Friday, July 8, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1917—Part Two

To read Part One of this essay, click here.

Little Mary Takes Charge
Mary Pickford was already a star by 1917, of course—she'd been a star, in fact, before anyone even knew her name.

Known as "America's Sweetheart," Pickford was actually Canadian, born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto in 1892. Shortly after the death of her alcoholic father, the seven year old Gladys hit the stage, and along with her brother and sister, began to tour Canada and the United States regularly as part of a series of low-rent theater troupes.

Hoping to become a Broadway actress, Smith moved to New York in 1906 and changed her name to Mary Pickford. While she did land a few parts, by 1909 she was desperate for work and auditioned for a role in a D.W. Griffith film, and although she didn't get the part, Griffith offered her a contract at $10 a day with a guarantee of $40 a week—double the going rate.

In keeping with the practice of the times, Pickford received no billing for her efforts—not even the director received a credit in those days—but audiences knew what they liked, and though they didn't know Pickford's name, they—and the theater owners who paid to exhibit her films—clamored for more of "The Girl with the Golden Curls."

While at Biograph Studios, Pickford made over 130 short films with Griffith. But despite that early success and their later partnership (along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks) in forming United Artists, Pickford didn't much care for the "lordly" Griffith, and when he elevated newcomer Mae Marsh over her, she departed for the employ of Adolph Zukor, head of Lasky's Famous Players (later Paramount).

One of her earliest feature-length films for Zukor, 1914's Tess of the Storm Country, was a smash hit and made Pickford an international star.

Although audiences may have thought of her as the perennially adolescent "Little Mary," by the beginning of 1917, Pickford was a very grown up twenty-four and knew better than anyone what her fans wanted to see—better, certainly, than the men who ran the studio. After starting the year with an adult role—the leader of a Scottish fishing village in The Pride of the Clan, worth tracking down for the scene where she drives errant parishioners to church with a bullwhip—Pickford, over the objections of Zukor, chose a popular stageplay of the day, The Poor Little Rich Girl as her next starring vehicle.

Looking back now, the story of a girl who nearly meets with a tragic end would seem to be right in Pickford's wheelhouse, but the man initially chosen to helm the production, Zukor's top director Cecil B. DeMille, wasn't so sure, and when Pickford insisted her friend Frances Marion write the screenplay, the autocratic DeMille attempted to put his foot down.

Instead, it was Pickford who won the ensuing battle of wills, and when she successfully lobbied to have DeMille replaced with Maurice Tourneur, who had directed The Pride of the Clan, she may have been the first star in movie history to fire a director. She wouldn't be the last.

The basic story of The Poor Little Rich Girl—Gwendolyn's parents neglect her, their wealth isolates her, the family servants prey upon her—could easily have become the cheap, sentimental claptrap Zukor feared it would be. It works, though, thanks to Marion's script, Tourneur's direction and above all, Pickford's performance.

Frances Marion you know, if you've been following this blog for a while. From 1915 to 1933, the two-time Oscar winner was the highest paid and most respected writer in Hollywood, shaping the screen images of some of Hollywood's greatest stars including Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler—and, of course, Mary Pickford, writing seventeen movies for the latter between 1915 and 1921. Along with Anita Loos, Marion revolutionized the art of intertitle writing, turning dull exposition into clever bon mots worth the price of admission in their own right. More importantly, she grasped that movies were primarily visual, and she suggested ways of showing character and action that were uniquely adapted to the new medium. (Read more about her here.)

Marion's screen adaptation boasted an unprecedented blend of comedy and melodrama that worried the studio but delighted Pickford—indeed, the two women added comedic bits throughout filming, exasperating the fastidious Tourneur. On closer inspection, the comedy that so puzzled Zukor and Tourneur was really the writer's happy choice to draw Gwendolyn not as a saint or as a symbol, but as a real girl—by turns, impetuous, flighty, bored, sullen, but also curious, kind, imaginative and fun. Gwen is so appealing that by the time catastrophe strikes, the audience is deeply invested in her fate.

To create the illusion that Pickford, already tiny at five feet, was young enough to pass for a child, director Tourneur surrounded her with oversize sets and furniture, and hired tall actors whom he stood on platforms or in the extreme foreground, making them look even taller. He also shot several scenes of Pickford lying down in a bed or sitting in an over-sized chair where it's impossible to judge the relative heights of the other actors.

Remembered now, if at all, as the father of Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out of the Past), Maurice Tourneur proves here and in his follow-up film, The Blue Bird, that he was one of the most adept visual stylists of the period. Aside from his technical skill in helping Pickford pass for a young girl, a couple of fantasy sequences—Gwen's literal interpretations of a two-faced woman and bears on Wall Street—are well done and typical of Tourneur's style. (Both The Poor Little Rich Girl and The Blue Bird are preserved in the National Film Registry.)

But even with Marion's screenplay and Tourneur's technical skill, the film wouldn't work without the best "trick" of all—Pickford's ability to behave like a young girl would, not overplaying her part as if in a broad farce or a Victorian melodrama, just playing it. She kicks, she yawns, she flings mud at little boys, but far from coming across as a spoiled brat, she's a spunky underdog fighting arbitrary authority even as she longs for a normal childhood (something Pickford herself never had).

As Daniel Eagan writes in America's Film Legacy, "[I]t's a measure of her talent and appeal that she could make a child of privilege appear deprived."

Studio executives were horrified when they saw the finished film (you can see it for yourself here) and, convinced he had a very expensive flop on his hands, Zukor sent a chastened Pickford out west to make two films with the aforementioned Cecil B. DeMille—what fun that must have been for both director and star!

Andre Soares of Alt Film Guide picks the first, A Romance of the Redwoods—the story of an outlaw who steals a dead man's identity only to fall in love with the deceased's niece—as the best picture of 1917, and it is a fine picture, but I see it primarily as a showcase for Elliott Dexter. The second film, a World War I propaganda piece called The Little American, is, frankly, a mess, at the end pairing a typically charming Pickford with a would-be rapist rather than with a brave, self-sacrificing suitor for no better reason than that the former is played by a better looking actor than the latter.

In any event, neither film did much at the box office and meanwhile, a strange thing was happening with The Poor Little Rich Girl, which Zukor had released only to fulfill a contractual obligation to theater owners—audiences loved it, finding it by turns funny and poignant. Indeed, The Poor Little Rich Girl was one of the biggest hits of Pickford's career.

After that, Zukor gave up trying to control his star and instead signed her to a new contract, giving her $10,000 a week, 50% of her films' profits, and complete creative control.

"She knew what she was worth," wrote biographer Eileen Whitfield, "and she didn't hesitate to ask for it. She was a woman in complete control."

As a follow-up to The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford chose a similar subject, this time the Kate Douglas Wiggin novel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The story of a poor girl sent to live with a pair of maiden aunts—sort of a cross between Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott—is maybe the most typical example of the kind of movies Pickford made during the remainder of the silent era.

To handle the adaptation of the novel, Pickford again chose her friend and closest collaborator, Frances Marion. To direct, she selected Marshall Neilan, a journeyman whose movie career began when he sold a car to director Allan Dwan. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was the beginning of a brief but productive partnership with Pickford that produced her best film, Stella Maris, as well as Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, M'Liss, Daddy-Long-Legs and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall.

With the exception of her economic situation, Pickford plays the same sort of character as in The Poor Little Rich Girl—a feisty underdog who melts the stony hearts of everyone she meets. Her age here is a little ambiguous; the novel suggests Rebecca is "ten or eleven," but the film seems to indicate she's more like fourteen, still a stretch considering Pickford had celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday before filming began, but there are plenty of five foot tall fourteen year olds running around and in any event, her fans were more than willing to suspend disbelief.

After the unexpected success of The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford and Marion were determined to follow the same formula, including plenty of comedy bits—poking the preacher's snooty daughter with an umbrella, fainting dead away when a handsome young man buys 350 bars of the soap she's selling for a contest, reciting a scandalous poem for a town gathering—with a soupçon of pathos in the final act.

As usual, Frances Marion takes the opportunity to poke fun at social conventions such as mix-and-match morality—when confronted with competing aphorisms, "Thou Shalt Not Steal" and "God Helps Those Who Help Themselves," Rebecca opts for the latter to justify eating a piece of pie—as well as the withered humanity underlying so much of religious fanaticism.

Viewed back-to-back with The Poor Little Rich Girl, it's clear Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is the inferior film. The story is more episodic, the emotions touched on less intense. Nor was Neilan the visual stylist that Tourneur was—he drank too much and often left the direction to Pickford herself—but overall, it's a fun picture, and maybe the best at highlighting Pickford's lighter side. (In 1933, Pickford hired the by-then unhireable Neilan to direct what would be her last film, Secrets, then wound up firing him when he was simply too drunk to work.)

The finished product was box office gold, an even bigger hit than The Poor Little Rich Girl. In fact, the two films finished second and third on the list of the year's biggest grossing films, behind only Theda Bara's Cleopatra.

The "little girl" films of Mary Pickford aren't for everybody. A modern audience has little practice at accepting an adult actor in the role of a child and the effort doesn't work in every picture—for example, in The Little Princess, also from 1917, Pickford looks more like a wizened gnome than a little girl.

Too, the stories Pickford chose to tell—innocent tales completely devoid of irony—seem to be out of fashion these days, even at a studio like Disney. Indeed, Pickford herself chafed at the constant parade of little girl roles—"I'm sick of Cinderella parts," she once said, "of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover."—while remaining determined to give her fans exactly what they wanted, which they did to the tune of millions of tickets sold.

But if you're willing to give yourself to it, Pickford's little girls are bright, kind, spunky, mischievous—a blueprint for the Shirley Temple movies that were so popular during the Depression—and provide a chance to re-experience simple pleasures undistilled.

"Make them laugh, make them cry, and back to laughter," she said. "What do people want to go to the theatre for? An emotional exercise. I am a servant of the people. I have never forgotten that."

She won a competitive Oscar for acting in 1930 and an honorary one in 1976 "in recognition of her unique contributions to the film industry and the development of film as an artistic medium."

Pickford dominated the movie and cultural landscape for another decade, a superstar before there was such a word, with a string of box office hits, the financial acumen to found and run United Artists, and a celebrity that today's tabloid fodder can't begin to imagine, for example, drawing a crowd of 300,000 when she and Douglas Fairbanks honeymooned in Paris.

In fact, I'd say there's no equivalent to Pickford in today's Hollywood, and you'd have to combine three women—say, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Kate Middleton—to equal one Mary Pickford. And even then, you wouldn't come close to matching the lasting impact of her legacy on the art and business of film.

[To continue to Part Three, "The Chaplin Mutuals," click here.]


Jandy Stone said...

Great post! The rep cinema I volunteer at played The Poor Little Rich Girl last year sometime, but I missed the beginning and didn't want to jump in the middle. Hoping I get another chance to see it soon.

The power that Pickford and Lillian Gish and other actresses in the silent era wielded is pretty cool to read about. I saw Gish's The Scarlet Letter last week, with an intro by an Academy archivist, and she read a bit about Gish's determination to get the movie made, even though lots of religious groups at the time were against it - she gained their trust and convinced them to lift their ban on it (a prerequisite the studio had for making it) as long as she took responsibility for it.

Jandy Stone said...

Oh, I was also going to say - we may not have a lot of cases anymore of adults playing 12-14 year olds, but we certainly have plenty of cases of twenty-somethings playing high schoolers. I think most of the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was 24-29 when the characters were all 16-18. So some suspension of disbelief is still required, but you're right, a 14-year-old Mary Pickford character also skewed much more innocent/younger than a 21st century high schooler does.

Mythical Monkey said...

Good point -- as an example, I went and looked up the ages of the players in Easy A from last year. The students were in their early to mid-twenties. And looked it.

And, of course, Stockard Channing was 34 when she played a high school student in Grease. But then I always thought that was part of the joke -- she would have been miscast if she hadn't been 34.

I figure two things changed the notion that an adult could play a child -- sound and Shirley Temple. Which is an idea I'll have to play around with when I eventually write about Shirley Temple ...

boudu said...

Great post.

Where did you get the poster of 'Romance of the Redwoods'?