Feb 14, 2013

A Chat With the Editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Part II

Christel Schmidt: ready to bring Pickford to the masses

Welcome to part two of my fabulous conversation with Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. If you missed it here's part one.

On Pickford's reputation today:

I think Pickford is getting a lot closer to being back in her rightful place in history and cultural memory. It used to be if people were writing about the silent era, their go-to name would be Lillian Gish. That's not so anymore, it's almost always Mary Pickford. I think people are starting to hear the name and knowing she's connected to the silent era.

It's really interesting to see on Twitter and Facebook, and going to these shows [on the book tour], how people are starting to come to her and enjoy her work. I'm definitely meeting new fans.

Regarding the story that she wanted her films destroyed upon her death:

The story of her wanting to burn the films is a great story. And it catches everybody's eye. It gives you a sense of how she was feeling at the time, but I don't think she meant it.

You'll never convince me in a million years that she would have ever done anything to harm her films. Those were her babies. The proof of that is that when the Library of Congress copied her films in the mid 1950s, they said to her, we've copied all your films on 16 millimeter, our policy is to destroy all nitrate. and she said "Hell no! Give me my films back!" Not quite like that. But that's why we still have a lot of her films to copy onto 35 mm , because she took them back....She took on the responsibility for storing them and she continued to look for someone who was interested in doing something.

I think she was hurt, so she wanted to tell people, I'm going to get rid of them, and so people would say no no no, you can't do that! And that's totally an understandable thing. And maybe on some days she felt it, who knows? She said it a number of times into the 1960s after they were preserved. And she knew they were preserved.

Over the years she let people copy them, and yes, she wasn't much into screening them, but she did support screenings at George Eastman House. She did want to make sure that if people screened them, it wasn't as a joke. That wasn't paranoia. It was going on at the time. She didn't want to be laughed at, and I can't blame her.

On her third marriage, to Buddy Rogers:

One of the things I discovered during research, but which ended up as an endnote in the book, was that her marriage to Buddy Rogers wasn't a great marriage. She hired a detective to basically document his infidelities. She spent over $6,000, and you know if Mary spend $6,000 to chase him around, she was not amused. In 1960, she had divorce papers written up, but she never filed them. One of the reasons she and Fairbanks didn't work out was the affairs. And she said, I'm not doing that, and then she ends up marrying someone who does it anyway.

About Fairbanks and Pickford:

Mary Pickford's niece said that she and Fairbanks shouldn't have divorced, because neither of them survived it. I think she romanticized their relationship and Mary's career, but there's some truth to that. The thing is, I don't know how it could have ever worked.

I think they were friends, and that was very important. It was going to be very hard for her to find someone that was equal to him. I mean, she's A-list, he's A-list. That was her youth, and that was probably the best time of her life, but she was very clear in her autobiography that he was difficult. He was jealous, he was possessive. And then there were affairs, he's constantly running away.

In her book she says Taming of the Shrew was the end of her career, and I think she never forgave him for it. I think the problem was that he walks away with the film. He was a jerk on the set, he moped and hated to make it, and then he stole the entire picture. He had the star part and he was born to play it. I certainly think that whole experience shattered her confidence in terms of making movies.

Her Catherine is in that long line of tough, willful woman she'd been playing since the beginning of her career, but never have I seen her in a situation where the male character pushes her into the mud, laughing, and doesn't help her up, who sits on her and covers her mouth, who steps on her foot. She has never taken such abuse in a film. It's shocking. It is seeing that signature character from the beginning of her career totally dominated by this man.

Movies were the love of her life. When she married Fairbanks, she did choose him over the movies, but when the marriage was bad, and Fairbanks was trying to flee Hollywood, she chose movies over him.

Fairbanks ran toward play, travel, escape and she turned to the thing that soothed her, work. She was swimming just as hard and just as fast as he was. She wrote books and she had the cosmetics company. The problem is, she never loved any of it as much as she loved movies.

About writing and editing Queen of the Movies:

It's been 15 years since Eileen Whitfield's book, It's been almost a decade since Kevin Brownlow's book, there's been some writing about her, Jeannine Basinger writes beautifully about her in Silent Stars. But we needed something more. I spent fifteen years [researching] Pickford, and I can't walk away without putting something down. The thing about the book is, if you think you know everything about Mary Pickford, you probably don't and if you know nothing about Mary Pickford, you won't be lost.

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