The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

A few weeks ago, I read The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin which is a fascinating look at the early days of the movie industry. Among Benjamin’s novels are The Aviator’s Wife (a great story about Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and the NYTimes bestseller The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Interspersed with my review are a few comments from the author.

Hollywood – the glamour, the celebrities, the blend of real and fantasy that captivates and seduces. We know it today as a well-oiled machine. However, in the early nineteen hundreds it was a fledgling industry full of determined, innovative men and women creating something new. Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel, The Girls in the Picture, features Frances Marion, who would ultimately become a famous screenwriter, and superstar Mary Pickford along with their long, tumultuous friendship.

Why did Benjamin choose this story to write?I love early Hollywood; it’s one of my favorite times and places. The film industry was just beginning and it really was like the wild, wild west in a way—everyone was young, nobody had experience, they were making everything up as they went along, with no idea that what they were doing was inventing a new art form. And women were just influential as men in those early years.” Why Frances Marion and Mary Pickford? “Not every real person can carry a novel; I’ve learned that the hard way!  But Mary and Frances leapt out to me; everything about them—their personal lives, their accomplishments and most importantly, their empowering friendship—screamed NOVEL to me!”

As the years unfold, the story glitters with stars and movie big shots—Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecille B. Demille, Hedda Hopper, Rudolph Valentino—and the gradual shift from silent films with simple plots to longer, still silent films and then on to talkies.

Mary Pickford adapts as the industry changes but ultimately fails to make the transition to spoken dialogue successfully. In contrast Frances Marion’s writing talents grow once she gives herself permission to write and to be the “person who could move an audience to a frenzy, and start a revolution of her own.” Frances ultimately thrives as moviegoers and industry executives look for stories with more complexity. For both characters, the challenges of such a dynamic environment are significant. In the long run, as men come to dominate the industry, they struggle to remain in charge of their destinies.

Bookended by two scenes from 1969, the story unfolds chronologically from 1914 to 1932. It is full of insights into how the movie business developed and who was involved. The risks and unsavoury choices facing women are portrayed alongside the opportunities. Fran observes about Mary: “Why had I never even thought to ask her about this kind of abuse; what else had she, and others like her, had to suffer—to accept—as part of the steep price some men exacted for a woman’s ambition?”

Through Mary Pickford’s and Frances Marion’s struggles to find an enduring relationship with the men in their lives, Melanie Benjamin illuminates the complications of love for women in the movie business. “Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything else they do; it gives them even more cachet. It adds something to them. But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

With an impoverished, fatherless childhood, and the role of family breadwinner, Mary was incredibly vulnerable: “… she was afraid of losing everything she’d worked so hard to achieve. She was scared. Every day on the set—every day of her life—she was scared.” Even though Mary was one of Hollywood’s golden stars and had “more experience than any of them, [she] still wasn’t always taken seriously, just patted on the head and told to smile prettily for the camera.”

World War One was a turning point for Frances Marion: “Some people want to be of use. Even women, you know. We don’t all like the idea of sitting at home while our menfolk take care of all the difficult things in life.” Hollywood was different after the war, no longer new and struggling, instead it had become big business with huge international potential because Europe had been so devastated by the war. While Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and two others form what becomes United Artists, Frances goes her own way. “There was a new gulf between them filled with different experiences, different ideas. She could only hope they’d find a way to bridge it.”

In this post-war period Fran reflects: “I was strong. I was capable. I didn’t need Mary to pave the way for me anymore.” And she realizes that her dearest friend had changed: “there used to be a time when she [Mary] understood how to be a friend as well as a movie star.”

The Girls in the Picture alternates between two voices: Frances Marion written in first person and Mary Pickford in third person. Although Fran’s is the stronger, more engaging voice, Benjamin’s approach allows readers to more fully appreciate each character’s motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Why did Melanie Benjamin choose this approach? Apparently her editor suggested it and the approach worked. “To me, it reinforced the idea that this is Frances writing Mary’s story—just as Frances wrote Mary’s movies, wrote her life, in a way, all those years ago.”

This compelling look at two famous women entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Transported to Hedy Lamarr’s Time and Place

Beautiful Invention is Margaret Porter’s 13th novel. It features the story of Hedy Lamarr, famous Hollywood actress and co-inventor of a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes. How’s that for talent? I asked Margaret to tell us about Hedy’s world and how she incorporated it into the story. Over to you, Margaret.

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Any author writing the past strives to depict long-ago time and people so believably and viscerally that the reader is immersed. With Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I present a character who is both obscure and well-known, depending on whether a person is a fan of classic cinema from Hollywood’s Golden Age, or perhaps viewed the recent documentary Bombshell, or possesses knowledge of female inventors in general and the fact that Hedy is responsible for frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology specifically. What motivates a fan of historical fiction to read a novel about Hedy? Is it curiosity about her life as a film star? Interest in her abilities as inventor? Or simply random selection from Amazon or a bookstore shelf?

Whatever the reader’s impetus for choosing Beautiful Invention, I was responsible for re-creating my heroine’s experiences, adventures, and conflicts—of which there were a multitude, far more than I could fit into three or four novels! I was also determined to fill in the gaps left open by her biographers, those who produced works in print and on film. Not only did I use primary research as a foundation, I relied on informed speculation, and most importantly, I used my imagination. Selectivity was key, but once those selections were made and the story was structured, I had to do the world-building. And in many respects, it was an unfamiliar world. My areas of study—since my teens—have chiefly been 17thand 18thcentury Britain and France. My research habits were formed long ago, as historian and as an actress in period plays, and my M.A. studies in cinema history were a useful foundation. Fearlessly I stepped into the 20thcentury to explore Austria and Hollywood in depth.

This is my 13th work of fiction, and Hedy by far is the most challenging character I’ve ever written. There are multiple reasons, more than I’ll take time to explain, but a significant one was writing from a single viewpoint. Being in Hedy’s head All the Time was a big change for me. In prior novels, I used two or three—and in the one before this, as many as four—viewpoint characters. For any given scene, I could pick and choose the person whose perspective best suited the action and represented the conflict. This time, I had nobody else to turn to. It’s Hedy’s story, her reality, all the way through. No single person accompanied her through the years 1932 to 1949, from Vienna to Hollywood. So I spent my days and nights asking myself, “What would Hedy think? How would Hedy react? What did Hedy know at a given time? How would Hedy feel about this?” Everything had to be filtered through that one and only individual.

To my joy and relief, one reviewer stated, “It seems to me (and I have read several Lamarr biographies) that this author nails down her personality very clearly; much more so than anything else I have seen.”

I accessed numerous memoirs, biographies, histories, and scholarly works that aligned with Hedy’s private and public personae. I could read just enough German to get by, and relied on Google Translate as a useful backup. The period after World War I and before Hitler’s annexation of Austria—the Anschluss—was one of transition and uncertainty and the rise of autocrats. Austria’s high society clung to its old ways—revering an aristocracy that wasn’t legally allowed to use hereditary titles. Vienna remained culturally focused, with its opera balls, concerts, and theatres. At the same time, modernism was on the rise, with avant-gardeplaywrights and musicians and writers and artists coming to the fore. Post-war disarray and destruction fueled innovation. It was an exciting time to be a creative and ambitious young person, and the teenaged Hedwig Kiesler was very much a product of her between-the-wars generation.

The armchair and physical travel aspect of the novel was important—mentally or bodily I roamed from Vienna to Venice to Paris to London to the ocean liner S.S. Normandie to the Super Chief train to Hollywood. Even during Hedy’s lifetime, the places she knew changed considerably, but I located plenty of first-person and historical accounts that fell into the time span of my novel. Because Hedy was so unfamiliar with America and with Hollywood, my discoveries as researcher and writer were directly transferred and translated into her experiences as an immigrant actress.

In nearly every book I write, I find a way to do some historical myth busting. This one is no exception. Hedy’s newspapers and magazine interviews were numerous, and from each one I gleaned a powerful sense of her personality, her conflicts—personal and professional—and her aspirations. Hedy’s versions of her own history can’t necessarily be trusted, because she told different versions of the same story. And MGM was famous—or infamous—for recreating life stories for their stars. Hedy allowed publication of her memoir, Ecstasy and Me, which she later repudiated for its salaciousness and lack of truth, and she sued her collaborators. And though I discarded many incidents as unlikely, her voice and her thoughts were evident. As were her opinions of her husbands and of studio mogul L.B. Mayer and of her fellow performers—Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable and James Stewart.

Additionally, I was able to draw on my own past—my professional work in theatre and film. I well remember examining costume sketches and standing like a statue for fittings, and the thrill of receiving visitors to my dressing room after a stage performance. And what it’s like to stand in a studio, waiting for the producer and the technicians to complete their tasks so I could begin mine. I certainly never achieved the fame of Hedy Lamarr, but in some ways our experiences aligned. That was sheer serendipity—always a welcome component.

On Hedy’s arrival at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio in 1937, she immediately discovers that her escape from a controlling Austrian husband and an encroaching German dictator hasn’t conveyed the independence she sought.

Behind an enormous white curved desk raised high on a plinth sat L.B. Mayer. Four white phones were lined up beside him. Everything else in this bastion of power was white—the carpeting, the textured walls, even the piano.

“Do sit down,” he invited her. “We spared no expense getting you here, so you should’ve had an easy journey.”

“It was long.” Unsure what to do with her roses, she placed them in her lap.

“The food on those trains is good, they say, but I hope you didn’t eat too much of it. We need to slim you down before putting you in front of the camera, because the lens adds pounds to a woman’s figure. Ida can give you a diet sheet.”

At that moment she was experiencing intense hunger, and the prospect of limiting her meals sounded like a punishment.

Howard Strickling joined them, bending to kiss her cheek. He sat down beside her.

“As we’ve discussed, you’ll be having English and diction lessons,” Mayer continued. “You’ll enroll in an exercise class. Might as well have dance lessons, too. As soon as possible, you should get a Hollywood agent. Have you read the morals clause in your contract?”

“Yes.”

“We make clean pictures. We want clean actors. It’s important that you do nothing to undermine our efforts on your behalf. Right, Howard?”

“That’s right, L.B. Unless somebody from my department is with you, Hedy, don’t speak to reporters or columnists, or have your photo taken.”

“I won’t.”

“When we’ve created your biography, we’ll assign a p-publicist,” Howard said.

“Am I not to make the biography? It’s my life.”

The two men exchanged glances. “When introducing a newcomer to the p-public,” Howard said, “all the information must be favorable. In your case, we need to explain why you’ve left your husband and your country.”

“To make movies.” It was too obvious to require explanation.

“True. But a p-publicity campaign requires considerable finesse.”

“I won’t tell lies.”

“You’ll shade the truth, just a little. We’ll tell you what not to say. It’s in your own best interest.”

“You may come and see me,” Mayer added, “whenever you have concerns or questions. And if there’s a serious problem, Howard will fix it.” He shoved a stack of papers across the gleaming white desktop. “Your contract. Here, use my pen. It’ll bring you luck.”

The typed words ran together, clause after clause after clause, all in English. Printed beneath the blank lines on the last page was her legal name, Hedwig Kiesler Mandl.

She signed, instantly altering her status from refugee to employee.

 

Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr by Margaret Porter – Hollywood Beauty. Brilliant inventor. The incredible story of a remarkable and misunderstood woman. Hedy Kiesler, Austrian actress of Jewish heritage, scandalizes Europe with her nudity in the art film Ecstasy. Her hasty marriage to a wealthy munitions merchant disintegrates as he grows increasingly controlling and possessive. Even worse—he supplies deadly weapons to Hitler’s regime.She flees husband and homeland for Hollywood, where Louis B. Mayer transforms her into Hedy Lamarr, an icon of exotic glamour. Professional success clashes with her personal life as marriage and motherhood compete with the demands of studio and stardom. Motivated by the atrocities of World War II, Hedy secretly invents a new technology intended for her adopted country’s defense—and unexpectedly changes the world.

Many thanks, Margaret. Beautiful Invention has all the right ingredients for success. And how fortunate to have background as an actress! I’m sure readers will love the story.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.