Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gentlemen, Mary Pickford Doesn't Need Your Advice

In 1912, Mary Pickford, age 20, was working at Biograph Studios. D.W. Griffith was casting a short movie called The Sands of Dee.

Pickford wanted the lead and, since "abundant hair was a requisite," she thought she had a pretty good shot.




But, as she tells it in her 1955 autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, recently Griffith had also asked Pickford to wear a grass skirt in Man's Genesis. She'd refused to do any such hussy-ish thing as flashing her bare legs and feet to the paying public. Newcomer Mae Marsh, who immediately prior to Biograph had been working a counter at Bullock's Department Store, donned the grass get-up.

Perhaps Pickford's qualms strike you as quaintly Victorian. The Siren offers a reminder that in her heyday, Mary Pickford had a mind as shrewd as any ever to hit Hollywood:




You can see a clip of Man's Genesis here, although you may want to mute the sarcastic commentary. Musketeers of Pig Alley, it ain't. The upshot was that a wrathful Griffith gave Marsh The Sands of Dee as a rebuke to all who would refuse to sport grass skirts whenever Genius asked them to do so.

Pickford was peeved, as was Blanche Sweet's grandma, who fumed, "I don't see how she can possibly play the part. The girl hasn't any hair." But, for now, the joke was on them; Pickford admitted that Marsh was wonderful in Sands of Dee.

The future Queen of the Movies donned a hairshirt, so to speak: "If a little girl fresh from a department store could give a performance as good or better than any of us of who had spent years mastering our technique, then pictures were not for me."

She decided to go back to the theater. In this she was encouraged by the recollection of an encounter with the author of her breakout play, The Warrens of Virginia. She'd just started at Biograph, and William de Mille hadn't exactly been happy for her.



Unbeknownst to Pickford, de Mille also had written a letter to the legendary producer David Belasco, lamenting the young actress' career path to that point:

...Do you remember that little girl, Mary Pickford, who played Betty in The Warrens of Virginia? I met her again a few weeks ago and the poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously. She says she can make a fairly good living at it, but it does seem a shame. After all she can't be more than sixteen or seventeen and I remember what faith you had in her future; that appealing personality of hers would go a long way in the theater, and now she's throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement which hasn't a single point that I can see to recommend it. There will never be any real money in those galloping tintypes and certainly no one can expect them to develop into anything which could, by the wildest stretch of imagination, be called art.

I pleaded with her not to waste her professional life and the opportunity the stage gives her to be known to thousands of people, but she's rather a stubborn little thing for such a youngster.

So I suppose we'll have to say goodbye to little Mary Pickford. She'll never be heard from again, and I feel terribly sorry for her...

Pickford told her Biograph boss adios. Griffith responded in accents of doom: "Do you suppose for one minute that any self-respecting theatrical producer will take you now after spending three years in motion pictures?"

Mary Pickford retorted that next year, she'd be on Broadway in a Belasco production.




The theater season didn't start for a few months, so she remained at Biograph, where she was not under contract. One can deduce from Griffith's subsequent conduct that he was miffed. He'd just hired two promising sisters, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, whom Mary had known previously and introduced to him. In the perpetual way of bosses, Griffith played the newcomers against his recalcitrant star. He began one day of shooting with the gallant sally, "Pickford, why don't you get a nice costume like Gish's?" He ordered them upstairs to swap dresses. They knew what was going on, of course, and Lillian told Pickford that it was all right, she liked Mary's dress better anyway.

Once back on the set, though, Mary's blood was up: "It's too bad, Mr. Griffith, that you can't get a good performance without trying to come between two friends."

"That stung," wrote Pickford. Griffith called her a baby. Pickford yelled back, "Mr. Griffith, I don't like the way you direct and I never have. If you were a real director you wouldn't have to try to turn me against Lillian to get a good scene. Why don't you think of a more honest way of directing me?"

Griffith called her "a half-pint" and gave her a shove. Pickford tripped and wound up on the floor, calling him a "disgrace to the South" and "to the North as well." Griffith tried to help her up, she waved him off and stormed to her dressing room, where she began packing in a suitcase-banging manner calculated to be heard all over the set.

Griffith gathered his cast and crew and stood outside Pickford's door, leading them in a rendition of "So Long, Mary." She melted, they made up.

But she still left, immediately after making The New York Hat, the most successful thing she did for Griffith. You see, Mary had already lined up a new gig...with David Belasco.





One of Pickford's first actions after returning to Belasco, who had a hard-nosed reputation in his own right, was to negotiate a $25-a-week raise from her Biograph salary. That gave her $200 a week, a fortune in those days. (Years later Samuel Goldwyn remarked that "it took longer to make one of Mary's contracts than it did one of Mary's pictures.")

1913 found her starring on Broadway in Belasco's The Good Little Devil. It was a hit. Opening night in Philadelphia, Griffith was in the front row.




Little more than a decade later, in 1924, D.W. Griffith's increasingly mismanaged finances caused him to break ties with United Artists, the company he'd founded with Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks just five years before. United Artists spent the next decades establishing itself as the Pearl White of movie studios, seemingly always in some sort of peril; but Pickford sold her stock in 1956 for $3 million.



To return to 1913; Pickford had done precisely what she said she would. Problem was, she didn't like acting in plays. Or, rather, she discovered she loved film acting more: "the novelty, the adventure, from day to day, into unknown areas of pantomime and photography." Back she went to Hollywood, and signed with Famous Players-Lasky. The following year, the massive success of Tess of the Storm Country cemented Mary Pickford as the first superstar. As Scott Eyman put it, "Her public--indeed, the whole world--loved her as no actress will ever be loved again."

William C. de Mille kept his lower-case "d" but followed brother Cecil B. D. to Hollywood, where he directed more than 50 films (most of them, aside from Miss Lulu Bett, now lost).

In 1929, the man who in 1909 told David Belasco that no one could expect these "galloping tintypes" to develop into art co-hosted the inaugural awards ceremony for an outfit calling itself the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The other host was Douglas Fairbanks, Mary's second husband.



The following year, de Mille hosted solo, and presented the Best Actress Oscar to Mary Pickford, for Coquette.

39 comments:

Karen said...

I greatly enjoyed this post, Siren -- I'm not a huge fan of the silent era, but I do love a good story, especially one featuring a feisty femme. That Mary Pickford was quite the firecracker!

The Siren said...

Karen, something reminded me of that de Mille letter and I found myself re-reading Sunshine and Shadow; and the irony of the wind-up, which Pickford didn't bother to point out in her book, really hit me. It makes a neat tale, doesn't it. And a nicer prelude to Oscar than the rants I've been doing for two years running now!

Vanwall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vanwall said...

Pickford was my Grandma's favorite movie star - she used to live on a ranch near Golden, Colorado, (she watched Buffalo Bill Cody's funeral procession pass by on its way to Lookout Mountain, no less) where Mary Pickford would stop by and purchase fresh eggs and veggies one summer - she was described as 'a very gracious young lady', and impressed the heck out of my Grandma. Grandma was still a little girl, and one day had her latest litter of puppies out; Pickford liked one, and bought it. Grandma remembered it like it was yesterday when we talked about it in her 90's.

The Siren said...

Pickford had good manners, although obviously it wasn't a great idea to make her angry.

P.S. I had slightly mucked up a date on the de Mille letter so I corrected it; also, I found the conclusion of his letter in the Eyman bio and could not resist including it. Both Sunshine and Shadow and Eyman's book are out of print, but not that hard to find.

Lokke H. said...

What I liked most about the story was that it was presented from the point of view of the people involved at the time it happened. It's easy to look back more after something happens--in other words, 'after the fact, therefore because of the fact,' but the interesting thing about Mary's decision was that at the time, who really knew what was going to happen? Great piece.

Casey said...

Cool story, Siren. Interesting that at a time when most of the world saw film as a cheap novelty, Pickford had the vision to embrace it.

The Siren said...

Thank you Casey!

One more thing: I am not crazy about picture captions as y'all have probably deduced after almost 8 years of me not identifying stuff, but I should clarify that the "Tess" still near the end of this post is from Pickford's 1922 remake. I haven't seen the 1914 version and the few stills on the web are pretty dire-looking. I liked the spirit of the one I used.

Sing said...

Such fun, dear Siren. The moral of the story is that one should never underestimate a half-pint (says one herself).

yojimboen said...

…And a nicer prelude to Oscar than the rants…
How could I possibly resist that challenge?
(Hi, ladies, I’ve missed you.)
Fresh inside dish re the coming ASCAP Madcap Follies (a close friend is in the orchestra): Look out for host Seth MacFarlane’s big number entitled “We’ve Seen Your Boobs!” wherein he lists all the major lady stars (and the film titles) who have graced the screen topless in the last decade or so…

My musician friend added, at the end of the song’s rehearsal, MacFarlane exited stage right muttering, “There’s another 22 women who’ll never sleep with me…”

yojimboen said...

ASCAP Madcap?? What the hell is that? I'm way out of practice. I meant of course the forthcoming AMPAS Rumpus.

The Siren said...

Thanks Lokke and Tinky too. It's always the longtime blog pals who turn up for a silent-film post. :)

Y., you were very much missed in turn. I think the Oscars have taken the fight out of me. This year, no lie, they even took "85th" off the name of the thing because, the official explained, that made it sound "musty." I give up. I may just watch "The Big Knife" instead.

david barbour said...

A lovely story, Siren, but in a funny way it made sad. The windup made me recall that it took the Motion Picture Academy until 1976 -- an obscenely long time -- to present her with a lifetime achievement award. By then, the poor thing -- seen via live hookup from Pickfair -- looked like she barely knew what was happening. I wish the academy wouldn't wait until someone is just this side of the grave before choosing to honor him or her.

DavidEhrenstein said...

MORE reason why I hope they give this year's Bst Actress Oscar to Emmanuelle Riva. She's coming to L.A. for the ceremony -- which will be on her birthday.

The Siren said...

David E. (and David B. too) -- I also hope the award goes to Riva, or to be blunt, ANYBODY other than Jennifer "I'm Not Going to Watch a F---ing Boring Silent Movie" Lawrence. Give it to Seth McFarlane if they have to. Anybody but her.

yojimboen said...

Ma très Chère Madame, The Big Knife is 111 minutes long,
THIS is only 4.51 – (less if you jump forward to 3.30).

(The older I get, the more I fear that in the not-too-distant future, the only art form remaining on Planet Earth will be YouTube.)

The Siren said...

Oh my goodness that is 4:51 of heaven. Even atrociously bad movies aren't as good as they used to be...

Jeff Gee said...

There's a recent two minute interview, with the screenwriter of "The Oscar," Harlan Ellison, and he's STILL shell shocked at the reviews, 45 years later. "It gets half a fuckin' star!!"

gmoke said...

Jean-Louis Trintignant was at least as good as Emanuelle Riva in "Amour" and got no recognition at all that I could see. The interplay between them was magnificent but she is getting all the credit. Not her fault. I do wish somebody else would speak up for her co-star however.

yojimboen said...

I agree completely about Trintignant, but he's by no means out in the cold. He, Riva, the director and the film are all nominated for Cesar Awards (tomorrow night in Paris). The odds-makers are expecting a sweep.

david barbour said...

Re The Oscar: A friend of mine gets a crowd together once a year to watch it, just before the Academy Awwrds. He is very fond of reminding me that we're all climbing a glass wall called success.

mas82730 said...

Aw, c'mon, Siren. I wanna hear you rant about the Oscars. I mean you've already ripped J. Lawrence a new one!

yojimboen said...

Friday 2.40 pacific time, Cesars awarded for best orig screenplay and best director go to Michael Haneke for Amour.

(Best foreign film is Argo.)

yojimboen said...

Five minutes later, Riva wins best actress.

yojimboen said...

Cesar for best film...
Amour

yojimboen said...

Yes!!! Trintignant!
Cesar for best actor.
It's a sweep!

Jeff Gee said...

"...You finally made it, Jean-Louis Trintignant! Cesar night! And here you sit, on top of a glass mountain called "success." You're one of the chosen five, and the whole town's holding its breath to see who won it. It's been quite a climb, hasn't it, Jean-Louis Trintignant? Down at the bottom, scuffling for dimes in those smokers, all the way to the top..."

gmoke said...

In Hungarian folktales, you climb the Glass Mountain beyond the Operencia Sea on a horse with diamond horseshoes.

Oddly enough, Pizarro's cavalry used silver for horseshoes while conquering Peru but the metal was too soft and wasn't a good substitute for iron.

mas82730 said...

Re the hilarious new (Oscar rehearsal?) banner -- is everyone staring either in lust or disgust at Leigh's twin torpedoes?

yojimboen said...

For the record, it was 1958.
Back row l to r: Shirley Jones, Van Johnson, Mae West, Rock Hudson, Marge & Gower Champion; front row: Janet Leigh, Rhonda Fleming, Bob Hope, Shirley Maclaine.
Here’s the rest of the Life magazine shoot.

yojimboen said...

Jennifer Lawrence??
Jennifer f**king Lawrence???

The Siren said...

Dear Yojimboen, I confess it: I thought you were pulling my leg about the "We Saw Your Boobs." If only I had trusted you, I'd have had a scoop...of sorts. But no, I thought, the Scotsman is playing me for a fool, doing that "wry-deadpan-fool-the-Murrican" bit.

And yeah, whatEVER to Little Miss "I Eat Squirrel Stew So I'm Authentic."

McMullen said...

I so wanted Emmanuelle Riva to win last night, my biggest disappointment, but that's the Oscars for you. The banner pic is priceless! Janet Leigh looks like one of Austin Powers' fembots, while Shirley Jones looks disgusted and Rhonda Fleming amused - I love Janet, but perhaps not her best look? Marge Champion looks like a nurse and Mae West is sandwiched between Rock Hudson and Van Johnson! Ahh Rock - what a magnificent looking man!

yojimboen said...

Ah, dear lady, you should know by now only half the lies I tell aren't true...

The Siren said...

McMullen, I believe this was the year Rock and Mae sang "Baby It's Cold Outside." Ah, those were the days when "suggestive" also had a dose of real kink...

Y., for serious, I was all ready to tell people about the boobs number and then I thought, no way, he's not getting me THAT good. The best thing about McFarlane's parting line was that it's now true of probably every woman in that theater.

Lemora said...

Multiple Thank You's to the Siren and Yojimboen for reminding me about "The Lady Vanishes." I just saw it and loved it! This was my first time seeing Margaret Lockwood in her ingenue period, before she started playing villainesses with hair horns and outsized lipstick in the forties. However, I couldn't resist "The Wicked Lady." Didn't these people EVER lock the outer doors to their secret passages? And I loved the Life Magazine candid photos of the 1958 Oscar rehearsal. What was with Janet Leigh's outfit!? Was it in her contract that her chest had to stand perpetually at attention? I keep thinking of that ghastly song at the recent Awards show! And her white kirtle costume in "The Vikings." Now, I'm going to catch "Night Train To Munich."

mas82730 said...

Yojimboen, Thanks for naming names. I never would have guessed Gower and Champion or Rhonda Fleming. But the divine Miss West will be identifiable in saecula saeculorum.

yojimboen said...

Please accept THIS white grape to cleanse our palates of any residual unpleasantness of the last few days (and the image of any actress currently under the age of 25).

Oliver said...

The phrase "galloping tintypes", a combination of contempt with the poetic, has lodged in my memory ever since David Robinson quoted it in The Chronicle of Cinema 1895-1995.