Mary Pickford 1892-1979

220px-Mary_Pickford_cph.3c17995uThe greatest silent film star of all, Mary Pickford, died on this day, May 29, thirty-four years ago. It would be nice to say she lived a long and happy life, but it wouldn’t be true. She did live a long life–at a time when infant mortality rates for white women born in North America predicted a life span of 51, she passed away at 87. But happy? Almost certainly not.  

From her earliest years, Gladys Smith, as she was christened, supported her family. Her father, an alcoholic, deserted and died a few years later. Her mother struggled to put food on the table and little Gladys went to work on stage at age seven. From then on, she was the breadwinner, and she developed a fierce work ethic that never quit. Moving from the stage to silent pictures, she became the first true “film star” with fans all over the world. She revolutionized the moving picture world, from acting style to production and her business sense was legendary. She made buckets of money, built a gorgeous home with an inground swimming pool, something unheard of in that day. She married three times, divorced twice. When sound came to the movies, she made the transition fairly well–she had been trained, after all, for the stage and knew how to use her voice, something most silent film actors did not understand. With all this success, why wouldn’t she be happy?

Roles for mature women, then as now, were few and she never maintained the wild popularity of her early decades. The family curse of alcoholism claimed her, as it did her brother and sister. She couldn’t seem to find anything to do that would occupy her–no charity work, no social life, no business management, no films. Her beloved mother had died of breast cancer; her sister Lottie and brother Jack soon followed, dying of an excess of alcohol and drugs that claims so many Hollywood personalities. Her second husband Douglas Fairbanks (some say, the love of her life) died of a heart attack at 56. She very nearly destroyed all her films. She retreated into her lovely home, Pickfair, and almost never came out. By the time she died, few remembered her name or her films. 

I’ve given her a supporting role in my second and third mysteries. She is mentioned in the first, The Impersonator, as inspiration for my main character who, like Mary Pickford, grew up on stage and played child roles even as an adult. I think “Little Mary” would have liked the way I’ve portrayed her. 


A friend sent me a link to this rejection slip, and I had to share it.

Some background–the Essanay Film Company produced silent films out of their Chicago studios, and later from Southern California. It started production in 1907 and had considerable success. For one brief year, Charlie Chaplin made films here, including his famous “The Tramp” (1915). Essanay merged with three other small companies in 1918 and that group combined with Warner Brothers in 1925. While this rejection slip isn’t dated, it came from the company’s Argyle Street address, which was their headquarters from 1908 until the 1918 name change, so it must come from that ten-year period. Here is the Chicago headquarters.

The manuscripts referred to must have been screen plays, which during the silent era, would not, of course, have included actual dialogue but rather a story and subtitles. They must have received a lot of them to have printed out this form rejection. A number of people have commented that it looks more like a list of requirements for films today! My favorite is #17.

Tom Mix: America’s Silent Cowboy Star

This year’s postage stamp series honoring cowboys got me thinking about using one of them—Tom Mix (1880-1940)—in a cameo in my Roaring Twenties novel set in 1925.

Mix was one of the most important Western film stars of the 1920s. Almost all of his 300-400 movies were silents. He thrilled audiences with his rugged good looks and cowboy skills: trick riding, expert rope work, and marksmanship. Worshipped by two generations of schoolboys, he maintained a wholesome image that involved “no cussin’ and no drinkin’.” He and Tony the Wonder Horse were both screen legends. Like Douglas Fairbanks, Mix did all his own stunts. It was said that during his career, he suffered more than eighty injuries including knife wounds, bullet wounds, broken bones, and one dynamite explosion.

Although it is true that many silent stars failed at talkies because of their poor voice quality, it wasn’t true of Tom Mix. He made several talkies, but chose instead to follow his love of the circus and tour the country with his own Tom Mix Circus. (Radio didn’t pay enough for him to bother with.) Unfortunately, he was a big spender with a passion for women (he had 5 wives), fancy clothing, sports cars, a yacht, a ranch in Arizona, diamonds, and wild parties. His Hollywood mansion had his TM brand in neon lights above the roof. Although he made millions in a time when thousands was beyond most people’s wildest imagination, he spent money like water.

Mix died in a car crash at the age of 60. 

Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal Affects Us Today

      Did you ever wonder why old movies were so comparatively free from violence, foul language, and sex? Why there was no blood on murdered people, why lovers kissed so chastely, why “My dear, I don’t give a damn” was a line that shocked audiences in 1939?

       An immediate outcome of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921 was the creation of a self-censorship board, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America, later shortened to the Motion Picture Association of America. This was a “voluntary” system meant to clean up the pictures by keeping movies free from immorality and thus keeping the threat of government censorship at bay.

       Will Hays, its first director, remained in his position for 24 years. By 1930, his rules had crystallized into something known as the Hays Code. This lasted until the 1960s when it was replaced by the age-based rating system you know today: PG-13 and so forth.  

          You might like to read the Hays Code. It’s too long to reproduce in its entirety here, but I think you’ll enjoy skimming through some of the rules. The whole thing can found at


 General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

Particular Applications

I. Crimes Against the Law
These shall never be presented in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation.

1. Murder

  a. The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.

  b. Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.

  c. Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.

2. Methods of Crime should not be explicitly presented.

  a. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.

  b. Arson must subject to the same safeguards.

  c. The use of firearms should be restricted to the essentials.

  d. Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

3. Illegal drug traffic must never be presented.

4. The use of liquor in American life, when not required by the plot or for proper characterization, will not be shown.

II. Sex
The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

  a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

  b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

  c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

  a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.

  b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity
The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity
Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity
Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently – Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume
1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances
1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations
The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings
1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles
Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects
The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste:
1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime.
2. Third degree methods.
3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness.
4. Branding of people or animals.
5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals.
6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue.
7. Surgical operations.

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 Jack Pickford Scandals #1

       Jack Pickford was the younger brother of the silent film industry’s most famous actress, Mary Pickford. Throughout his short life–he died at 36–he traded on his sister’s name. An actor of modest talents, Jack relied on Mary for roles in movies, directing jobs, money, and help extracating himself from a steady stream of scandal.

       Early in 1918, right after the United States joined World War I, playboy Jack enlisted in the Navy. Lord knows why. He was already addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and women (he had contracted siphilis and would spread it to many), and was not the sort to take advice, let alone orders, from anyone. Once in the Navy, he quickly became involved in a scheme to accept bribes from rich men who wanted to avoid dangerous assignments and for procuring women for officers. Facing a military trial, Jack managed to wriggle out with a “general discharge.” Some said his sister was responsible for persuading the authorities to give Jack a medical discharge in exchange for testifying against the others, but there was never any proof. His compatriots in the scheme got prison sentences and dishonorable discharges. Jack went back to Hollywood to resume his wild life.

Next” Scandal #2

Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 10:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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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