Actress & Producer
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Date Posted: Wednesday, May 29, 09:06:14am
Mary Pickford Is Dead at 86; ‘America's Sweetheart’ of Films
The New York Times
May 30, 1979
Mary Pickford, who reigned supreme as “America's Sweetheart” in the era of silent films, died of a stroke yesterday in Santa Monica (Calif.) Hospital. She was 86 years old.
Beloved in her heyday as a girl with golden‐brown curls and a smile of beguiling innocence, Miss Pickford was the first movie star to have her name in marquee lights, the first to be paid in the thousands of dollars a week and one of the first to achieve an international reputation; she embodied the American dream — a person who rose by her own talents from rags to riches, indeed, to very great wealth.
Miss Pickford entered films in 1909, when she was a 15‐year‐old stage actress, and came in to her own in 1917 with “The Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” For the next dozen years, virtually everything she touched was transmuted into success and fame, culminating in an Oscar for her role in “Coquette,” for first sound picture, in 1929.
She outshone her contemporary female stars. Great as were the Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy; Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and Norma and Constance Talmadge, Miss Pickford excelled them all in box‐office appeal.
In the years of her triumphs, she captured public adulation in “Daddy LongLegs,” “Pollyanna,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “My Best Girl.” She ranked with Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., her husband, as the best‐known and most admired of Hollywood personalities. She was perceptive enough to select the best photographers, directors and supporting actors, and generous in giving them credit; and she herself was a dedicated and hard‐working actress.
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The advent of sound and the breakup of her marriage to Mr. Fairbanks ended her career. Her last picture, “Secrets,” made in 1932 and released the following year, was undistinguished, and she retired.
“I knew it was time to retire,” Miss Pickford recalled in 1965. “I wanted to stop before I was asked to stop.”
Expanding on this theme, she told Kevin Browniow, the writer:
“I left the screen because I didn't want what happened to Chaplin to happen tome. 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 Kiri to kill me.”
Chatelalne of Pickfair
For the rest of her life Miss Pickford was the chatelaine of Pickfair, her bizarre Beverly Hills mansion, which she shared with her third husband, Charles (Buddy) Rogers. After a trip abroad in 1965, she took to her bed, announcing that she had worked hard since she was 5 years old and now deserved a rest. Except for occasional nocturnal rambles in Pickfair, she remained there, subsisting on light foods and whisky — a quart a day, according to Robert Windeler, her biographer.
At the zenith of her career, the 5‐foot, 110‐pound Miss Pickford won the hearts of movie patrons because she possessed a look of invincible goodness and innocence. Sinister scoundrels, silent and gesturing, sought her ruin. She was brave and sweet through it all. When she played a rich girl, she exhibited humility; and when she was in rags, she was patient.
By the standards of a later day, these films were saccharine, but this was what audiences seemingly wanted as the country drifted into World War and on into the unsettling 20's. It did not matter that Miss Pickford's curls, which appeared to grow longer as she grew older, took an hour to prepare with curling irons. Nor did it matter that she was almost 30 when “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was released, for she was a master of illusion.
Her First Screen Kiss
The impression of innocence that she conveyed was such that it was an event of much moment when she was kissed on the screen for the first time. That occurred in 1927, and the movie was “My Best Girl,” an amiable satire of lowermiddle‐class American life. The man she kissed was Mr. Rogers.
A year later, Miss Pickford abandoned her little‐girl image altogether by having her hair bobbed, “the most famous head of hair since Medusa's,” one observer remarked. The shearing took place in New York on June 21, 1928, to the clicking of scores of cameras.
Silent films put a premium on good acting, and Miss Pickford was one of the most adept and most innately sure performers. Explaining her capacity to portray others, she said:
“I hadn't any ‘methods’ of acting. It was easy for me to act the part of child because I adored children. I forgot I was grown up. I would transform myself into a child for the time being and act as she would under similar circumstances.
Even after her fame was assured, Miss Pickford was a hard and meticulous worker. She was usually up at 5 A.M. and at the studio by 6. Shooting began at 9 and finished by 5:30, but often, because she had total control of production, she did not get home before 8 P.M., and some nights she and Mr. Fairbanks ate dinner in costume. Her social life was reserved for weekends and between pictures, but PickfordFairbanks parties tended to be lavish.
Pickfair visitors in the 20's ate from a solid gold dinner service, with a footman behind every chair. A formal dinner for a dozen, Mr. Windeler wrote in “Sweetheart,” might include the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Charles A. Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein and Lord and Lady Mountbatten.
Those who knew Miss Pickford well invariably remarked on her business shrewdness and her parsimony. From 1919 to her retirement, she earned at least a million dollars a year as an actor‐producer with United Artists, and then there were large sums from real‐estate investments and her holdings in United Artists. Her fortune at her death was estimated at $50 million.
Born In Toronto
The first child of a British father and an Irish mother, Mary Pickford was born in Toronto on April 9, 1893. Her original name was Gladys Smith. Her father died when she was 4, and ‘her mother ran a penny‐candy counter and took in sewing to keep the family — there were two other children — afloat. The household atmosphere was pinchpenny and education was a luxury, so that Gladys's entire formal education consisted of between six and seven months of schooling spread over two years.
The child was not much more than when she made her acting debut with her sister, Lottie, in “The Silver King,” a melodrama at the Toronto Opera House that needed extras. The girls were hired at $10 a week because the stage manager boarded with Mrs. Smith.
Almost immediately, Charlotte Smith became a stage mother, and she managed her daughter's career until she died in 1927. “To the very last day she lived, her word was law,” Miss Pickford recalled.
When the stock company passed to other plays, the child got a temporary vaudeville role, and then worked with other stock companies in such favorites of the time as “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” in which she was Little Eva, and “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” in which all the Smiths played for a total of $20 week.
Billed as Baby Gladys
In the theatrical season of 1901‐02, the future Mary Pickford was billed as Baby Gladys Smith in an American touring company of “The Fatal Wedding.” A quick learner, even though she could barely read, the child and her family were almost always on the road until she was 11 and had outgrown Baby Gladys. Late in the 1904 season, she got to play a title role for the first time, that of Dolly in a melodrama called “The Child Wife.” She earned
$25 a week on the road. A year later she went up to $40 in “The Gypsy Girl.”
There was a succession of such plays until 1906, when Gladys said, “I'm 13 and at the crossroads of my life,” and determined to “land on Broadway or give up the theater for good.” After several attempts, she got to see David Belasco, then casting for “The Warrens of Virginia,” at his Times Square theater.
After an audition, she was accepted for $30 a week and joined the cast, which included Cecil B. De Mille, later one of her directors. But Belasco didn't care for Gladys Smith as a name and christened her Mary Pickford. The play opened on Broadway in late 1907 and ran through May 1908 before going on the road for almost a year.
On tour in Chicago, Miss Pickford saw her first motion picture, something called “Hays Tours.” The flickers, as some called them, had been brought into being the year of the actress's birth by Thomas Alva Edison and William Dickson, a laboratory assistant. The early films were shown in makeshift theaters — nickelodeons — and acting in them was not considered worthy by serious thespians.
But, down on her luck in the spring of 1909, Miss Pickford climbed the steps of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company offices and studio at 11 East 14th Street in Manhattan and encountered David Wark Griffith, the saturnine genius who was then Biograph's only director. After a screen test, she was signed on for $5 a day and joined the permanent acting company, which included Mack Sennett.
74 Films in 2 Years
The next day she appeared before the camera in “Her First Biscuit,” a splitreel farce filmed in a day. Miss Pickford was one of several itinerant actors eating a simulated batch of leaden biscuits. In those times, movies were chiefly one‐reel‐synopses, not from a scenario, and the players were publicly nameless. So it Is not surprising that in Miss Pickford's first two years at Biograph she acted in 74 films in a great variety of roles.
“I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities,” Miss Pickford recalled. “I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because 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.”
Actually, at Biograph, Miss Pickford quickly developed into a leading lady whose restrained acting style, a legacy of her stage work, contrasted with the more exaggerated pantomimes of the other players. At the same time, the actress (and her mother) pressed for, and received, higher pay until she was making $175 a week, then a vast sum.
Series of Successes
From Biograph, Miss Pickford went to Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company, where she did about 30 pictures, mostly under the direction of Thomas H. Ince. But in 1912, she returned to Biograph and Mr. Griffith and his cameraman, Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer. By 1913, when she was working for Adolph Zucker's Famous Players and Paramount, her films were four and five reels long.
She then established herself as America's Sweetheart. The billing came in 1919, and the film was “Tess of the Storm Country.”
There followed such successes as “Cinderlla,” “Fanchon, the Cricket,” “The Foundling,” “Poor Little Peppi no” and “The Pride of the Clan,” the actress's first seven‐reeler, which was released in 1917. These films, all for Paramount or Famous Players‐Paramount, made Miss Pickford a national institution. She filled any theater exhibiting her films, none more so at the time than “The Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” both released in 1917.
From the outset of her movie life, Miss Pickford undertook to learn all she could about the technical making of films. She was “a walking motion‐picture company,” a Hollywood observer remarked; and she had a sharp eye for the profits her work would earn. This was an important factor in the establishment, in 1919, of United Artists, film‐distributing company that handled the movies of Miss Pickford, Mr. Fairbanks and Mr. Chaplin. The three stars were the company's nucleus.
Miss Pickford's popularity, already enormous, was further enhanced in 1920 by her marriage to Mr. Fairbanks, the gymnastic actor and hero of such movies as “A Modem Musketeer.” Dashing, daring and enthusiastic, he was the symbol of respectable manhood. Miss Pickford and Mr. Fairbanks were married to others when they first met, and their romance, conducted under the eye of Miss Pickford's mother, was somewhat strained. They were also unsure of public reaction if they married after divorcing their spouses.
‘All‐American’ Husband and Wife
But Doug and Mary, as they couple became known, were immediately hailed as “the all‐American” husband and wife by movie fans. When they traveled to New York in June 1920, two months after their marriage in Hollywood, throngs jammed the streets outside their hotel. And when they arrived in Britain on a European tour, roses were dropped on their ship at Southampton from a circling airplane.
Miss Pickford and Mr. Fairbanks costarred only once, in a 1929 sound film of Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew.”
The idyll ended in the early 30's. Sound came to the movies, and Miss Pickford ended her acting career with “Secrets,” her 194th movie. Mr. Fairbanks fell in love with Sylvia Hawkes, British musical‐comedy actress who was married to Lord Ashley. There were well‐publicized divorces all around, and Mr. Fairbanks married Lady Ashley.
In 1937, Miss Pickford was married to Buddy Rogers, a bandleader who was 11 years her junior. They adopted two children, Ronald and Roxanne. After her marriage, Miss Pickford receded from the limelight until she was only a memory to those who had once cheered her, or wept with her, on the silver screen. And then she became the recluse of Pickfair, a legend.
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