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Without Lying Down
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by Scott Weinberg

"Old-school proof that talent knows no gender."
4 stars

Here's what happens when you have an art form that's also a huge money-maker: history gets forgotten. What with 5 new movies being released every weekend of every year, the sad truth is that all but the most popular filmmakers of yore end up all but forgotten - which is why it's great to see modern documentarians doing their part to maintain certain invalubale Hollywood legacies. Legacies like screenwriter extraordinaire Frances Marion.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Frances Marion penned over 160 screenplays between the years of 1912 and 1940. (The documentary credits her with over 200, but either figure is staggeringly impressive.) A rather attractive woman, Frances began her career as a supporting player onscreen, but she proved infintely more prolific behind a typewriter than she did as an aspiring character actor.

One of the most respected scenarists of Hollywood's First Age, Marion penned silent movies as if they were going out of style. (Heck, they were - but she sure didn't know that.) When talkies became the rage, Marion's popularity soared even higher; she was that solid of a writer.

But think back over what the 1910s and 20s must have been like in Hollywood. In much of America, women were often simply relegated to 'Housework and Babies' detail - yet in one of the most cutthroat businesses in the universe, this determined and almost criminally talented writer was (rightly) considered one of Hollywood's most important background players.

Without even planning to, Frances Marion struck a quiet and very important blow for womens rights all over the country. Gender took a backseat to talent, and the free-thinking male execs who opted to work alongside Marion often reaped huge benefits. She was that good of a writer and her films were very popular.

Longtime friend of cinema queen Mary Pickford, Frances Marion is certainly one of Hollywood's most compelling historical figures. Among her most successful projects were Stella Dallas (1925), The Little Princess* (1917) and The Scarlet Letter (1926), but if you're old enough to remember back that far you'll recall dozens of new releases with her name on the credits. Simply put, Frances Marion was one helluva filmmaker.

Plus she was a woman. To say she was an influential figure to future generations of female filmmakers would be a massive understatement and the new documentary Without Lying Down is a fascinating testament to Marion's overwhelming cinematic contributions.

Featuring historical footage, film clips and interview segments with the likes of filmmakers Martha Coolidge (director, Rambling Rose), Polly Platt (production designer, The Last Picture Show & many others), Callie Khouri (screenwriter, Thelma & Louise) and critic/historian Leonard Maltin, Without Lying Down is the perfect sort of Hollywood History Lesson: it's succinct, fascinating and obviously crafted with a lot of admiration for the woman at hand.

Kathy Bates supplies the 'voice' of Marion in correspondence while Uma Thurman delivers the basic narration, and Bridget Terry's film is one that any self-respecting movie freak should seek out and devour. Marion's lasting impact is made clear throughout and her contributions to the world of American Cinema is presented in crystalline clarity, though none of the fans / interview participants need to overstate Marion's case; she was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word and her well-earned successes clearly helped to open doors for an untold number of female filmmakers.

If the concept of enjoying a documentary film about a female screenwriter from the Silent Era sounds a bit too dry for your tastes, try sitting through Without Lying Down for its first 15 minutes and then tell me you're not interested. Like the best documentary filmmaking, the film presents its subject matter in a factual light - and then lets you decide how fascinating she is.

Personally I was hypnotized by this little history lesson, and I applaud filmmakers Bridget Terry and Cari Beauchamp (also author of the book on which the doco is based) for shedding some fascinating light on a woman who certainly doesn't deserve to be relegated to those Forgotten Old History books. Given the sorry state of screenwriting in today's Hollywood, I suspect the early lessons given by Frances Marion are as timely as ever these days.

Plus she was damn cute. (Sorry I couldn't resist.)

(* The 1917 silent film The Little Princess is inlcuded (in it entirety) alongside the documentary feature - and I think it's a wonderful inclusion indeed. Aside from the joy of seeing a film from 1917 restored for DVD, the movie is a perfect example of Marion's wonderful writing talents and it makes a perfect bookend to Terry's documentary.)

Lots of screenwriters have used the "if we don't learn from history we're doomed to repeat it" chestnut, yet Hollywood has clearly forgotten about much of its storied past. Luckily we have documentaries like this one to remind us who helped to create the Movie Factories that we all love so much today.

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originally posted: 04/01/03 11:38:02
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User Comments

6/10/15 Fredrick Ruf A suprising and wonderful revelation. And that comes from a 30year. Member of the Writers. 5 stars
9/06/04 Rebecca Migdal Inspiring to any writer or artist, man or woman 4 stars
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  DVD: 11-Mar-2003



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