Episode Five: Mary Pickford

Welcome back to Women of Hollywoodland, the podcast that explores the feminist dawn of Hollywood. We’re on episode number five, and we are talking about perpetual ingunée, formidable businesswoman and inventor of the baby spot – it’s America’s very first sweetheart, Mary Pickford.


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Episode Transcript:

Firstly though, thanks so much for tuning in again after our wee inadvertent hiatus – I’ll be completely honest, the most amazing idea for a novel came to me and my whole spring was turned upside down as I dropped everything to write it. I’ll have some news on its release, if you’re interested, by next week’s episode. But now, I have a glorious few weeks to dedicate to all things Hollywoodland, so you have six weeks of the Women of Hollywoodland headed your way, to be followed by an entire season dropped in one day of a podcast exploring the Fatty Arbuckle scandal from a feminist perspective.

There’s a video up on the Facebook page with a bit more information on that – just search for HollywoodlandthePodcast on Facebook or find it via hollywoodlandseries.com. Right – last bit of housekeeping: this week’s thank yous for sharing and reviewing, PaulDLondon, Toby Hokin and Emma Dixgård. If you’re enjoying this show and would like it to continue, the best way you can ensure that is to help spread the word. Share, tweet, blog, shout it out your car window, tell the person sitting next to you on the bus. If you want to hire a skywriter, I’m just saying I wouldn’t object.

Anyway, on with this week’s episode. Mary Pickford. I have a slight dilemma with Mary Pickford. Okay – I’ll start by dispelling – or at least semi dispelling – a myth about her. Mary Pickford is one of those names that, along with Chaplin, most people have kind of heard of even if they don’t know much about the silent era. And generally the impression they have of her is this cutesy wee girl shrieking for help in the kind of overwrought melodrama often assumed to be typical of the period. Well firstly, hopefully this series has already seen off the myth that silent films were mostly overwrought melodramas. We know know that Lois Weber was tackling social injustice and Mabel Normand was taking the piss out of hapless men, and Universal was churning out high octane Westerns and thrillers.

Secondly, the Mary Pickford character (obviously she played a variety of characters, but they — with a few exceptions which I’ll discuss in a bit — could be fairly said to have fallen under the banner of ‘Mary Pickford character’) – yes she was pretty and ‘good’ in the conservative sense, and she didn’t overtly ruffle any Victorian ideals of femininity feathers – but she wasn’t helpless. As eminent Hollywood historian Kevin Brownlow puts it in The Parade’s Gone By:

Whenever a situation got out of hand, she would not submit to self-pity. She would storm off and do something about it, often with hilariously disastrous results.

He goes on

The idea American girl is still the Mary Pickford character: extremely attractive, warm-hearted, generous, funny – but independent and fiery-tempered when the occasion demands.

Just to put the whole ‘extremely attractive’ into context, this book was written in 1968.

Her characters were literally independent. They were often orphans, and while she might be rewarded with a promise of romance at the end – in 1919’s Daddy Long Legs, for example – she was rarely married on screen. This is particularly interesting because, one of the – many- problems we have today with female characters, is that they are inevitably defined or given status from their relationship to a man.

Look at the latest Bond film, for example. There was this huge song and dance about how Spectre was going to feature feminist Bond girls – and both characters were arguably steps in the right direction, but they were, respectively, someone’s wife and someone’s daughter. Neither man even appears on screen, which makes it even more pointless that they have to be mentioned at all. They may say that no man is an island, but in Hollywood, men are islands all the time – women on the other hand, not so much.

But Mary Pickford was. Molly Haskell, in From Reverence to Rape – the treatment of women in the movies, describes her on screen image:

Even at her most arch-angelic, Pickford was no American Cinderella or Snow White whose only claim to consequence was a tiny foot or a pretty face. She was a rebel, who, in the somewhat sentimental spirit of the prize puppy as underdog, championed the poor against the rich, the scruffy orphans against the prissy rich kids. She wa a little girl with gumption and self-reliance who could get herself out of trouble as easily as into it.

And yet for all that, as Molly Haskell points out elsewhere, Mary Pickford films didn’t in any way challenge Victorian morality. She embodied a child-like, virginal innocent ideal of womanhood that by the early twenties, was already pretty old fashioned. On screen, Mary Pickford was entirely non threatening to the type of person easily spooked by the notion that women are autonomous beings – she didn’t even bob her hair until 1929.

And that’s where we come to my dilemma. Bear with me here, but I kind of call it the Paris Hilton dilemma. Do you remember, what, ten years or so ago, when Paris Hilton was the big thing, pre Kardashians and all that. She was on that show with Nicole Richie and her persona was this baby voiced, ditzy halfwit. I came across an interview with her around that time, and she was quoted as saying something like, do people not realise that’s just a character I put on for the show? I’m a businesswoman, a producer on the show, I’m basically laughing all the way to the bank that people think I’m stupid.

And I was like… huh. Is that some kind of feminist gotcha to take advantage of the negative way society views women and turn it into cash, or is it deeply frustrating and disappointing for a woman to perpetuate the stereotype of women as ditzy halfwits just because she, individually, is able to profit from it.  I lean towards the latter, I have to say, and I kind of have the same reservation with Mary Pickford.

As I’ve already laid out, even on screen her persona had more substance than Paris Hilton’s,  but all the same it very deliberately didn’t challenge comfortable notions of femininity in the way that Mabel Normand doing pratfalls in a swimsuit did. I talked about this in her episode, but Mabel Normand suffered for it. It wasn’t difficult for rumours about her being a drug fiend and involved, in some vague way, in shooting scandals, to take hold, because she was somewhat subversive on screen. Mary Pickford on the other hand, very deliberately toed the line – she played the patriarchy’s game and she won.

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto —  yep, the original America’s Sweetheart was in fact Canadian — in 1892, or 1893 or 94, depending on which of her official studio bios you believe. She was the eldest of three: both Lottie and Jack Pickford followed their sister into acting, though neither reached their heights of success. Their father, John Smith, an alcoholic died when Gladys was just five years old, leaving the family in dire poverty. Most bios are a little bit vague on exactly how Gladys started acting – one, Pickford, the woman who made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield claims that her mother took in boarders to make ends meet, and one of them was a stage manager suggested Gladys for a part at the Princess Theatre in Toronto.

What is universally agreed upon is that by the age of eight Gladys’ acting career made her the family’s breadwinner, a role she maintained throughout her life.

At fifteen she took herself off to New York with her sights set on Broadway. After pestering producer David Belasco with letters and photographs, she was able to wire her mother: “Gladys Smith now Mary Pickford engaged by David Belasco to appear on Broadway this fall.”

Mary told Kevin Brownlow:

“I went into pictures in 1909. Nobody ever directed me, not even Mr Griffith. I respected him, yes. I even had an affection for him, but when he told me to do things I didn’t believe in, I wouldn’t do them.”

Already her business acumen was in evidence: it was fairly standard in those days to pay actors $5 a day – bear in mind there weren’t any stars yet, audiences wouldn’t even known actors names for another two years. But after just one day in Griffith’s studio, Mary demanded – and received $10 a day. In 1909 she appeared in 51 films at Griffith’s Biograph Studio, later saying: I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities … I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.

And she was quite right – by the end of the year she was Biograph’s preeminent star, known as “the Girl with the Golden Curls.” At the end of 1909 she went out to California still with Biograph, though the following year she starred in a few films for Carl Laemle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company (as you might remember from the Lois Weber episode, that was to become Universal). She returned briefly to the stage briefly in 1911, before Adolf Zukor brought her to Famous-Players-Lasky (later to become Paramount) to star in Tess of the Storm Country. Mary later said: “They thought I was just another actress, but when I made Tess of the Storm country that was really the beginning of my career. The picture saved the company; Mr Zukor told me later that he had taken his wife’s necklace and his own insurance to pay salaries.

As her star power rose, Mary Pickford led the way in negotiating better and better deals for herself. She was the first actor to recognise her literal value to a production, and ensured that she was paid accordingly.

Because most films were shorts in those days, they tended to be sold in programs of three or four, and it quickly became practice to wrap a couple of riskier movies around a proven star vehicle. In 1916, her mother apparently overheard a couple of Paramount salesmen discussing the fact that as long as there was a Mary Pickford film on a given program, they could sell anything. It was no coincidence that very soon after, Mary signed a new contract that doubled her previous salary to $2,000 a week plus 50% of the profits from all her films with a guarantee of $1,040,000. This made her the very first actor – female or male – to sign a contract worth a million dollars.

For the next couple of years, it almost seemed as though she and Chaplin were on a mission to outdo one another in demanding more and more exorbitant salaries. Incidentally, there’s a fairly enduring rumour that Pickford was a fairly, shall we say, formidable personality. Other than one instance of Mabel Normand calling her a “prissy bitch” to a reporter, the only reports I can find of that aspect of her personality come from Chaplin, primarily his autobiography. I can’t help but wonder how much his opinion of her was influenced by the fact that she was over fifteen and wouldn’t sleep with him.

Either way, Mary won the war when her 1916 contract not only made her the highest-paid star in Hollywood, but gave her the power to chose her own stories, director and cast. Mary Pickford the producer, was here.

Though Pickford never officially directed, as she took on more and more control over her productions, her competence in every area became more apparent. A cameraman who worked with her, Charles Rosher, explained to Kevin Brownlow: ‘The director would just direct the crowd. She knew everything there was to know about motion pictures.’

In 1917’s Poor Little Rich Girl, she was playing a ten year old when she was in her late twenties. After noticing the way the light reflected off the mirror lying on her vanity and made her face look younger, she asked director Maurice Tourneur to light her from below. The result was termed ‘the baby spot’ and it’s still used today.

Now we can’t have an episode on Mary Pickford without mentioning Doug Fairbanks. They were both married to other people when they met while selling liberty bonds to raise money for the First World War. As always with Hollywood legends there’s a dozen different versions of their first meeting, but my favourite is recounted in Cari Beauchamp’s Frances Marion biography Without Lying Down.

Frances and Mary, and Mary’s soon-to-be first husband Owen Moore went to a party where they met Doug Fairbanks and his soon-to-be first wife, Beth. Their friend Elsie Janis slightly knew the Fairbanks so she introduced them all and it was decided that they would all go for a walk outside. During this walk, the group encountered a river and the only way to get across was to balance along  floating logs a bit like the roadrunner. Mary was wearing a tight black velvet skirt, white satin blouse and white kid boots, but gamefully tackled the logs. When she was about halfway across she froze in panic and Doug appeared at her side to quite literally sweep her off her feet.

Doug Fairbanks was, according to Anne Helen Petersen, “the boy next door and the cowboy – the very embodiment of the American west, with its conflicting suggestions of wildness and honour.” He was the only male dramatic star to rival Pickford and they made this beautifully balanced couple: where she was clever and ambitious, he was exuberant and happy-go-lucky. She was intellectual, he was athletic; she always knew what fork to use, he entertained party guests by swinging from chandeliers.

Mary’s friends Frances Marion and Anita Loos were a bit concerned by how quickly she fell for Doug and the consequences of the impending scandal if news of their affair got out, but they were pleased to see Mary so happy. As Cari Beauchamp puts it in Without Lying Down:

Frances thought Owen (her first husband) put Mary down to build himself up where Dough saw being with her as a vrification of his own worth.

Ultimately both Frances and Anita helped out keeping the affair under wraps: Frances wrote scripts for Mary as we know, and Anita was Doug’s screenwriter, so they would arrange to go riding, for example, with their respective writers and just so happen to run into each other.

Of course it eventually got out, and it’s testament to both of their star power that they were able to negotiate leaving their respective spouses to marry one another, with barely a whisper of scandal from even the Bible Belt. Owen Moore didn’t help himself by saying things like “My wife has always seemed to me to be little more than a child” to reporters, while Beth Fairbanks accepted a sizeable alimony on the agreement that she would fade into the background. Still though, it was impressive in a time when most of the media at least paid lip service to Victorian morality. Just two months after their marriage Photoplay ran a story on “when friendship turned to love” and the narrative was sealed.

Doug and Mary became the undisputed King and Queen of Hollywood, entertaining almost nightly at their Beverly Hills mansion Pickfair, which Life Magazine described as a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House… and much more fun.” That said, Marion Davies, mistress of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and quite the party girl, said in her autobiography: “She did give good parties – a little bit on the dignified, but otherwise alright. You couldn’t take off your shoes and dance like you could at Lord Beaverbrook’s house in London.”

A few months before Mary and Doug married, they founded, along with Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith, United Artists, in 1919. While there had by then been a couple of production deals given to actors under the auspices of their studio, this was the first instance of creatives having total control over their own studio, prompting the famous quotation by Richard A Rowland, an executive at the Metro Film Company: “the lunatics have taken over the asylum.”

But Rowland was soon proven wrong: United Artists thrived, and as you no doubt know, is still alive and kicking today. In 1920, Pickford took advantage of the freedom that being her own producer gave her, and announced that from then on she would only make one picture a year, in order to focus on quality. She and Frances Marion had been collaborating for several years at this point, and that year they made Pollyanna together, which grossed over a million dollars. She continued to churn out smash hits throughout most of the twenties, including Tess of the Storm Country in 1922, Rosita in 1923, and Sparrows in 1926 and My Best Girl in 1927.

Whether it was because, as I mentioned earlier, she didn’t ruffle patriarchal feathers, or simply that she was so powerful that she was untouchable, but she was unscathed by this decimation of women’s careers that happened around 1922.

Mary Pickford’s undoing (such as it was, she died in the seventies still one of the richest women in America) – was adulthood. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was simply the nature of Hollywood. While she definitely stretched her dramatic wings where she could – most notably in 1918’s Stella Maris in collaboration with Frances Marion – she definitely played to type most often, and that type was wee girls. And I don’t just mean ingunée types, she played literal children much of the time. By the late twenties she was in her late thirties – it was time for her to grow up.

In 1929 she made headline news by bobbing her hair to play the lead role in her first talkie, Coquette. In it, she plays a reckless socialite whose reputation is ruined when she spends a night alone in a cabin with a man, even though they just talked. Her father fatally shoots the man, and later confesses he has done wrong before killing himself – it’s like if that Emma Stone, movie Easy A went really, really dark. Pickford won the very first Academy, but audiences failed to respond to her as a sophisticated pre-code gal.

You could form an argument that Hollywood doesn’t allow women to grow up, but I think in this case it would be more accurate to say that Hollywood doesn’t allow its stars to change. To me it’s kind of the difference between a movie star and an actor – and that’s not to knock movie stars’ acting ability per say, they deliver their type extremely well, but part of the deal you get with a movie star is that you know what to expect from them. Audiences were thrown by Pickford as a sophisticated adult woman just as we might be thrown by going along to a Tom Cruise film and he’s some vulnerable, sensitive guy who is scared of heights. Every time George Clooney has tried to break out of the suave/wise cracking/handsome dude character the movie bombs, so I don’t know if we can fairly say that it was sexism that didn’t allow Mary Pickford to grow up.

“I left the screen because I didn’t want what happened to Chaplin to happen to me,” she told Kevin Brownlow in the late sixties. “When he discarded the little tramp, the little tramp turned around and killed him. The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.”

Plus of course, we were now in a world of talkies. Mary Pickford once said that adding words to cinema was like “putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo” and she was far from the only silent star to peace out at the advent of talkies. Though she didn’t appear on screen again after 1933’s Secrets, she stayed active in various industry related and philanthopatic roles for the rest of her life.

She had been a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and stayed actively involved in it and was on the board of United Artists until she finally sold her shares in the mid-fiftes. In 1932 she was instrumental in creating the Payroll Pledge Program which financed the Relief Fund by deducting one half of one percent from the salaries of those making over two hundred dollars a week, and in 1941 she was one of the founders of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers.

So we’re back to the dilemma. Mary Pickford maybe perpetuated little-girl notions of femininity on screen, but in contrast with, say, Mabel Normand and Lois Weber, by doing so, she got to stick around and do a lot of good in a career spanning an entire lifetime. Was it a deal with the devil? I honestly don’t know, but I’d love to hear what you think. There’s a comment section on the episode page at womenofhollywoodland.com, or you could drop me a line at claire@hollywoodlandseries.com or else come and chat in our Facebook group, Hollywoodland Street Team.

As always, thank you so much for listemning. I hope you enjoyed it and that you’ll join me next week to chat about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes author Anita Loos. Thanks again, and see you next week!

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