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 that ever 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 about Marsh's new plum, "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, wrote Pickford, 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 publicindeed, the whole worldloved her as no actress will ever be loved again."

William C. de Mille kept his lower-case "d" but followed brother Cecil B. capital-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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Anecdote of the Week: Runaway Romance, Hollywood Style

From The Moon's a Balloon, by David Niven, the story of a cross-country trip that begins after a tryst in the St. Regis Hotel in New York. The Great Big Star was, as you probably know, Merle Oberon.

By the autumn of 1936, I was very much involved with a GBS (Great Big Star)...The GBS was gorgeous and quite adventurous.

'Let's not fly back to California--let's take the sleeper to Detroit--buy a Ford and drive it out.'

She bought the car--I drove and the first night we spent together in Chicago.

She disguised her well-known face with a black wig and dark glasses and called herself Mrs. Thompson. In the lobby nobody recognized her. Though it was highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me, I went along with the game and called myself Mr. Thompson.

The desk clerk handed GBS a telegram, 'For you, Mrs. Thompson.' I was mystified.

'How could that happen?' I said.

'I promised Jock Lawrence I'd tell him exactly where we'll be all the way across in case the studio needs me urgently, then I can hop a plane.'


'Forget it,' said the GBS. 'Call him tomorrow--it's too late now.' We went to bed.

The next night we spent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

'Telegram for you, Mrs. Thompson,' said the desk clerk.


We didn't want the idyll spoiled even though the new signature gave me an eerie feeling of impending doom.

In North Platte, Nebraska, the wording was crisper--


Still we pressed happily on across the country, and the telegrams became more alarming at each step. The one at the Grand Canyon was very unattractive indeed--


The GBS was made of stern stuff--'He can't do that,' she said, 'and anyway he wants me for two more pictures. We'll call him when we get to California--not before.'

I was so besotted by the GBS that I even managed to enjoy the rest of the trip except when we turned off the main road in the middle of New Mexico and got stuck in the desert at sunset.

Finally, the ten-day trip ended and we crossed the State Line into California. From a motel in Needles, with great apprehension, I called Goldwyn.

'Do you know what you're doing, you stupid son of a bitch?' he yelled. 'You're doing about a hundred and thirty-five years in jail. Ever heard of the Mann Act and taking women across State Lines for immoral purposes? Think what Winchell would do to that girl, too, if he got the story--you're through I tell you...you're...'

His voice was pitched even higher than usual. The GBS leaned across the bedside table and grabbed the phone out of my hand.

'Sam, darling,' she purred, 'I've had a simply gorgeous time so don't be angry with David...I'll explain it all to you when we get back tomorrow...' She motioned me to go out of the room and finished her conversation alone. When she found me later, she said, 'Sam's sweet really, everything's okay again, you've been reinstated.'