The Birth of Hollywood

In Melanie Benjamin’s novel The Girls in the Picture, the girls are screen writer Frances Marion and actress Mary Pickford, each of them new to Hollywood as the story begins. Told from both points of view (first person for Fran, third for Mary), the novel runs through the growth of the movie industry from 1914 through the late thirties. It centers around the friendship and collaboration between the two women (Marion wrote many of Pickford’s most successful movies, as well as some not so successful), and their eventual drifting apart, as Marion continued to be one of the most successful screen writers (”scenarists,” as they were once known) in the first half of the twentieth century, while Pickford faded away, trapped in her own image as Little Mary, the Girl With the Curls.

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The Girls in the PictureBenjamin has clearly done a great deal of research, while also fleshing out the two women as real people, through their professional successes and failures as well as their personal lives. The book is also a fascinating look at the growth of an industry, from a light-hearted, fun-filled adventure in the early years to a serious business-focused industry—controlled by men. Although Marion was a successful (and highly paid) writer and Pickford a brilliant business woman and a founder (with Fairbanks and Chaplin) of United Artists, Benjamin also deals with the problems women faced in the first part of the twentieth century—not much different from those of the twenty-first. The very title, The Girls in the Picture, comes from Marion’s recognition, long years later, when looking through photos from those early days, that she and Pickford were almost always the only girls in the picture.

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Well researched and well written, the book teems with both familiar and forgotten names from the early days of the movie business, when everything was new and exciting in Hollywoodland. A fascinating read.

 

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