One of the great “power” couples of silent Hollywood, Fred Thomson and Frances Marion were counted among Cinemaland’s most popular pairs during the ten years they spent together in the heady twenties before their fairy tale existence was shattered by Fred’s sudden and tragic death on Christmas Day 1928 at age 38.
They say it is destiny that brings couples together. In this case, destiny came in the form of a broken leg and Mary Pickford. The broken leg was Fred’s, a “war wound” he picked up not on the battlefield, but in an overly spirited football game with his fellow soldiers down at Camp Kearney near San Diego. Fred, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had joined the U.S. Army upon America’s entry into the First World War, serving as a chaplain with the 143rd Field Artillery. As fate would have it, the 143rd had the great fortune of having been “adopted” by Mary Pickford as their godmother and while Fred lay up at hospital Mary appeared on a visit with her very good friend and collaborator Frances Marion in tow.
In her autobiography Off With Their Heads, which chronicled her half century as one of Hollywood’s most important and highest paid screenwriters, the two-time Oscar winner joked, “No one had ever written more satirically about ‘love at first sight’ than I…” but when Frances met the handsome 6’2″ Fred she found out it really could – and did happen. Even laid up in a hospital bed, Fred cut an impressive figure. Before donning the cloth, he had been a champion world-class athlete at Occidental and Princeton and was a world record breaker in track and field competitions. Frances was no less impressive, a potent combination of beauty, brains, wit and charm and while Mary excused herself to speak with other soldiers, Frances stayed behind and chatted with Fred. There was both an immediate physical and spiritual attraction between the two and within ten days they were already making arrangements to be married. Even a world war could not hinder their romance and although Fred was quickly shipped out to France with the 143rd, Frances was not far behind, heading overseas as a war correspondent. No sooner had the Armistice been signed then the pair were married at the Edouard VII Hotel in Paris on November 19, 1918.
With his movie star looks and high-powered Hollywood connections it was inevitable that Fred would enter the movies, but his reasons for doing so were atypical. Fred was convinced of the power movies had to influence young people and he believed if he made films with a positive message he could reach more young people with a single film than he could do in a lifetime of sermons from a pulpit. Mary and Frances gave him a trial run in The Love Light (1921), a Mary Pickford vehicle written and directed by his wife and with Fred playing, ironically, a villain. A few more appearances followed before he hit his stride as a cowboy star and along with his trusty steed Silver King Fred rose a rising tide of popularity that made him a serious threat to Tom Mix. By 1927, he was making a then astounding $10,000 a week with Frances doing no less well penning a string of hits including Lightnin’; Stella Dallas (both 1925); The Son of the Sheik (1926); The Winning of Barbara Worth and The Scarlet Letter (all 1926) with her biggest years yet to come.
By this time, the couple had long since moved on from their comfortable, but relatively modest house in the Wilshire District at 744 South Windsor Boulevard and had “Gone Hollywood,” with what Frances described was “the largest house on the highest hill in Beverly Hills.” According to Frances, their plans started out innocently enough with the idea of a little hacienda-style farmhouse built on four acres they had purchased in the hills of Beverly at $1,500 an acre. But then Fred began buying more horses. After all, Silver King needed doubles and lots of them. “Aren’t six enough?,” Frances innocently asked her husband one day. “Six!” came his incredulous reply, “Silver King has to have a double for the high jumps, and doubles for all the other dangerous stunts. I couldn’t take a chance on his being hurt.” The total eventually came to twelve.
Naturally, this necessitated a much bigger stable block than originally planned, which necessitated moving the stables further from the house because of the “pungent odor of manure,” which, in turn necessitated adding additional acreage, this time at an ever-increasing price of $4,500 an acre. And of course, there needed to be a separate house for the stable hands and a riding ring too. Actually two riding rings. And the horses couldn’t be out in the sun all day. They needed shade and this necessitated the hauling of full-grown trees to the site. “A week later, Sherwood Forest began moving up the hill,” stated Frances dryly. By now, the original architect had long since bowed out, turning the job over to a specialist in the Spanish Hacienda type home the Thomson’s were planning, and expanding upon, every day. His name was Wallace Neff and it was a fortuitous change. The brilliant Neff transformed the Thomson’s dreams and needs onto the barren hillside converting it into a kingdom unto itself and an enchanted one at that. As Frances was to write:
In a short while our hill resembled a gigantic wedding cake. pine trees studded every tier, while on top rose a huge house with a drawing room two stories and a half high, rare tapestries on the walls, an Aeolian pipe organ, and windows overlooking five acres of lawn. Beautifully laid out on the terrace were a tiled barbeque, an aviary, and a hundred-foot swimming pool. Fred and his horses and I had gone Hollywood!
Upon its completion in 1925, the Thomsons bestowed the dreamy yet wholly appropriate name of “The Enchanted Hill,” upon their fantastical new estate at the end of Angelo Drive. By now the estate had expanded to fifteen acres and would ultimately grow to 120 before it was all over with.
Although newly built, the Enchanted Hill looked as if it had been in place for a century thanks to Neff’s sensitive and skilled design, an Andalusian Cortijo magically transported from the sunny hills of Spain to the sunny hills of Southern California. Fred and Frances, their two children (and no doubt Silver King) were delighted with their new home, a feeling shared by rave reviews in the architectural press. In an extensive piece in Arts & Decoration in 1927, noted interior designer Charles Ray Glass walked readers through a virtual tour of the Enchanted Hill. Care to join us?
“The approach to the estate is by broad winding road that carries one in easy grades up the gradually ascending hills. Entrance to the house is gained through an archway into a cobbled court, guarded in true Spanish style by the lodge keeper’s apartment.
This court, which is open to the view on two sides, is centered with a low fountain of hand-made Mexican tile. Beds of rare cacti, paradise plant and other exotics, set in tile bordered plots, convey an especially engaging atmosphere of semi-tropical charm.
Entering the house finds one in a great hall – clear storied to the blue painted rafters. Directly in front of one is a wide flung arch of heavy masonry, beyond which opens the living room. A feature of the house is the large pipe organ, the Spanish console of which is in a small adjoining room. This arch serves a double purpose – that of an entrance to the living room and by the use of a heavy plaster grill on the living room side, as an outlet for the organ pipes, which are chambered in a room below.
Radiating from the main and upper walls to all parts of the house are long, narrow corridors, wood beamed, white walled and tile floored, and cool and restfully dim of a hot California mid-day.
There the similarity to the conventional Castilian interior ends, for, one who associates Spanish houses with austere and sombre rooms, there will obviously be ‘something wrong with the picture.’ The Spanish atmosphere is apparent, but so also is a flood of California sunshine.
In every room are windows of generous, sometimes massive proportions. In his desire to reflect in his interiors the wealth of warmth and color without, Mr. Neff has been ably assisted by the decorative scheme. The same boldly balanced tonal scale used in the interior furnishings of each room has been adopted for the outside planting, and only the modification of light differentiates the hangings, rugs and furniture coverings from the huge beds of California annuals that surround the courts and patios. This contributes greatly to the intimacy and charm that is so evident even in rooms that are actually of great size and completely eradicates the charge of ‘mustiness’ that can be rightfully held against the average house of true Spanish type.”
The Enchanted Hill was built for entertaining with Fred and Frances opening the home up regularly for their wide circle of friends. “For our parties,” she wrote, “we gathered about us people we liked from all walks of life: educators, artists, scientists, authors, archeologists, and explorers like Robert Flahrety.” Reporter Grace Kingsley breathlessly recounted a visit to a party Frances threw for her lady friends at the Enchanted hill in 1927, “We were being ushered into the lofty hall and into the great living room, with its wide view of the surrounding country, which you look at through those beautiful arched windows and which gives also a view on the other side of the long Italian garden, with its colored walls, its fountains and many-hued flowers. If there was a feminine star missing that day from Frances’ party I don’t know who it could have been.” Kingsley went on to prove her point by naming such luminaries as Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore, Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson, Hedda Hopper, Theda Bara, Mabel Normand, Claire Windsor, Mary Astor, ZaSu Pitts, Peg Talmadge, Janet Gaynor, Bessie Love and Marie Dressler among those in attendance. “Somewhere in the Fred Thomson-Frances Marion home is a big pipe organ,” she continued, “and somebody was playing it as we visited together – a charming, distant harmony that lent a still more beautiful atmosphere in an already entirely delightful occasion.”
Anyone visiting the Enchanted Hill and seeing this beautiful and successful couple so deeply in love could only imagine a long “happily ever after” for the two. But, as Frances wrote in her memoirs, ten days before Christmas, as the couple gazed down at the twinkling lights of Beverly Hills far down in the distance, she noticed her husband had a slight limp. She asked him if the leg he broke the previous year in an on-set accident was troubling him. “No,” he replied. “I stepped on a rusty nail and it bothers me a little. Nothing to worry about.” He died Christmas Day in his wife’s arms. A victim of medical misdiagnosis with his tetanus believed by doctors to be a gallbladder problem.
Within a few weeks, the grief-stricken Frances put the Enchanted Hill up for sale, unable to stand the memories or continue the upkeep herself for what the Los Angeles Times luridly described as the “Memory-Haunted hill,” renting the Florence Vidor/Jascha Heifetz home at 809 North Bedford Drive. A few months later the Enchanted Hill changed hands for a reported $540,000 in cash, an enormous amount for a home in 1929, but it was no doubt worth it. The buyer was an oil man, Lejene S. Barnes, president of the Elbe Oil Land Development Company. By 1945, the property had passed to Paul Kollsman, inventor of the Altimeter, who lovingly maintained the Enchanted Hill for the next four decades. After his death in 1982, Kollsman’s widow remained on the estate until 1997 when she sold it to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen paid $20,000,000 for the legendary estate and then quickly ordered the entire Enchanted Hill and its outbuildings, Silver King’s mahogany-floored stable; the guest house; Cowboy’s House; the two riding rings; tennis court; acres of mature and lush gardens; and the 100-foot swimming pool to be bulldozed into oblivion. More than a decade later, it sits as a vacant, weed-covered lot.