In 1914 was released a silent film starring Mary Pickford (her first feature-length film), produced by Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman, and distributed on a ‘State’s Rights’ basis. This film is essentially lost, with only one of the five reels surviving.
They went to New York, presently, took rooms and set out to find a theatrical engagement. Their hearts were set on Belasco. They knew that William J. Dean—the same who, ten years earlier, had rehearsed little Dot so strenuously—was associated with Belasco. Dean was their white hope. They found him at the Belasco Theatre. He remembered them . . . who wouldn’t?
He took them into Mr. Belasco’s private office—a weird place, full of statuary, all in white summer dress—introduced them, and left them there.
Lillian and Dorothy were distinctly frightened. Each tried to propel the other in the direction of the great man. Belasco himself used to tell how each in turn got behind, to push the other forward, until they had backed halfway across the room. When the interview finally began, he told them he was putting on a fairy play, called “The Good Little Devil,” and that Mary Pickford and Ernest Truex were engaged for the leading roles. Neither name was familiar to them.
Gladys Smith had become “Mary Pickford” the winter before, but they had lost sight of all the Smith family. Belasco said further that he needed one more fairy, and that he would engage Lillian for the part. It was a small part, but the best he had.
Lillian was delighted, Dorothy disappointed but not discouraged. They visited other managers, and some agencies. They decided to look up Gladys Smith, to see what could be done in that direction. Sure enough, the telephone book had it: “Biograph Co., n E. 14th St.”
“Hello, hello! Is this the Biograph Company?”
“That’s right. What’s wanted?”
“We’d like to speak to one of your actresses, Gladys
“Sorry—no such person here.”
“But we saw her in a picture of yours, in Baltimore.”
” ‘Lena and the Geese.’
“Oh, that was Mary Pickford.”
“Oh—oh, all right—can she come to the telephone?”
So that was who she was—Gladys … so much the better. Gladys, who was now Mary, came to the telephone, and after a brief period of wild greetings and inquiries, arranged to have them come to the studio. (Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine 1932)
On January 8, 1913, A Good Little Devil had its first night at New York’s Republic Theatre and was favorably received by critics and audiences. The New York Times gave the play a rave, praising its mixture of the real and the fantastic. The reviewer had special praise for the “beautiful picture child” Mary Pickford, whose “diction is so good that it suggests the ‘movies’ as a desirable place for some of our actors to improve their elocution.” This was rare praise indeed from a critical establishment still laboring under strong prejudice against the movies. Lillian Gish was mentioned merely as part of the “alluring group of fairy maidens.” Mary Pickford, already famous for her work in films, was featured in all the reviews and articles, often with the beguiling photograph of the “beautiful picture child.” Maybe the movies were not so demeaning after all, particularly when compared to the lowly status of a fairy maiden in Belasco’ s company. Lillian decided to put on a play of her own for Belasco. She pretended to be ill. Her alarmed producer, perhaps fearing a lawsuit over her fall to the stage, was willing to send Lillian to Florida to recuperate but opted for California instead when he learned that she had an offer from Griffith. Lillian often recited the story of her weakened condition, brought about by excessive economizing on food so that she could share more of her salary with Dorothy and her mother—the principal reason for her defection from Belasco and A Good Little Devil, she confessed to Nell. Written early in the morning of the very day of her Broadway opening, this letter captures the mixture of idealism, practicality, and ambition that is at the core of Lillian’s character.
… (it is now 3:30 in the morning of Wednesday) and I have just returned from a dress rehearsal. We open tonight and every thing has to be just so; we rehearsed until 4:30 yesterday morning. Nell, I don’t know how to thank you for what you have offered me. You both can’t know how wonderful it is to have someone offer me a home and how I would like to follow the desire of my heart and come to you but I can’t big brother and sister I can’t, because I have to make my way in this world from now on, and also help mother and Dorothy. Mother has worked all her life, surely it is my turn now. I feel that I have had a very good start in “this life of sham” because I have started with the best, Belasco, and he has been lovely to me. But as I am offered more money with the Biograph and the three of us can be together I think it is better for me to play sick here and go out there, now don’t you think so? You must understand how I feel, tell me, don’t you know Nell? The picture you painted for me in your letter tonight made me cry because I was reading it in my dressing room and I happened to glance up at a mirror and there I sat, all false, with paint and cosmetics covering my face and it came to me what a distance it was from my life to yours. You both have the real—true happiness of life—may God bless you with the hearts to appreciate it.
Lillian was torn by conflicting desires and responsibilities: lonely for her mother and sister, perhaps not feeling her best, exhausted by the tour and the rehearsals, unhappy with her small role in the play. Somewhat melodramatically, she begged Nell’s approval of her decision to play sick in order to be released by Belasco. Twenty years later she was still embarrassed by the ruse. Although much of the letter was cited in the Paine biography, the parts about “more money with the Biograph” and shamming illness were deleted.
— Charles Affron — (Lillian Gish, Her Legend, Her Life)