This post was written for the Mary Pickford Blogathon, currently being hosted by KC of the Classic Movies Blog.
Charlie Chaplin said with a certain degree of awe that Mary Pickford understood every word of her contract. But he didn’t mean this as a compliment. He thought that a woman with a head for business was unfeminine, and he never seems to have understood Douglas Fairbanks attraction to Mary.
Too many biographies of Mary Pickford seem to trail off around her last appearance in a dramatic role in 1933’s Secrets. The fact is she was much more than an actress. She produced all her films from Less Than The Dust in 1916 up through Secrets, but that’s not the end. She continued to produce films, if sporadically, after she left the screen. In fact her last major screen credit as producer is found on Love Happy (1950), which is considered the last film of the Marx Brothers!
Pickford was definitely the first super-star of the movies. Florence Lawrence’s recognition preceded Mary’s slightly, but Pickford’s popularity had a staying power that Lawrence could not hope to equal. She developed a persona that people responded to during her Biograph days with D. W. Griffith, and in the films she produced herself for Artcraft Pictures from 1916 to 1919 she managed to expand and adapt this persona to films as diverse as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Stella Maris (1918), and Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918). The greatest successes of her United Artists years (1920 to 1950) are unparalleled.
D.W. Griffith noticed, even in the early Biograph days, that Mary was paying close attention to every element of film-making. What she learned at the side of Griffith and technicians like cameraman Billy Bitzer served her well in the coming years.
Hearts Adrift (1914) and especially Tess of the Storm Country (1914) were the films that really burnished her star in her early days with producer Adolph Zukor.
(Photo: Fans line up to view “Hearts Adrift” poster. From the collection of the author.)
Hearts Adrift, where Mary plays a desert island castaway in a grass skirt, is unfortunately a lost film. Tess of the Storm Country (1914) survives, though it is in need of restoration. Despite the popularity of these titles, and many subsequent ones, the quality of the Zukor productions is highly variable. It leads one to suspect that Zukor may have tried to do with Mary what B.P. Schulberg would later do with Clara Bow – place her in numerous pot-boilers and modest productions, knowing that her popularity would pull the film through – trying to squeeze as much out of her as he could before her popularity faded. While there are some lovely films from this period, like Rags (1915) and The Foundling (1916), there are also some surprisingly weak films, like the recently rediscovered The Dawn of a Tomorrow (1915) and Hulda from Holland (1916).
In a filmed conversation, many years later, Pickford recalled to Zukor that she thought Hulda from Holland such a weak film that she actually offered to make another for Zukor for free, if only he would prevent Hulda from being released.
Zukor hit on a plan to stop Pickford from complaining of both the quality of the pictures, as well as the manner in which Pickford’s undiminished popularity was used to sell other films in the Paramount line-up, a process known as “block booking.” He decided to give Pickford greater say in the films she made, and he also created a new company banner, Artcraft, under which her films would be released. Pickford’s opposition to block booking and the creation of Artcraft has been frequently noted. But the other thing that happened at the same time was the establishment of the Pickford Film Corporation, the production company which produced Mary’s Artcraft releases, and in which Pickford and Zukor were described as equal partners. This was when Mary really started to produce her own films.
The difference was immediately evident. Just compare Hulda, Mary’s last film before Artcraft with Less Than the Dust (1916), her first production with the Pickford Film Corporation.
(Photo: Mary Pickford on the set of “Hulda from Holland.” Photo courtesy of the Bridgehampton Historical Society.)
Dust may have been a flawed film, but its ambition; both in story and production design was miles ahead of the modest little romance of Hulda.
(Photo: Newspaper advertisement for “Less Than the Dust” promotes this film as setting “a new standard in film achievement.” Photo courtesy of www.newspaperarchive.com)
Advertising for Less Than The Dust promised that the film was “The First of Miss Pickford’s Efforts Under Her Own Artistic Guidance,” and furthermore, that Mary had handpicked the story, the cast, the costumes and the director, and even (erroneously), claimed that she had paid for the entire production herself. Except for paying for the film herself, there was a good deal of truth behind the ballyhoo.
Her new job as producer did not go altogether smoothly, at first. After an advance in-studio screening of The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Zukor told Mary and her writer/collaborator Frances Marion that the film was a disaster. He wheedled Mary into promising to do what she was told when she made her next two films with Cecil B. DeMille. The DeMille films were good, but Pickford felt thwarted. When The Poor Little Rich Girl was released, it became a tremendous success, which gave Pickford the leverage she needed to take real control of her productions.
Pickford, as producer, brought in Marshall Neilan, who was known more as an actor than as a director. Together with Neilan directing and Marion writing, the three created an incredible string of hits, beginning with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), followed by a stunning version of The Little Princess (1917) and the superb Stella Maris (1918).
(Photo: Pickford plays both roles in “Stella Maris, an amazing achievement, both artistically and, for its time, technically. Photo courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education)
There can be no question but that Mary Pickford was determined to do the very best work that could be done in the film medium. Her standards were high for herself, and equally so for her collaborators. She pushed herself hard, but the testimony of people who worked with her suggests that she managed to challenge people to do their best with grace and kindness. She was loyal to her employees and fair in her judgments on the set.
As much as she appreciated Adolph Zukor, Mary still seems to have been disappointed by the power he retained through their 50-50 partnership. So when the First National Exhibitors Circuit offered her $750,000 to make three pictures on her own in exchange for the right to distribute the films for five years, Mary weighed her options for several months before she finally said “yes.”
This meant the creation of a new production company, known simply as The Mary Pickford Company. It was company she would own for the rest of her life. There were other woman-owned production companies out there, with women-stars such as Olga Petrova and Norma Talmadge. But most of these companies were, in fact, partnerships between an actress and a male producer, and many of these organizations were not long-lived. In Mary’s case, her partner in The Mary Pickford Company was her mother, and for the first ten years of the company (ending with Charlotte’s death), these two women held full control over every decision.
(Photo: Mary, with her mother and business partner, Charlotte Pickford. Photo courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education)
Mary’s three films for First National were carefully chosen. For the first time in her life she was completely free to do what she wanted, without anyone else to countermand her order. But barely before production on her first film, Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) had begun, First National entered into talks with Paramount to consider a merger. Fearing that she would lose her new, hard-won independence, Pickford and that other First National actor/producer, Charlie Chaplin, hatched the plan with partners that included Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to create United Artists.
Initially, UA was a distribution company. The individual Artists were required to finance and produce their own films. They would each own the titles and the negatives. UA would have seven years to distribute the title, and then 100% of the rights would revert to the Artist alone.
(Photo: Clocking-in at The Mary Pickford Company. Photo courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education)
The first years with United Artists were not easy. Pickford felt tremendous pressure to turn out hits. This pressure was exacerbated by the fact that not all her partners in the company were able to provide a sufficient number of productions to make UA profitable. In its first two years of releases, Mary’s new husband, Douglas Fairbanks turned out six features, Griffith provided five, and Mary produced five starring herself, plus one low budget film starring her sister Lottie, that was released by another company. Charlie Chaplin turned out zero. Due to his incredibly slow work methods and a backlog of previous commitments, Chaplin wouldn’t provide a film for UA release for four years.
Even with six films in two years, Mary’s output fell short of what she may have felt it should have been. After all, in the two years prior to her first UA release, nine Pickford features had been released. The UA partners were producing some of the most finely crafted and elaborate productions to be seen in the early 1920’s, and rapidly expanding production values meant that it took longer to complete each feature. The days of completing a new feature every 6 to 8 weeks were gone. By mid-decade, each UA partner was turning out barely more than one film a year, except for Chaplin, whose features took at least two years apiece.
Mary and Douglas purchased a partially developed production lot on Santa Monica Boulevard from Jesse D. Hampton, and opened the Pickford-Fairbanks studios in 1923. This is the same property; now know as “The Lot” that hit the news earlier this year when concerned citizens protested the destruction of historic buildings. From this point on, almost all of the production work of The Mary Pickford Company was done on the lot, with only rare run-outs to remote locations.
(Photo: Doug and Mary hang their “shingle” on Santa Monica Blvd. Photo courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education)
Pickford started to work with a wide range of directors. For one of her earliest productions on the new lot, Mary hired Ernst Lubitsch from Germany, bringing him across the Atlantic to make his first American film, the epic tale of a Spanish dancer, Rosita (1923). This film survives, but is in urgent need of restoration. Many years later, when Mary re-examined her life for her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, she decided that Rosita had been a misstep. But at the time of its initial release, the film did very well at the box office.
In addition to the films in which she appeared, Mary also took a hand in producing several films for her brother’s company, Jack Pickford Productions: Garrison’s Finish (1923), The Hill Billy (1924), and Waking Up the Town (1925). This has not generally been recognized until recently, even by some of her biographers, but surviving photographs and financial records make it clear that Mary’s was at least one of the hands in charge of these productions.
Even with the financial pressure mounting, Pickford, as producer, made bold decisions, and took chances. She could have played it safe, and done endless knock-offs of her first UA hit, Pollyanna (1920), but instead she alternated popular “child roles” with demanding adult productions. Despite some titles having been knocked about by earlier film historians, Rosita and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), My Best Girl (1927), Coquette (1929), and The Taming of the Shrew (1929) all warrant discovery, though only My Best Girl is easy to find, as of this writing.
(Photo: Dressed for her Oscar-winning role in “Coquette.” Photo courtesy of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education)
Mary Pickford retired from her roles in front of the camera after her 1933 classic, Secrets, in which she plays opposite Leslie Howard, with Frank Borzage directing. But she did not retire from her roles behind the camera, both as an owner of United Artists and as a film producer.
Initially she turned much of her energy to other media, producing two short inspirational books, a novel, and a short-lived radio show. She also returned to the stage in a touring production of The Church Mouse. But by 1936 she was back in the movies, producing with Zukor’s old partner, the reliable Jesse Lasky. The two films they produced together, One Rainy Afternoon and The Gay Desperado (both 1936) are well worth a look.
(Photo: Nino Martini and Ida Lupino in “The Gay Desperado.” Photograph from the author’s collection)
Both are available on home video (although The Gay Desperado may be temporarily out of print, at this writing), and both feature an irresistible young Ida Lupino. Mary championed Ida, who at 18, was barely older than Mary had been when she made her first Biograph shorts. Some thirteen years later Lupino would set out on her own as writer/director/producer of independent productions.
With her private life disrupted, first by divorce, and then marriage to her third husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Mary took a break from producing films to begin support for a wide variety of charitable causes, all the while maintaining her position at United Artists.
In 1946 she and Buddy created a small company, Comet Productions, to make low-budget pictures. They produced four titles, but the results did not appear to meet Mary’s expectations.
In 1948 she created still another company, Triangle Productions, perhaps using this name in honor of her old friend and colleague, the ailing D.W. Griffith. With her new partners she produced a terrific Douglas Sirk-directed thriller, Sleep, My Love. The film is sometimes unfavorably compared (I suspect by those who haven’t seen it) to George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944), but the similarity between the two plot lines is only visible in the broad strokes of a one or two sentence description. Sleep, My Love treats its story in a very different and highly effective manner. At the center of the film is a compelling performance by a 44 year-old Claudette Colbert, who looks similar enough to Mary at the same age that you wonder if she might have been cast as some sort of a doppelganger for the great actress/producer.
(Photos: Lobby card from “Sleep, My Love” featuring Claudette Colbert and Robert Cummings. Author’s collection. + Mary Pickford portrait, late 1930’s. Mary Pickford Institute.)
Sleep, My Love was a strong chapter in Pickford’s producing career, and it could have been the final one. Perhaps it is, in a sense, but there are two more films on which she received credit. Pickford picked up a British film called White Cradle Inn, about French children living in Switzerland, displaced by World War II, and a couple that faces a difficult decision about what to do about the return to France of one child orphaned by the war. Somehow this sensitive film got re-titled High Fury (1948) for its American release through United Artists. Mary Pickford is credited as one of its producers, but it’s unclear what, if any, changes she made to the film to prepare it for the US market.
Just after Sleep, My Love, Pickford was also involved in the early stages of the development of Love Happy, a film originally planned as a solo vehicle for Harpo Marx. From what I have seen, she seems to have exited the troubled production fairly early in the game. Eventually all three Marx brothers appeared in the film, though not together. The film is also notable for a bit part played by Marilyn Monroe, one of her first. The resulting film is enjoyable enough, but is far off the mark from the Marx Brothers’ best work. For contractual reasons, Mary Pickford retained her screen credit as producer on prints of the film. So if you want to stump any of your friends who missed this blogathon, ask them if they know which Marilyn Monroe film was produced by Mary Pickford!
The Love Happy production ran short of money late in the shoot, and release was delayed. There was a single screening in the fall of 1949, but the commercial release didn’t come until early 1950. So this curiosity became, by default, the final feature to carry Mary Pickford’s name as producer. Pickford maintained her share in United Artists and in the former Pickford-Fairbanks studio until 1955, but her era as producer had ended.
(Photo: Mary, on the set of “Pride of the Clan” an Artcraft release from 1917. Photograph from the Library of Congress.)
Mary Pickford’s effect on the motion picture industry cannot be overestimated. She was on the scene within the first decade of the life of narrative film in the United States. She was among the first of the actress/producers to make a mark in the industry, and her company lasted longer than any other woman of her day. It is proper that we give her credit for her indelible work as an actress. She was unique; one of a kind; an original. But it’s also proper that we remember that she was an artist who understood the complexity of film production and the need for meaningful collaboration. As we honor her legacy, lets remember Mary Pickford as a producer as well.
Article written by Hugh Munro Neely, Director of Archive, Library & Legacy, The Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education