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Friday, October 5, 2012

STAR OF THE MONTH: Mary Pickford Part 2

The brightest star in the universe, Mary Pickford.

By 1915, Mary Pickford probably had trouble remembering the little girl named Gladys Smith who had grown up in Toronto. Richer beyond her wildest dreams, more famous than royalty, and the best known woman on earth, she seemed to have the world on a string. Strangers recognized her and asked her for her autograph; people read her self-help columns and Q&A articles in the paper. Her career was soaring, particularly after she made the executive decision to team up with hard-edged studio magnate and cool customer, Adolph Zukor-- yet another man who was simultaneously impressed and appalled at Mary's hard-balling business tactics. Yet, the heights of stardom were bittersweet. Mary's marriage to the mentally, and perhaps even physically, abusive Owen Moore continued to crumble, and in addition, she had to constantly keep tabs on her alcoholic and shenanigan-prone siblings, Jack and Lottie, who seemed to be tag-teaming in a game called, "Let's get in trouble and drive Mary nuts!" She loved them, of course; they loved her. The public loved her. The crews loved her. Why didn't she feel loved?

The perfect opposite to Mary's constantly fretting, ever-working, overly depressed self was the ever-smiling, hopelessly manic, caution-be-damned Douglas Fairbanks. The duo would meet at a party thrown by Elsie Janis. In typical, heroic fashion, Doug had literally swept Mary off her feet when she had clumsily tried to cross a stream when walking about the grounds at the party. Owen's indifference and irritation during this episode only enhanced the attraction Mary felt for the charismatic (holy-biceps) Mr. Fairbanks. Doug was also immediately attracted to  Mary, though his interest at least initially probably had more to do with career ambition and mutual respect than romantic adoration. Doug walked with the swagger of a winner. A youthful underdog with a complicated relationship with his under-appreciative mother, Doug made up for any lurking insecurities by being larger than life! That meant living it up, staying fit, and conquering the world of acting. As Mary was the hottest ticket in town, Doug was more than eager to make her acquaintance, pick her brain, and perhaps even use her as an asset. He didn't expect to be so taken in by her intelligence, business knowledge, warmth, and surprising beauty. On the screen she was a little girl; in life, she made him hot under the collar. Mary too found herself thinking of Doug after their initial meeting-- of his attentiveness, his genuine interest in her, and how he was absolutely un-intimidated by her fame and popularity. (It is safe to say that it actually turned him on). Her original perception of him was that he was a brash, abrasive, man-child, who needed to take a chill-pill. Later, she would change her mind, saying, "To me, he was the personification of the new world."

Mary and Doug enjoy their honeymoon in 1920.

One hiccup: Mary was married, and so was Doug. The union to Owen Moore wouldn't seem too sinful to sever, but Beth Fairbanks was a genuinely kind and supportive woman, who was also the mother of Doug's son: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Both marriages were passionless, and Doug's was founded on more affection than love, but despite Doug and Mary's growing feelings-- heightened during the bond tour of the Great War-- divorce remained a dirty word. The scandal could forever destroy their careers. Would their love be enough? The rightness or wrongness of the act seemed not to matter. The two were driven together by a force seemingly greater than themselves, or perhaps that is just what they wanted to believe. After Doug's mother passed away, he was emotional and distraught-- very un-Douglike. He and Mary took a late night drive in his car, and he began sobbing on the wheel. At the moment Mary moved to comfort him, the clock stopped. It was fate! Or so, Doug believed. He swore that this was an omen passed down from his mother and that she approved of their union. "By the Clock," therefore, became their secret code phrase. Soon enough, the divorces were granted-- Owen stewed, and Beth graciously bowed out and started her life elsewhere with great dignity-- and Doug and Mary were wed. They expected boos. Hisses. Stones. They received cheers, adulations, and letters of congratulations! For two of the biggest personalities in the world to get together was... stupendous! They hunkered down at a little place called "Pickfair," spent their spare time entertaining royals and dignitaries, drank milk, set up their own studio, formed United Artists with Chaplin and Griffith, and slowly but surely took over a more than welcoming world.

Mary's fame exploded. Her war propaganda film The Little American united politics and cinema as never before. Her dual performance in Stella Maris broke and warmed hearts at the same time. While Doug went on to become the swashbuckler extraordinaire, Mary continued cultivating her dependable girl-next-door with a swift left hook persona in films as varied as Little Annie Rooney, Pollyanna, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Life was good. She and Doug, polar opposites and perfect partners, established at Pickfair a life of their own. Mary was still very connected to her family of course, who continued to annoy the bejesus out of Doug, but she was no longer as tethered as she had once been. In his castle, Doug could too rule on high with pride, produce epics of his choice, and come home to the woman of his dreams. Mary never hit it off with his BFF, Charlie Chaplin-- perhaps because they were both strong, assertive, and secretly insecure personalities in constant competition for Doug's affections-- but she accepted him because it made Doug happy, just as Doug accepted Mary and her alcoholic siblings and mother. The duo carried on, traveling to foreign countries, spending lavishly on jewels and cars, and living the American dream. True, it was an occasional nightmare. For example, Mary was nearly torn to ribbons by an "appreciative" crowd in England and saved only when Doug placed her on his shoulders and pulled her into their car. This terror was a rarity. Their mutual, determined work-ethic and impenetrable position in the business, their like-mindedness, made their marriage a match made in movie heaven. To watch cinema blend with life was, for America, like watching a dream come true.

The pint-sized Mary exerts her dominance yet again, head-butting Spec 
O'Donnell in Sparrows. Is it any wonder America lover her?

The Fairbankses ruled the roaring twenties, albeit in a less rebellious fashion. But as the decade came to a close, so too did their reign as Hollywood rulers seem to be coming to an end. The world of cinema was forever altered with the intrusion of sound in 1928. Many mistakenly believe that the fall of silent film idols is a result of their inability to translate, their lack of voice, or their lack of genuine acting talent. Erroneous. The trouble is that silent film is its own separate art. Telling a story in purely visual terms requires a certain kind of artist at the helm as director: one who was perhaps even more in touch with human psychology and how to use images in specific chronology to elicit emotion. Silent writers had to be quick and creative. They wrote 'scenarios,' not scripts; their partners in crime were the succinct, on-target 'title writers,' who summarized in title cards the dialogue that a generation of lip-readers rarely even needed. Silent actors? They had to be big. Their blend of naturalism and over-indication is misunderstood and misconstrued by the modern viewer. We worship real actors like James Dean and Gena Rowlands. Yet, if one imagines plopping either performer in a silent picture, they would struggle. Their slight insinuations, their subtle movements, would be missed-- glossed over. They would fade into the background. In this respect, silent stars were louder than their noisy followers. It was not sound alone that killed Mary Pickford's career; it was a changing world.

The romanticized, over-the-top imagination of the 1920s citizen was vastly different from a world shaken up by the great depression. The purity of Mary no longer had a place. The world turned dark. It called to gangsters' molls, prostitutes with hearts of gold (or not), deviant ladies, and good girls with a violent edge. The sound revolution certainly didn't help. Mary's voice wasn't poor, though it was clear that hubby Doug handled his dialogue much better in their first sound picture (and only co-starring film), The Taming of the Shrew, than she. Mary wasn't bad in the talkies, winning an Academy Award for Coquette (although many argued that this was more political than deserved). She had cut her long hair and was for the first time approaching mature female roles in earnest. She could still carry a film, she could still steal a scene, but her gift was not as strong with words as it was in the quiet. This is most vividly felt when one witnesses her quiet moments in her few sound pictures-- these are the only moments in which she doesn't appear to be acting. In this we see that she had to work too hard to undo the art that she had almost solely invented. After two decades of carving out a particular niche of entertainment and human interpretation, the rug was pulled out from under her, and she was forced to assimilate into a different kind of creator. It was like a oil painter trying to work with watercolors. The effect may be similar, it may be passable, but as Mary was no longer the expert in her field, her genius had diminished. She was also older. Too old to play little girls. She was still respected; her name still held sway. Yet, the era ended when the girl with golden curls was forced to speak. Some would say it was the end of cinema's brief period of, at least artistic, innocence.

A moving image of Doug and Mary on the stomping grounds of the 
Pickford-Fairbanks Studios. He was shooting The Black Pirate and 
she Sparrows. The image of their disappearing bodies 
becomes tragic in retrospect.

Doug suffered too. He and his Queen were old hat. New talent was arriving in town, and their own days were numbered. Working towards a common goal, the duo were unstoppable. Once their goal was wrenched from existence, they no longer knew how to respond to each other. They drifted. Doug dealt with the loss of his youth and the position that he had fought so hard to attain by consequently disappearing around the world on various tours and trips. Mary struggled for the first time with time itself. It was now totally free, and the woman who never knew how to do anything but work, didn't know what to do with the empty hours. She drank. She had been drinking for some time in secret to deal with her inner stresses and her chronic guilt complex, but the drinking escalated. The family disease had gotten a hold of her, and it would not let go for the rest of her life. Doug and Mary divorced, at least legally speaking, but although both wed new partners-- he Lady Sylvia Ashley and she the handsome, wholesome, and loyal Buddy Rogers-- they never truly let each other go. Mary continued on at Pickfair, often calling Buddy "Douglas" by mistake. Doug would visit Mary and ask her longingly and yearningly of their parting,"What went wrong?" When he passed away in 1939, the best of Mary went with him. He represented to her life at its fullest. She carried on for four decades, increasingly secluding herself in her room, rarely accepting visitors, and waiting for her own final fade out. Depressed and at a loss, wondering what happened to her life, she could be bitter about her past work, ashamed of it, and afraid that it didn't measure up to the bolder, modern films being made by fresh young actors. She threatened to burn all of her old prints. Praise God, she didn't!

Still rolling...

Mary Pickford died on May 29, 1979 and was buried in an extravagant tomb at Glendale Forest Lawn with her mother and siblings, all of whom had preceded her. She came, she saw, she conquered, and then... She disappeared. She had watched Hollywood transform from a land of orange groves to the terrifying mini-metropolis where Sharon Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson family. It was as if her world had slowly irised out, becoming smaller and smaller, until it had become but one of the many grains of sand decorating the landscape of our cultural history. What is big, time will always make small.  Now, the early relics of the nickelodeons, the flicker shows, or the two-reelers, remain only as unfamiliar memories or bits of national lore. It is as though they never existed at all. They are myths from a bygone age, by a people long since deceased and blowing as dust on the wind. Yet to witness them in all their majesty is to witness a phenomenon so vivid, so glorious, that it can at times take the breath away. Although the life of silent cinema was so brief, Mary was one of the few who made it so timeless, so powerful, so necessary. Who can imagine life without moving images today?

When Mary Pickford lost her livelihood, she lost herself. She could no longer escape into the one world in which she belonged, because it no longer existed. As the years pass, and more and more silent films become available to modern audiences or are re-released to younger generations, the ghost of Mary Pickford comes forth and allows us to disappear with her once again. Safe in the light of the projector, in the land she built of heart and celluloid, she maintains her hold on us, entreating us to join her on whatever shenanigan, voyage, or life lesson that she deems worthy to pass on. We always leave elated. We leave better people. Most importantly, up there on the screen, Mary has too found her peace. She is finally safe at home in a world even grander than Pickfair, because it is intangible, indestructible, eternal.


  1. what a wonderful read on Mary Pickford's life. It's always amazing when people rediscover her and her movies. It's a shame she never appeared in another movie after 1933. I think she would have had the ability to adapt if all the tragic events had never happened in her life. I'm looking forward to the blu-ray release of three of her films in November and the upcoming biography that Al Pacino's daughter is producing on Mary.

    1. Thanks, McSkillz! I'm glad to receive the heads-up on the Blu-Ray release! I will definitely put that in my Amazon wish-list, haha. I agree with you. She was an under-utilized talent. The best always leave us wanting more.

  2. Meredith, I really enjoyed your piece on Little Mary Pickford. I learned so much from it. From her marriages to her reign over Hollywood until the late 20's. Despite her power and influence, I think she was a nice person who was loyal to her friends. I refer to her placing a full page ad welcoming Mabel Normand back to Hollywood after her brief disastrous Broadway run. Mary took care of many people. Unfortunately I do not believe Mary's last years were happy ones. When I was stationed in So. Cal. in the mid-70's I would go passed Pickfair where she was holed up and forgotten by the community she had helped to create. I should have rang her bell and slugged back some Scotch with her. What a story I would be able to tell! Thanks

    1. Aw, I forgot about that kindness to Mabel. Mary was definitely a sweet lady. I wish you would have visited her! That would have been amazing! At least you still have that letter from Ms. Gish, right?! Haha. ;)