Sweetheart – The Story of Mary Pickford
By Robert Windeler – 1973
… However, Reid sold the producing rights to The Little Red Schoolhouse, and forgot the Smiths. A young girl named Lillian Gish won the role of Mabel Payne and went with the play on tour. In Buffalo, Lillian’s chaperone got sick and she and Lillian had to return to New York. Somebody remembered Gladys Smith and sent to Toronto for her. Charlotte wired back that her only interest was in a package deal, and the producers were desperate enough to hire the four Smiths—at $20 a week—for the play.
It was 1906, and Gladys Smith announced: ‘I’m thirteen and at the crossroads ofmy life.’ She made a firm decision to ‘land on Broadway or give up the theater for good’. Lillian Gish inherited her role in In Convict’s Stripes, and Gladys, her family still in Canada, attempted in any way she could to meet David Belasco, the playwright who had become the top producer on Broadway.
Even worse off in pay and status were child actors. While child labor laws were only then haphazardly applied to youngsters in the theater, and truant officers scarcely bothered, there were some do-gooding agencies with great moral force behind them condemning the exploitation of children and attempting to get them back to school. Two of the first things a child ever learned were to lie about his age and a whole lot of other things, and to hide when the Gerry Society came around. By the early 1900s, this group, founded originally as The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, had become active in theater ‘sweatshops’—and renamed for reformer Elbridge Thomas Gerry. Lillian Gish recalled how the girls were taught to wear makeup and high heels at the age ofnine or ten so as to look sixteen if they had to appear in court. Mary had long since found her own way around the rules. ‘The Gerry Society insisted that there be two children for one character and they were supposed to alternate,’ she said. ‘My sister Lottie was often my understudy, but as a matter of fact I never allowed her to play the part.’ ‘Flickers’ then were even a step down from the sordid life of the theater.
Griffith went on to make at least two short films a week and had made over no ofthem when Mary Pickford started working for him. He was in charge of all production for Biograph and Billy Bitzer had replaced Arthur Marvin as his principal cameraman. Bitzer and Griffith were already, in 1909, experimenting with camera and lighting techniques. With Bitzer’s help Griffith in subsequent years invented or developed the close-up, the dissolve, flashback, cross-cutting, pan shot, high and low angle shots, soft focus, back lighting, moving shots and the hazy photography effected by putting layers of chiffon over the camera lens to make the face and hair of his angelic young leading ladies, even more angelic. ‘What Griffith’s mind saw, Billy Bitzer was able to get on film,’ said Lillian Gish.
One of Mary’s last films for Biograph was called The Informer, a Civil War story in which the women of a Southern household are trapped in an old smoke-house. Mary managed to hold off a group of Yankee soldiers ‘till the Confederate cavalry, summoned by the faithful Negro boy Leviticus, played by my brother Jack, dashed gallantly to the rescue and the war was somehow soon over and the lovers reunited’. Particularly with Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall, the stars of The Birth of a Nation, in the cast of The Informer, it was a kind of forerunner of Griffith’s epic. Mary was going to make good her threats to go back to the stage for Belasco, and in October 1912 she interrupted a rehearsal, something that was never done, and told a tearful Griffith goodbye. ‘Well, Pickford, God bless you,’ he said. ‘Be good. Be a good actress.’
The play went into rehearsal around 1 November 1912, and Mary’s salary was $200 a week. It tried out in Philadelphia in December and Griffith and a group from Biograph came down from New York for the opening night. Griffith himself followed the play to Baltimore, where it opened at Ford’s theater two days before Christmas, 1912. He was more nervous about it than Mary. The cast also included Ernest Truex and Lillian Gish, who had left Biograph temporarily to go back to her first love, the theater. A Good Little Devil opened at the Republic Theater in New York on 8 January 1913, to great acclaim for Mary Pickford. ‘Her success in the difficult role was phenomenal,’ Belasco wrote. ‘Nothing like her remarkable performance of a child’s part had been seen in New York or elsewhere.’ But Lillian Gish termed the play a ‘good little failure’ and she left it in time to rejoin Biograph for winter filming in California. The play ran until 3 May 1913, but was not the box-office success that The Warrens of Virginia had been.
Despite his success with The Birth of a Nation, his three partners were bigger box-office names and Griffith felt he had to compete with blockbusting hits. Fortunately his first three films for United Artists were just that: Broken Blossoms, Way Down East—which had the first motion picture budget of $1 million, of which only $175 went for the story, nevertheless breaking the record set by Ramona, and $3,000 for the screenplay, Griffith’s first to be all written down—and Orphans of the Storm. All three starred Griffith’s beloved Lillian Gish, and her sister Dorothy joined her in Orphans.
Mrs Morgan Belmont of New York’s 400 played a society matron in Way Down East, giving the movies a new kind of social cachet. Way Down East was the hugest success of the three and Griffith was temporarily back on top. In 1919, from the Griffith studio came yet another innovation, and one that kept Pickford and her sister stars, now solidly in their twenties, still able to play heroines of even twelve. The technique was first tried with Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Miss Gish was then twenty-two but Billy Bitzer had made her look ten years younger by filming her through black maline, a fine silk net that covered the regular camera lens and acted as a retouching lens. The results were extraordinary and cameramen began to experiment with netting of a variety of colors and coarseness, eventually developing the diffusion lens, with the softening factor built into the glass.
Mary and Doug maintained theirownseparate production companies within the United Artists framework. He paid himself $10,000 weekly and she paid herself the same, both adding a percentage of the profits to this sum. In 1922 they built the Pickford-Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Mary ordered a six-room bungalow, which she furnished with three cages full of canaries. Douglas had a dressing room, pool, gymnasium and steam bath added onto his offices. A permanent masseur was in residence and Doug’s eclectic group of friends were frequently entertained in this set-up at the end of a day’s shooting. The athletes of the world, whatever their particular sport, also congregated in the movie hero’s gym. He enjoyed their success and learning from them. They enjoyed his success and having their pictures taken with him. ‘Fairbanks was a dynamic person who lived for good health,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘He drank about two glasses of champagne a year. He and Chaplin trained themselves to stay fit. In those days we were really all health-minded.’