Dorothy Farnum: Advice from a Scenario Writer

 by Monica Nolan

Back in the silent era a woman didn’t have to be an actress to get the glamour treatment from the studio’s PR department. Witness the press on Dorothy Farnum who wrote the Constance Talmadge vehicle Good References. In a Photoplay spread on film writers at work, Farnum is the one reclining on a chaise longue, pen in hand, eyes fixed on the horizon. Surely literary-minded teenaged girls around the country pored over this picture, daydreaming of their own glamorous writing careers, while their schoolmates were mimicking Clara Bow’s walk or Mary Pickford’s curls. Throughout Farnum’s days of scenario stardom, her advice for these aspiring scriptwriters made the newspapers and magazines as often as a starlet’s beauty secrets. Here are some vintage Farnum tips:

MOOD MUSIC Why, pray tell, is there a large cabinet phonograph next to Farnum’s longue in that glamorous Photoplay photo, and why are several records strewn at her feet? Because (so the caption tells us) “Dorothy Farnum, specialist in romantic dramas, must Throw Herself Into the Mood as much as a chaise longue and a luxurious negligee … When writing love scenes, Miss Farnum plays ‘Kiss Me Again.’ And again and again.”

DON'T GET TECHNICAL Farnum began her career as an actress, appearing in the films Over Night (1915) and The Cub (1915), before switching to scenarios. Her first breakthrough came in 1919 when producer Harry Rapf hired her on the basis of a scenario she’d written called “Broken Melody.” Alas, two weeks later Rapf let her go “because she did not know the difference between a close-up and a fade-out.” Later, she advised amateur scenarists, “Try not to let yourself become involved in too many intricate and unusual camera details.” Rapf rehired her for Beau Brummel (1924), John Barrymore’s expensive Warner Bros. debut.

LET THEIR MINDS ALONE Beau Brummel, which Farnum adapted from a 19th century play, was her first big success. Barrymore told the L.A. Times that Farnum had given him the greatest role in his career and Farnum’s reputation as a skillful adapter of popular literature and drama grew. Perhaps the difficulties of distilling a written opus into an eight-reel film were on her mind when she told an interviewer in 1926, “You must think with your heart and feel with your head. When I write my scenes I try hard to progress not from one thought to another, but from one feeling to another. For the majority of people want to have their hearts excited and their minds let alone when they come into the world of low lights and soft music of a motion-picture theater.”

SAD CAN ALSO SELL When Farnum turned Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s potboiler The Torrent into a vehicle for Greta Garbo in 1926, the press called it “the first picture with an unhappy ending to win a box-office success.” Another story credited “Miss Farnum’s insistence on keeping to the spirit of the book,” suggesting that her resistance to a Hollywood ending “may start a new trend in picture-play writing, for the sensational success of her work has proved that a logical ending does not put crepe on the box office.”

SIMPLICITY IS THE KEY By the late 1920s Farnum was at the top of her game, adapting everything from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt to Rafael Sabatini’s Bardelys the Magnificent and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady. Variety included her in a group of high-paid women writers and called her “one of the ‘ace’ scenario writers of the MGM organization.” In 1928 she shared the secret of her success with contestants of a Photoplay scenario-writing contest: “Work always with the simplest plots and themes,” she advised. “Try as hard as you can to eliminate flash-backs and other devices which retard or slow up the movement of your story.”

DO YOUR RESEARCH According to the L.A. Times, Farnum was educated in a convent boarding school where she studied literature and history. She spoke several languages and traveled extensively. She frequented literary circles and was friends with Sinclair Lewis. “Miss Farnum is quite a savant and before she commences a film gives several months to delving in libraries or making a trip to Europe for correct data. She is a master of French history and literature and also speaks Spanish and German fluently.”
A KODAK BRAIN In 1929 Farnum was in Spain on a three-month leave of absence from MGM, which led to a stint with Osso Films in France (Variety called her “the only American woman executive in the French film world” in 1930), followed by a contract with British Gaumont. She carried her phonograph with her, finding it as crucial to her writing technique ever: “She has been called ‘the writer with a kodak brain,’” said the L.A. Times in 1924, “a term inspired by the fact that she stores away in her mental archives vivid pictures of what she sees in her wide travels. She always carries a small phonograph with her and when she is ready to write she puts on a particular type of record chosen as carefully as ‘emotion doctors’ on films sets choose their themes … Miss Farnum declares that the spell of music sets her thinking, bringing forth the ‘kodaked’ ideas from their mental storage with a clarity not otherwise possible.”

DON'T EXPECT APPRECIATION Farnum was in London for her last film, an adaptation of one more popular potboiler, the Scottish historical doorstopper Lorna Doone. After this final credit she retired from films and moved with her husband to France. There is no record of why she quit film work, but in 1926 she admitted to a reporter that the Hollywood writer’s life was not all glamorous chaise longues and portable phonographs: “Dorothy sighs because the scenario writer is deemed of so little account. Authors, directors, actors receive all the plaudits—even for ‘those little touches’—which generally are born in the scenarist’s script, she says.” Her final literary effort was a biography of Enlightenment-era femme de lettres Madame de Charrière, published in London in 1959.

Read Jeanine Basinger's essay on GOOD REFERENCES.