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Without Lying Down
Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood

Without Lying Down
2000 / b&w & Color / 1:37 / 56 + 56 min. / Street Date March 11, 2003 / $29.99
Cinematography Eric R. Anderson
Art Design Consultant C.J. Strawn
Film Editors Tamera Daugherty, Eve Gage
Original Music Glenn A. Jordan
Written by Bridget Terry & Cari Beauchamp from her book
Produced by Cari Beauchamp, Hugh M. Hefner, Carl H. Lindahl, Bridget Terry
Directed by Bridget Terry

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This docu, originally shown on TCM, chronicles the life and career of famous screenwriter Frances Marion, in the context of the role of women in Hollywood history. Narrated by Uma Thurman, with the voice of Marion's letters read by Kathy Bates, the hourlong film is a fascinating look at a Hollywood unreported and mostly lost.

Writers Bridget Terry and Cari Beauchamp quickly sketch the Hollywood of the early 'teens, where the young Marion parlayed a modeling and acting career into doing what she really wanted, writing movie scenarios. Finding an employer & firm friend in the screen's first superstar, Mary Pickford, she went on to write hundreds of films, earning two early-talkie Oscars.

Hers is a fascinating story. with mostly good fortune following a seemingly uncomplicated devotion to hard work, honest relationships and personal integrity. She had a wonderful but brief marriage to Fred Thompson, a minister-turned actor who became a Cowboy star of the 20s, but died unexpectedly at a young age. Marion outlived him by nearly 50 years.

In the thirties, Marion was responsible for a number of top scripts for MGM: The Big House, The Champ, Camille, and Dinner at Eight. But her career was cut short with the sudden death of production executive Irving Thalberg, who had promised her her own production unit. She was instead swept out of the studio, to work only a few times more before turning to other artistic interests.

Using the testimony of mostly modern-era female directors, the writer and director of Without Lying Down do an okay job of relating Frances Marion's experience with the wholesale plight of women in the studio system. In the 'teens and 20s, women did everything, as evidenced by the long series of pictures of successful female directors - most of whom now seem to be unknown even to the interviewees.

The only drawback is that the prominent women filmmakers are enlisted not for their own testimony, but to amplify facts and attitudes about the plight of women in Hollywood that seem in total accord with the authors. Are they all experts on early film history? Martha Coolidge, Fay Kanin, Callie Khouri, & Polly Platt are all women with strong career stories, of which we hear very little. Instead they claim that, as the studios became larger and more stable institutions, the males moved in, basically pushing women out of key creative positions, or into smaller and anonymous jobs. It's an assertion meant to be accepted as spoken, but there's no backup for it.

I've no particular reason to question this film's claims. But was there really a time when the moguls simply decided that all of a sudden women couldn't direct? That's how it seems to have happened in this telling. Frances Marion, as powerful as she was, was still dependent on the patronage of bigger fish - Pickford, Thalberg. When L.B. Mayer rushed in to fill the Thalberg vacuum, a lot of deserving men surely lost their jobs as well. As the studios reached out for theatrical, literary and newspaper writing talent, home-grown scenarists couldn't compete, despite their track record. The docu itself says that Marion got her first job by posing as an expensive New York Writer, with stationery swiped from the Astor hotel.

Fickle trendiness and outside migration can't account for the extinction of women directors, however, and 30s Hollywood did witness a real consolidation of male power. Without Lying Down talks a lot about this subject, yet doesn't focus on it with any satisfaction.

The docu is much more persuasive when telling Francis Marion's personal story, a fairy tale that had her and her Cowboy star husband living in the highest, largest house in Bel-Air. The nice thing about Marion's life is how down-to-Earth she seems, remaining dedicated to her craft and seemingly never going 'Hollywood', even though she associated with Pickford and Fairbanks, and attended parties at Hearst's Castle. Kathy Bates disappears into the role of speaking Marion's written words, and conveys the woman's simplicity well. I'd reckon that Cari Beauchamp's book on Marion would be a good read.

Bridget Terry directs the show at a nice clip, avoiding the pitfall of chronicling every detail of the screenwriter's life. Some nicely shot inserts of writing hands work better than they should, and the film clips are carefully chosen from Turner archives and other Pickford films. One of them, the 1917 silent version of A Little Princess, starring Pickford and written by Marion, is presented in its entirety as a disc extra. A stills section consists of images repeated from the graphically-handsome docu.

The picture quality and audio track, featuring Glenn Jordan's unobtrusive score, are fine. Hugh Hefner's role as a producer of this revisionist Hollywood history attests more to his status as a film fan, than to any personal need for atonement. Without Lying Down makes a good case for women being major contributors to the creation of the film industry, playing major parts behind the camera.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Without Lying Down rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: stills gallery, + a bonus feature film, the 1917 silent version of A Little Princess, starring Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 1, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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