The FIR Vault

MARY PICKFORD’S DIRECTORS

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

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Cecil made her feel constrained

Miss Pickford would probably have done more pictures with Tourneur had she not been assigned to do two with Cecil B. DeMille, with whom, almost a decade before, she had acted in David Belasco’s THE WARRENS OF VIRGINIA.

Because Miss Pickford had begun to participate importantly in the selection of story, cast and director, and in the actual shooting, DeMille told Zukor, and Pickford herself, that he would brook no interference from her. Zukor prevailed upon Miss Pickford to send DeMille a telegram agreeing to this condition.

“I was absolutely terrified of Cecil B. DeMille,” Miss Pickford says. “We made what I consider to be two very fine pictures – ROMANCE OF THE RED-WOODS and THE LITTLE AMERICAN – with no real problems or controversy. I was quite honored to work with a man of DeMille’s stature, but I never, throughout all the years up to his death, escaped the feeling of uneasiness with him. Even under the most delightful social conditions, I could not feel comfortable in his presence . . . I lived up to my word to Adolph. If I didn’t agree with the way Cecil was doing a scene, I didn’t let him know it. I determined to give the very best performance possible, as I have always tried to do, so that he could have no criticism of me. I am glad to have had the opportunity of working with Cecil B. DeMille, but at the time it was like being in an iron cage and I decided I would not again appear under his direction. I have always had great respect for Cecil and valued our friendship, but we were simply not compatible professionally.”

DeMille wrote later that Miss Pickford was not difficult to work with, and that he had given her career a lift at a time when it was at a low ebb! The latter statement is one with which Miss Pickford rightfully disagrees. LESS THAN THE DUST and PRIDE OF THE CLAN may have been disappointing but her personal popularity was unprecedented and she had negotiated a lucrative new contract at Artcraft (a Famous Players subsidiary), which even stipulated she should have her own unit.

Neilan didn't play his cards right

The contract also allowed her to select the brilliant, unpredictable Marshall “Mickey” Neilan as her director, and in less than a year he turned out five of her most successful and best remembered films.

Neilan had been her leading man in LITTLE PAL, RAGS, A GIRL OF YESTERDAY and MADAME BUTTERFLY, and had forsaken acting to direct, first for Selig and then at Famous Players-Lasky, where he made slick boxofficers with such stars as Blanche Sweet, Geraldine Farrar, Sessue Hayakawa and Jack Pickford. His sharp wit and musical ability heightened his magnetic personality, and at 26 he was known as a gifted, inventive director – and playboy.

His most important gift was the ability to vivify plot with a wealth of incident. Devising amusing gags and bits of business that revealed characterization was effortless for him.
Miss Pickford believes she gave her best performances under his direction. “He believed in creating a mood or emotion as a reaction to an external cause,” she says, “and would invent all sorts of ways to produce the desired expression and response in me. He’d dream them up in advance and then at the precise psychological moment unexpectedly blast them at me.

“In THE LITTLE PRINCESS, in which I played a ten-year old girl, the final fade-out called for me to change my expression from utter bewilderment to mirth – which was difficult to achieve convincingly because it is a far cry from the reaction of a child of ten to that of a young lady in her twenties. To accomplish this Mickey stuffed his pockets with silver dollars and at the right moment started to toss them recklessly around the set. I was properly bewildered and then amused as I realized what he was up to – and the camera caught the whole transformation of my emotions “In DADDY LONG LEGS there was a scene in which Wesley Barry and I, as two rebellious orphans, had been thrown out of the orphanage without lunch because we were on strike against a steady diet of prunes. Wes and I decided to pray for food. The script called for a tramp, caught with a stolen lunch box, to throw it over a wall into our laps.

“Mickey immediately began figuring how to make it funnier. First, he had the lunch box hit Wes on the head. Wes looked up appealingly and said, ‘Snappy service, Lord, but is such accuracy necessary?’ Next, Mickey added a jug of cider, which we drank, becoming tipsy at once. By then he was in a passion of creative frenzy – I can still remember how his eyes popped with excitement – and he came up with a topper. A little fox terrier, which Neilan had seen the night before in a vaudeville act, was brought into the studio and added his bit of hilarity by lapping up the cider and leaning drunkenly against the wall, and then staggering the whole length of it on his hind legs. What the audience didn’t know was that the dog, attired in a dinner jacket and trousers, did this nightly in its vaudeville act. We had a terrible time getting him to perform without the clothes!”

The Pickford pictures Neilan directed for Artcraft were REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, in which comedy and slapstick were added to Kate Douglas Wiggin’s homey sentiment; A LITTLE PRINCESS, a drama of a lonely orphan who imagines herself the heroine of fantastic adventures; STELLA MARIS, a somber drama with psychological overtones, culminating in murder and suicide, in which Miss Pickford played a dual role; AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY, about “a sunshine girl” from the wrong side of the tracks who rejects a wealthy suitor for a poor boy; and M’LISS, a Western with some inventive comedy, based on the Bret Harte story.

Later Neilan directed her in two more films, DADDY LONG LEGS (’19), based on Jean Webster’s novel of an orphan girl who falls in love with her guardian, and DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL (’24), an elaborate costume drama of Tudor England. These two were made by Miss Pickford’s own company, and with her own money, when she was no longer tolerant of Neilan’s frequent and costly absences from the set. Said she to him: “I would rather you put your hand in my pocketbook than steal the time and patience of my entire company, to say nothing of my own.”

“Mickey Neilan was a whmsical, genuine genius with many colorful, admirable facets,” Miss Pickford now says. “I don’t think there will ever be another quite like him. Had he played his cards right he could have been Hollywood’s best and most successful director, right up to his death. But Mickey was erratic. I didn’t like some of the films he made after he left me, and I told him he was wasting his talent. I’ve always felt I inspired Mickey. We were a good team.”

After directing the five films for Artcraft, Neilan went to New York to direct a George M. Cohan feature (HIT-THE-TRAIL HOLLIDAY) and Miss Pickford made three charming comedies – HOW COULD YOU, JEAN?, JOHANNA ENLISTS and CAPTAIN KIDD, JR. – under the direction of the William Desmond Taylor who, some years later (’22), was the victim in an unsolved murder case which wrecked the careers of Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand and instigated a demand for moral reform in Hollywood.

The early life of Ireland-born Taylor is obscure. He spent fifteen years on the stage, in England and America, and once was a leading man of Fanny Davenport’s. He got into movies by acting for Ince’s New York Motion Picture Company, and began directing in ’14 for Vitagraph and Balboa.

Taylor was no stranger to the Pickford family. His first important work was co-directing, with Jacques Jaccard, the 30-episode serial, THE DIAMOND FROM THE SKY (’15), which starred Mary’s sister Lottie (its producers had first offered Mary $4000 a week to play the role, but she refused). Taylor later piloted some of the shy comedies of Jack Pickford (TOM SAWYER, THE VARMINT), and Miss Pickford says she hired him because she liked his work with her brother.

Taylor was a competent craftsman who understood characterization, at times made good use of the camera, and, provided he had a good script and cast, usually turned out an entertaining picture, but he was not “brilliant” or “distinguished,” as was claimed in the sensational press accounts of his murder. “I particularly remember Bill Taylor’s beautiful manners,” says Miss Pickford. “They were so natural, and unaffected. He was a quiet, cultured man who read a lot he’d bring books to the set and sometimes read aloud passages that interested him.” She thinks he was helped on her pictures by the detail in Frances Marion’s scenarios. She refuses to discuss his murder, except to express her shock at the wild rumors that sprang up about him. “So many absurd things were told as truth and widely believed,” she says.

In the World War I years of 1917.18 Miss Pickford was starring in four pictures a year, selling Liberty Bonds from coast to coast, visiting training camps and hospitals, appearing in government propaganda shorts (directed by Neilan), and sponsoring a regiment of Hollywood volunteers. During the Spanish influenza epidemic of ’18 she and her mother were seriously ill. She was separated from Owen Moore and despite fears that gossip might ruin her career was often seen in the company of Douglas Fairbanks.

She considered Franklin a woman's director...

In ’18 she organized, and wholly financed, a producing company and contracted with First National, an exhibitors’ syndicate, to distribute. This company’s first picture was DADDY LONG LEGS (’19), one of the most successful of her movies. Neilan directed, arid, at the last moment, also replaced one of the leads (Albert Ray), who had fallen ill.

Miss Pickford was then directed, in THE HOODLUM and HEART O’ THE HILLS (both ’19), by 26-year-old Sidney A. Franklin, who had begun in movies acting for Selig. His first chance to direct was for D. W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Company, and he later directed a series of kid comedies at Fox. Most of his early pictures were in collaboration with an older brother, Chester M. Franklin. Shortly before the coveted Pickford assignment he had attracted attention with several slickly directed dramas starring Norma Talmadge (THE FORBIDDEN CITY, PROBATION WIFE), who recommended him to Miss Pickford.

She was impressed by Franklin’s ability to extract good performances from actresses. “I was one of the first in Hollywood to advance the concept that some directors should direct women, just as others do best with male stars,” Miss Pickford says. “Many important people in the studios disagreed with me. Today it is a recognized fact, but back then no one seemed to think it counted for much.”

After the Pickford films, which proved disappointing, Franklin was in increasing demand from such stars as Constance and Norma Talmadge, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Luise Rainer and Marion Davies. Some of his pictures, like THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY, Garbo’s WILD ORCHIDS, THE GUARDSMAN (with Lunt and Fontanne) and REUNION IN VIENNA, became more and more sophisticated, but he was equally adroit with unabashed sentimentality (THE DARK ANGEL and SMILIN’ THROUGH). He made two versions of the latter – a silent with Norma Talmadge and a talkie with Norma Shearer.

...and Dwann a man's

In ’36, after completing THE GOOD EARTH, a rather unconventional Franklin assignment, he abruptly gave up directing for a producer’s berth at MGM and was responsible for such fine films as MRS. MINIVER, RANDOM HARVEST, MADAME CURIE and WATERLOO BRIDGE, and received the Irving G. Thalberg Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for “consistent high quality” of production. In ’56 he made a brief return to directing with a new version of THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET, which he had first directed 22 years before. Soon after its completion he retired from films altogether.

Allan Dwan, who directed many of Douglas Fairbanks’ pictures (A MODERN MUSKETEER, ROBIN HOOD, THE IRON MASK), is Miss Pickford’s idea of a man’s director. In ’15 he had directed her in A GIRL OF YESTERDAY, which is best remembered for its exciting airplane stunts by aviation-pioneer Glenn Martin. Although she enjoyed working with him, she thinks he was more at ease handling men. “The success of ROBIN HOOD and his other Fairbanks movies illustrates what I mean by calling him a man’s director,” she says. “Allan was just right for Douglas, but possibly not for me.” On this Dwan is non-committal, but wryly notes he directed many of Gloria Swanson’s best pictures.

Powell was an old friend

Miss Pickford’s first release for United Artists was POLLYANNA (’20), a charming rendition of Eleanor H. Porter’s saccharic story of a young girl who looked on the bright side of every adversity. It was directed by Paul Powell, who had given up a newspaper career to direct for Lubin in 1911. Later he was associated with Griffith, first as an actor and then as a director in Griffith’s Fine Arts Unit. Later he had directed at Universal. An old friend of Miss Pickford’s, he asked for a chance to do one of her films and she eventually permitted him to direct POLLYANNA, which helped him to get a contract at Paramount. Despite creditable pictures, Powell never caught on as a director and his career ended soon after the arrival of sound.

For Suds (’20), an uneven jumble of Griffith pathos and Sennett slapstick that drew mixed reviews, Miss Pickford chose a relatively unknown director, John Francis Dillon, then known simply as Jack Dillon. He had acted and directed for a dozen companies, including Mack Sennett’s ménage at Keystone, and had directed both Jack Pickford (BURGLAR BY PROXY) and Jack’s ill-fated young wife, Olive Thomas (LOVE’S PRISONER, FOLLIES GIRL). Suds gave his career a boost, and he subsequently directed such top stars as Colleen Moore, Richard Barthelmess, Corinne Griffith and Clara Bow. He was a versatile, facile director who in his later years began to coast, and his films lost their sparkle and warmth. He died in the early ’30s while on a hunting trip with Darryl F. Zanuck and William A. Wellman.

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