Genre: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: January 16, 2018
Publisher: Random House
Melanie Benjamin is a favorite author of mine. She writes in a distinctive genre that I favor known as Historical Autobiographical Fiction. It is reading historical fiction as if you are reading the memoir of the real-life main character. To work, this genre needs to be as well-researched as it is well-written. Also, the reader needs to remember that no matter how knowledgeable, the author is not privy to the actual thoughts of the protagonist (Benjamin reminds us in her endnotes). I think Benjamin always pulls off this style of writing. So far I have been lucky enough to review three of her works prepublication: “The Aviator’s Wife” (Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh), “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” (Truman Capote and Babe Paley), and even “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” had me captivated. For these reasons, I was thrilled to be given an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of Benjamin’s “The Girls in the Picture” on the early days of Hollywood, concentrating on the lives of screenwriter Frances Marion and the first superstar actress, Mary Pickford.
This is Benjamin’s first book for which my review won’t be full of praise for her talents. But let me start by stating what I did enjoy about the novel, which is a good portion of the book. I was engrossed in learning about the birth of the movies in Old Hollywood. I especially enjoyed learning about the technical side of moviemaking in those days. It wasn’t unusual for the actors themselves to splice and piece the film back together. Actors also frequently went behind the camera to get a better understanding of how a scene would play out. Mary Pickford always did both. Plus, the author does a terrific job describing the details of the WWI era and weaving in how the magic of movie making effected that generation. The industry started out making “flickers” on the streets (there were no sets) with street entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin. These silent movies were watched in Nickelodeons. One will also learn about the beginnings of the Hollywood studios, and how it took the creativity out of the hands of the actors, and how the silent films turned into “talkies,” ruining many careers, and causing some stars to sell their mansions. As Pickford once said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.” I also got a kick out of reading that Pickford and Fairbanks were the original Liz and Dick. Once they married each other, their lifestyles suddenly changed and they became world famous and rich beyond their wildest dreams. Their 18-acre estate in Beverly Hills was called “Pickfair” predating the mashups of celebrity couples’ names like “Brangelina” and “Bennifer” by nearly a century.
The reader discovers that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were two groundbreaking innovators of American film. The story is told from two points of view: Pickford’s and Marion’s. (Though Marion is written in the first person and Pickford in the third, which made Marion seem more real and autobiographical). The story of Mary Pickford’s tough early years on the stage, struggling to support her mother and two siblings, reminded me of Natalie Wood’s life story. The family was dirt poor and she alone supported them. By 1915, Pickford had become the most famous movie actress in the United States. She was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” known as “Girl with the Golden Curls.” The irony wasn’t lost on Mary, because she knew that she never had a childhood. Additionally, I found out that she was also an early feminist. She became one of the few actors and sole woman in those first years to battle the studio system and take control of her own work and career.
Frances Marion also believed women were equal to men and elbowed her way into the Hollywood experience. She was new to the movie industry when Mary was already a star. They soon became fast friends. Frances gained entry into the world of “moving pictures” by becoming a screenwriter, then known as a “scenarist.” She wrote many of Mary’s most popular pictures, including the 1917 film, “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Mary did not do well in the “talkies” with her modern, bobbed hair. Her fans only wanted to see the little girl with the curls. She blamed this on Marion, who wrote petite Pickford as a child. Unlike Mary, Frances remained successful after Mary’s career was over. She continued to write screenplays, remaining the highest paid screenwriter. She went on to win two Academy Awards (the first woman to do so), all while fighting chauvinistic male studio heads.
So why did this novel lose some of my praise? In the middle of the book, these two successful business women, pioneers of their time, began talking like lovesick teenagers about their future husbands. The once crisp and compelling dialogue became just plain old silly and in complete contrast to their established personalities. I actually cringed at some of the corny lines that the author would never have penned to come out of their mouths in the first half of the story. When Frances meets her husband (her first love), it reads like a script from an old Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney film, “Love Finds Andy Hardy,” rather than a mature woman finding love. The silliness is emphasized by the fact that this is her third marriage. And, they meet while he is a soldier in the hospital during the war. This venue is not conducive for the sugary tone of their romance. When Mary divorces her first husband and marries Fairbanks (her first love), she too begins talking like a teenager in love. Suddenly, Pickford, a woman with much skill in financial affairs, who was the brains in the marriage, starts acting flaky and puts her husband before her career. When Fairbanks started to cheat on her I was waiting for the author to throw in a verse of Lesley Gore’s song, “It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry if I Want To.” I was so disappointed that I found myself skimming the mushy pages. I realize that characters do evolve in a story, it usually improves the story. But this was a complete 180 and not believable. With that said, overall, I can say that if you don’t know much about the history of early American filmmaking and wish to then I recommend this book. Just know that it can read simultaneously sappy and splendid.
I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.
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