So far in our blog series on Forgotten Transatlantic Literary Women we have covered a wide range of fascinating and talented writers, including Clarice Lispector, Anzia Yezierska, Lorine Niedecker, and Toni Cade Bambara. Rather than focusing on a specific figure, today I will be looking at two works within a larger genre, the Hollywood novel.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Hollywood novel genre: it began in the 1910’s, continues today, and is made up of novels written about Hollywood and the film industry. At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking that the genre has predominantly male contributors, as it is a genre in which women’s contributions are frequently overlooked. Most critical studies focus on the most well-known Hollywood novels like Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon (1941), and Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941). One rare female work which is repeatedly recognised is Joan Didion’s first novel Play It as It Lays (1970). Despite the frequent focus on male writing within criticism, bibliographies of the Hollywood novel reveal a surprising amount of works by women. The two examples which I will be discussing today are Frances Marion’s Minnie Flynn (1925), and Katherine Albert’s Remember Valerie March? (1939).
At the beginning of Minnie Flynn, Minnie is a teenage factory girl living with her family in New York. When Minnie becomes romantically involved with a minor actor, she manages to get a foothold in an East Coast film studio. After a rocky start as a struggling extra, Minnie succeeds in ‘making it’ as an actress, and her career takes her to Hollywood. Success doesn’t last, however, and in a tale which is now a familiar Hollywood story, we witness both Minnie’s rise and her fall. Throughout her success, Minnie is consistently reckless with money, worshipping material possessions over all else. She is also taken advantage financially by her friends, family and romantic partners. Though it is difficult to feel sorry for a character who is often arrogant and greedy, Marion still manages to successfully evoke our sympathy in depicting how difficult it can be to distinguish genuine from artificial affection when you are in a position of power, wealth, and celebrity. In Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), Cari Beauchamp tells us that Marion intended for Minnie Flynn to be ‘a warning to the thousands of women she saw pouring into Hollywood full of optimism and without the slightest idea of what lay ahead’ (154). In addition to depicting the pitfalls of fame, Minnie Flynn acts as a valuable account of the film industry in New York and Hollywood. It also explores the practice of acting, and the relationship between an actress and director.
Frances Marion was a director and screenwriter in early Hollywood, and her own life story is as revealing about early Hollywood as her novel is. Beauchamp tells us that by 1930 Marion had been ‘the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood – male or female,’ since 1917 (9). Marion was also the winner of two Academy Awards. In 1931 she won the Writing award for The Big House (1930), and two years later the Best Story award for The Champ (1931). Details like these can hardly be lost on a modern audience, given the recent attention on gender pay-gaps in the film industry, and in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent #MeToo movement.
The relationship between an actress and her director is a theme which is taken up again in Remember Valerie March? (1939). Katherine Albert’s novel is another rise-and-fall tale of a Hollywood actress, only this time it is narrated from the perspective of her director, Conrad Powers. Powers claims to have both started and ended the acting career of the ‘first lady of film,’ Valerie March. The novel is his own personal account of Valerie’s professional career and personal life, and often takes the form of a Hollywood exposé. Through the character of Powers, Albert explores the way in which a director manipulates the emotions and life-choices of an actress to get the desired performance from her, for the benefit of the film. At one point in the novel, Powers encourages the married Valerie to have an affair with her co-star, with the justification that this will add a more convincing dimension to the film. Albert is not alone in her portrayal of this unhealthy relationship. In the popular 2017 television series Feud: Bette and Joan, this theme is taken up. Feud is about the rivalry between Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and takes place largely during the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). We see the film’s director, Robert Aldrich, pitting the actresses against each other for the sake of authenticity. Hollywood fan-magazines and gossip columns latch on to the story, and fuel the fire between the two women to increase readership. Though Feud is a dramatized series, there is no doubt that these practices were in play in the industry, as many Hollywood histories depict.
Both Marion and Albert’s novels explore a number of similar themes. For example, both spark interesting questions on different forms of acting, particularly method acting, and what exactly makes a successful and convincing performance. Albert delves further, however, into topics such as the cult of celebrity in America, the role of the press in Hollywood, and work of publicity departments within film studios. It comes as no surprise then, that Albert was also a Hollywood insider. She worked as an actress, a studio publicist for MGM, and a feature and fiction writer for Photoplay, one of the first film fan magazines in America.
The ongoing current debates and discussions over male control within the film-industry have emphasised the unacceptable positions that both men and women have been forced into as a result of an extreme power imbalance. The relevance of Hollywood novels such as Minnie Flynn and Remember Valerie March can’t be underestimated in depicting how people in positions of power can abuse this power, and their employees. Considering Frances Marion and Katherine Albert’s active and varied careers in the film industry, they can also help to represent the achievements of women in that industry. In an era where women are increasingly viewed as under-appreciated in the industry (through both salary and award recognition) this recognition is much needed.
Thanks for reading!
Notes and References
Sadly, these novels are difficult to obtain, particularly Remember Valerie March? I was, however, lucky enough to obtain a beautiful new copy of Minnie Flynn thanks to the fantastic work of The Hollywood Novel Project, run by Ben Smith. You can view the project’s Kickstarter, and the journey of how the first edition of Minnie Flynn in 90 years came into being, through the following link. We eagerly await the next Hollywood novel to be published by this project:
Information on Albert’s role as a Hollywood insider comes from Anthony Slide’s Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazines. A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers. University Press of Mississippi, 2010, pp 77-78.
Information on Frances Marion is taken from Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998), a great source for anyone who wants to learn more about women’s achievements in early Hollywood.