Melanie Benjamin has a new novel coming to front tables of booksellers January 16, 2018 – The Girls in the Picture. I have a love-hate relationship with Historical-Fiction. I am always asking myself, what is real and what is not. Benjamin, the author of New York Times bestselling novels THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE and THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, saves me from this question in her notes on her process:
“I’m asked what I’ve made up, and what happened in real life, when I write my novels. The dialogue, the emotions, the reasons why people do what they did – those are imagined. Imagined based on research, of course. But still, imagined… When writing a novel, as compared to a biography, storytelling is the primary intent, and in order to do that, I naturally have to condense parts of the characters’ lives and leave other parts out.”
This portion of the authors notes helps one take in the storytelling of the over sixty year friendship of Mary Pickford, Americas first sweetheart of the silver screen, and Frances Marion, a two-time Academy Award Winner for writing. Both of these women were pioneers in the history of Hollywood and film making. Pickford went on to become one of the founders of the storied United Artists Studio. Ownership that included Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr – also her husband – along with D. W. Griffith – four of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time.
One could pick at the point that there were many more women that deserve light shined on them for their roles in early Hollywood. However, this is a story of a friendship alongside the history and the orbit they where in. The history of film is in here from the very beginning. We move from flickers of the early 1910’s to the talkies of the late twenties and thirties. There are many more women that could have been covered. However, the Queen of the Silver Screen, Little Miss Mary Pickford and her scenarist (Early screenwriters during the silent era) Frances Marion, remake themselves – in name and stature – and together build a career and friendship that exhibits many of the ups and downs one would expect. Vowing to never let a man come between thier friendship. And this is the center of the story.
If you love film and all the history and magic of it, there is something here for you. If you love a great novel with strong female characters, there is somthing here for you. If you love drama and interpersonal tales of friendships, great loves and loss, there is somthing here for you. This is the story of a complicated friendship that endures a life well lived. From the moment Mary Pickford, exclaims, “Mama, I made a friend!” You understand that this young lady has not had a usual childhood.
Benjamin does a fantastic job of bringing Mary and Frances to life on the page. Mary, the first “Movie Star,” The first to be “Americas Sweetheart. And the first, but not the last to become stuck in the image of a little girl unable to break out of what America wanted her to be. However, Mary was not a child actor. She was a petite adult who played a child. That role that made her famous and fabulously rich was largely constructed by her friend and screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion, herself, The first woman on many lists of accomplishments. Serving as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army she was the First Woman to cross the Rhine during World War I. She filmed a documentary to show the how women were also serving their country, A two-time Academy Award Winner, also a first for women. And instrumental in the formation of the Screen Writers Guild.
I may be jaded by my love of film, film history and just plan history, but I must say, I really enjoyed this and found it to be fascinating. This is great storytelling of an era not often discussed and reminds us today, as we see gender roles being discussed in a lively fashion, that in the early days of studios, much was the same as today. Women stood tall among men in those early days of film even if they were often the only girls in the picture.
- I would like to thank Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine Delacorte Press and Melanie Benjamin for the opportunity to read this work through NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.