Jun 27, 2012

My First Ebook: Classic Hollywood Wit

While I think I will always prefer the feel of a paper and ink book in my hands, I've been fascinated by ebooks for a long time. I finally decided that I had to try them out.

My first book, Classic Hollywood Wit, is now available on Smashwords--and it's free! It's a compilation of all my Quote of the Week posts from the first five years of Classic Movies. (Wow, have I really been around that long?)

It comes in a plethora of formats (I'm trying to figure out who on earth would be interested in the plain text version), including Kindle, Epub, PDF and online reading. Basically, if you have a reader or a computer, you should be able to access it.

Check it out--and if you like what you see, please consider leaving a review or throwing me a Facebook like at Smashwords!

Watching Movies in the 40s and 50s in Spanish Language Theaters: A Q&A With Film Fan Maria Hurtado

A few months ago, I posted my review of the book, Mexican Movies in the United States here at Classic Movies. Before I read it, I had no idea that there had been so many Spanish language movie theaters in the US during the golden age of Hollywood. There was a robust distribution network for the films and a huge, devoted audience in cities and towns across the nation. It was one of the most fascinating books I'd ever reviewed, because it dropped me into a whole new world.

A month or so later, I received an email from Maria Hurtado, exhibit designer at the Mission Historical Museum in Mission, Texas:

I read with great interest your review of Mexican Movies in the United States by Rogelio Agrasanchez. I also grew up in a movie theatre. Teatro Rio in Mission, Texas. It is now a historical building. Each time I see a black and white movie with Maria Felix or Pedro Armendariz, I sit still and watch it, as it brings back memories of the time when my family had no TV and all we had was a quarter to go to the movies. Such were the days. 

Maria had contacted me in search of information about El Rex, another theater she had been to often as a child. While there was not much about the theater in the book, I pointed her to the website of the archives run by the book's author, Rogelio Agrasanchez, Jr. (where she was eventually able to find a photo).

Then I thought, holy cow, this woman has been in these theaters? She's seen these marvelous movies? I had to get her story. Fortunately, Maria was happy to share her memories:

What was a typical night like at Teatro Rio or The Rex?

Mexican Film Star Maria Felix
The weekends were the most popular. People got paid, and it was a time to take the family to a movie. We had to get there by 7PM to get a good seat. The theater was family owned. Mr. Flores always made sure that there were no noise while the movie was shown. He would make the “rounds” to prevent anyone throwing popcorn at each other, or disrupting the audience. His wife would be making the popcorn and his daughter would sell the candy while the son would sell the tickets. He would always change the movie posters by Sunday for the following week, and we would look forward to what was next. The price back then was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. There were 7 of us [kids in the family]. My mother would give us a movie as our allowance. What fun.

How did the audience react to the films at these theaters?

Audiences behaved according to the times. When I was a small child in the 40’s ( I was born in l942) I would go just to watch all the pretty ladies, and see the guys sing and just admire all the things at the theater. I do remember that the audience was very quiet and responsive. If a movie with Cantinflas would show, there was so much laughter as he was such a comedian. I met him during a bullfight in Mexico.

After the 50s, the audiences changed. Many families had televisions at home, and those who would attend would be mostly the young couples and a few families. It was quite loud, and rowdy, it was during the time of the “pachuco” or similar to the zoot-suiter in California. My brother would make sure that we would all sit together. This was at the Rio. The Rex eventually received a bad reputation, poor maintenance, too noisy, and guys would get into fights over some girl, popcorn flying all over, and drinks spilled. Many people would prefer to go to the Rio.

I read that they used to have film stars visit these theaters. Did you ever get to see a a live appearance?

My brother would rush us to get ready by 5PM to go see the movie star or singer at the Rio. We were six girls, one boy. My father died when I was 6 years old. My brother was the head of the household. I loved to go see the movie stars who would come and perform or sing. I got to see Luis Aguilar, Pedro Infante, Antonio Aguilar, Lola Beltran and Piporro – a comedian. Another of my favorite times was when the Rio Theater would hold amateur nights.

Who were your favorite stars?

Pedro Armendariz in From Russia With Love
Pedro Armendariz, by far was my favorite. I used to dream that I would see him in person. The epitome of the “macho” man, gorgeous looks, beautiful smile, yet so kind. He was so versatile, any role he would play was perfect. He spoke perfect English. To this day, I have not seen a Mexican actor who compares to all his qualities. I own all his movies/DVDs. My favorite films – La Perla, Macario, La Malquerida.

Are there any other memories you would like to share?

I can say that watching such movies really had an impact on me. They helped me mold my own life through the experiences of the characters. I learned to be strong, and straightforward as Maria Felix, dress with style like Dolores del Rio, and be funny like La Inda Maria. I used to “play” movies at home and pretend that I lived in big houses and had a “charro” come serenade me.

I'm thankful for those years as those stories may have been fiction but in reality such episodes do happen in our everyday lives. In the American movies, I love Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Casablanca. Movies are just not made like that anymore. Our young people are exposed to too much violence, animation, and make believe. I consider myself having grown up in a simple life with real people.


Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories with us Maria!

Jun 24, 2012

Quote of the Week

We had to learn everything, dancing, horseback riding. The golden era is a long lost art.

-Debbie Reynolds

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Jun 17, 2012

Quote of the Week

To me, show business was kind of a detour. I felt there was a lot of living to do.

-Kim Novak

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Jun 10, 2012

Quote of the Week

I was married sure, but those weren't marriages--they were legalized love affairs. So we wouldn't have the big stink: oh my God, they're living together! So what do you do? You get married.

-Evelyn Keyes

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Jun 4, 2012

Mary Pickford Blogathon: Thank You

I was planning to post this message yesterday, but I got a bit overwhelmed, and had to stop for a moment to think about the past three days and why they were important to me. I've been grinning all weekend. What a fantastic turnout!

Thank you to everyone for your wonderful contributions. I know that many of you were so busy that you could barely participate. I am grateful that you not only joined in, but did so with enthusiasm and creativity.

When it first occurred to me how strongly I felt about promoting Mary Pickford and her legacy, I assumed the event would be a hard sell. And it was. Even among people with classic movie blogs, she doesn't get much attention.

I'm one of those people. Before this event, I'd posted one thing about Pickford, in 2009. It was a classic quote:

If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.

I've certainly fixed that problem! I'll revisit Mary in the future as well. There's so much more to learn.

I'm saddened by the events that inspired me to put on this event. I can accept that the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio is gone, but the cultural insensitivity that led to its destruction is much more difficult to stomach. It didn't surprise me, and I think that is the most frustrating thing of all.

It also really makes me sad to see what has happened to the Mary Pickford Institute. Cutting off the funding to this group is like ripping the blooms off an orchid. Promoting cultural literacy is difficult work and anyone who is willing and able to take on that task needs all the support they can get.

Without cultural literacy, we live in a dying garden. The past that built us also nourishes us; it keeps us from living in an empty bubble. Understanding where we came from gives us the perspective we need to make the best future. I think we are all aware of that. It's the "how" that's tricky, but I don't believe it's impossible.

Mary Pickford can be as simple as 67 minutes of entertainment, but she stands for a lot more than that. She created the template for some of the most important elements of our culture. I honor her for that and I'm delighted that you all have as well.

Thank you for your posts, comments and love for Mary! 


The winner of the Sweet Memories book giveaway is Helen of Commentary Track, which is appropriate, because she submitted the first entry for the blogathon! Send your mailing address to me at classicmovieblog (at) gmail.com, to get your fabulous prize Helen!

Jun 3, 2012

Quote of the Week

A friend of mine recently said: "Oh, you've had your face lifted." I said "Are you out of you mind?" Can you imagine a "friend" saying something so cruel. Listen, I've stuck with this face. God knows there's room for improvement. I've earned every one of my wrinkles. Cheese ripens with age. Wine ripens with age. Why can't people? Does everybody have to be plastic?

-Lauren Bacall

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Mary Pickford Blogathon: Q&A with Pickford Biographer Peggy Dymond Leavey

Peggy Dymond Leavey had never seen a Mary Pickford movie when she was approached by Dundurn Press to write a biography of a Canadian woman for their Quest Biography series. The publisher gave her a list of suggested names, and Pickford stood out, partly because Leavey had an interest in the history of motion pictures. She gave herself a crash course on Mary, and the result is Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, a highly readable biography, with sharp detail and deep compassion for its subject.

Peggy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her whirlwind trip through Mary's world:

Q. How did you approach the research for the book?

A. I concentrated on reading as many biographies of Mary Pickford as I could, and using the bibliographies, I found other books to read. Mary's autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, was especially helpful, as was being able to hear her radio interviews through the CBC Digital Archives. The website of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education provided a wonderful source of information, filmography, and pictures. (I wish the Mary Pickford Foundation would restore the funding and let the MPI continue their work of preserving Mary's film legacy.)

Q. Was there anything you learned about Pickford that surprised you or that you found especially fascinating?

A. I was stunned by the scope of her fame, how wildly popular she became. She and Charlie Chaplin were the first worldwide celebrities. She couldn't go anywhere without being mobbed by frenzied fans.

Q. Did the process of researching and writing the book change the way you felt about her?

A. I didn't expect to like her as well as I did. But the more I learned about her life, the more I felt as if I knew her. She was a woman I could understand. I believe that inside this powerful personality was a frightened little girl.

After the death of her father when she was only six, she was terrified of losing her mother. She also feared the breakup of her family and did everything she could to keep the four of them together, even vowing to become the “father” of the family herself.

Although Mary was making more money than anyone in Hollywood, she was afraid it wouldn't last. She was haunted by her early poverty. Then too, she feared the loss of her fans if she divorced and married Douglas Fairbanks. And ultimately, she feared the loss of youth and beauty. However she appeared on the outside — shrewd businesswoman, fiercely independent — I think she was very insecure. I believe this may have contributed to the alcoholism. She found safety inside the walls of Pickfair and hid herself away there during the final years of her life.

Q. What kinds of roles do you think Mary would have done if she had kept working, like her long-time friend Lillian Gish?

A. That's an interesting question, one I've never asked myself. Humor was an important element in Mary's films. She was in her sixties and long retired when she remarked that perhaps what was missing in films nowadays (the 1950s) was humor. So, I would imagine her choosing roles that allowed her to make the audience laugh. I also think she would look for meaningful roles, ones that showed women as important members of society, and I'm sure she'd continue to champion of the underdog.

In her last film, Secrets, with Leslie Howard, her character ages from a young woman to an elderly lady, and Mary is quite believable in the part. She could have gone on, but she chose to retire.

Q. Are you planning to write any more books about film subjects?

A. I've been doing some preliminary research into the life of one of Canada's pioneers of early film, a man who began his career as a title artist in the 1920s. Later he moved to New York and the Astoria Studios, then returned to Canada to head the production department at Associated Screen News. It's too soon to say where this will go.

Q. Do you have a favorite Pickford film? And if so, what do you like about it?

A. My favourite is one of Mary's Biograph one-reelers, The New York Hat, made in 1912. I find her acting in it so natural. This could be because she's playing a character who is the same age as she was at the time. Mary has such a wonderfully expressive face; she lights up the screen. There's nothing overdone in this film, and Mary is totally believable.

Q. I noticed that your eleven-year-old granddaughter helped you to create a collage of Pickford photos for your blog. Has she watched any of her films? If so, what did she think?

A. My granddaughter, Zoë, saw The New York Hat at the launch of Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart. She told me it was “cool,” and she remarked on how different movies were back then from what she sees on the screen today. In her opinion, Mary Pickford was “an amazing actress,” one who didn't have to use words to be able to “wow” an audience.

There you go: out of the mouths of babes! Here's one young girl who says she'd be thrilled to see more of Mary's silent pictures.


 Peggy Dymond Leavey is a retired librarian and the author of several books. She has been shortlisted for the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award. You can learn more about Peggy at her website and her blog.

Jun 2, 2012

Mary Pickford: The First and Last Superstar

This post is by Sloan DeForest of the Mary Pickford Foundation. As the Foundation is in the process of building a new website, Sloan is temporarily homeless on the web. I'm happy to host her fantastic piece!


By Sloan DeForest

There’s nothing revolutionary about calling Mary Pickford the world’s first movie star. Sure, the statement is sometimes argued by sticklers who insist that Florence Lawrence – the pre-Pickford “Biograph Girl” – owns that distinction because she came first. But Lawrence never became a huge star, and her career was over and forgotten quickly. That means most of us can agree that Mary was the first big Hollywood celebrity.

But she was more than that. She not only kicked off the still-thriving practice of celebrity worship, she set a standard for movie stardom that no one has touched since. When talkies took over and public tastes changed, Mary’s star fizzled and eventually fell – and stardom itself was never the same. There have been dozens, maybe hundreds, of enormously popular movie stars since Mary left the screen in 1933, but none are in Mary’s league. She was the first, last, and only worldwide superstar of the cinema.

In Mary Pickford’s heyday, the world was populated with just under 2 billion people. True, there were no televisions, let alone DVD players, and many people in rural or undeveloped areas had never seen a motion picture. But those who had been exposed to films had most likely seen one of Mary’s.

Today, the earth has hit an estimated 7 billion people, about a third of whom are online watching YouTube clips right now. Many others have gadgets enabling them to view (and even make) movies 24 hours a day. Ironically, movies and movie stars have saturated the world, yet their fame has been diffused, spread more thinly over a larger number of stars. There are more celebrities, more avenues to achieve fame, more kinds of fame, more levels of fame; from Oscar-winning leading man to minor reality-show character to star of the blogosphere, and everything in between.

Back when Mary was the screen’s most beloved icon, her fame was concentrated. Movies were the only road to this kind of super-fame, and she was the official Queen of the medium. All the Shirley Temples, the Tom Hankses, the Madonnas and the John Waynes who would follow were embodied in a single petite woman. As journalist Kent Williams put it (in his 1998 article Mary Pickford: The First Superstar), “Tom Cruise is a freckle on a flea's butt compared to Mary Pickford in her day.”

It’s difficult for us to comprehend today just how popular Little Mary was in the silent era. Adela Rogers St. Johns deemed her “the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history” – and she was not exaggerating. Pickford received an astonishing 500 fan letters a day, and that was only an estimate. There were simply too many to count.

When Mary wed fellow star Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, thousands of hysterical fans from Moscow, Switzerland and Paris swarmed the newlyweds on their European honeymoon, desperate to catch a glimpse of their screen idols. Thirty-five years before Elvis Presley recorded his first single, such celebrity-crazed mobs were unheard of.

Elvis, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles and Michael Jackson all induced waves of mass hysteria at the height of their fame. But were they truly international, the way Mary was? They sang songs in English, and only performed concerts to a handful of major cities, limiting their worldwide popularity. Greta Garbo enjoyed a period of international mega-stardom, but she was more popular in Europe than in the U.S. Valentino had his moment of worldwide adulation, but, sadly, it was the moment of his death, and so it was fleeting.

But during the teens and twenties, the entire world fell in love with Mary. Between, let’s say, 1915 and 1929, many countries produced feature films, but none could touch Hollywood, U.S.A. for quantity, and very few could challenge their quality either. Because silent film had no language barriers, Hollywood shipped its films all over the globe, where they could be viewed, understood and appreciated by anyone with a projector. Once sound entered the picture, Hollywood films (in which the actors spoke English) had to be dubbed or subtitled practically everywhere else in the world, and the fun was over.

For fourteen years, though, Mary Pickford was voted the most popular woman in the world. Who else could claim so many hearts for so many years? Princess Diana’s marriage didn’t last as long. Marilyn Monroe’s entire film career did not even span fourteen years.

Monroe’s fame – as well as Chaplin’s and others – may have endured and even increased after they died, unlike Mary’s. But then, Pickford’s films were shelved and not shown for decades, until after the actress’s death in 1979. If her work had been seen by post-silent generations, who knows? The phenomenal fanaticism for Mary might have built enough momentum to burn just as brightly today as it did nearly a century ago.

And a century ago, nobody burned brighter than Mary. Today, Brad and Angelina combined don’t even come close to Mary’s fame. That level of stardom doesn’t exist anymore. It started – and ended – with Mary Pickford.

Photos from the Mary Pickford Foundation collection, courtesy of Sloan DeForest

Mary Pickford Blogathon Guest Post: Pickford and Fairbanks

By Stephen Jared 

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Smith. In her time, actors hired for films were naturally recruited from the theater, and they played to the rafters. But young Mary had a different idea—she played to the camera. The consequence of this was that; not only did she revolutionize acting, but she created a sensation—audiences came to believe they knew her. They called her “America’s Sweetheart.”

Douglas Fairbanks was born Douglas Ulman. He was the original screen swashbuckler, the first larger-than-life action hero. His stories were full of humor, optimism and ebullience. He bounded across the screen like an acrobat, weaving his way through towering sets combined with trick photography. His adventures were some of the greatest spectacles ever made. He too created a sensation—audiences longed to be like him.

Together, they became king and queen; not just of Hollywood, but of America. Pickfair, their Beverly Hills residence was often referred to as “America’s Buckingham Palace” and “the White House of the West.” Guests at Pickfair, among various royalty and politicians from around the world, included Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noël Coward, Arthur Conan Doyle and Fairbanks’ best friend, Charlie Chaplin.

In July 1920, on board the SS Olympic bound for New York City, newlyweds Doug and Mary were returning from Europe when they made the acquaintance of a young music hall acrobat, the 16-year-old Cary Grant. Forty years later, Grant remembered: “I tried with shy, inadequate words to tell him of my adulation. I’ve doggedly striven to keep tanned ever since, only because of a desire to emulate his healthful appearance.”

What amazes is that even the incomparable Cary Grant, though at the time he was a gawky Archie Leach, envied and wanted to emulate heroes from the silver screen. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? In movies, ordinary human beings can be elevated to exquisite works of art. Who wouldn’t wish to be a living, breathing work of art?

But if a snapshot of a smile can be deceptive, how much more so the moving picture?

Douglas Fairbanks seemed indestructible and Mary Pickford forever youthful. How tempting it is to forget that movies are illusions, and that life within these illusions can be dangerous. As the 1930s approached, the champagne bubbles of most silent film stars lives began to burst. Remarkably, not even the careers of those at the very top would survive. In 1929, Mary won an oscar for best actress in Coquette; four years later she gave up acting. She was forty-one. Doug and Mary could no longer pretend to be the characters audiences adored, and so tickets to their films stopped selling.

Both were devastated, heartbroken. While she retreated to her bedroom and privately suffered alcoholism, he retreated to non-stop worldwide travel and other women. By 1933, he told his son (new movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), that he was bored with life and prepared to die. America’s king and queen ended their marriage.

Mary Pickford married again in 1937, adopted two children, and went on to live another forty-two years, though throughout all of those years, she remained almost entirely at Pickfair, receiving few visitors. Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939. He was fifty-six.

If only life was more like the movies. If only there was some way to stab reality in its cruel heart and get away with it. But maybe if it weren’t for the inadequacies of life, the illusions these two giants created would never have survived for so long. Their works, and the ideas they pioneered, are as relevant and important now as ever.


Writer and actor Stephen Jared is the author of the critically-praised old Hollywood-inspired novels Ten-A-Week Steale and Jack and the Jungle Lion. You can learn more about Jared and his projects here and follow him on Twitter @stephen_jared.

Jun 1, 2012

The Mary Pickford Blogathon: It's Here!

Isn't it great when you know exactly when you started loving something or someone? The a-ha moment? I know exactly when I starting loving Mary Pickford:

This screening was part of a great silent movie series in my city. I was pretty sure this was the first time they had shown a Pickford movie. About five minutes into Sparrows, I wondered what had taken them so long.
It helped that I was watching the film in a gorgeous theater with an enthusiastic audience and the accompaniment of a first rate organist, but that was clearly the icing.

Pickford charmed the audience immediately. I'd never seen such a giddy reaction to a film performance. You could see the glow of teeth in the dark. We couldn't stop smiling at her!

Maybe some of the crowd walked in there with the same misconceptions about Mary I had. I'd been almost reluctant to see the film, because photos I'd seen of Pickford in curls and Mary Janes had convinced me that she was too old-fashioned for even a devoted classic movie geek like me.

I was so wrong.

Pickford had a remarkable ability to transmit her thoughts in a crisp, direct fashion. There was no set method to it; she just used her common sense. When she thinks she's in trouble, when she's delighted or, my favorite, when she's getting pissed off at some rotten bully, you can see it coming on as if she's telegraphed the message to your mind.

A lot of that skill came from observing human behavior. Pickford was particularly clever in the way that she used her study of children to play her famous little girl roles. With precise body language, from the way she held her jaw to the bounce of her walk, she could believably play young girls into her thirties. It took much more than short stature and a youthful appearance to be able to do that well.

As Mary plowed her way through the virgin territory of the movie industry, she was first in so many ways that you get weary of keeping track. I think this has hurt her legacy as an actress. Constant reference to her accomplishments has drawn attention away from her genius for creating riveting performances that were pure cinema. It's easy to be astonished by all she has accomplished, but sometimes you need to set all that aside and just pay attention to the woman on the screen.

What I love about the participants of this blogathon is that you all do get what's wonderful about Mary Pickford and I sense that you want others to discover her too. Thanks to all of you for helping to bring attention and admiration to this remarkable woman.

I hope you all will enjoy the posts and leave lots of comments for this talented group of writers.

Enter the Book Giveaway Contest!

As many of you know by now, author David Menefee has generously donated an signed copy of Sweet Memories for the blogathon. The book is an entertaining fictional retelling of Pickford's early life and career as envisioned by her mother Charlotte. If you would like to enter, all you need to do is tell me one thing you like about Mary Pickford in the comments. It can be something you like about her personally, something she once said, a film or even a moment from a film.

I will put all entries into a stylish toddler sunhat and draw a winner on the last day of the blogathon. 

And now on to the posts. Happy reading!

Friday, June 1 

My special guest today is author and filmmaker Sarah Baker, who has written a fascinating post about Jack Pickford's first wife Olive Thomas and the tragic star's relationship with Mary.

A Person In The Dark, The New York Hat (1912)

Twenty-Four Frames, A Beast At Bay (1912)

Journeys in Classic Film, Cinderella (1914)

A Mythical Monkey Writes About the Movies, Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918)

Movie Classics, Daddy Long-Legs (1919)

The Other Side, Sparrows (1926)

Forget the Talkies, Mary Pickford miscellaneous/movie links

Melissa Skillens, Freeing Mary Pickford From the Dark Vault

The Hollywood Revue, My Best Girl (1927)

David W. Menefee, Why Do People Love Mary Pickford?

Saturday, June 2

My special guest today is actor and writer Stephen Jared. He has written a touching post about Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. It's interesting to hear about this relationship from the perspective of a working actor. (I love Jared's quote about his roles in the author bio of his new book Ten-A-Weak Steale: " He is cast frequently as a dimwit, occasionally as a cop, and every once in a while he plays a dimwit cop." I'm also endlessly impressed by his long run as the classic dimwit "Phil" in a series of Jack-in-the-Box commercials. This guy would be right at home in a screwball comedy. All the good character roles are in ads and cable these days.)

Crítica Retrô, Sparrows

Mary Pickford Foundation (Sloan DeForest), Mary Pickford: The First and Last Superstar

What Happened to Hollywood?, Still Fighting for Hollywood: Mary Pickford

Commentary Track, Photoplay: My Best Girl (1927)

 11 East 14th Street has contributed all sorts of goodies:

The Pickford Biographs: Friends(1912) 

Daddy Long-Legs (1919)

Belligerently I Marched. . . 

Pickford and Griffith: The Clash of Film's First Great Egos 

"We Don't Deal in Words Here" The Biograph Actors on Acting 

Goin' to California, 1910 and a Mountain of Dreams

Silent Volume, The Little American (1917)

Mary Pickford Institute (Hugh Munro Neely), Mary Pickford, Producer

Pretty Clever Films, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and The New York Hat (1912)

Once Upon a Screen, Romance of the Redwoods (1917)

The Cinementals (Miss Carley), Mary Pickford: The Girl Who Invented Celebrity

Sunday, June 3

My special guest today is author and Pickford biographer Peggy Dymond Leavey. In a fascinating Q&A, she shares her thoughts on Pickford and the process of researching and writing her book, Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.

 Krell Laboratories, A first experience with a Pickford film

The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, Mary Pickford! America's Freakin' Sweetheart!

Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, Stella Maris (1918)

A Twitter entry! From Chris Giddens, @chrisgiddens, Jollification: Heart o' the Seagulls [Mary Pickford] Aside from being really cute, and the reason for my most recent big smile of the day, this video beautifully demonstrates why developing a strong soundtrack is such an important part of restoring silent films. This scene plays so differently with a modern soundtrack!

True Classics, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

My Love of Old Hollywood, Hollywood at Home: Pickfair

She Blogged by Night, Secrets (1933)

Movietone News, Kiki (1931)

Don't forget to enter the book giveaway! Just tell me one thing you like about Mary in the comments.

Why Do People Love Mary Pickford?

I'm hosting this great entry that David Menefee posted in the comments, so that you all can read it with more ease.

By David W. Menefee

I have always loved Mary for all that is good in her spirit, which cameras managed to capture. Vachel Lindsay in his 1915 book, THE ART OF THE MOVING PICTURE, may have been one of the first to put into words what people around the world thought of Mary:

“Mary Pickford in particular has been stimulated to be over-athletic, and in all her career she has been given just one chance to be her more delicate self, and that was in the almost forgotten film: A ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS. This is one of the serious commercial attempts that should be revived and studied, in spite of its crudities of plot, by 
our Art Museums. There is something of the grandeur of the redwoods in it, in contrast to the sustained Botticelli grace of "Our Mary." One description of the Intimate-and-friendly Comedy would be the Mary Pickford kind of a story. None has as yet appeared. But we know the Mary Pickford mood. When it is gentlest, most roguish, most exalted, it is a prophecy of what this type should be, not only in the actress, but in the scenario and setting.”

“Mary Pickford can be a doll, a village belle, or a church angel. Her powers as a doll are hinted at in the title of the production: SUCH A LITTLE QUEEN. I remember her when she was a village belle in that film that came out before producers or actors were known by name. It was sugar-sweet. It was called WHAT THE DAISY SAID. If these productions had conformed to their titles sincerely, with the highest photoplay art we would have had two more examples for this chapter. 

Why do the people love Mary? Not on account of the Daniel Frohman style of handling her appearances. He presents her to us in what are almost the old-fashioned stage terms: the productions energetic and full of painstaking detail but dominated by a dream that is a theatrical hybrid. It is neither good moving picture nor good stage play. Yet 
Mary could be cast as a cloudy Olympian or a church angel if her managers wanted her to be such. She herself was transfigured in THE DAWN OF TOMORROW, but the film-version of that play was merely a well mounted melodrama. 

Why do the people love Mary? Because of a certain aspect of her face in her highest mood. Botticelli painted her portrait many centuries ago when by some necromancy she appeared to him in this phase of herself. There is in the Chicago Art Institute at the top of the stairs on the north wall a noble copy of a fresco by that painter, the copy by Mrs. MacMonnies. It is very near the Winged Victory of Samothrace. In the picture the muses sit enthroned. The loveliest of them all is a startling replica of Mary. 

The people are hungry for this fine and spiritual thing that Botticelli pointed in the faces of his muses and heavenly creatures. Because the mob catch the very glimpse of it in Mary's face, they follow her night after night in the films. They are never quite satisfied with the plays, because the managers are not artists enough to know they should 
sometimes put her into sacred pictures and not have her always the village hoyden, in plays not even hoydenish. But perhaps in this argument I have but betrayed myself as Mary's infatuated partisan.” 

Mary Pickford Blogathon Guest Post--Team Ollie versus Team Mary: Whose Side Are You On?

By Sarah Baker

When I started researching Olive Thomas, lo these many years ago, one recurring theme kept popping up over and over again, persistent as a toothache.

Mary Pickford and the Pickford family hated--no, actually despised--Olive Thomas.

In every article or chapter I read about Olive, whether it had been written in the 1920s or the 1990s, someone had to reference her in-laws the Pickfords, and how terribly they treated poor, working class Ollie.

This was a theme I began to believe myself, because it was repeated so often it became the Olive Gospel. And yet--and yet--after years of research, I began to doubt the truth of it myself.

Now, I want to make one thing quite clear from the outset. I've no doubt in my mind that the Pickfords were harsh in-laws. They were such a clannish family that any outsider wasn't entirely welcome. If Owen Moore, Doug Fairbanks, and Marilyn Miller weren't welcomed with open arms by the entire Pickford ménage, then they had good company in Olive Thomas.

And I must admit that Olive was a rather poor candidate as a daughter and sister-in-law. She exacerbated many of Jack's worst traits--his drinking and his carousing. She was a hard worker, but she also played hard, and in that matter she and Jack were in complete accord. Their fights were legendary. I can see why Mary hesitated to welcome Olive into Jack's life. She represented--and encouraged--many of the vices that Mary sought to weed out of him.

But…and here's where I depart from conventional wisdom…I don't think the Pickfords hated Olive. They were likely dismayed by their marriage, but Mary only had good things to say about Olive in her (albeit sanitized) 1950s autobiography, Sunshine and Shadows. The public had pretty much forgotten about Olive Thomas by the time the book was published; her movies sat decomposing in vaults or forgotten swimming pools; she was a mere ghost to most people. Mary could have omitted her entirely--Hollywood is known for rewriting and eliminating its history, after all. And yet, Mary included Olive in the story of her life--not as a disappointment, not as a drinker and a druggie, not as a harlot who slept her way to the top--but as a pretty and poignant butterfly who died too soon.

And, by the same token, I think Olive had high respect for Mary. She kept her marriage to Jack secret for a year, toiling away at her film career, because she didn't want to trade on the Pickford name. She respected that Mary had built up the Pickford Family, and like her, Olive wanted to make her own way in the world. And, like Mary, she began to take an active interest in the process of making films behind the scenes, absorbing the way they were made and soaking it all up like a sponge. By the time she died in 1920, she had evolved from an amateurish pretty face with a tendency to look directly into the camera, and had become an authentically good actress, capable of comedy and tragedy with equal ease and aplomb.

Many people point to Olive's grave as the final proof of Pickford-ian hatred. Olive, they say, was buried in a tiny mausoleum in a forgotten corner of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Mary saw to it, they sneer, and then she buried Jack in her family's plot halfway across the country when he died in the 1930s.

But the fact is this: Jack did it all. His signature is on all the paperwork on file at the cemetery. He approved the designs for the mausoleum; he chose the location (which, incidentally, is in what's called Millionaires' Row, not some forgotten wayside corner); he ordered the place for his own body and put the Pickford name above the door. But when he died in the 1930s, he had been married twice more. It makes sense that his final resting place would be with his family and not with one of his three wives.

I'm not a Pickford apologist, but I do see family dynamics for what they are, even famous families from the 1920s. And what I see with Olive and Mary is not a mere rivalry, but, over time, a mutual admiration between two strong women. I'm proud to say that I am a member of both Team Mary and Team Olive.

Postcard photos courtesy of Sarah Baker.

Sarah Baker has a degree in History and Women's Studies from Southwestern University. Baker’s first project was a seven-year labor of love—a documentary film about silent film star Olive Thomas, which she wrote and produced. Over the course of her research, Baker located ten of Thomas’ 20 films, all of which had been considered lost. The resulting documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart, executive produced by Hugh Hefner, was released to DVD (2004) along with Thomas’ film The Flapper —the first time this film had been available to the public since 1920. Baker was associate producer and researcher on A&F Productions' Gangland: Bullets Over Hollywood for Starz Encore Entertainment and Alta Loma Entertainment. In 2008, Baker again teamed with A&F Productions, serving as associate producer and researcher on the documentary study Why Be Good? Sexuality and Censorship in Early Cinema, for executive producer Hugh Hefner/Playboy Enterprises.

In 2010, Baker's dual biography Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell was published by BearManor Media. Baker has been researching Sean Costello's life and music and working with his estate to develop Blues Man: The Life and Times of Sean Costello since his passing in 2008.

Connect with Sarah:
Blues Man: The Life and Times of Sean Costello 
Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell