Benjamin encores The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016) with another glam story inspired by the legendary personalities and monkeyshines of America’s film pioneers.
Silent screen ingénue Mary Pickford (nee Gladys Louise Smith) and screenwriter Frances Marion meet cute on their way to becoming Hollywood A-listers—or, in Mary’s case, Hollywood royalty following her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. An assiduous researcher, Benjamin quickly gets into the heads and hearts of both women, whose professional collaboration and personal friendship over six decades are laced with delicious film trivia, e.g. the secret of Pickford’s imperishable golden curls. Moving from “flickers” to “talkies” (which paradoxically required silence on formerly noisy sets) through star-studded wartime newsreels and Hollywood-style Prohibition (teacups filled with gin blossoms), Benjamin touches on the intrigues of an industry finding its legs. Pickford—the first film actress to become “a casualty of her own image”—is rendered in third person and comes off as a bit damaged (for good reason), while Marion—the first writer to win two Academy Awards—narrates her own story with an amused cockiness one might expect from a contemporary of Anita Loos and Adela St. John. Content to stay behind the scenes after briefly trying her hand at acting, Frances provides Mary with the scripts and roles that lock in her reign as “America’s Sweetheart,” giving Pickford the financial means to co-found (along with Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith) United Artists, the first actor-directed film studio in America. When Mary decides to divorce her first husband (silent film idol Owen Moore—here depicted as a bad character), she turns to her twice-divorced friend for support, certain that “Fran would write her a way out of this.” She’s already prepaid the favor by setting Frances up with the love of her life, a gift that haunts their relationship to the end of their days.
A smart, fond backward glance at two trailblazers from an era when being the only woman in the room was not only the norm, but revolutionary.