The novel gives us a portrait of a friendship and partnership, with its highs and lows, that mirrored the birth of the film industry, through the entire silent-film era, and into the age of “talkies.” The novel starts with a frame, set at the end of the story, in 1969. But the actual story begins in 1914 when Mary Pickford, who was already the star of the silent-film industry, meets Frances Marion. Frances stumbles into the industry, entirely by accident, but the two become friends and as Frances learns about Hollywood, her skills as a writer become apparent and her career as a scenarist–what we call screenwriters today–is launched. The partnership she forges with Mary Pickford changed the industry and helped to open doors for creative women.
The novel is told in alternating sections, a first-person voice for Frances’s sections and a third-person voice for Mary’s. During the fifty-five years the novel covers, we see the story of their friendship, their marriages (and divorces), Frances’s experiences in Europe during World War I, the evolution of the studio system in Hollywood (including the battles Mary and Frances have to fight for artistic autonomy in a misogynist industry), their rise to the pinnacle of Hollywood success, and then their fade almost into obscurity as the silent-film era ends and sound motion pictures take over. (To be fair, Frances Marion made the transition into “talkies” very well as a screenwriter.)
I was surprised at how moving so much of their story is. The personal heartbreaks, the fears and ambitions that drove their success, the ups and downs of their relationship as marriages came and went. It’s ultimately a sad story, but along the way, the triumphs are thrilling as well. Melanie Benjamin, of course, has to fictionalize and imagine a lot of the interactions among the characters, both on set and off, but she’s done so in such a way that we have sympathy for both of them, even when we’re shaking our heads at their poor choices. They “come to life” in these pages, and it’s made me want to seek out the movies from their careers that still exist. Unfortunately, many of their movies were before Hollywood made efforts to preserve films, and they’re lost to us now. But enough exist for us to enjoy the birth of an industry that is so important in our popular culture today.