The Very First Academy Awards in 1929

It was Douglas Fairbanks who first thought of creating awards for films and actors. He and his wife, Mary Pickford, organized the competition and held a dinner at a Hollywood hotel in May of 1929.

It was nothing like the extravagant shows we are accustomed to today. Each of the 270 people who attended paid $5 for a ticket. There were speeches and a meal, but not a shred of suspense—the 15 winners had been announced several months earlier. It took Fairbanks 15 minutes to hand out the statuettes.  See for a list of the winners.

The now-famous statuette was not yet named Oscar—that would happen a few years later—and there are many conflicting stories as to how Oscar got his name.

Published in: on July 4, 2010 at 2:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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United Artists: Doomed to Fail?

In 1919, the three best known actors in the world, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, plus one of the best known directors, D. W. Griffith, established United Artists Studios.  It was a remarkable film studio, the first and only one owned and run by actors. The major studios said it was doomed to fail—after all, everyone knew actors weren’t smart enough to manage their own careers, let alone a studio. Yet United Artists did pretty well, year after year.

The actors’ motive was independence—remember this was the era of the studio system, where studios “owned” the actors and had total control over what they did (even in their private lives), which films they acted in, which parts they played, and how much they were paid.

What happened to their films? Chaplin’s are controlled by his estate through a French distribution company. Most of Griffith’s and Fairbanks films belong to the Film Preservation Associates, a restoration company. The Mary Pickford Foundation owns the rights to her existing films.  In 1931, only a few years after the advent of sound, Mary almost destroyed all her old silent films, fearing that they would make her look ridiculous to future generations. Fortunately her lifelong friend and actress Lillian Gish talked her out of it.

United Artists pretty much ceased to exist in the 1940s. A version of the studio continues today under the same name, but it has nothing in common with the original. Tom Cruise is one of the principal partners.

The Origins of Zorro

         Just two years before Douglas Fairbanks’ first (1921)  Zorro film was released, a serial called “The Curse of Capistrano” appeared in the  pulp magazine shown here. These cheap fiction magazines, usually sold for 10 cents, were popular in the early part of the 20th century. The author, Johnston McCulley, clearly found his inspiration in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, a story about a brave Englishman during the French Revolution that was written in 1903 by Baroness Emma Orczy, a British woman of Hungarian origin. In Baroness Orczy’s story, the Scarlet Pimpernel is the secret name for a mysterious man who snatches innocent French citizens about to be guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

      Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel have much in common. Both are  nobly-born heroes who disguise themselves as effeminate nincompoops in order to fight against evil in the form of a brutal government. Both hide their true identity from everyone, even their fathers and the women they love. Each has a trusted sidekick who is in on the charade. And each taunts his opponents by leaving his mark–a red flower or a slashed Z–wherever he has struck.

     Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford selected this story while on their honeymoon. As usual, they chose wisely! “The Mark of Zorro” was such a success that Fairbanks followed it four years later with a sequel, “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” It was these two silent films that firmly established Zorro as an American legend and led to many more movies, books, and television programs.

“Out of the Night, When the Full Moon is Bright . . .”

      The story of Zorro existed before Douglas Fairbanks’ two movies (1921 and 1925), but it was the movies that made the character a household name. Just two years before the first film, a serial called “The Curse of Capistrano” appeared in a “pulp magazine”—that’s the term for the cheap fiction magazines that were distributed in the first half of the 20th century and were usually sold for 10 cents. It’s author was Johnston McCulley.

         Douglas Fairbanks, through his two films, helped create the image of Zorro that persists to this day. For instance, Fairbanks was an amateur magician and he gave Zorro that ability. It was Fairbanks who created the black outfit, black mask, and round black hat that figure in all subsequent versions. And Fairbanks’ acrobatic abilities—think swinging from the chandelier and leaping from rooftop to rooftop—were transferred to Zorro.  Watch this fabulous clip (it’s only 3 ½ minutes) to the end and you’ll see the leap across wide space between buildings that Mary Pickford couldn’t bear to watch.

         Or watch the clip where Don Diego (Zorro) performs several foppish tricks: (start at minute 4:40 and you’ll see him play the bored, uninterested suitor who does a magic trick for his intended).

         “The Mark of Zorro” was released by United Artists (a corporation founded in 1919 by Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith) in 1921. The film was hugely popular, so he reprised the role in 1925 in “Don Q: Son of Zorro,” which was, incidentally, one of the first sequels in Hollywood history.  If you want to see the whole feature-length film (and it’s very entertaining!) click here:

       The Zorro character was very important to Douglas Fairbanks—he and Mary even named their little dog Zorro.


The Quarter Million Dollar Ringlet

      Although born a Canadian, Mary Pickford worked hard to sell Liberty Bonds to help with the U.S. war effort during the first World War. She and Douglas Fairbanks (her secret lover) and Charlie Chaplin toured the country, speaking at rallies like this one, urging people to buy war bonds. And remember, there were no microphones in those days!

      One time, as a publicity stunt, Mary offered to auction off one of her famous curls. The blond ringlet fetched $15,000. That is approximately a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money.

I wonder where that ringlet is today . . .


Mary Pickford and the Scandal that Wasn’t

     Perhaps the Pickford family scandals were as inevitable as their fame. Jack and Lottie were incapable of avoiding trouble and, really, why bother when big sister Mary was there with her money and her influence to extricate you from any mistakes you made? But what about Mary herself? Did she avoid scandals, or was she really the virtuous, spunky, girl-next-door sweetheart her films portrayed?

           Well, no, she wasn’t. What she was was smart. Far smarter than Lottie or Jack or just about everyone else in Hollywood. Mary Pickford was Hollywood’s first international superstar and as such, the first to experience the fame and fan adulation that stars today expect.

           Mary’s first marriage was a big secret, even from her domineering mother. Against Momma’s wishes, Mary married Irish-born actor Owen Moore in 1911 when she was 18. It is said (but I’ve never seen anything that even approximates evidence) that she had become pregnant earlier and had either miscarried or had an abortion (illegal then, of course), which could explain why she never had any children. This would have been a huge scandal, big enough to have ruined her career forever, but it never got out. You might say it still hasn’t gotten out!

           The marriage was a disaster. Moore was an alcoholic and violent, not to mention hugely jealous of his wife’s greater success. They separated, got back together, and separated again several times. All of that was secret. All of it would have caused harmful scandal if the news had leaked.

            Mary met Douglas Fairbanks in 1916, and sometime afterwards they began their affair. The were very much in love, but both were married to others and divorce was too scandalous to contemplate. They were terrified of the reaction of their fans should they divorce, or should their affair become public. Finally, Douglas could stand it no longer. He gave Mary an ultimatum: either she get a divorce and marry him, running the serious risk of professional and financial ruin, or he would never see her again. She gave in.

           “We had to be very discreet in our meetings,” Mary Pickford wrote. “I was still married to Owen Moore, and to risk the wrath of a man whose antics on and off the set had caused me considerable pain would have been disastrous to my career. We met at friends’ homes and planned a strategy to get my divorce.” It took months and a lot of money (some sources say a half million dollars; Mary’s biographer says $100,000) to convince Moore to agree to a divorce and play along with the scheme to get it. But they still needed a place to get one, and the most convenient place was Nevada.

           Divorce wasn’t easy in those years. In many states, it was virtually impossible. Even in Nevada, residency requirements meant that you had to own property in Nevada and actually live there for six months before you could apply for a divorce. Mary Pickford couldn’t do that, not and still make movies in Hollywood. Nonetheless, she and Owen Moore were granted a same-day divorce on March 2, 1920. She married Douglas Fairbanks a couple weeks later. (His own divorce was finalized early in 1919.)

           The uproar started when newspaper reporters learned that some Nevada legislators were questioning the legality of the divorce on the grounds that Mary was not a Nevada resident. Evidently exceptions had been made in consideration of her international fame and fortune. Finally her lawyers produced a deed that showed she had purchased property several months earlier. Many think the document was backdated—again, no proof. Some say she claimed to have moved permanently to Nevada for her health. Mary only commented, “My lawyers arranged that. I had nothing to do with it.”

           A full-fledged scandal ready to erupt? But it didn’t. To everyone’s surprise, Mary Pickford’s image was so strong that it withstood the bad publicity. Her millions of fans either didn’t believe a word of it or they didn’t care. She was “Little Mary,” “our Mary,” “America’s Sweetheart,” and now she was married to everyone’s favorite movie hero, Douglas Fairbanks. Amazingly, her popularity grew even greater.


Another Scandalous Pickford: Lottie

      The middle child in the Pickford trio was Lottie, named for her mother Charlotte. Like all Pickfords, Lottie was pretty and had some acting talent, but she clearly rode to Hollywood on the coattails of her big sister Mary, the silent screen’s most famous actress. For instance, Mary insisted that her husband Douglas Fairbanks give Lottie a role in his swashbuckling film “Don Q: Son of Zorro” and Douglas acquiesced, even though he despised party-girl Lottie for her wild behavior and drunkeness.

      Lottie married four times. Her first marriage to Alfred Rupp produced a daughter. The girl, initially named Mary Pickford Rupp, was born in 1915. But Lottie and Alfred divorced and Lottie’s mother, Charlotte, took custody of the child (and changed her n ame to Gwynne), presumably because Lottie was unable or uninterested in caring for the girl addicted as she was by then to alcohol, wild parties, and drugs. 

      Lottie married another actor, Alan Forrest, divorced him, and married a businessman, Russel Gillard. In 1933 she married a fourth time, before getting a divorce from #3. When the judge granted the divorce, Lottie announced that she had already married Pittsburgh society man named John Lock. While this made her a bigamist, something considered shocking in those days, Lottie figured correctly that no charges would be brought against the sister of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.

      Lottie died at 43 of a heart attack, probably brought on by her lifestyle.

The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson



Mary Pickford–the World’s First Movie Star


     Since we’re already on the topic of Canada, it is worth mentioning that the world’s first movie star, Mary Pickford, was a Canadian.

     Mary was born in Toronto in 1892. Her alcoholic father died when she was very young; her mother was forced to allow Mary to take an acting job–something considered highly disreputable in those days–in order to feed the family. By the turn of the century, Mary and her younger brother and sister were touring America, playing third-rate theaters, staying only a step ahead of starvation.  Fast forward a few years and she has become the most recognizable woman in the world, known far and wide as “our Mary,” “Little Mary,” and “America’s Sweetheart.”

     I found this fascinating 2-part interview with Mary that was recorded in 1959. In the first part, she talks about growing up in Toronto. 

      In second part, she talks about her early career, her friend and business partner, Charlie Chaplin, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, and their 38-room house, known as Pickfair. 

     Since Mary Pickford figures in my Roaring Twenties mystery series, this interview has been a goldmine for details. I think you’ll enjoy listening to it! With her pretty voice, it isn’t surprising that she was one of the few silent screen actors who transitioned successfully to sound. She faded from the public’s eye as she grew older. Her last picture was made in 1933. She died in 1979.


Published in: on December 19, 2009 at 12:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

In the silent picture era, actors–especially female ones–often lied about their age. Of course, actresses do that today: Sandra Bullock’s birth year has moved about so much from 1964 to 1969 that even she forgets her true age. But the practice was routine back in the 1910s and 1920s, when leading roles usually went to actresses in their late teens and twenties, and a thirty-something was all washed up.

For example, the famous actress Mary Astor was playing adult roles opposite John Barrymore at 17, and she was 18 when she starred with Douglas Fairbanks in his classic “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” Pola Negri, the femme fatale born in 1897, shaved her years until talkies came in and put her out of business—a lie couldn’t cover up that unappealing foreign accent. 

Mary Pickford, the screen’s first female super star, was an exception to this rule. She didn’t have to lie about having been born in 1892. She was so petite and youthful that she was able to play feisty 12-year-olds well into her thirties.

My favorite story about age is Shirley Temple’s. Her mother subtracted a year from little Shirley’s age when she began her film career in 1932 at the age of three. Supposedly, the truth was revealed to Shirley on her twelfth birthday—surprise! She was really thirteen.