Lights! Camera! Reading!: A Review of The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Hello, and welcome to Hollywood! We’re heading to the movies this week with a book review set in the Golden Age of cinema. That’s right, this week we’ll be reviewing The Girls in the Picture.
Dang, the Golden Age of cinema was a full century ago now. Or only 60 years. It depends on what time period you consider the Golden Age of cinema. The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin takes place between the years 1914 and 1932; just so we’re all on the same page here, we’ll call this the birth of cinema so there is no fighting about what’s considered the Golden Age.
Now, what is The Girls in the Picture about exactly? Other than the birth of cinema of course. Well, Melanie Benjamin has created a fictional account of the lives and friendship between two women who had a hand in creating Hollywood itself: Frances Marion and Mary Pickford.
Frances Marion is a screenwriting legend. She wrote over three-hundred screenplays over the course of her 25-year career. Not only did she write scripts for both the silent and sound era of film, but she, a woman, was the first screenwriter to win two academy awards; she also did this in consecutive years. While best known for her screenwriting, Marion also worked as a war correspondent in France during the first world war, and after her retirement from screenwriting she continued to work as a novelist. As a female writer and feminist, I have no choice but to stan.
Mary Pickford is a legend in her own right. Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford is regarded as one of the first film stars; the woman starred in over 240 films, how can she not be a star. Pickford was one of, if not the, highest paid actresses of the time; her salary was $625,000 at the height of her career in 1919. In today’s money, that would be nearly ten million dollars. Speaking of 1919, she went on to open her own production company with other heavy-weights in Hollywood; this included Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, who became her husband that same year. Oh yeah, she was also a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Again, we have no choice but to stan.
Before moving on, I do want to say one thing regarding these two women. While Mary Pickford and Frances Marion did exist, Benjamin creates a fictional story based off of events that occurred. While reading this book, I began to think of these version of Frances and Mary as fictional characters. True, these women existed and dominated the industry they helped found, but who knows what their relationship was truly like. It’s best to go into this book thinking of them, and the rest of well known supporting characters, as fictional. Just pretend none of these people existed in real life and enjoy this as pure fiction.
There is one more character who plays massive role in this novel as well. The Girls in the Picture is about Hollywood just as much as it’s about Frances and Mary. Like I said, both these women were instrumental in creating Hollywood. These women were there at the start of cinema. They watched, and made, films that were simple, one-reel shorts that were produced in one day all the way to feature length films with sound and a fully written script complete with monologues. Hollywood grew with them both. Who knows what Hollywood would be like today if they weren’t there.
Now, if you’re expecting glitz and glamour of 1920’s Hollywood pretty much 24/7, you will be disappointed in this novel. I would say The Girls in the Picture is a fairly even split of Hollywood glamour and the life outside of work for these two growing legends. Just as much as these women spend their time working on a movie set, they’re also spending an equal amount of time discussing marriage and their search for true love. Be prepared for a lot of talk about husbands, and arguments about basically everything. Their arguments bridge their work life to their day-to-day life. I would like to say that these arguments are repetitive, which objectively they are, but they are a massive insight into the friendship and partnership these two have; at least in the case of the novel.
In this novel, Mary is presented as a bossy IT Girl. She’s clawed her way to the top through hard work, and she has no intention of slacking off and losing her reign as the Queen of Hollywood. Frances on the other hand just happened into life in the movies. She found herself doing odd job on films until she found her passion: writing. Much like Mary, Frances worked hard to get to the top, and she also enjoys being there, but she isn’t afraid of losing her place there. She’s had her time in the sun and it doesn’t matter to her if someone eclipses her.
If you hadn’t guessed at this point, Frances follows Mary around a lot. The IT Girl needs loyal followers friends who jump when she says so. That’s what Frances does. Every single time Mary calls, Frances drop everything to be with her. Now, I think we can all agree that this is not a healthy relationship. Again, neither the author or I are saying that this is what Frances and Mary’s friendship was actually like in real life, or that the above shows their true personalities, this is just how a fictional version of the pair is presented in a fictional take on their lives.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of readers relate more to Frances and/or sympathize with her and/or just generally like her more than Mary. I fall into all three of the categories; I certainly feel a kinship with her as a writer lady. But I feel the need to defend Mary in the same breath.
I understand Mary’s issues with herself, and with love, lead to her strong personality. She’s someone who needs and wants to be loved by others. From a young age she’s convinced people will only like her for her talent or looks. It doesn’t help that everyone she’s loved, and who have loved her, ultimately left her. Her husbands, her mom, Frances, her fans; they’ve all left her. That’s incredibly sad. She feels that she can’t open up about her past, who she is, her wants and needs, and to top it off, the men in her life can’t stand her success. I feel super sorry for her. I pity her.
I’m going to go out on another limb and say even after my defense of Mary, she’s still not the most appealing of characters. But you cannot deny that Mary and Frances make a beautiful pair of foils. Benjamin created a hyper realistic tug and pull between these characters. I felt every loving moment between the two, and I also felt their pain in losing a best friend. There’s no other pain like that and Benjamin captured it perfectly.
Honestly, Benjamin’s writing is perfect. The longer I review books and book related media, the more I dislike using the word perfect. But, my god, Benjamin did a marvelous job with this novel.
I’ve never been to California in my life, let alone California in the early 1900’s, but I was transported to that time. I watched as Los Angeles became Hollywoodland. I watched as famous landmarks like the Chinese Theatre were built and first opened. I watched Charlie Chaplin performed some of his famous tricks in front of crowds and cameras.
There is some seriously beautiful writing in this book. It captures the glitz and glamour one comes to expect with the film industry and the 1920’s as well. But it also captures more than that. The Girls in the Picture spans over three decades. It captures the beginning of the Great Depression and the front lines of war. Let me share with you one of my favorite passages:
“What my crew and I couldn’t convey on film, but which were no less paramount and horrific, were the sounds. The sobs, the pleadings, the wails of despair; the grim, accepting silences. The incessant tinkling of bloodied operating instruments into tin basins in the hospitals; even at night, far from the wards, my ears rang from that sound. The never-ending crunch of gravel by heavy boots. The accordion music on every corner, in every café and canteen, in Paris. The desperate, high-pitched laughter there. The lack of it at the front. The constant hum of voices; someone was talking, ordering, asking, begging. Never once did I hear a bird chirp, except in Paris.”
This isn’t a passage one would expect from a book on Hollywood, but damn is the imagery stunning. Haunting, but stunning.
And that passage is there because Frances Marion and Mary Pickford were more than just Hollywood; Melanie Benjamin makes sure readers know that. These were women who helped America’s war effort. There were women with intellectual minds who wanted to do good during the darkest of times. These were women who were more than their Hollywood labels. These were women who had good days and bad ones, who had massive trials and tribulations; all of which Benjamin captures on paper.
It should also be noted that this novel jumps between first person point of view of both Frances and Mary. In doing so, Benjamin completely changes the writing style every chapter.
Whilst in Frances’ point of view, the text always feels so eloquent. It always feels as if Frances is writing a script, or she’s thinking of how a conversation she’s having would play out on camera. Mary’s chapters do not feel like that. Her chapters feel as if she is the sun and the world revolves around her. The language also feels slightly more rudimentary; Mary is an actress, not an author after all. The use of language and imagery really showcases not only Benjamin’s writing prowess, but how well Frances and Mary work as each other’s foil. Both women could be having the same experience, but they'd view it differently.
I recognize that this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s truly beautiful. Scenes jump to life, I cried while reading it, it’s seriously a work of art. I would say give The Girls in the Picture a try if you’re a fan of feminist literature or if you’re interested in film history. It can be a bit slow in some places, really nothing much happens in the beginning, but the imagery makes up for that tenfold. It’s worth a try simply for the language alone.
And with that, I bid you all adieu. I’ll see you next week with another book review. Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, wear a mask, and read some good books for me.