Movie Star – A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood – By Ethan Mordden (1983)

The First Star and the Greatest Star

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish by Charles Albin Cca 1919

Hollywood in the 1920s was seething with inventive directors both American and foreign. Griffith had cast a spell of self-willing individuality: everyone wanted to do something special. But an actress pays for superb direction with her liberty, and this Pickford could not do. Even with Lubitsch, whom she admired (and disliked) and who was to become, as she foresaw, one of Hollywood’s unique talents, Pickford at one point had to take her director aside and point out that she owned the picture from script to rushes, that he was working not only with her but for her, and that in controversy she would cast the telling vote.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Pickford’s fellow Biograph player and lifelong friend Lillian Gish never had that problem. She stayed with Griffith to make some of the greatest films ever made in America, left him when their association had reached its natural end, worked with the brilliant Henry King on two foreign ventures, and became one of the biggest stars at the biggest studio, working with King Vidor and Victor Seastrom.

A Wedding
A Wedding

And while Pickford made her last film in 1933 and never acted again, Gish is still active, having played a key role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and made a presentation on the 1981 Academy Awards show. It is, without rival, the longest star career in history. It began like Pickford’s, with mother, fatherless sibling (Dorothy), and the regional stage. The Gishes met the Smiths on one of their tours and one day at the movies spotted Gladys in a Biograph, Lena and the Geese (1912). Eager to see their old friend, Lillian and Dorothy sought her out at Biograph, where Griffith beheld Lillian and saw in her all the conflicting romances of the Victorian gentleman—for mate, mother, and angel—made manifest. Blanche Sweet, another Biograph principal, observed that Griffith was so affected by Gish’s beauty that he had to struggle to keep his composure. What Gish felt for Griffith, besides an epic loyalty and admiration, has never been made clear. It was a unique collaboration, astonishingly concentrated. A generation later, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich would duplicate this interdependent eloquence, but their films are almost entirely about Dietrich’s image, whereas in his Gish films Griffith creates an entire world. Actually, he believed he was describing the world as it is, and to many he was: a world in which beastly men and gallant men vie with each other for the chance to debauch or protect women. Gish, with her rosebud mouth, tumbling locks, fragile body, and wide, seeing eyes, was the absolute Griffith heroine; but more: the ultimate Griffith star, for no other better suited his way of working.

The Gish sisters folded nimbly into the Biograph stock company, so that we find them in 1912 playing the leads in their first film, An Unseen Enemy, as two girls terrorized by burglars; and as extras later that year in The New York Hat, strolling merrily through a village scene. The New York Hat marked Mary Pickford’s farewell to Griffith, as a girl pilloried by gossips because the town minister (Lionel Barrymore) has made her the present of an expensive hat. At length it is revealed that the gift is a bequest of the girl’s mother, who died exhausted by a skinflint husband and wanted her daughter to enjoy a luxury. Griffith tacks on a marriage at the end for Pickford and Barrymore, but what he’s really after is a sense of smalltown life, with its misers and snoops as well as its goodness. Pickford had had enough of getting locked into these increasingly well-detailed friezes of American life—plus she wanted more money. But Gish found herself in her element helping Griffith open his camera upon the world, and money was not an issue with her. She enjoyed his lengthy rehearsals, preparing a film as if it were a play, perfecting the whole thing before taking a shot, and didn’t miss not having name billing. Indeed, Griffith couldn’t tell Lillian from Dorothy at first, and directed An Unseen Enemy by the color of their hair ribbons: “Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you’re scared, too. Look toward me, where the camera is.”

This appears to contradict Blanche Sweet’s report on Griffith’s obvious attraction to Lillian from minute one, but it is sure that at some point early in there Griffith and Lillian Gish locked eyes, and she figured heavily in his mythopoeia from then on. In a lead role in The Birth of a Nation (1915) Gish is already well on the way to defining the Griffith heroine* and already a surprising actress. At first you think, What’s all this stuff she’s doing? What’s this mannerism? Then, looking more closely, you recognize the “mannerism” as the gestures of life, and it’s all so natural that an actor who would get by quite nicely in some other film would look like something out of a home movie next to Gish. Certain of her bits in The Birth of a Nation are famous—her goodbye to her brothers as they leave to fight the Civil War on the northern side, when she worries and flirts and jokes all in a matter of a few seconds; the way she fidgets when,  ending her wounded southern beau in a hospital, his mother comes in; her habit of drawing back from men she likes, as if their sexual power is something she can feel and fear; or her imperious palm that breaks up hostilities between her beau and an unctuous carpetbagger.

 

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Yet, again, Griffith is not featuring any one person but pulling the parts of a world together into a story. His actors must be this naturalistic, all of them, and this expressive, or he can’t pull it off. If we are to believe in his nobility, his villainy, his world where beauty dies in a day because the rats never stop coming, that world must seem to be the true world, at least while the film is running. You can rehearse for a year, but in the end you can’t act it: you must dwell in it. That was the Griffith training. That’s why, when films were shorts and only a few people attended them, his films were the best films, and that’s why, when he began to make full-length films, everyone in the country became a moviegoer. That’s also why Little Mary had enough of Griffith fast. She didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s world, nor did she regard film as morally as Griffith did. Typically, it was Gish who talked Pickford out of destroying her films. Pickford thought of them as timely art that would lose its effectiveness when fashions changed; Gish thought of them as an ageless force for community, a ritual like that of the old Greek stage. Griffith’s good guys will always be on the right side if you’re as good as they are, and his bad is always bad, no matter what current opinion maker is selling what particular brand of snake oil. Good is fairness. Bad is rape, stealing, murder, making business monopolies, fomenting civil disorder, and passing laws to invade other people’s lives. No wonder some people find Griffith so awesome. Can so moral a code survive a jazz age?

Even as early as 1919, when Griffith joined Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin in United Artists, many thought he was played out. But in Broken Blossoms (1919) he and Gish proved that their way was still vital—so much so that the entire film consists of a thread of story involving a helpless waif (Gish), her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and the Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) who chastely adores her. We don’t need a whole world this time. This is Griffith’s cameo tragedy, his little gem. Everybody dies. Crisp beats Gish to death, and Barthelmess avenges her and kills himself.

Griffith had made Broken Blossoms for Adolph Zukor, but when Zukor screened it he thought it insultingly depressing; and Griffith, in perhaps the only sound business deal of his life, bought the negative back from Zukor for $250,000 and took it to United Artists for their first release, as a top-price road show. It grossed millions. Clearly, Griffith and Gish were not yet outmoded. In fact, their vision of protective man and defenseless woman reached its apex in Way Down East (1920), “a simple story of plain people.” Its source, an old melodrama, had been a staple of second-rate regional stock but a joke in the city centers, yet Griffith paid an unheard-of $175,000 fo the rights.

Now he must be mad. The story is familiar: a country girl seduced by a city slicker finds shelter with good country people and love with their son; she is unmasked and thrown out into a blizzard. The son saves her from death in the icy river. With city wags and town characters, mansions and barns, Griffith would again produce his microcosmic allegory, and with Barthelmess again paired with Gish, young American love would find its ideal representation in his sturdy grasp of events and her touching inability to cope with them. True, 1920 saw American art nearing the age that liked women who could cope and which had lost interest in rustic chivalry.

Still, Griffith held an ace in the river rescue—no one filmed a suspense chase finale as well as he—and he managed to renew the old tale with that typical Griffithian commitment to what it says. For Griffith and Gish did not care about time. They cared about what they believed, about what is true, not what is successful. In a world ruled by gruff country squires, vile seducers, and comic constables and filled out with wise, forgiving mothers and self-righteous spinster reformers, Gish as Anna Moore delivers her most fulfilled portrayal. In his opening titles, Griffith tells us that man’s “greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy.” But man is fickle, and Griffith shows “the suffering caused by selfishness.” His heroine is basic: “We call her ‘Anna’—we might have called her Woman.” No surprise then that Gish is so finely textured here: she’s carrying the weight of her entire sex.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

Broken Blossoms has the most famous Gish touches—the pathetic smile she makes by forking her fingers into her upper lip, for instance, or the hysterical fit she suffers in a closet, whirling around out of control as her father breaks in to kill her. Way Down East doesn’t dazzle that way; the world doesn’t dazzle. Even Gish’s most famous scene, the baptism of her dying infant, is not the aria we expect from hearing it described, but another mere fast bad moment in Anna Moore’s life. Not till, exposed in her “shame,” she exposes her betrayer at a populous dinner does she at last release the frustration and outragepent up in her. It’s a terrific sequence: mingled fury and tears in a back-lit close up,* then Barthelmess smashing a plate and going for the blackguard who made Gish miserable . . . then the realization that in the melee Gish has fled the house. The ice chase follows. One thing that sets silent days apart is silent actors’ willingness to take bald risks if the action called for it. They didn’t do all their own stunts, not even Douglas Fairbanks. But Swanson’s bout with the lion and the serial queens’ acrobatics are typical, and so is the participation of Gish and Barthelmess in Way Down East’s finale on the ice floes, which still gets cheers today. Griffith intercut a few shots of Niagara Falls, but most of the footage was shot in a blizzard at White River Junction, Vermont. It was so cold the ice on the water had to be dynamited each day to produce the plates that Gish lies on and Barthelmess leaps to and from to rescue her; the camera froze; some of the crew came down with pneumonia. And, of course, Gish thought of the last touch of realism, letting her hand trail in the water as the floes glide along. (The hand still bothers her occasionally today.)

Why did these people go through all this? Certainly not for the money. Griffith paid the lowest salaries going. Foolish as it sounds, they simply believed in what he was doing. So did the public, who made Way Down East a vast success and boosted Griffith back up to the eminence he held at the time of Birth of a Nation five years earlier. One wonders what Mary Pickford, Griffith’s fellow United Artist and Gish’s close friend, thought of Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, of the Griffith-Gish collaboration in general. After all, she might have been the “Griffith Girl” if her temperament hadn’t led her down her own road. Even apart from Griffith and Gish, however, Little Mary belongs to them and they to her. The three of them together encapsulate the value system of silent audiences, from city proles in the nickelodeons to fashionable New Yorkers who paid ten dollars a head to attend Way Down East’s first night. Griffith fixed and enforced the moral code, laying down role models for manly heroism; Little Mary and Gish complementarily shaped the ideal of womanhood, independent and sexually adult (Little Mary) and weak and unknowing (Gish).

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Little Mary’s would seem the more adaptable prototype, especially in the 1920s, but Pickford found herself hemmed in by the expectations of an audience which suddenly had the Colleen Moore flapper to admire for grit. From Little Mary they wanted sentiment.

Carol Dempster 1920s
Carol Dempster 1920s

Gish’s problem was that critics (and presumably the public; producers made that assumption) began to tire of her persona, though she brought it off flawlessly every time. Another problem was that Gish and Griffith had gone as far as they could together. Even before Way Down East the director had begun breaking in the next Griffith Girl, Carol Dempster. Gish made one last film with her mentor, Orphans of the Storm (1921), with her sister Dorothy as foster sisters caught up in the French Revolution, and then moved on—sadly, it appears, but then Griffith habitually fledged youngsters and then launched them forthfrom the nest onto the money and the fame. Gish needed neither. But, as she must have realized, she also didn’t need Griffith.

Gish had always had a knack for picking stories ripe for film treatment; and, pulling together everything she had learned with Griffith, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), for Inspiration Pictures, both directed by Henry King with advice from Gish. The heroine of The White Sister is an epitome of the Griffith heroine: a nun who dismisses lover Ronald Colman (whom Gish more or less discovered” for the two films) to honor her vows, though she only took them in the first place because she mistakenly believed Colman dead.

Romola, from George Eliot’s novel set in Renaissance Florence, has more than a touch of Griffith about it, in the score by Louis F. Gottschalk (a Griffith regular) and the Intolerance-like detail work in the sets. Moreover, here were two propositions that Hollywood simply could not see—one heroine is a nun! and the other runs around Renaissance Florence in these gigantic snoods!—just as Hollywood couldn’t see Griffith’s ambitious ideas (till they made fortunes). But The White Sister attracted such notice when Gish premiered it in New York that Metro picked it and Romola up, signed Gish to a contract, and, reformed as MGM, set the wheels in motion to make her their biggest woman star. But Gish was no Theda Bara, no Mae Murray, no Nazimova. You couldn’t fool or coddle or flatter her. And look what she says: “The only time I had a personal press agent was when I . . . hired Richard Mitchell to keep my name out of the papers without hurting anyone’s feelings.” Out of the papers! Nor was Gish eager to adapt to studio methods when her own would make the art longer.

Still, the MGM stint started well. For her debut Gish suggested Henri Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, the novel about starving artists in Paris that became Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Gish wanted the director and stars of The Big Parade, a war film she had screened in rough cut. She asked for Hendrik Sartov, from the Griffith days, as cameraman, and she urged the studio to use the new panchromatic film that she had tried on The White Sister and Romola—much easier to light for and photograph on than the standard Hollywood stock. To all this, her producer, Irving Thalberg, assented.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

So Gish was in effect her own Little Mary, her own Griffith, her own person: and queen of the lot. She convinced La Boheme’s director, King Vidor, to let her show the cast how to rehearse the entire film before shooting, in the Griffith manner, talked the front office into letting her play a virginal Mimi who loved but was never seen to kiss her Rodolphe, John Gilbert, and played such a convincing death scene that Vidor thought she had got carried away and really died. In the end, Gilbert (who was being built up as The Great Lover) had to kiss his Mimi, and Gish obligingly suffered the clammy retakes, but otherwise La Boheme (1926) shows the profit of letting Gish have her way. How many others could march into a rising, already sinfully powerful studio and have their way almost to the nth? When Griffith yelled, “Feel it!” at you every day for years, you learned to feel; this more than anything marks Gish’s MGM features, because she’s feeling down into the bald truth of character and most of the others are big gullible puppets.

Similarly in control on The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), Gish was the last actress to make a series of truly great films in Hollywood at her pleasure, without reference to what was currently popular. Thalberg thought The Wind dreary. Its tale of a gentle Virginian maiden whose marriage tragically disintegrates in the unstable Texas climate built up to a rape attack, detailed her murder of the rapist and her ensuing madness as the wind blows away the sand with which she covered his body and seems to jerk him back to life to terrorize her all over again. Thalberg plunked a happy ending onto it—the man who comes into the house at the end is not the dead rapist but Gish’s roughhewn husband (Lars Hanson)—proving that independence is finite. Furthermore, a pair of MGM features that Gish neglected to plan herself did not come off well. Still, while MGM believed her hot enough to take her advice in order to release her pictures, she managed, quite smoothly, to make totally satisfying films, something Mary Pickford did at this time with some difficulty. No public clamored for a Little Lillian, no Lubitsch marred Gish’s sense of self, no lingering identity as a big spender will threaten her in the hard times just around the corner, as it will Gloria Swanson.

What makes a star? More exactly, what gives a star power? Little Mary’s favorite director, Marshall Neilan, ticked off “The Six Great Essentials” for women stars in a Photoplay article: beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style, and the ability to wear clothes. Neilan did not require these as a whole. Rather, the ideal star emphasized one above the others. For examples, he cited Pickford for personality, Swanson for the clothes, and so on. Lists like these are shallow and misleading, but so were many perceptions about stardom in 1922, when Neilan unveiled his recipe, and virtually all stars of the day covered all six points nicely. (True, Pickford’s roles put her into rags and pinafores more often than not, and Gish counted the dress parade as the least absorbing essential of acting. Still, they both filled gowns nicely when asked to.) If one must choose one thing that set Pickford and Gish apart from others it was Pickford’s lovability and Gish’s concentration, but the closest thing on Neilan’s list to either element — thinking grandly, now—is temperament, and for that Neilan cited Norma Talmadge. Who?

The most remote of the biggest silent names, unknown to today’s young movie buffs, who have at least caught a clip of vamping Bara in some retrospective or checked out Nazimova’s Salome curio, Norma Talmadge is virtually never seen, and when mentioned she is usually dismissed as a soap opera conceit who couldn’t act. Yet she spans the silent years, from the freewheeling Patents Trust days right into the front end of studio power and the talkie, and in many ways is the most representative of all stars. Like Pickford, Gish, and countless others she entered film young as the breadwinner for a fatherless family. Like Pickford she had a stage mother; like Gish she had a sister also in films. Like most stars she worked with great directors (like Herbert Brenon and Allan Dwan), okay directors (Frank Borzage and Clarence Brown), and hacks (Sam Taylor). Without stage experience, Talmadge wandered into the onereeler at the age of thirteen, grew up playing everything, worked for D. W. Griffith, and married mogul Joseph M. Schenck, who made her the star of the kind of films which historians and critics neglect and which fans and buffs savor: stunning costumes, romance, suffering, and the heroine’s sad, sad yearning gaze off into somewhere. Her coworkers liked her, the public adored her, she made a fortune, her films rotted away in vaults, and who now knows what she was? Who knew then? For here was the apogee of the banal. Talmadge had beauty and the ability to wear clothes, but she had the personality of melting sherbet and the style of a pizza waitress. Temperament? Farrar had temperament. Nazimova had temperament. Negri had temperament. Talmadge had hairdos. Yet she is central. Her popularity tells us so. She stands at the crossroads of parts that were to prove key for decades: her New Moon (1919) was remade by Grace Moore, her Smilin’ Through (1922) by Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald, her Secrets (1924) and Kiki (1926) by Pickford, her Camille (1927) followed Nazimova’s and preceded Garbo’s, her Dubarry, Woman of Passion (1930) succeeded versions by Bara and Negri. There may well be only one Great Essential for stardom: to be in the right place at the right time.

One Romantic Night - United Artists
One Romantic Night – United Artists

Maybe no one can avoid being typed, if only because anyone who is worth noticing has character, and character is what “type” is, from role to role. But to survive for more than an era, a star must avoid being what one might call typed by time: limited to one role useful to the culture in one age and not useful thereafter. Swanson’s clotheshorse and Colleen Moore’s flapper, for instance, were trapped by their eras, which is why they couldn’t work much beyond 1929, when the era turned over. Sound didn’t hurt them; history did, transformation, from jazz into Depression.

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942
Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942

We left Little Mary and Lillian Gish at the plateau of 1929—Wall Street or the sound track, depending on how you read it—and it will be interesting to see how these two key characters weather the changed times. Pickford has less to worry about, as she owns her work. Gish, at MGM, is vulnerable. How long can a PR-resistant woman stay famous in this increasingly PR-devoted era? How long will Mayer and Thalberg permit their prima donna to tell them what she wants? What’s this business about rehearsing films as if they were plays? Throw her out! Mess her up so the competition won’t grab her. Use sound—maybe she’ll talk funny. Give her the worst director in Hollywood. Make her sing, make her Charleston. Throw them all out, that bunch who thought they owned Hollywood! Swanson, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, Talmadge, the united schmartists. This is the age of the studio, producer power. Fit in or get out.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

Possibly Gish noticed the change in the air when Thalberg offered to invent a romantic scandal for her, to focus public sympathy on her. She may simply have longed to try the stage again. She may have heard about Mayer’s plans to sabotage John Gilbert’s career to make an example of him (if we’re willing to mash our own biggest star, at a cost of millions of dollars, then there’s no one we can’t mash, and they’ll all know it) and left Hollywood in horror at the kind of people she was dealing with. She had grown close to the viciously witty theatre critic George Jean Nathan, who hated the movies; perhaps he talked her into heading for Broadway. Whatever her reasons, Gish left on her own initiative.

But, though she didn’t know it, she was in the process of being edged out at MGM, and out of Hollywood altogether. Her time had come; that simple. It had taken a very heavy decade to do it, but the very world that Griffith had used to create the American film—film as the American collection of heroic and romantic sagas and film as industry—was gone by 1929. Gish and Little Mary had to go with it. So, tragically, did Griffith, who made two clumsy talkies and was definitively pastured while his successors set to rewriting the sagas. Griffith’s—and Gish’s and Pickford’s—models for fine men and courageous or holy women were renovated for a post-jazz age America; and no one, not filmmakers and not filmgoers, wanted to give the old hands a chance to take part. How different talkies will be from silents!—and not only, not even mainly, because of the dialogue. It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did. And suddenly Griffith was out and Pickford was out and Gish was out; and the men were a little dirty or cowardly or selfish, and the women were a little stupid or cowardly or trivial. Okay, our mythology could use a little naturalism, and naturalism dissipates heroism and wisdom. But it’s sad for the heroes. One can understand how easily studio power toppled Griffith and Gish.

The director had hopelessly overextended himself in his business dealings, never to come out from under the debts he assumed in making Intolerance in 1915. And Gish, as a Hollywood dissenter, would go quietly. But how could Little Mary have gone down, with her millions of fans and her share of United Artists? Share? Those who were there recall the UA board meetings as being largely a tug of war between businessmen who had no grasp of film and Pickford, who had forgot more about film and business than anyone will learn. Chaplin was as ignorant of business strategy as Griffith, and Fairbanks was a jerk. It was Pickford who made the studio make sense. They’d all talk, and she’d listen, then she’d cut in with “No, gentlemen, I don’t agree,” and proceed to demolish all that had been said with the logic of experience and vision. Which suggests that Little Mary should have been the one woman to weather the timechange. But she didn’t. Having, she thought, prepared the way for a Big Mary in Dorothy Vernon and My Best Girl, she played the heroine of a southern middle-class tragedy in Coquette (1929), winning the first talkie Oscar as Best Actress.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Great. But the public had been clamoring for a Doug and Mary picture, remember? She pulled off a walk-on dream lady in Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1927), not unlike Elizabeth Taylor’s Helen of Troy in Richard Burton’s Doctor Faustus, but in 1929 the Fairbankses went all the way in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sam Taylor. If they had to do a film together, this was a good choice. Petruchio would provide Fairbanks with his brash rogue shtick, and Katherine would test Little Mary with a new part. He could only be Fairbanks and she liked a test, so it should have worked. Instead, it killed her. Taylor, one of Hollywood’s worst drudges, was Fairbanks’ man, and he colluded with the increasingly unsure actor at Pickford’s expense. The set was run along Fairbanks lines, with late starts each day, no retakes, plenty of time out for exercise sessions or snowing visiting VIPs or just loafing, and Pickford had no help from either man. The film looks good, but it’s a disaster and Pickford knew it. Fairbanks sounds like a potato chip talking, Taylor’s edition of Shakespeare is illiterate, and Pickford flounders. One longs for Lubitsch.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Little Mary’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this. But, like her characters, she thought of a solution and applied it. She would film a story that exploits the Little Mary heroine yet is timeless, working with her most sympathetic director, Marshall Neilan. A sound plan. But alcohol had dulled Neilan’s brain; and the subject, Norma Talmadge’s Secrets, the story of a pioneer couple, didn’t seem timeless so much as historical. At some point late in the production, Pickford took stock, realized it couldn’t work, and closed the production down.

She was so angry she burned the negative. Nothing else she tried worked, either. Nothing flopped, precisely, but she needed a smash. Kiki (1931), a Parisian backstager directed by the relentless Sam Taylor, was more Big Mary, and her second try at Secrets (1933), this time with a fine director, Frank Borzage, and Leslie Howard as her husband, opened just after Franklin Roosevelt’s bank holiday, when nobody was in a movie mood. And that was the end of Little Mary.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.

By ETHAN MORDDEN (1983)

Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood
Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.