about returning home and ambushing Bill, but thought better of it. It might be fun, she mused, but she really didn't care. She knew this marriage, like the last, would be over soon. She would divorce him and move on, as she always did.

As she checked her lipstick in the mirror, she realized that it had been so long since they'd been in touch that Mary didn't even know about the last two husbands. Well, Mary knew about the first one because they'd talked about their love lives over drinks one night at the Sunset Inn. The drinks just kept coming that night and before she knew it, Mary had told Frances about her hardscrabble childhood on the road while playing burlesque houses, something she never told anyone. Maybe it was the highballs, or perhaps being touched by the trust, but it made Frances cry. Mary got up from the table and walked around to comfort her, caressing her back ever so gently. When they stood up to leave, the long, tight hug elicited that same, now familiar tsunami, etched in her emotional memory bank and nurtured all these years. She was afraid to want more, wondering what it all meant. But after that evening, Frances was more careful about the extent of her alcohol intake around Mary.

The last time she saw Mary she was still "America's Sweetheart," with her screen swashbuckler husband Douglas Fairbanks, ceremoniously placing their hands and feet in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theater. Flashbulbs popping and fans screaming, everyone wanting to touch Mary. Could that be five years ago, she wondered? With the size of the crowd and the reporters, Frances couldn't find a way to maneuver herself close to Mary. Even gossip maven Louella Parsons had trouble getting a quick interview for her radio show with the world famous stars. After a while, Frances gave it up, settling for an enthusiastic wave to Mary from across the expansive forecourt.

In the rearview mirror, Frances saw the flashing red lights closing in on her car. Shit. She didn't think she had been going that much over the speed limit, but she pulled over anyway, and cranked open the window.

"Oh, it's you, Miss Marion."

"Hello, officer. What can I do for you?"

"Have you been drinking?"

"Not yet."

"You were going mighty fast back there."

"I'm on my way to dinner with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Wouldn't you be in a hurry, too?"

He stared at her for a minute, probably not used to hearing those names as a defense for speeding. Frances remembered a conversation with Joan Crawfish in the commissary a few days earlier. Joan had been stopped by this same Beverly Hills cop more than once and got out of the tickets by spending a few minutes with him in his back seat. Frances suspected Joan didn't need much encouragement for this kind of behavior. She was getting a reputation, undoubtedly contributing to her rise at MGM. Frances hoped she wouldn't have to do that with this guy. She was coming to think of men as sexual marauders, anyway. Though she had made her mark in Hollywood without lying down, it wasn't because those studio bosses hadn't tried. She might have gone for Thalberg but he never came on to her, much to her disappointment. He had settled for that cross-eyed Norma Shearer. Tonight, her thoughts didn't linger on all that. Her mind and body were poised for the trip up the hill. She wasn't ready to admit to herself what she wanted from Mary but she knew it had nothing to do with this galoot cop.

"OK, Miss Marion. But you be careful tonight."

"I will, officer."

She put the window back up, took a deep, relieved breath and continued up Beverly Drive to Summit. She was glad she hadn't reached for her flask along the way. She knew there'd be plenty of booze once she arrived. Mary would see to that.

At the stop light, she decided not to tell Mary about all the times she screened the movies they made together for her friends and her husbands. Or the times she watched them alone when Bill was out.

That day of their first meeting, Mary's physical presence and charisma were so riveting that Frances couldn't break her gaze. There was something in her manner, too, that was vaguely seductive - the sideways glances, the sly smiles, the gentle touch on the shoulder. She dismissed it, knowing Mary was not only married but having a secret and salacious affair with Douglas, whom she later married. She was glad Mary felt she could confide in her about that. It had only brought them closer. Maybe Mary was, well, flirtatious with everyone, not just her. It was just her imagination, she thought. But still. That feeling.

Frances often reassured herself that she wasn't "that way" and knew Mary wasn't, either. And yet, every once in a while, when they were together having drinks, Frances would have to fight off those thoughts, those intrusive and unwelcome pictures in her mind. Before they were vanquished, though, she took comfort in the certain knowledge Mary wouldn't be brutish or thoughtless and would always take her pleasure into account. Of course, Mary would have to make the first move. But she was unwilling to linger on those daydreams for long. They made her nervous. It just wasn't right. Was it?

She turned right on Beverly Drive and headed up the hill. She had made that drive a hundred times but tonight she couldn't help but grin, remembering that wonderful day on the set when she and Mary had staged a revolution against that autocratic director, Maurice Tourneur. They'd become almost a single unit in moviemaking, Frances writing the screenplays and Mary in her customary starring role. But they were both tired of the goody-two-shoes character Mary's public seemed to demand. One day on the set, she took Mary aside before the filming began.

"I think we need to have a little fun here, Sweetie. It's so stodgy. Same old stuff. We're shooting the hurricane scene today, right?"

Mary looked at her, eagerly awaiting her friend's idea and nodded. They had always loved laughing together.

"Now, when Frenchy says 'Roll 'em,' you trip over the furniture and..."

Mary joined in immediately. "...And then I'll bump into Hobart, knocking him over."

"Then," Frances said, "you are so surprised you fall backwards on to the couch and knock it over."

"I'll fall ungracefully to the floor then watch everyone's reaction." Mary leaned in closer to Frances to share the next part of the plot.

"And just when they think it's over, we'll have Hobart get up and pour a bucket of that hurricane on me."

They could hardly contain their anticipatory glee.

As soon as the camera was rolling, she pulled her prank. Frances watched behind the camera with her hands over her mouth as the cast and crew stifled gasps and laughter in equal amounts. This was not the self-contained, pure and innocent Mary they were used to seeing. The director was not at all amused. He bellowed out, "Cut! Cut! Cut! This is not in the script! You ladies are horrible. We need to get to work here. No more games, please."

By now everyone was cracking up and it took more than an hour to return to the serious business of making movies. With the towel wrapped over her dripping curls, Mary threw her arms around Frances in triumph. There was that electric jolt again.

Yes, they had been a team, all right.

She maneuvered her car up the long, winding driveway, the house lit up like one of Mary's movie sets. Why hadn't she seen or talked to Mary in so long? Hardly a day went by that Frances didn't think about her, wondering what she was doing and with whom. There had been that disagreement when Frances wasn't included in that big United Artists deal but that was so many years ago. And truthfully, Frances wasn't fond of Douglas from the start. Did Mary sense that? He was a brash show-off, a little boy, she thought, and not nearly good enough for Mary. But then who was?

She already knew the answer to that, in spite of her best attempts to distract herself. It was a truth that had haunted her for many years, through four husbands and nearly twenty pictures with Mary.

She wondered why all this was skipping around in her brain tonight. Was it just because she hadn't seen Mary in so long? What did she want to have happen tonight, anyway? Nothing, nothing, she reassured herself, grabbing the rim of the steering wheel more securely. Everything will be just fine. A lovely dinner with old friends, that's all.

She left her car with a tall black valet and, stepping out into the night, felt engulfed by the sweet scent of jasmine. The oversized carved wooden door at the entrance swung open to reveal a formally dressed butler. She remembered him from all those years before. Morrison was his name. He must be close to seventy now. She admired how loyal Mary was to her employees, if not to her husbands.

"Come in please, Miss Marion. We're so happy you're here tonight. Miss Pickford has been looking forward to your arrival."

"Thank you, Morrison. I'm very glad to be here."

"Let me take your coat. It's chilly tonight, isn't it?"

It won't be for long, she thought.

"Congratulations on your Academy Award, Miss Marion. I enjoyed seeing 'The Champ.' Very touching."

She smiled. She was used to such accolades. Even so, they made her feel special. Largely thanks to her work with Mary, she was admired as a brilliant screenwriter, a skill that would inevitably outlast beauty in the fickle Hollywood milieu.

"Thank you. That's very kind of you."

She stepped inside the ornately decorated foyer, full of cut flowers and Greek statuary. In the distance, she could hear the sounds of a string quartet.

Pickfair was just as she remembered it. It seemed that nothing had changed, right down to the intricate imported doilies on the arms of the couches. The rooms were still too commodious for human habitation, the overstuffed chairs almost comically dwarfing their guests. The living room, if it could be called that, could have accommodated a hundred or more people. There was nothing cozy or intimate about this place. She looked through the big windows toward the bright lights of the streets in the distance, and it felt as if she had stepped into a time capsule from 1917, some 15 years earlier. All the furniture was in the same places, an ornate ashtray dominating the center of each table, placed just so. Even the slipcovers looked to be the same pattern and color. She wondered what else had remained the same.

Frances scanned the room for Mary but didn't see her among the buzzing crowd. In fact, she had a hard time recognizing most of the 30 or so guests, milling about with drinks in hand. Off to her far left she could see part of the massive dining room, which she knew would be perfectly set. She hesitated for only a moment, then scooted unobtrusively down the long corridor. Scanning the room to the left and then to the right, she circled the massive dining room table, checking the place cards. There was an unfamiliar name to the right of Mary's card. She quickly found her own a few places down and switched the cards, giggling just a little. She knew Mary would appreciate her sleight-of-hand and gesture of affection. Entering the living room again, Frances saw a young woman approach.

"How do you do? You're Frances Marion, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am. And you're -?"

"I'm Peg Entwistle. Oh, Miss Marion. I'm so honored to meet you. I have to ask. Doug thought you wouldn't mind. Would you write a screenplay for me like you did for Miss Pickford? You made her famous. I really need a job."

"It doesn't work that way, Miss Entwistle. You need to be under contract to a studio. And, please. I didn't make Miss Pickford famous, my dear. That was what she did for herself - with talent." She knew she had to pull away from this desperate, naive woman. How did she get invited to Pickfair, anyway? Not like the old days. Not by far.

"If you'll excuse me..." A slight smile crept across her face as she turned away to see the four overstuffed chairs next to the glass doors where Harold Lloyd would perform card tricks for the guests before pulling out his Ouija board. Those were such good times. Moving closer to the center of the room, she gazed up at the portrait of Mary over the mantel that still seemed to dominate the room. It had been painted when she was at the peak of her fame. She was breathtaking.

She felt an arm on her shoulder and turned to see it was Doug.

"Hi ho, dear Frances. You look lovely tonight. How are you?"

"Hello, Douglas. I'm doing fine, thanks. And you?" She never really knew what to say to him. It was common knowledge that he was screwing every young thing on the lot. All those nights with Chaplin and the young girls. Mary always knew about the others but she didn't seem to care. But it made Frances lose all respect for Doug, if she had any in the first place.

"Mary will be down in a few minutes. She's been getting ready for hours." His voice dropped into a hoarse whisper. "She's been drinking heavily, you know."

Frances felt her spirits drain but she wasn't surprised at his comment. Doug never approved of Mary's drinking, even in the old days. "The body is a temple," he would intone whenever anyone would listen. She thought about Bill back at the house and what he had said about the town drowning in booze. She hated it when he was right about anything.

"Oh. I didn't know."

"Yeah. Yeah," he repeated, absent-mindedly. "Sometimes I think these parties are just an excuse."

Frances was growing more uncomfortable with this conversation. She thought him cruel and quite inappropriate.

"I'm sorry," was all she could think of to say. She grabbed a drink off the silver tray proferred by an unsmiling, uniformed maid. At that point, she didn't care what it contained. This wasn't starting off well. She hoped it hadn't been a mistake. She moved to the bottom of the staircase and was tempted to sit down, lost in reverie, but didn't want to wrinkle the special electric blue gown she had selected for this night. Why had Mary invited her now, tonight, after all these years? Could it be that she was going to flash that coy little grin and tell her the marriage to Doug was over? Is this the night that she would invite her upstairs and...

An abrupt raucous noise cut through the chatter and all eyes turned to the top of the stairs. The room fell silent. Frances looked up to see Mary, steadying herself against the dark wooden railing. With the floor-length puffy-sleeved yellow dress doused with beads and feathers, she looked as if she were headed to the junior prom - in 1910. But that wasn't the worst of it. When she squinted to get a clearer look, even from this distance Frances could tell those eyes that always caused such a flurry in her were blurry and a little sunken. The makeup was artfully applied as always but her face looked as if it had melted.

"You there!" Bracing herself against Mary's uncharacteristically strident call, Frances could sense the room around her battening down. "Frances! Is that you?"

Frances carefully modulated her tone in response, trying not to sound either eager or alarmed. "Hello, Mary. Yes, it's me."

"Frances?" She repeated, a little louder. There was a collective intake of air in the room. Frances could feel all eyes on her, everyone studying her, as if she might be held responsible for what was to come.

"Come on down, Sweetie," she said, smiling, encouraging her with a forced lightness. Frances could always buoy up Mary when she was feeling depressed or angry, almost as if she could reach inside her and toggle a switch. She started up the stairs to greet her, hope in her eyes.

"Noooo. You stay down there, right where you are." Mary gestured with her flapping left arm. What's going on? What's wrong? Where was her Mary?

"Frances!" she bleated again. "Why the hell did you write that script for Mary Miles Minter?"

No one moved.

It took her a minute to understand what she was talking about. She tried to squelch her rising anxiety in a sea of reassuring appeasement. "Mary, dear. That was years ago."

"How could you write for that slut? And she killed Taylor!"

Frances knew Mary was referring to the still unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Minter had been one of the last to see him alive. Her career had fallen into the abyss from the scandal and the subsequent loose talk. Mary and Frances had gossiped about it at the time but that story was passé and not meant to be polite dinner conversation. Why was she bringing this up now? And why was she so angry at her?

Frances' tone grew more pleading. She reached out her hand upward in supplication. "Mary, please. Come down to dinner." She still hoped to salvage this spectacle somehow, even without help from anyone in the hauntingly silent room. Frances was riveted on Mary up there on the staircase, seemingly unreachable. She wanted so much to help but could not will herself to disobey Mary.

She watched the drama unfold in slow motion as Mary unsteadily struggled to make her way down the lengthy marble staircase. Why didn't Doug go up there and help her? How she hated him at that moment.

Halfway down, Mary stopped and fixed her eyes again. "Frances. Why did you do that to me? That bitch was fucking my husband."

Her mind raced, trying to think of something to say, something to make this better, anything to make Mary love her again. Had Mary ever really loved Frances? In that instant, she knew she had to take a chance.

"Sweetie, please don't be angry with me. I would never do anything to hurt you. I love you. I always have." Astonished by what had just escaped from her lips, she so very much hoped Mary would hear her, take her in, treasure her words like a sweet caress. She looked up at Mary, waiting for a response. Any response. When her words of vulnerability were met with thundering silence, she watched herself stepping back and shutting down, trying to protect herself by envisioning this as a two-shot in a film, where the famous writer is rebuffed by the fading movie star. In her wildest dreams, though, she would never have written this ending.

Her gaze sank from Mary's waxy face to the floor. She knew nothing could make this right or send her back to that splendid, simple time when she loved Mary unconditionally, wanted her in some forbidden, unspoken way. She felt lightheaded.

Breaking through the tableau of frozen guests, Frances turned and moved quickly toward the anteroom to find Morrison standing there without expression, her coat in his hands.

"I'm sorry, Miss Marion."

She kept her eyes on the floor, reached for the coat from his outstretched hands and walked out the opened door where her car was waiting for her. The encounter had been like a choreographed dance, everyone familiar with its dramatic arc except the Academy Award winning writer who was left without words, the past muddled, her future uncertain.

1 comment:

  1. Another Hollywood fantasy comes crashing down. A good human interest story with a believable peek into the lives of the rich and famous.