Hollywood 2012: Still Squabbling Over the Mary Pickford Scraps

SHOWBUZZ - The following story is connected in my mind with a grisly murder and about people I know. Perhaps it shouldn't be, but it is,

so I will just dispense with the usual trite wording about "full disclosure"  and tell you that I am talking about friends and colleagues, about the damsel in distress who survived, about a classical Hollywood falling-out, and perhaps a little something about how Los Angeles fails to protect and make use of its cinematic heritage.

If you read long enough, I will also tell you about a marvelous cultural opportunity coming up over the weekend, something that has nothing to do with the current account. (Or you can skip to the description of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at the bottom.)

To continue: Our story includes the magical name Pickford, --  as in Mary Pickford, the woman who did more to make Hollywood what it is than any other person except perhaps D.W. Griffith. And it's about the legacy she left us and about  a little modern day squabble over the scraps.

Who was Mary Pickford? It's actually a stage name that Toronto-born Gladys Marie Smith was given by her Broadway producer in 1907, when she was barely 15 years old. Gladys and her family had been supporting themselves in the theater since the time that she was seven years old, following the death of her father. They led the lives of traveling entertainers much of the time. If you read accounts of the time, you will realize that it was a difficult life, even for the toughest.

She continued to use the Pickford name when she moved into a very new entertainment medium in 1909.

Mary the teenager was hired by what we moderns might  think of as a high-tech startup. It was called American Biograph, and it made movies. The whole industry was so new that the products were often referred to as photoplays by their makers, or as "the flickers" by the audience. The term photoplay meant to suggest something akin to a theatrical production being presented via the new photographic medium.

But in an important sense,  photoplays were hugely different from live theater. Theater plodded from scene to scene and act to act. But in the movies, it was possible to go from one place to another and then back again in the blink of an eye, or to be precise, only as long as it took the film to run from one splice to the next. Instead of the kind of pacing that you would see in live theater, the flickers could go back and forth between the damsel in distress and the hero racing from afar to rescue her, and the film could cut back and forth from one to the other every few seconds.

Mary Pickford was an early player in the new dramatic form. When you think about it, film and Mary were made for each other. She was born in 1892, commercial film screenings began about 1895, she came from a poor background, and film in its infancy played mainly to the working class, the poor, and recent immigrants to the U.S.

She was more than just another pretty face.  Early films often used popular but aging stage actors and actresses. Their technique was, for too much of the time, characterized by broad gesturing, dramatic clasping of hands, and grabbing of one's head. This helped to communicate emotion and feeling to the folks up in the cheap seats. But when transferred to film and viewed from our modern perspective, it seems overdone and clumsy. When we see these films nowadays, we can't help but be a little amused by what seems to be actors hamming it up.

The audiences of the day were not as put off by the stage acting style. It was what they were used to. But then directors like D.W. Griffith, working with beautiful young actresses like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, taught viewers a whole new style. It stressed naturalistic movement without the florid arm waving and head grabbing.  It used close-ups to show all the emotions that the actor's face can portray. Mary didn't have to scream or sob to show fear or sorrow -- she said it by looking it. There is a film that Mary made called Pollyanna. A hit, it did more to popularize the word "pollyanna" than anything before or since, but it's in Mary's opening scene that her ability is demonstrated. In a few seconds, she shows different degrees of grief, hope, mourning, and perhaps a little fear, all by facial expression and body language, and all flickering in and out within seconds. The Pickford approach was mirrored by others, as the craft developed.

It's fair to say that out of this stylistic evolution, a new art form was born and grew to maturity.

Pickford and her director Griffith were among the first to figure out that film acting was something different from the stage. At a live performance, the folks in the balcony wouldn't see much of the actors' facial expressions. But on film, and projected so as to be 15 or 20 feet high, actors' faces and therefore their expressions were visible to all.

Pickford and her colleagues at American Biograph learned to moderate their expressiveness in a way that made the movies the more powerful emotional medium. Even in her earliest films, shot in 1909 and 1910, we recognize portrayals that have become fully modern screen acting.

There's one curious thing. When you look at newsreel footage of Mary Pickford at the time that she had become an established star, you see somebody who comes across as almost plain, a little drab even. But then you see her as an actress in a movie and it's a little hard to describe except to say that she positively lights up the screen. Like very few others of her day (Valentino comes to mind), the audience couldn't take their eyes off of her.

In her heyday, Mary Pickford was known as America's Sweetheart. She had a storybook marriage to another hugely popular star, Douglas Fairbanks, and the two held court at their home atop the hill above Benedict Canyon, in the house known to the whole world as Pickfair. They entertained visiting heads of state and were in turn hosted by royalty when they themselves toured Europe.

There's something else a little unusual about the Mary Pickford story. Unlike so many other silent film era actors and actresses who made lots of money but came out of the depression broke (anybody see The Artist?), Pickford was smart and tenacious and good at business. She was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and keeping a lot of it. In one coup that is part of the film history textbooks, she got together with a few other successful movie makers to create the studio (more of a distribution company actually) known as United Artists. Mary, her husband Doug, D.W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin were the United Artists.

There are a few more tidbits to the Pickford legend. After her marriage to Doug Fairbanks broke up, she married another actor, Buddy Rogers, and stayed married until the end of her life. But along the way, her brother Jack (also a film actor) and Jack's wife died young. Olive died of poison (maybe swallowed by accident, maybe not) and Jack drank himself to death.

As best we can tell, Mary remained wounded by the family tragedies throughout the remainder of her existence.

So we are left with the story of a woman who remained something of a recluse for much of her life after the 1930s. People who had a chance to meet her suspect that she survived using alcohol as her medicine of choice.

Somewhere along the line, Mary decided to endow a foundation to do good works such as education. This was the smaller part of her fortune (the remainder going towards medical care for children) but it was still substantial. Even a decade or two ago, the Pickford Foundation was worth on the order of ten million dollars.

And that's where my friends and colleagues come into this story.

But first a modest digression.

In the mid 1990s, I became aware that the Silent Movie Theater, an old ramshackle structure on Fairfax, had been reopened and was projecting the old magic once again. I had seen Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood and The Iron Mask as a kid, and now I could revisit them. Something had changed though.

The new proprietor, a man by the name of Lawrence Austin, decided to showcase the old films the way they are supposed to be shown -- that is, with full musical accompaniment. Austin was in several ways a strange person, but he managed to bring in a corps of terrific theater organists and they brought the films to life. Some of them -- Gaylord Carter, Stan Kann, and Bob Mitchell -- were well known musicians.

Carter had been the primary player for Harold Lloyd films when they were premiered and had also had a substantial career including a string of recordings. Stan Kann was a celebrated church and theater organist, and Bob Mitchell had led a choir that performed in over a hundred major motion pictures including that holiday staple The Bishop's Wife.

For a while, this little box on Fairfax Blvd became the de facto capitol of silent film in the world, even if most of the world was oblivious. Films were projected to the accompaniment of music played by men who had themselves been organists in the original silent era.

It's a strange story, because here was positively fine and powerful art being created, nearly unique in the new world if not the whole world, and it went all but unnoticed. To the city fathers who complain so much about preserving film industry jobs in this town but care so little about preserving the actual history or making use of it to bring in cultural tourism, this was an opportunity that was completely ignored.

Meanwhile, fine works of musical and cinematic art were presented, usually to modest crowds at best, every week.

Besides he organists, I came into contact with a group of people who turned out to be managers and staff of an organization known as the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. They had an interest in silent film and in a few actors and actresses in particular, and helped to run and program the theater.

In that late-1990s atmosphere, the people from the Mary Pickford Institute worked around the theater, gave talks about Mary and her films, and in some wonderful way brought the past to life in a way I have not seen before or since. They were also involved in creating documentaries about Mary, her husband, her brother, and other famous performers such as the "It Girl," Clara Bow. The documentaries were shown on Turner Movie Classics and at serious film gatherings.

The Pickford Institute also has been the home for a collection of memorabilia, films, documentaries, and even props from Mary's films.

The Institute was itself a spinoff of the Pickford Foundation, that educational nonprofit that Mary Pickford had created back in the 1970s. The Pickford Foundation has been a financial backstop for the Institute for a good while.

Now for the twist to our plot:

Unfortunately, in one of those Hollywood type stories, the Foundation is in the middle of a falling out with its own offspring, the Institute. The sad reality is that the Mary Pickford Institute is in danger of being folded due to the withdrawal of support by the Foundation. Apparently the Foundation would like to take over the assets and activities of the Institute. The argument that is quietly made by Institute staff is that the business people are trying to take over the artistic side of things or, worse yet, perhaps quench the artistic efforts and use Foundation money for completely different purposes.

This will look like small stuff to the general public. After all, it's just a bit of sniffling over the leftovers from a long dead performer who is mostly forgotten anyway. But there is another way to think about it. This Los Angeles of ours, whose city government will do just about anything to keep film production from leaving, has been weak in protecting and preserving our cinematic history. The major studios have been equally poor at remembrance.

What's left? We have the Academy of course and we have the local universities. But when a small but dedicated group is trying to take up some of the slack, we should at least be rooting for them. The city of Los Angeles should be making use of our cinematic heritage to attract cultural tourism. They like to claim they are doing so, but in reality the effort is fairly unimpressive. Here's one example. If you walk into a bookstore in Germany, you can find a poster showing Harold Lloyd hanging by one hand high above the city, holding onto the hand of a clock on the side of a building.

The picture is known worldwide, to the point that it has achieved iconic status. But try asking any city politician or staffer in the Department of Cultural Affairs where that building is. Worse yet, try asking any of the above how they could make use of that picture and all the locations like it to bring in tourists and film scholars with an interest in the subject.

To repeat: We have a private group that has been preserving the Pickford legacy and marketing LA's film heritage all over the world, and Los Angeles has yet to take notice.

This is one of those "more in sadness than in anger" arguments. It would be greatly to be desired if the Foundation could rethink their current position and keep the Mary Pickford Institute in a healthy state.

I said earlier that this is not going to be one of those pieces that tritely calls out its "full disclosure." Back in 1997, one of those Pickford Institute friends who helped out from time to time at the Silent Movie Theater was targeted for murder, this as part of a plot by a jealous man to take over ownership of the place. The murder plot got as far as the shooting death of the proprietor Lawrence Austin, but the hired gunman didn't realize that the girl working behind the candy counter was a one-time substitute. He shot her, but she survived, and our friend survived due to the blind luck of her non-attendance.

Those of us who are survivors feel a powerful kinship and the emotional need to protect what is left.

In the years previous to that night, the Pickford Institute, its friends and colleagues, and the Foundation had contributed to our understanding of film history and Hollywood history by their teachings and by the projection of the majority of Mary Pickford's major feature films of the 1920s. I will simply refer to one screening of a film called Tess of the Storm Country. This is a film that has been recognized by none other than Kevin Brownlow (he of the special Academy Award for work on film history and preservation) as a real work of art.

In more recent years, Pickford's masterpiece Sparrows has been performed in Detroit, Michigan to the accompaniment of the Detroit Symphony and in Europe at the world's most prestigious gathering of silent film scholars, each time conducted by another Pickford Institute member. This is an organization that has been effectively carrying out public education, presenting film history as a living art form, and maintaining a collection of Mary Pickford memorabilia. They've paid their dues, and in at least one case almost paid with their lives. They deserve the chance to continue.

This is our Hollywood Heritage, and it deserves our respect and attention to its preservation. It would be a blessing if the Pickford Foundation can find the way to preserving its offspring the Institute.
Cultural Happenings

The Los Angeles Times Festival of  Books is coming the weekend of April 21 - 2. It will take place on the USC campus. The Festival is divided into 3 main activities. There are panels of speakers presented inside lecture halls. Feast your intellect on writers of crime fiction, or of science, or of all manner of other things. Then there are outside stages with their own lectures, recitations, and performances. Finally, there are a renaissance fair's worth of pavilions and kiosks and tents full of books for sale, spreading out over acres.

Here are just a few of the featured speakers: John Cusak, Sugar Ray Leonard, Steve Lopez of the Times,  Anne Perry, Joseph Wambaugh, Erin Aubry Kaplan, David Baltimore, Eric Alterman with Ronald Brownstein and Adam Nagourney, Paul Krassner (there's a blast from the past for all children of the 1960s), Rodney King in conversation with Patt  Morrison. And that's just the first day.

Sunday has its own long list including Betty White, Mayim Bialik, Sandy Banks, and the USC Marching Band. And then there's D.J. Waldie, Dan Pyne, Ben Ehrenreich, and Robert Crais for you fans of the detectives Pike and Elvis out there.

And if you want to come back to the subject matter of CityWatch, there's Gil Garcetti with Jim Newton and Connie Rice in a panel moderated by Warren Olney.

For those who wish to revisit the founding of the Students for a Democratic Society 50 years ago, there is a panel of Tom Hayden, Abe Peck, and Robert Scheer.

These are just a few of the many speakers, writers, poets, and critics who will be there.

Check out the website - then check out  the schedule. Then sign up online for panels if you wish. There appears to be a limit of 8 panel tickets per person and a service fee of one dollar per ticket for the advance registration. If there is something you are really interested in, it's a good idea to get the reserved tickets.

(Bob Gelfand is the 2012 chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition and writes on politics and culture for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net) -cw

Tags: Show Biz, Movies, Hollywood, Mary Pickford, DW Griffith, Broadway, theater, Festival of Books

Vol 10 Issue 31
Pub: Apr 17, 2012