The FIR Vault

MARY PICKFORD’S DIRECTORS

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

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With Sam Taylor in COQUETTE

At the urging of Lillian Gish, Miss Pickford selected COQUETTE, in which Helen Hayes had scored on Broadway, for her first talking picture. It was a radical departure for Miss Pickford she had to play a mature Southern girl whose father kills her lover. However, her voice recorded well and she gave an intelligent performance that won her an Academy Award.

Taylor was eager to leave behind him the slapstick comedies on which his reputation had been built and welcomed the opportunity to direct COQUETTE. He was also trying to develop as a writer, and Miss Pickford permitted him to collaborate on the script. She was quite high on Taylor at the time, both as director and writer, but she now says Taylor’s direction contributed little or nothing to her Oscar-winning performance. “It was left up to me to make my role come alive, to get through to the audience’s emotions,” she says. “Mr. Taylor seemed to think the important thing was just to show me off in a sound movie – as though to say, ‘Look, everyone, Mary Pickford can talk.'”

The time COQUETTE was in production was a difficult period for Miss Pickford. In addition to her anxieties over the unfamiliar problems of filming with sound, she was experiencing the dissolution of her marriage with Douglas Fairbanks. And she quarreled with Charles Rosher, her cameraman of many years standing, and summarily dismissed him.

Also, she was 36 and no longer suitable for waif roles. So she agreed to team with Fairbanks in a film version of Shakespeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW, and to let Sam Taylor direct – Miss Pickford has always thought it a poor picture, poor Shakespeare, and that she gave a poor and spiritless performance. Fairbanks said later the idea to do it came from Miss Pickford. Sam Taylor insisted it was Fairbanks’ idea. Miss Pickford now thinks it was Taylor’s.

In fact, she says Fairbanks and Taylor talked her into doing it against her better judgment, and blames Sam Taylor for many of the film’s shortcomings. She says he went into it fully determined to sacrifice Shakespeare and make it a broad comedy tailored to the Pickford and Fairbanks screen images. “I remember how furious I was when he remarked that the important thing was to keep the ‘Pickford hag of tricks’ in the film,” she recalls. She also believes Taylor erred in letting Fairbanks play Petruchio in the same off-hand way he played d’Artagnan and ROBIN HOOD.

Taylor had written a script of sorts for TAMING OF THE SHREW and the credit line, “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor,” is one of the screen’s worst vulgarities. Miss Pickford says she was opposed to such a credit, but was overruled by Fairbanks and Taylor. She feels it made Taylor a laughing stock and had an adverse effect on his career.

In fairness to Sam Taylor, he tampered little with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and was not too insistent upon retaining the “Pickford bag of tricks.” Nor is the Pickford performance as poor as she seems to think. Taylor apparently had much more difficulty in coaxing a good Petruchio from Fairbanks, who was exceptionally difficult throughout the shooting of TAMING OF THE SHREW. He arrived late, did not know his lines, quarreled with Miss Pickford, and often refused Taylor’s requests for retakes. But Taylor was undoubtedly responsible for the film’s over-supply of slapstick. He claimed it was necessary in order to broaden the film’s appeal.

However disappointed Miss Pickford may have been with TAMING OF THE SHREW, she retained Taylor as her director for KIKI (’31), for which Taylor also wrote the scenario (from the old Belasco play). The role obliged her to sing and dance, which she did quite creditably, but she was miscast as a teenage hoyden and calls KIKI “a misadventure.”

Except for the Lloyd and Pickford films, Taylor’s screen work is of negligible value. Soon after the release of MY BEST GIRL he had been called in to complete John Barrymore’s TEMPEST, a drama of the Russian revolution on which two directors, Viatchelav Tourjansky and Lewis Milestone, had given up in disgust. (It was the second US fiasco of the brilliant Tourjansky earlier he had been fired in the midst of a Tim McCoy Western at MGM). TEMPEST was dull and unbelievable, and marred by overly broad comedy and some incredibly hammy acting by Barrymore and Louis Wolheim. Taylor was then scheduled to direct LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS for D. W. Griffith, for which he had written the screenplay, but Griffith eventually directed it himself.

After TAMING OF THE SHREW Taylor directed Norma Talmadge in a mediocre costume drama, DUBARRY – WOMAN OF PASSION (’30), which hastened the end of her career. And his own. In ’31 he directed three pictures for Fox – DEVIL’S LOTTERY with Elissa Landi, SKYLINE, and a fairly good Will Rogers vehicle, AMBASSADOR BILL. Then after a very cheap and mediocre Slim Summerville – ZaSu Pitts comedy for Universal, OUT ALL NIGHT (’33), he was idle for months. The following year Harold Lloyd let him direct THE CAT’S PAW, and in ’35 he directed Hal Roach’s VAGABOND LADY, a cute and sophisticated comedy with Robert Young and Evelyn Venable. It was his last assignment for almost ten years. During World War II he directed Laurel & Hardy in NOTHING BUT TROUBLE at MGM. He died about 15 years ago.

Borzage directed her last

Miss Pickford began to work on her last picture, SECRETS, in ’32. She had tried unsuccessfully to film it two years earlier with Marshall Neilan as director and everything had gone wrong – the script wasn’t right; Kenneth MacKenna, her leading man, photographed much too young; Neilan was drinking heavily and was no longer creative. So she abruptly shut down production with less than a third of the film completed, wrote off a $300,000 loss, and burned the negative. Although no explanations were made, the press assumed Neilan was responsible. A bitter edge was put upon the Pickford-Neilan friendship.

To direct her second attempt at SECRETS, Miss Pickford hired Frank Borzage, who had directed Norma Talmadge in the silent version of it. Winner of two Academy Awards (SEVENTH HEAVEN and BAD GIRL), Borzage was then much in demand and Miss Pickford had to pay him a handsome fee. But he was not well physically during much of the time Secrets was in production. Leslie Howard was badly miscast. And the finished picture was maudlin, depressing and old-fashioned. Miss Pickford thinks the Depression was partly the reason it did poorly, and that if she had done a successful comedy instead it would have prolonged her career.

Her decision to retire from the screen was not an over-night thing. Jack Pickford died in ’33. She and Fairbanks divorced in ’35, and soon afterward she underwent extensive surgery. Lotte died in ’36. For a long time she was not able, physically or emotionally, to face up to doing a picture. For a while she read the many scripts and stories constantly being sent her. None of them seemed right. She was in her forties. Eventually she decided her career in motion pictures was over.

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