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Thursday, October 11, 2012


Despite appearances, Mary Pickford was not one liable to be pushed around,
(here in Little Annie Rooney).

Mary Pickford had a duality that served her well on the silver screen. Just as she easily projected a sense of warmth and grace, she too juxtaposed these softer qualities with an innocently uncivilized, tom-boyish defiance. In many ways, this would keep Mary two steps ahead of the rest of the pack. Being a career-woman in a man's world isn't easy. Mary learned early that being both diminutive and overly feminine put her at a disadvantage. The only way to swim in a sea of sharks without becoming dinner was to bulk up her defense mechanism. Thus, even while she looked as lovely as a daffodil, her assertiveness and her smarts quickly alerted the men in her midst that she was not to be victimized: dangerous things sometimes come in small packages. D.W. Griffith (left) came to know this perhaps more than any other man Mary ever encountered. Once he hit his stride as a short filmmaker, he had started to enjoy his position of power in the tiny Biograph universe. His taste for delicate females was also one that he was able to assuage, both on screen and off. Thus, pint-sized Mary Pickford appeared to him as quite the tempting dollop. That is, until she spoke... Their working relationship was equal parts love and hate; respect and frustration. For example, when the two were shooting To Save Her Soul, Griffith once grabbed Mary and shook her violently, because she was not giving him the burst of emotion he wanted. His attempt at intimidation didn't work. Mary bit him!!! As if that weren't enough, her sister Lottie too jumped to her defense by literally jumping on Griffith's back. Suffice it to say, the Pickford clan made their point: don't mess with the Queen Bee. Fortunately for the audience, it was exactly Mary's independence and resistance that made her a perfect fit in Griffith's increasingly well-crafted films.

A much more amiable friendship and meeting was enjoyed by two other bright stars of silent cinema. Many of the tales of this era, or any era for that matter, are so steeped in rumor and hearsay that they are probably more the products of manufactured lore than historical fact. However, sometimes what isn't true, feels true, and thus becomes true-- at least in the minds of fans. Thus, the way that Douglas Fairbanks met BFF Charlie Chaplin (both right) remains a fond legend that we're just going to go ahead and accept. It goes like this: A random man loitered outside a theater that was playing the new Fairbanks feature. Another man walked up and asked Man #1 if the hot, new Doug was really any good. The first man answered, "He's the best in the business!" The second man asked, "Is he as good as Chaplin?" Man #1 responded, "Fairbanks far surpasses that outmoded Chaplin bloke!" Man #2 paused, then made his move: "I'm Chaplin." Man #1 smiled and replied, "I know. I'm Fairbanks." The laughs didn't stop there. For the length of their friendship, Doug and Charles were always trying to one-up each other on the jokes. They were both energetic men, typically being described as "always on," yet Doug had an optimism and energy that the much more serious and fretful Chaplin found relaxing. They were a great balance, and their pranks are a good representative of the fondness that they shared for each other. For example, when Doug was filming Robin Hood, he was ordered to report particularly early one morning on the castle set. Still wiping the sleep from his eyes, he was surprised to see the drawbridge lower over the moat. A yawning King stepped outside and placed two empty milk bottles beside the massive entrance before scratching his bottom and returning into his fortress. The King, of course, was Chaplin. Doug was in stitches.

Long before Mary Pickford fell in love with Doug Fairbanks, she had become enchanted by another man. This relationship was not romantic, however. Mary was already married to Owen Moore when she met and started working with director Marshall Neilan aka "Mickey" (left). His great humor and vulnerability for the bottle, an attribute all too familiar to Mary, made her immediately attracted to him. They worked well together, and Mary did some of her best work with the director, whom she also called "friend." Of course, Marshall's undependable antics and alcoholism drove the overly professional Ms. Pickford up a wall most of the time. The more the years went on, the more Mickey seemed to mysteriously disappear from the set, show up late, or not at all. Mary would wind up doing his directing for him most of the time. No matter what, she couldn't stay mad at him-- a quality many women shared, including Anna May Wong, who was deeply in love with him for some time. An example of what made Mickey so endearing is evidenced in the following story. When filming Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, el director was nowhere to be found for the umpteenth time, and Mary was forced to once again step in and take charge. In a scene shooting at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, she guided the masses from atop a horse. No sooner had the camera started cranking, then the crew noticed a familiar face in the crowd: Marshall Neilan. He didn't seem surprised or insulted at all that Mary had taken over. In fact, he seemed to be enjoying the show, (perhaps because he was three sheets to the wind). "Say, you're doing pretty well!" he chirped, merrily. He then sauntered off and let the procession continue without him. He was more focused on finding another drink than guiding Dorothy's ship.

At one time in history, Erich von Stroheim (right) was known as "The Man You Love to Hate." This was not an exaggeration. The Austrian-born actor/director was known for portraying foreign villains on the screen, most typically those representative of the German enemy during The Great War. However, he also played random sleaze-bags and ne'er-do-wells in films like Social Secretary opposite Norma Talmadge. Add to this his reputation as an overly sumptuous director who had Carl Laemmle sweating dollar bills, and you have one disreputable, unattractive individual. The way von Stroheim locked horns with Irving Thalberg, for example, is legendary. During the shooting of one of his masterpieces, Foolish Wives, he had the entire city of Monte Carlo replicated and built at the studio, which put the film over-over-over-budget. With no way to rein himself in artistically, von Stroheim seemed to get bigger and bolder with each project, to a fault. His films Queen Kelly and Greed clocked in at approximately five and nine hours respectively, and due to their length, they clearly had trouble earning money at the box-office. Sore bottoms didn't help his reputation with the public, not to mention the fact that these films could only be shown once or twice a day at any given theater, bringing in one batch of ticket sales, whereas a regular film could be shown several times over and rake in the dough. To put it succinctly, his methods made Orson Welles look like a penny pincher. Despite this over-indulgence and disregard for economy, one couldn't argue Erich's talent. His films remain some of the most visually hypnotic and socially compelling artifacts of silent cinema. He had fans within his own time, of course, but more enemies. (The fact that he strutted around like a self-important monarch complete with a monocle didn't help his reputation with the people). Because the divide between fact and fiction was very flimsy in the early days of celebrity, the public reacted to a public figure not as who he was but as the character he played on the screen, which in Erich's case was the German enemy. As a result, he couldn't eat in public. See, every time he went to grab a bite, he got spat on by some random pedestrian. Best to stay indoors and safe from democracy.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (left) was perhaps the sweetest of all the silent clowns. A large physical presence, his warm-hearted demeanor made him a lovable buffoon who was one of the top box-office draws of his day. Before the shameful and unfortunate court scandal (concerning the death of Virginia Rappe) that would ruin his career and send shock-waves through the nation, Fatty was riding high on the wave of critical and financial success in  early 1921. His baby-faced humor and surprising dexterity made any cinematic offering bearing his name a sure-fire hit. His shenanigans carried over into his private life, where he liked to push the envelope on personal pranks. Of course, a humorous scheme is not truly glorious unless one has a worthy mark. Who better than the icy, all-work-and-no-play studio-head Adolph Zukor? Yet another hard-working immigrant who had endured the harsh realities of adolescent poverty and the resulting disassociation of foreign terrain, Zukor used his personal tragedies to propel him to his hard-bitten position as a major movie power-player. Adolph was one cool customer. In fact, when Fatty would later endure the Rappe scandal, Zukor withdrew studio support and left him to the wolves: it was business, not personal.The studio had to save itself. To Fatty, it was no laughing matter. 

Buster assists Fatty in some more foolishness, while Al St. John and Alice Lake
accompany on the banjo and piano.

Yet, before the storm broke, Fatty was determined to use his own clout to poke fun at the impenetrable Zukor. As always, he used his favorite ally, Buster Keaton, to make the hysterical magic happen: Fatty invited Zukor over for dinner and had Buster pose as his butler. Friends like Syd Grauman, Viola Dana, Bebe Daniels, and Alice Lake, were invited and played along as the other guests. Buster's butler decorum was off all evening. He spilled soup all over himself, he flirted with the women, and he poured water on Fatty's lap. He also incorrectly served the men before the women, resulting in a loud reprimand from Fatty. Buster then switched the shrimp he had just placed on the men's plates with those on the women's plates, as if this solved the problem. Fatty continually took Buster into the kitchen to heatedly reprimand him (while secretly laughing) throughout the evening. Finally, Buster dropped the prize dinner turkey, brushed it off, and tried to continue serving it. Fatty grew so angry that Zukor was nervous! When he saw Fatty smash a bottle over Buster's head (a breakaway), he nearly fainted! The "waiter" fled into the night, only returning later that evening as himself, Buster Keaton. Adolph was excited to meet the comic, and proceeded to tell him all about Fatty's horrible butler... until he noticed a strange resemblance. One assumes that the crowd had a good laugh... Perhaps even Zukor.


  1. This was a great post. You said a lot. I got much insight in not only Mary but Mickey Neilan. I always wanted to know more about him. Him and Anna May Wong? Never knew that. I knew she was also Tod Browning's squeeze. Did you know that's Neilan sitting in the lounge at Santa Anita in A Star is Born? He even has a line. Great anecdote about Chaplin and Doug's first meeting. I love when you talk about the silents! Thanks Meredith

    1. I didn't know that tip about Mickey in Star. I will have to give it a watch and check it out! Thanks. ;) I definitely focused on the silent pack this week.

  2. oh and another A Star is Born tie-in, Owen Moore plays the director in Vickie Lester's screen test. How's that for a coincidence?

    1. Hahaha, oh my. They definitely utilized the cameo! That's awesome. Thanks, Bill!