The FIR Vault

MARY PICKFORD’S DIRECTORS

By • Aug 10th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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Kirkwood was something like Neilan

In 1914-15 James Kirkwood directed nine Mary Pickford pictures. A hard-drinking, flamboyant and good looking man, Kirkwood was already a legendary figure. After he had achieved success on the stage opposite Margaret Anglin, Blanche Bates and others, he became a leading man for D. W. Griffith at Biograph in 1909. It was there that he and Miss Pickford became good friends. Kirkwood once claimed they had been engaged to be married, which is doubtful, for Mary married Owen Moore soon after her arrival at Biograph and Kirkwood married Gertrude Robinson.

The Pickford films Kirkwood directed did his career a great deal of good. In the first, THE EAGLE’S MATE (’14), a drama about a wealthy girl being kidnapped by a rough mountaineer, he was also the leading man, as he was in BEHIND THE SCENES (’14), in which Miss Pickford is a successful actress who gives up her career to be a poor farmer’s wife. CINDERELLA (’14), however, was a disappointing rendition of the fairy tale, and Miss Pickford was not a convincing Nell Gwyn amid the costumed pageantry of Mistress Nell. She portrayed a solemn, half-breed Alaskan Indian in LITTLE PAL, and a London-slum beauty in the pseudo-religious DAWN OF A TOMORROW. FANCHON THE CRICKET (’15) and ESMERELDA (’15) were based on sentimental Broadway plays. The best picture Miss Pickford did with Kirkwood was RAGS (’15). It provided her first waif role, and some wonderful sight-gags.

Kirkwood knew how to create a mood in Mary. If she had a sad scene to do he’d get her mother, Charlotte Pickford, who was constantly on the set, to brief him on some disappointment or heartache in Mary’s life, and would talk about it until Mary wept for the camera. If she was to be carefree or gay, Mrs. Pickford would supply the fitting anecdote.

“I adored Jim Kirkwood,” Miss Pickford says. “He was such fun, and a lot like Mickey Neilan. I suppose that’s why he and Mickey were such pals. They worked hard, and they played hard – and they loved life. There will never be another pair like them.”

Like Neilan, Kirkwood did not take his work seriously, either as actor or director. He was clever and versatile, and, after RAGS, could have become a top comedy-director. But it’s possible he never really liked movies. He often told cronies at The Players that he “sneaked” into Biograph because he needed the $5 a day Griffith was paying.

He continued to direct for several years after the Pickford pictures, mostly for independent studios. He worked fast and kept within the budget, but the pictures were only moderately successful. They included a series of frothy comedies with Mary Miles Minter (a Pickford imitator). His last directorial efforts, BILL APPERSON’S SON and IN WRONG, starred Jack Pickford, Mary’s brother, and were produced by a company owned by the Pickford family.

Kirkwood’s acting career had a resurgence when he played the title role in Marshall Neilan’s BOB HAMPTON OF PLACER (’21), and he was in numerous films in the next decade. He also made occasional returns to the stage, scoring most strongly in Charming Pollock’s THE FOOL (’22). He is supposed to have lost $100,000 on a Broadway production of Edgar Allan Poe, starring his second wife, screen actress Lila Lee, and the rest of his money in the ’29 stock crash. After the mid-’30s Kirkwood found it impossible to get a job and lived out a precarious, alcoholic existence until his death, at 80, in ’63.

“I recall Jim Kirkwood not so much for his illustriousness as for the fact that no other actor I have known was so gallant in adversity,” says actor John Griggs. “He was ribald, raffishly funny, and he kept a fine perspective on the absurdities of show business life.”

Olcott became livid

After the Kirkwood pictures Miss Pickford made two films under the direction of Sidney Olcott – MADAME BUTTERFLY and POOR LITTLE PEPPINA that were released in ’16. Olcott had been directing movies since 1907 and had pioneered location-shooting, making films in Ireland and Egypt (cf. FIR, April ’54). In 1912 he had directed in Palestine the highly successful, though controversial, drama of the CHRIST, FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS. He was one of several top directors Zukcr had brought into Famous Players.

Shooting on MADAME BUTTERFLY barely underway when Miss Pickford and Olcott clashed. She found him “totally disinterested in anyone’ leas but his own,” and, when directing “brusque and unreasonable.” Olcott was a stickler for detail and he and his cameraman, Hal Young, often spent hours planning beautiful photographic compositions. It annoyed him when Miss Pickford told Samuel Goldwyn the film had no action and suggested that Marshall Neilan, who was playing the male lead, had some good ideas for directing that would pep it up. Furthermore, Miss Pickford’s conception of the tragic Cho-Cho San was entirely different from Olcott’s. She favored a warm, sensitive portrayal; Olcott thought Cho-Cho San’s emotions should be suppressed in the traditional Oriental manner. Olcott prevailed.

A major quarrel, which threatened to close down production, involved Marshall Neilan. “Mickey was such a handsome, talented fellow, and I knew he could be a big star,” says Miss Pickford, “but Olcott resented him and picked at him. Mickey had an Irish per and could always find ways to make Olcott look ridiculous.

“In one of the big climactic scenes of MADAME BUTTERFLY Olcott kept Mickey’s back to the camera, more or less ignoring him, despite the fact that Lieutenant Pinkerton had to be an important part of the scene if it was to hold together dramatically. I kept insisting Olcott feature him to better advantage, and when he refused we had a quarrel, which ended with Olcott stalking off the set.

“I was shaking with anger, and Mickey kept trying to calm me down. Finally, I called the company around me and proposed that we continue with the day’s work until Mr. Zukor sent a replacement for Olcott. I said I would try, with the help of Mickey and the crew, to direct the scenes in progress. Suddenly Mr. Olcott swooped back on the set – he had been lurking behind the scenery – positively livid with rage. He assured me that no one but Sidney Olcott would ever direct any scenes for MADAME BUTTERFLY. Then it was my turn to walk off the set.”

Zukor managed to effect a reconciliation and Miss Pickford says Olcott was “somewhat easier” thereafter. The completed MADAME BUTTERFLY was acclaimed as an artistic success, but it was not a commercial one, for Mary’s public did not like her as a Japanese girl who commits suicide.

Several months later Olcott directed her in POOR LITTLE PEPPINA, a comedydrama of a kidnapped American girl who is raised in Italy and later returns to the US to seek her parents. Miss Pickford says she agreed to work with Olcott again because Zukor begged her to. “We got through POOR LITTLE PEPPINA all right, but only because I bit my lip and did as I was told. Zukor would pat me on the back and mollify me, but I resolved I would never again work with Olcott.”

Until his retirement in ’28 Olcott continued to direct such top stars as Marion Davies, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, and had a long series of boxoffice successes.

Miss Pickford was next directed by John B. O’Brien, in three pictures THE FOUNDLING, THE ETERNAL GRIND and HULDA FROM HOLLAND – which were all released in ’16. O’Brien is the least known of her directors, and his name is now forgotten. He had played juvenile leads with the Augustus Thomas stock company before joining Essanay in 1910 as an actor and assistant to Broncho Billy Anderson. After briefly directing at Universal he joined the new Mutual Company and under the supervision of D. W. Griffith turned out numerous films with Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid and other Griffith stars. In ’20 he directed a few cheap Westerns, and then vanished.

After the O’Brien films Miss Pickford played a native of India who was a thief in LESS THAN THE DUST. “I don’t think anyone liked it,” she says. It was directed by John Emerson, a promising playwright and stock-company director who had gotten into movies as an actor, writer and director for D. W. Griffith. Utilizing scripts by Anita Loos, whom he later married, Emerson had directed Norma and Constance Talmadge and the budding Douglas Fairbanks in a number of saucy comedies. After the Pickford picture he elected to return to the Fairbanks unit and directed the acrobatic star in a series of amusing comedy dramas (THE AMERICANO, WILD AND WOOLLY, DOWN TO EARTH). In the ’20s he gave up directing to collaborate with Miss Loos on writing plays for Broadway. Later he returned to Hollywood as a writer and producer at MGM (SAN FRANCISCO).

Tourneur let her interpolate

Miss Pickford’s next two pictures, PRIDE OF THE CLAN and A POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, released early in ’17, were directed by the brilliant Maurice Tourneur. Brought from France six years before by the Eclair Company, Tourneur was just beginning to be recognized for his esthetic approach to film construction. In later years his stylized technique won him a secure place in motion picture history. His artistic triumphs included VICTORY, TREASURE ISLAND, THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, PRUNELLA and THE BLUE BIRD.

Miss Pickford calls her association with Tourneur “a delightful experience” and says he was “not at all temperamental… a most charming man, very serious and painstaking in his work.” She says he helped her to realize the importance of visual values – settings, scene composition, and photography – but adds that she nonetheless always kept in mind that a moving picture should move! She thought PRIDE OF THE CLAN lacked action and was too much on the artistic side, and was “a disastrous failure.”

But A POOR LITTLE RICH Girl was an enormous commercial success, and seldom, if ever, had Mary Pickford’s fans been better pleased. Her role of a very young girl, almost a child, who is mischievous and appealingly helpless, was the first of the kind which became, with various refinements, her stock-in-trade. Whereas the ill-fated PRIDE OF THE CLAN had been wholly a Tourneur product, A POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL was a Pickford-Tourneur collaboration. His major contribution was the imaginative direction of the dream and fantasy sequences. Miss Pickford, with the assistance of her talented scenarist, Frances Marion, was responsible for the humor and warmth, and, most important of all, for the Pickford personality. She would spring comedy touches without warning and Tourneur would bring the camera to a stop and ask: “Mlle. Pickford, where in the script does it say you are to do that?” But he permitted most of the Pickford-Marion interpolations to remain.

Ben Carre, the art director who worked with Tourneur over a period of years, says Miss Pickford had rapport with the French director. “I can’t recall any friction between them,” he says, but adds that Miss Pickford was probably right in thinking Tourneur didn’t understand American film comedy. “At lunch time, when we talked about comedy, Tourneur never showed any interest. He considered pie-throwing and the other comedy clich├ęs of the period disgusting. I don’t think his sense of humor, French or American, was highly developed. His forte was the artistic and the beautiful.”

One of the few conflicts between Tourneur and Miss Pickford involved Carre. The actress had her own art director (Jack Holden) and Tourneur refused to work with him and had Carre do the sets for PRIDE OF THE CLAN and A POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL.

Tourneur remained in Hollywood until ’26, when he quarreled with MGM over the making of THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and returned to France. He continued directing there, and in Germany, till ’48. He lost a leg in a Paris automobile accident two years thereafter and died in ’61. Shortly before his death he called himself “the Michelangelo of the movies.” (Cf. FIR, April ’61).

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