The FIR Vault

MARY PICKFORD’S DIRECTORS

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

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For SUDS - a relatively unknown

In ’20 Miss Pickford was directed by a woman, Frances Marion, her scenarist and close friend. The picture was THE LOVE LIGHT, a drama of a young Italian girl who discovers her supposedly American husband is a German spy. It was one of the least popular Pickford pictures.

A onetime newspaper reporter and magazine illustrator, Frances Marion had worked as a film extra before writing THE FOUNDLING, one of Miss Pickford’s early hits at Famous Players. A friendship sprang up between them that has been life-long. Miss Marion, a talented and prolific writer, wrote most of the Pickford movies. During World War I she went to France as a war correspondent, and soon after the Armistice married Fred Thomson, a Presbyterian minister and champion athlete who later became a popular screen cowboy (cf. FIR, June-July ’60 and Jan. ’66).

Miss Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks on March 28, ’20, and the Thomsons joined them on their honeymoon to Europe. During the trip Miss Marion showed her friend the scenario of THE LOVE LIGHT, which had been written with Miss Pickford in mind. The actress agreed not only to appear in it but to let Miss Marion direct it.

Director Marion was in love with her 'husband'

Before THE LOVE LIGHT could get into production Miss Marion made her directorial debut with JUST AROUND THE CORNER, a film she did in New York for William Randolph Hearst. For some reason, it wasn’t released until after THE LOVE LIGHT came out.

Miss Pickford says she had no qualms about working under Miss Marion’s direction and that “she knew what I expected and demanded in a director, and my views on what made a good picture. Frances was very talented and imaginative.”

Miss Marion persuaded her friend to make Fred Thomson her leading man. THE LOVE LIGHT was his first film and his wife understandably devoted much of her attention to her husband’s role. “At times I had the feeling we were making a Thomson movie rather than a Pickford one,” Mary says. “Frances was very ambitious for Fred, and very much in love with him – and I think that explains everything.”

“I can scarcely recall a film made from one of my scenarios that I didn’t sit alongside the director on the set, during the entire shooting, to make necessary changes in the script, or suggestions helpful to his direction,” Miss Marion says. “The training was invaluable. I had also had the experience of working on the cutting and the changes following the previews – not doing the physical work that directing involves, but just keeping an eye on procedure and calmly evaluating the scenes that were enacted before me.”

THE LOVE LIGHT was not popular. Miss Pickford was miscast in a somber, and mature, role, but Miss Marion was generally praised. “Motion Pictures News” thought her direction “first class,” although it called the climactic shipwreck “phony” and “tame.” Actually, it had been filmed in a raging surf, and assistant director Nat Deverich, who was doubling for Mary in a blonde wig, nearly lost his life when trapped in an overturned fishing boat. He was rescued by Fred Thomson, Douglas Fairbanks – who was visiting the Monterey location – and several crew members. Cameraman Charles Rosher photographed the entire incident.

Miss Pickford did not again engage her friend as director, but did continue to use her as a writer. “With all due respect to Frances Marion,” she says, “I felt I would do better with a male director.”

Miss Marion gave up directing, she says, in order to push Fred Thomson’s career as a cowboy star. Joseph P. Kennedy, father of President Kennedy, was interested in starring Thomson in Westerns for his FBO company and Miss Marion agreed to help get the project off the ground by supervising the initial pictures and supplying story ideas for the others. After Thomson’s death in ’28 she did the scripts of such famous MGM films as THE BIG HOUSE, ANNA CHRISTIE, MIN AND BILL, DINNER AT EIGHT, CAMILLE, and dozens of others.

In ’21 Miss Pickford surprised Hollywood by selecting a relative unknown, Alfred E. Green, and her brother, Jack Pickford, to co-direct her in THROUGH THE BACK DOOR, a charming comedy drama about a Belgian refugee. Green had begun as an actor in Selig jungle dramas in ’12; had become an assistant to director Cohn Campbell; had directed two-reel comedies; and had been Mickey Neilan’s assistant on DADDY LONG LEGS. He had also directed several Jack Pickford films (THE DOUBLE-DYED DECEIVER, JUST OUT OF COLLEGE, THE MAN WHO HAD EVERYTHING), and had become a close friend of Jack’s.

Although Jack Pickford had been in movies since childhood he had never directed, and at the time was restless and depressed. His wife, the beautiful Olive Thomas, had swallowed poison while they were vacationing in Paris in 1920. Mary Pickford hoped learning to be a director would not only improve Jack’s morale but open up a new career for him. Those who knew Jack at the time believed he was indifferent to the whole idea.

Although Green and Jack Pickford were given equal billing as co-directors they did not have equal authority. “It was understood from the start that Al Green was the senior director,” says Miss Pickford, “and I never over-ruled him in the few instances when he and Johnny [Jack] disagreed. They were both on the set at all times. Johnny thought more in terms of gags and business, while Al was better with the acting and camera angles.”

Charles Roshner, Mary’s cameraman for more than twelve years, is more blunt. “Al Green did the directing. Jack would show up at the studio when he felt like it. He seldom took an active part, other than suggesting a few gags.”

Despite Jack Pickford’s shortcomings, he and Green were again teamed on LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY (’21), one of Miss Pickford’s greatest hits. Upon its completion Jack Pickford resumed acting, but soon slipped into supporting roles. Heavy drinking, notorious scrapes and marital difficulties (after Olive Thomas’ death he married Marilyn Miller and Mary Mulhern), did not help, and he was washed up in Hollywood before sound came in. Some years after World War I it was revealed that a Navy court-martial had exonerated him of the charge of being a go-between for rich young slackers in the buying of commissions and cushy assignments from a high-ranking officer. He died at 36 on Jan. 3, ’33, in the same Paris hospital in which Olive Thomas did. He had been taken ill aboard a trans-Atlantic liner with what is euphemistically called “multiple neuritis.”

THROUGH THE BACK DOOR and LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY made Alfred E. Green a big director overnight and subsequently he was responsible for the better silents of Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan and Colleen Moore, and guided such talking stars as George Arliss, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis (in her Academy Award winning performance in DANGEROUS). His biggest hit was THE JOLSON STORY (’46). His career began to slump in the ’50s and he wound up directing THE MILLIONAIRE and other television films. He died from arthritis in ’61.

Miss Pickford re-made her early success, TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY, under the direction of John S. Robertson in ’22. It was much better than the Edwin S. Porter version and it delighted a whole new generation of Pickford admirers.

Robertson, an erstwhile Broadway matinee idol who had appeared opposite Maude Adams IN L’AIGLON and in many productions of Charles Frohman and Henry B. Harris, got into movies in ’15 as an actor at Vitagraph. He soon switched to directing and first achieved recognition with the 1920 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, starring John Barrymore. Subsequently he directed Richard Barthelmess, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Greta Garbo (THE SINGLE STANDARD), John Gilbert and Shirley Temple. He retired in the mid-’30s and died in ’64, aged 86.

Lubitsch said what he wanted

In ’22 Miss Pickford also hired Ernst Lubitsch to direct her in a picture. He arrived in the US expecting to direct Mary Pickford as Marguerite in a film version of FAUST. Robert Florey, who then was doing foreign publicity for Pickford and Fairbanks, was sent to the railway station to meet him and his assistant (Henry Blanke, later a noted producer). Florey says Lubitsch was agog with ideas for the sets for Faust and was anxious to get to the studio in order to confer about them with Sven Gade, the art director.

Miss Pickford at once informed Lubitsch of a change in plans. FAUST had been abandoned and he was to direct her in DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL, a costume drama of Elizabethan England. Miss Pickford now says her mother “simply exploded when she found I wanted to play a young girl who kills her baby. She would not hear of my doing such a frightful role and warned it would ruin my career.”

Lubitsch was aghast at the thought of doing DOROTHY VERNON, which he considered trite and sentimental, and he pretended not to understand the plot and to be confused by the multiplicity of characters, even though Miss Pickford went to considerable expense to have the script translated into German. His constant objections and complaints soon bogged everything down.

“The fact was Lubitsch did not like DOROTHY VERNON and had made up his mind not to do it,” Miss Pickford says. She admits she was dissatisfied with the scenario but insists Ernst was the problem. “We could have licked the script difficulties.”

Finally, she postponed DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL and substituted ROSITA, another costume drama in which she played a street-singer of Seville who attracts the attention of the King of Spain.

When its shooting commenced Miss Pickford got on even less well with Lubitsch, who had little interest in her suggestions and would brook no interference with his direction whatever. Miss Pickford says she went home from the studio each day in tears over the way the picture was going. Lubitsch used his poor English in order to pretend, whenever they differed, that he did not understand, even though Miss Pickford hired an interpreter. And she was shocked by his manners, and remembers how he once ruined the wallpaper in her dressing room with greasy, food-stained fingers. She says ROSITA was finished only because she did as he wished.

Audiences did not like her in ROSITA, but the reviews of it were not as bad as she remembers. Some of its comedy was quite sophisticated, and Lubitsch’s direction was generally praised. Many important critics thought he handled Miss Pickford perceptively. Lubitsch confided to all who would listen that ROSITA would bring his Hollywood career to a premature end. But he soon got himself a fat contract at Warner Brothers, where he directed the comedies THE MARRIAGE PLAYGROUND, LADY WINDERMERE’S FAN – which were the springboard of his enormous American success.

Miss Pickford revived her plans for DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL in ’23, and for its director hired her old friend and favorite director, Marshall Neilan, then at the height of his career. He had earned and squandered a fortune, but was broke, and Miss Pickford offered him $125,000 to direct DOROTHY VERNON.

Neilan still came late to the set, still was guilty of innumerable practical jokes. But there was no disappearing for a week, or even days, at a time. He knew from experience that Mary Pickford would not stand for it when she had to foot the bill. He also knew he couldn’t afford the adverse publicity of being fired from a Pickford film.

DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL is a lavish costume drama enlivened by the Neilan bag of tricks, and was a huge commercial success, despite the fact that Miss Pickford again essayed a more mature role – as a petulant and headstrong young woman being forced into a worthless marriage.

Beaudine's awe got in the way

Then, yielding to incessant public demand, she returned to her waif roles in LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY (’25) and SPARROWS (’26), which were directed by William Beaudine, an old friend from Biograph days. He had been a propertyman for Griffith and had directed dozens of slapstick comedies for Mack Sennett and Al Christie, among others, before attracting attention with a series of Wesley Barry features (HEROES OF THE STREET, THE PRINTER’S DEVIL).

“I met Mary in 1909 at the Biograph studios,” Beaudine recalls. “I was the property boy and she was the star. We were both working for peanuts. Years later, when I was under contract to Warner Brothers, they lent me to the Pickford Co. and collected at least three times my salary. Warners were in bad financial straits at the time. Mary had seen some of my Wesley Barry pictures, particularly a good one called HEROES OF THE STREET, and I think it was my knack with kids that sold me to her. LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY and SPARROWS were kid pictures.

“At first I was scared the property-boy-star relationship still persisted in my mind. I had the same feeling when I first directed Henry B. Walthall. I was apologetic whenever I gave her directions and was almost afraid to ask for re-takes. She must have sensed it for around the third day of shooting on LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY she took me aside and said: ‘Bill, I am the producer, I am the star – do you want me to be the director too? If I hadn’t thought you could do it, I wouldn’t have hired you. Now, let’s get back to work.’ Needless to say, from that moment on I really was her director. And she had great ideas for scenes and story construction. Her suggestions were invariably sound and, in my case, welcomed. She was a one-woman picture company!”

In LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY Mary Pickford is the leader of a gang of slum hoodlums who reforms after her father is killed in a senseless fight. SPARROWS, a more distinguished film, was beautifully directed and photographed. It recounts the hardships of a group of orphans on a Florida alligator farm and has a Dickensian quality.

ROONEY and SPARROWS did a lot for Beaudine. In the next fifteen years he directed dozens of light comedies and melodramas for virtually every studio in Hollywood. After ’40 he worked at Monogram, PRC and other small companies, where even his quickies were marked with a professional craftsmanship. Today, at 74, and after fifty years of directing, he is still active. He directed many episodes of the popular LASSIE television series.

Before SPARROWS went into production Miss Pickford engaged Josef von Sternberg to write and direct a picture. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, she had been much impressed by his SALVATION HUNTERS, an “experimental” film Chaplin had induced United Artists to distribute.

Sternberg came up with an original script he called BACKWASH, in which Mary Pickford would play a blind girl in love with a deaf-mute. Miss Pickford professed to like the story but repeatedly postponed production. Sternberg finally got the message and asked for his release so he could accept an MGM contract.

Mary Pickford made her last silent, MY BEST GIRL, a comedy drama laid in a 5-&-10 cent store, in ’27. It was also the last time she appeared as “a sunshine girl,” albeit a more mature one. “Photoplay” called it “the best picture Mary Pickford has made in years.” For it she had a new leading man, Buddy Rogers – ten years later he became her third husband – and a new director, Sam Taylor, who also directed her next three films: COQUETTE (’29), TAMING OF THE SHREW (’29) and KIKI (’31).

Upon graduating from Fordham University Sam Taylor had gotten a job at Kalem as a writer on the popular Sis Hopkins and Ham-&-Bud comedies. Then, after a scripting job at Vitagraph, he began directing one-reel comedies at Universal, and in ’21 joined Harold Lloyd’s staff of talented gag-men. Lloyd soon promoted him to direction and Taylor was responsible, with Fred C. Newmeyer, for five of Lloyd’s best silents – SAFETY LAST, WHY WORRY?, GIRL SHY, HOT WATER and THE FRESHMAN – and, sans Newmeyer, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE. Lloyd recommended him to Miss Pickford because MY BEST GIRL’s sentimental story and abundance of gags were suited to Taylor’s talents.

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