Thursday, April 5, 2012

Preserving The Past: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford And The Pickfair Studios

Those of you who have been following the Monkey for a while might remember that one of my favorite ongoing projects is the quest to see all the available Douglas Fairbanks movies—in chronological order, no less. Why? you might ask. To which I say, Why?!? Because he's Douglas Fairbanks, of course, the most unabashedly joyful actor ever to make a series of really entertaining movies!

So far, I've written thumbnail reviews of all his feature films from 1916 and 1917, his breakout years. You can read those reviews here and here.

Which brings us to 1918, and illustrates the single biggest problem with being a silent movie fan:

Swat the Kaiser (short)—presumed lost

Headin' South—presumed lost

Mr. Fix-It—print preserved at the George Eastman House; reportedly undergoing restoration, but otherwise currently unavailable.

Say! Young Fellow—presumed lost

Bound in Morocco—presumed lost

He Comes Up Smiling—presumed lost

Sic 'Em, Sam (short)—presumed lost

Arizona—presumed lost

That's quite a gap in the filmography of one of the silent era's biggest stars. You can only imagine what it's like trying to follow the careers of lesser known actors and actresses who didn't own their own studios.

And then there's his wife, Mary Pickford, who I think was, pound-for-pound, the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, simultaneously an international superstar, a studio owner, a producer, a de facto director, a multi-millionaire, an Oscar winner, and the queen of the Hollywood social scene.

And yet just try to buy her movies on DVD. Sure, there are some available, and at one point, the Pickford estate released her best films on a series of DVDs as part of the Milestone Collection released through Image Studios. But those DVDs are out of print and are now selling for $50+ on the internet. Fortunately, I taped most of these movies off Turner Classic Movies a decade ago, and can watch them on an old VHS player—but who wants to do that if they don't have to?

And, you know, she's Mary Pickford! If you can't buy her DVDs, what chance do you have of finding a Norma Talmadge DVD, say, out there in the marketplace? Many of her films are preserved in archives around the country, but beyond a bare handful of fairly unrepresentative films, just try to see them.

It is said that those who forget the past are destined to repeat it, which isn't exactly true—more like, those who don't study human nature through concrete examples from the past are destined to be perpetually taken advantage of. But I think you can say that those who don't bother with the best that the past has to offer are doomed to live dull and flavorless lives.

Which leads me to a plea, contained in a recent comment, from David Feldman asking the Monkey to join the grassroots movement to save the historic Pickfair Studios from imminent destruction.

Yes, Pickfair Studios—as in Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks—built in 1920 to serve as the filmmaking arm of United Artists, the independent film distribution company founded by Pickford, Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith the year before.

This month, the current owner of the Pickfair Studios, CIM Group, plans to raze the site's historic buildings. As Fairbanks' granddaughter Daphne so eloquently and angrily puts it, "This is a sacrilege—do the greedy people threatening this not have any pride in the history of Hollywood? Do they not have any respect for the founders of motion pictures, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford?"

Apparently not. But thousands of movie fans do. Will you count yourself among them?

Admittedly, there's a fine line between honoring one's history and fetishizing it, and I've been to places that were so keen on preserving their past that they left no room for a future. But I've also been to many, many more places that were in such a headlong pursuit of the new that there was no "there" there, just a carbon copy of every other bland, featureless place I've passed through and forgotten.

With the possible exception of Las Vegas, I doubt there's a city in the United States more dedicated to the "now" than Hollywood. And I get that. Long-term memory loss allows studios to bill the latest Adam Sandler movie as "the #1 comedy of all time!" to a gullible audience despite the existence of Some Like It Hot, Duck Soup or City Lights. And business is business.

But at some point, Hollywood should also recognize that it's not just selling a disposable product, a can of beans, if you will, consumed today, forgotten tomorrow. It's also selling an emotional involvement—with the actors, the stories, the hopes and the dreams—without which movies are just flickering images projected through strips of celluloid. And a historic place such as Pickford Studios is a tangible representation of that emotional connection.

To erase the history of movies is to erase the essence of what makes movies a lucrative product in the present and future.

That, of course, has never stopped Hollywood before, and many of the decisions made there to erase movie history have proven, financially speaking, to be foolishly short-sighted: allowing thousands of movies, including many classics, to rot into dust, thereby spinning potential gold into dross; selling its film libraries to television in the 1950s at pennies on the dollar; and tearing down every vestige of the past so that the only landmark left for a visitor to see in Hollywood is the Hollywood sign itself.

And you wonder why studio executives think the history of movies begins with Star WarsStar Wars: The Phantom Menace, that is.

But here is an opportunity for Hollywood to step up and not only do the right thing, but also do the smart thing.

Join the movement to save Hollywood's history.
Sign the petition urging the West Hollywood city council to block CIM's plan to destroy the Pickfair Studios.

Remember: preserve the past, ensure the future!

To sign the petition, click here.


VP81955 said...

Hate to tell you this, but the razing has begun; the Pickford Building began to be torn down Tuesday.

At least one Hollywood studio is apparently going about modernizing its facilities the right way:

Mythical Monkey said...

That's the Monkey for you -- even when I'm living in the present, I'm living in the past.

Mythical Monkey said...

For my next trick, I'll write a rousing post to preserve the Ottoman Empire ...

KC said...

Excellent argument though! And I love this: But I think you can say that those "who don't bother with the best that the past has to offer are doomed to live dull and flavorless lives." I think there are a few buildings left on "The Lot", but they may also be gone by now.

theduckthief said...

I believe a lot of Pickford's work now belong to the Library of Congress. She willed them to the institution but to my knowledge her films have been sitting for decades without restoration and preservation due to lack of funding.

Anonymous said...

I rest my feet upon the Ottoman Empire!

Hugh Munro Neely said...

For Pickford, there's good new and bad news.

The good news is that if you live in Los Angeles, you can see almost any Pickford film you like by visiting the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education ( which has more than half of her Biograph shorts, and all but 3 of her surviving features available for viewing on research DVD-Rs. Also, in spite of the fact that they may not be easy to find at list price on, you can get most of Milestone's releases direct from the distributor (look here: and here: ) Only two titles are out of print, and this is a temporary situation.

The bad news is that the Mary Pickford Institute may not be able to provide this service much longer. It's primary source of funds has been the Mary Pickford Foundation, which has abruptly (as of March 1) stopped all funding for the Institute. Please sign our petition to ask the Foundation to restore funding to the Institute:

Thank you!