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Monday, October 1, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: Mary Pickford Part 1

Gladys Louise Smith aka Mary Pickford

The land of silent cinema is a place of dreams. It is a land of wide open spaces, the most human of beauties, and the fragile innocence of a new found frontier. Watching silent films is like watching children learn to walk and watching our artistic selves evolve into a powerhouse of emotional honesty-- in a medium that we had no idea how much we needed. The face of this bygone, almost mythic era most often belongs to Chaplin, but that clown of clowns and interpreter of heartbreak belongs in his own category. He represents all that cinema is or could be at its best. No, the true face of silent filmdom belongs to Mary Pickford, because more than any other performer or artist who made his or her claim on the rocky terrain of the flicker shows, she alone is the representative of that historical moment: cinema's birth, its infancy, its articulation, its soul, its hold on the public, and its limitless possibilities. It was little Mary who made the biggest impression with her gumption and charm; it was the girl with golden curls who enchanted America and warmed every citizen's heart. It is also little Mary whose always palpable sadness still haunts us; who makes us ponder, when brave enough, the loss of an intangible era that we can never get back. We have forgotten it; we have forgotten her.

'Little Mary 'when she was truly little-- nine years old--
 during "Uncle Tom's Cabin," although the look in
her eyes already registers a startling maturity. 

It is strange to note that the woman who became synonymous in her lifetime with the majesty of the USA was actually  a purebred Canadian. Gladys Louise Smith was born in Toronto on April 8, 1892. Her father, John Charles, was a charming, lackadaisical, and undependable man, who left most of the family burden on the sturdy Charlotte Hennessy's able shoulders. Charlotte used her knack for sewing to keep the family afloat, and this talent came in handy when John disappeared to the local bars or disappeared period-- leaving his wife alone with three children: Gladys, followed by Lottie and Jack. The struggle for income, for survival, is a beastly thing that separates man from mouse. After John Charles died, due to a freak head injury, it was little Gladys who put on the family pants, as it were. Herein was established the incredibly close rapport  she shared with mother Charlotte. They were more than mother and daughter; they were partners, allies, friends, and a strange, obviously non-sexual pairing of husband and wife. Gladys vowed that she would get her family to a place where there was no more hunger, no more worry, no more scrambling to pay bills. As Jack was too young to understand these familial responsibilities and Lottie was too flighty and immature to carry them herself, Gladys bore them alone and too carried with her a continued guilt. Her duty was to her family, first and foremost, forever. It was a hefty burden for a six year old.

Jack and Lottie would complain that Gladys was a harsh taskmaster, calling her "the Czarina," but it was their eldest sister's fortitude that would save them from complete destruction. It turned out that Gladys, in addition to being a very lovely child, could also act. Charlotte did not begin as your run-of-the-mill stagemother. She hesitated about pushing Gladys before the foot-lights. But, the determined Gladys wanted to help. At the age of eight, due to a fortunate connection with the stage manager of the Cumming Stock Company, both Gladys and Lottie were offered small roles in "The Silver King." Charlotte, in addition, played the piano to give the audience mood music. The family never looked back. They were bona fide theater people. Slowly, Gladys earned more roles, which became increasingly larger and more emotionally demanding. Lottie and Jack participated when they could, but neither had the natural talent nor discipline that Gladys possessed. The family traveled with different troupes on various circuits, with everyone pitching into the family money pot. Mary, due to her own brief but poignant life experience, had a natural ability of empathy and translation. She easily felt the emotions of her characters and followed direction well. She liked the excuse of yelling, stomping her feet, or sobbing uncontrollably, as she usually had to keep her feelings under wraps in life. The more experience she gained, the bolder she became, and more than one director was approached by the pint-sized girl-- who never surpassed 5'--  who asked for a bigger role or a better opportunity. As such, she was soon playing "Little Eva" in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," then appearing on the Great White Way credited as "Baby Gladys." This was life and death, after all. She had mouths to feed, and shyness had long since flown the coop.

On stage in "The Warrens of Virginia" with Charlotte
Walker and Richard Storey.

Her greatest professional triumph in her youth was working with the infamous master of the stage, the ever-eccentric "Bishop of Broadway," David Belasco. The intimidating man was approached by the persistent Gladys who sat in his office and refused to leave until she was seen. The fresh innocence of her face mixed with the contrast of her fiery determination-- despite her later admitted inner nerves-- made her a tempting collaborator. Below him, looking up with big, hazel eyes was an angelic beauty with an astounding maturity and a head for business to boot. She declared that it was time for her to get serious about earning a real living, because she was "the father of [her] family." David changed her name to "Mary Pickford," and cast the fifteen-year-old young woman in "The Warrens of Virginia." Finally, she could consider herself a real actress! As with many of her future male directors and authority figures, she would butt heads with Belasco, who enjoyed indulging his God complex on many of the victims in his repertory. Mary wasn't immune, she would cry, but she would also stand up for herself and threaten to walk out if she were being mistreated, underpaid, or disrespected. Male figureheads were beguiled, irritated, and secretly enchanted by her unattainability. Yet, despite her growing resume, Mary hit a rough patch in her career when she entered her late teens. She was not yet old enough to portray a leading lady, and the roles of youth had now been outgrown. To continue working steadily, she glumly took a step down on the career ladder to enter the slap-shod, classless medium of the movies. Ironically, this venue would give her the opportunity to consistently earn a living by primarily playing little girls far below her age range.

In The New York Hat, her last short for Biograph.

The man to give her a leg up was Kentucky-bred director D.W. Griffith, whose reaction to her was much the same as Belasco's. The unknown, inexperienced teen came to Biograph looking for acting work and demanding a hefty paycheck because she was a "real actress who had worked with David Belasco." Griffith was hypnotized!  He tried ineptly to seduce her, assuming she was like all of the other desperate chickens who came tip-toeing through the Biograph door, but Mary was unaffected by his clumsy, arrogant charms. Plus, he was married. She was there to work, she declared, and that was just what she did. She was plugged in several shorts, in major and minor roles, until she grew in popularity. She was unlike the typical, demure Griffith prototype. He preferred delicate, angelic women-- infantile Southern Belles. Mary had a a feistier temper, and it was her strength and unconscious pre-feminist attitude that would so endear her to audiences. After Florence Lawrence left the studio for other ventures at IMP, the still nameless Mary, (as all performer names were kept under wraps in those days), was labeled "the Biograph girl." Fans looked for her familiar face incessantly in any new release. They loved her-- her sass, her sweetness, her hair!!! She too had fallen in love, both with the art of film acting and with constant co-star Owen Moore, a man possessing many of the attributes of her father, two of which were charm and alcohol.  Perhaps seeking escape from her dutiful daughter role and looking for a life of her own, Mary took a gamble on the man who had won her heart. The duo secretly eloped on January 7, 1911. Despite the romance of this tempestuous move, Mary, who was not yet nineteen, was immediately wracked with guilt. She returned home that evening to her oblivious mother and siblings, maintaining her dark secret, while her new husband spent his wedding night alone.

Eventually, the truth came out, Charlotte flew into hysterics, Lottie and Jack wept, and the Pickford-Moore wedding was consequently doomed. The union would putter on for nine more years, but it was basically a marriage in name only. The two spent little time together, and the times that they did were more tense than blissful. Mary's devotion remained with her kin and most specifically with her mother, who was essentially her business partner. In addition to the wedge of family between them, Owen also had to contend with Mary's growing popularity and public coronation as "America's Sweetheart." As her fame increased, so did his drinking. Mary's solution and safe ground was always her work. It was Flo Lawrence who was labeled the first movie star, but it was Mary who redefined the term. Once the name Mary Pickford was presented to the world, it seemed to be the only one worth knowing. Mary possessed a presence on the screen that people could trust. She portrayed young women who were chaste and virginal, pure of heart and darling, even if a little uncouth. She was diminutive, which rendered her non-threatening to the opposite sex, though there was a subtle sexuality underlying her performances. She was warm and vulnerable, which made her endearing to the older generation, who looked upon her as a lovable granddaughter. She too was an inspiration to women, who watched her fearlessly hold her own against various villains, hold the reins of her romantic relationships, and sometimes get mad as a hornet, kick, stomp, and even haul a shot-gun. 

Mary in 1914's Heart's Adrift, one of her first features for Famous-Players
Mary adapted the scenario from a magazine herself, as she often did in
 the early days when one wore many hats in the business.

As shorts became features, Mary further cultivated her specific place in cinematic history by performing as the back-woods Tess of the Storm Country (in 1914 & 1922) to the less fitting Madame Butterfly. She played rich girls and poor girls, sweethearts and hillbillies, but the common denominator was always her spunk and her pathos. She had life and death. A gifted comedienne, she could bulge her eyes and purse her mouth like nobody's business, but it was more than mugging. Her acting, which certainly still bore the mark of the exaggerated, silent style of interpretation, was also ahead of its time. She was natural. Her emotions rang true. Her viewers could see the world in her eyes, whether they relayed softness, anger, or despair. She had charisma, something that even a modern viewer cannot ignore. She was a "star" before the world understood what that meant. Strangely, she is often portrayed by modern scholars as being backward or anti-feminist-- a representative of the male wish of passivity, youthful beauty, and complacence. Her legendary golden locks are sometimes viewed as chains and shackles, keeping women trapped under foot, rather than a lustrous extremity and symbol of feminine beauty. Such is not so. One cannot watch her use her intelligence to save her true love's life in Romance of the Redwoods nor witness her sludge a train of children through the swamp in Sparrows, among alligators no less, and not see a hero. When Mary stood, she stood alone. If a man happened to be nearby, good for him. Love was always secondary to her independence and spirit. She could and did consistently hold her own.

Even still, it would be nice if she could find a worthy man to go toe-to-toe with her one-woman-army...


  1. Mary - the first ever Queen of Hollywood. Great choice!!!

    1. Yes, indeed! Hahaha. Glad you approve! :)

    2. Wonderful post! Thanks to you and a handful of others who keep writing about her, I feel like Our Mary is finally starting to get some of the recognition she deserves. Looking forward to reading Part 2!

    3. Thank you! The next portion should be out in the next few days. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

  2. I'm so excited for a whole month of Mary Pickford! She is one of those stars I always wanted to be better acquainted with, but never got around to it. Great opportunity!

    1. Thanks, Marcela! The more you get to know, the more you'll love her. :)