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One of the earliest of the great pioneer performers in film, she had been making movies for several years before luminaries such as Lillian Gish and Charles Chaplin ever stepped in front of of a camera. Having been a stage actress since age five, Mary Pickford entered the movies in April 1909, at age seventeen; and within a few months, at a time when most "legitimate" actors looked on the "galloping tintypes" with dismissive, withering contempt, she had the vision to realize the hitherto undreamed-of potential of the motion picture while it was still in its infancy. She stayed with this new medium that many derided as a toy and went on to build a career that was unprecedented in the annals of entertainment and eventually made her the most popular woman in the world.
She was certainly the world's first "superstar," as she was the first figure in the performing arts to achieve international fame and recognition among millions of people around the globe. There was simply no precedent for this level of fame, no concept or comprehension of just what such fame meant in terms of both professional and personal life. Mary was the first person to learn precisely what this entailed -- and how to deal with it.
Pickford was the first female star to found her own corporation (in 1915), and she virtually invented the concept of the independent star/producer. To this role she added the concept of distributor, an entrepreneurial inspiration that resulted in the incorporation and coownership (with partners Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith) of United Artists early in 1919. That was a unique moment in film history; to this day no one has ever succeeded in amassing so much control. Even the likes of Steven Spielberg and Barbara Streisand do not personally own their distribution companies.
Until her retirement from acting in 1933, after more than two hundred films and twenty-five years after her motion picture debut, Pickford was never to desert the screen, save for a brief Broadway run in a David Belasco play early in 1913. She developed a deep respect for the motion picture medium at a very early stage in her career and would always take whatever steps necessary, often risking life and limb, to achieve all effects correctly. Nothing -- no job -- was beneath her, even when she was her own producer and the world's biggest star. If it was for the good of the picture, she did it. She would ride a horse at full gallop atop a narrow twenty-foot wall, plunge into icy water, and pick up a five-foot snake. Reminiscing with Kevin Brownlow, she recalled, "There was always something that scared me about that camera...."
The space allotted Pickford in film histories has been inappropriately small, in light of her enormous importance, but some observations have been insightful. In 1915 Julian Johnson was one of the earliest to grasp her significance:
Occasionally, a science, a trade, a craft or an art produces some single exponent who stands above all other exponents; who becomes not so much a famous individual as a symbol; whose very name, in any land, is a personification of the thing itself.... What Edison symbolizes in electricity, what Stephenson stands for in mechanical invention or Spencer in synthetic philosophy, Mary Pickford stands for in the great new art world of living shadows.
In 1931 even the severe critic C. A. Lejeune succumbed when she wrote in her Cinema:
...she is at once a myth and a surety, a legend and a pledge.... It is a rather curious corollary...that Mary Pickford, a woman of steely sense and practicality, should have become the cinema's great sentimentality, the concrete expression of our ideals and memories.... She sends us away from the picture-house absurdly generous, ridiculously touched, so that we want to stop the first grubby urchin in the street and surprise it with a five-pound note, buy an orphanage, adopt a township of homeless dogs, or sell all we have and give it to the poor....
Excerpted by permission of Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Copyright c 1999 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
|Putting it Together: How the Mary Pickford Collection Came to the Academy Library||46|
|The Search for Mary Pickford||57|
|Mary Pickford on Film, 1909-1933: Commentaries||70|
PUTTING IT TOGETHER:
HOW THE MARY PICKFORD COLLECTION CAME TO THE ACADEMY LIBRARY
Shortly after I began working at the Academy Library in 1972, I first contacted Mary Pickford (officially, in writing) about the possibility of her collection of still photographs and papers coming to the institution. She responded that, although she didn't have "very much left," she would eventually give what remained to the Academy. When the Academy held the grand opening of its new Wilshire Boulevard building in 1975, we decided to feature a huge Pickford exhibit (on two floors) to commemorate the event. Not only was she one of the great figures of film history and a founder of the Academy, it was (and is) widely believed that the concept for the Academy was originally her idea.
The Academy Library had a respectable amount of Pickford photos of its own, and I had by then personally acquired a substantial collection of Pickford stills. But, hoping to make the display as spectacular as possible, I thought of asking Mary for permission to borrow stills from her holdings, which we could copy for inclusion in the exhibit. She immediately gave her consent, and I quickly went to Pickfair to see what she had. Her husband, Buddy Rogers, friendly and hospitable as always, led me to a basement area, near the Western bar, and into a small furnace room. There, on shelves along one wall, sat a huge array of still photo albums. At this point he turned me loose and even found me a pair of pliers and a screwdriver so that I could take the books apart to access individual prints. At the end of the day. I borrowed more than 600 stills, some for inclusion in the exhibit, but most to be copied for the Library files.
Now we knew that Mary had much more material than she realized. But there was no further word from her regarding the collection coming to the Academy. When she died in 1979, I learned that her will made no mention of her collection of photographs, papers, and other memorabilia whatsoever. It was up to Buddy to decide. When I reminded him of Mary's letter about the material going to the Academy, he immediately agreed.
There was no further progress for over a year, as we awaited the sale of Pickfair. When it finally sold in 1980, the premises had to be emptied of all contents. Finally the call came, and off to Pickfair I went again, to round up the collection. This process turned into several days, as we discovered there was material scattered throughout the massive house: in various basement areas, in closets, in furniture, in Mary's room, in the attic, in her secretary's office, in cabinets in a storage area next to the porte cochere, in a storage area under the guest wing—and finally, in the enormous garage.
I'm sure I combed every room, closet, and piece of furniture, from basement to attic, all this while witnessing the entire contents of Pickfair being dismantled and removed—an eerie, disheartening, and somewhat depressing experience. Pickfair was bare to the walls. Most of the furnishings were auctioned, with Buddy retaining pieces of his choosing, per Mary's wishes (stated in her will), for his own new house on Pickfair Way. The material I was able to piece together for the Academy—photos, papers, scrapbooks, clippings, etc.—was removed from Pickfair in scores of boxes, like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, which became our job at the Library to assemble.
And then there was the garage! Amid piles of cast-off furniture and every other imaginable sort of flotsam were several boxes and crates containing even more stills and—incredibly—several thousand original 8x10 nitrate still negatives from Mary's film productions, some dating back to 1918. Even though they had been in the garage for decades with no temperature and humidity control, they were nearly all in perfect condition. This was an entirely unexpected bonanza. These negatives we later preserved by making archival fiber- base prints from them, with the assistance of a grant from the Mary Pickford Foundation. The prints now reside in the Pickford Collection at the Library. The garage also yielded one of the few remnants of Douglas Fairbanks found on the entire Pickfair premises: the complete still photo album for Robin Hood (1922).
However, the albums I had seen and accessed in 1975 were nowhere to be found. Later, to my dismay, I discovered that someone, somehow, apparently during the dismantling of Pickfair, had managed to spirit them away and sold them to various memorabilia dealers around town. I received legal advice that an attempt to confiscate the photos for ultimate return to either Buddy Rogers or the Academy would be extremely difficult, would probably not succeed, and/or would result in the material being locked up for years pending a settlement of the case. At least we had already copied more than 600 of the best photos, and later. I was personally able to buy back several hundred more prints from one of the dealers who ended up with some of the booty.
In the mid-1980s, another incident occurred involving ill-gotten photos from Pickfair. Buddy had agreed to do a book on Mary with a writer whom he considered a personal friend. In his usual trusting manner, he turned over a large number of photos to this writer, who took them to his residence to "work on the book." Soon after, I was asked to review the material and identify the films and persons depicted in the photos. I gladly did so, and in return for my services asked to borrow about 200 of the prints, again to be copied for the Academy collection. I initialed the backs of all the prints borrowed so that those working on the book would know for which the Academy had copy negatives.
A few months later, a friend told me that yet another dealer suddenly had a huge new selection of Pickford stills. I quickly went to the shop without a thought that the stills I would see would be familiar and was aghast to discover that the stills in the shop came from the same body of material I had seen at the writer's house. Sure enough, my initials in my own hand were on scores of them. Mary's writing and that of her personal secretary were on many as well. File folders also bore the writing of the secretary. I was furious. This time, legal advice or not, I decided to blow the whistle. I said nothing, made a token purchase, left the shop, went home, and called Edward G. Stotsenberg, a trustee of the Pickford Foundation, about my discovery. Mr. Stotsenberg called Buddy's wife, Beverly, who in turn called the Beverly Hills Police Department, who in turn called me. Would I accompany two police detectives to the shop, my function being to identify all items bearing my writing, Mary's writing, or her secretary's writing? Of course, I consented. This was a tense and unpleasant experience but resulted in the police being able to seize all photos thus earmarked. The rest had to be left behind for the moment, and while the Rogerses thought they eventually got everything back, I'm sure there were several hundred photos (I remember them) that never surfaced again. Needless to say, that particular book project did not go forward after this turn of events.
I had personally collected over three thousand Pickford stills over the previous fifteen years. Next, I decided that these should join the Pickford Collection at the Academy, but I was in no financial position to make an outright gift of them. Moderately salaried, I had spent too much money and time to acquire them, and they were simply too valuable. I presented my case (and showed many of my photos) to Mr. Stotsenberg. On consultation with Matty Kemp, then managing director of the Mary Pickford Company, he decided to make the acquisition possible: the Pickford Foundation gave a grant to the Academy Foundation so that my photos could be added to the Library's Pickford Collection. My collection covered the 1913-18 feature films very well, whereas Mary's holdings for these years had been sparse; thus, the amalgamation of the two collections was a happy and appropriate one.
Then, more material came from Buddy and his wife, Beverly. They had retained a large quantity of Mary's memorabilia and gave the Library nearly all of it in two separate donations as additions to the Mary Pickford Collection. Around the same time, Mr. Stotsenberg also donated Mary's financial and accounting records, which he had maintained in his office.
The collection now covers photographically all of Mary's fifty-two feature films (1913-33) and most of her approximately one hundred Biograph shorts (1909-12), of which all but two were directed by D. W. Griffith. Also included are over eighty scrapbooks, script and story property material, and other papers. Unfortunately, the papers are scant for the years during which Mary was appearing in and producing her own films. Her production files and correspondence files for these years are conspicuously absent. Indeed, the extant Pickford papers primarily cover the 1940s through the 1970s, though there is a little (and some very good) material from the earlier years. For instance, among the financial records are Mary's federal income tax files, dating back to 1914—the first year in which the IRS collected income tax!
The fate of the bulk of her papers from her active years as a star and producer remains a mystery. Mary's personal secretary for over twenty years, Esther Helm, told me that when Samuel Goldwyn took full possession of the old United Artists studio (having acquired Mary's 50 percent interest) in the mid-1950s, Mary's files had been stored there for decades. As Mary was vacating her portion of the lot, Miss Helm received a call from the studio manager: Did Miss Pickford want them to throw out "all that old stuff" in her file cabinets? When Miss Helm put this query to Mary, she elicited the resounding reply, "Good God, no! Have them sent to Pickfair at once!" According to Miss Helm, the cabinets were dutifully delivered and relegated to the Pickfair garage.
What happened to them in the interim is unknown. Could they have been inadvertently disposed of without Mary's knowledge? I can only attest to the fact that they were not in the garage the first time I entered it in 1980. I asked the Pickford estate (Mr. Stotsenberg) if possibly this material could have been put into storage somewhere. After running a check, he relayed that they had nothing like what I was describing in storage or, as far as he knew, anywhere else. We can only hope that someday these valuable files will surface.
I can close, however, with the comforting thought that the still photographs in the Mary Pickford Collection at the Academy Library are unprecedented in their comprehensiveness and volume, and unequaled by any other archive in the world.
A Note on the Photography
The images contained on these pages comprise some of the finest examples in existence of still photography from the era of silent film. Indeed, today this style of photography is virtually a lost art form.
The still photographers of that period, both in the portrait galleries and on film sets and film locations, worked nearly exclusively with the 8x10-inch negative format, a practice that would be unthinkable today. The job required both artistry and considerable physical stamina. The 8x10 view camera and accompanying tripod were large, heavy, and cumbersome. So were the film holders bearing the 8x10 carriers and sheets of film. The film, incidentally, had to be loaded—individually, sheet-by-sheet—in the dark, before the photographer ventured out to shoot. Carrying all this paraphernalia all over the studios, around the sets, and onto locations was, quite simply, a lot of hard work. Furthermore, the film and the lenses were much slower than their counterparts of today, making the job even more exacting and time-consuming. But the pictorial results were superb.
The gloriously lit, sumptuously detailed, glittering images produced by the 8x10 nitrate film negatives of Hollywood's first decades can simply no longer be created. In the silent days, ample time was taken in the lighting, posing, and composition of the stills—a luxury which is no longer feasible given the drastic time constraints and enormous costs of modern film production.
Anyone who has ever thought that early film lighting was harsh should take a careful look at these pages. Richly toned and subtle lighting effects were the hallmarks of the industry during the early decades. In addition, the large format and slow speed of the 8x10 film allowed for exceptionally fine grain and extraordinary detail that can never be equaled by the modern smaller formats. In the silent-era stills, one can normally see the finest details—even the stitching in a costume, for example. Enlargements from the early 8x10 negatives can be blown up to six feet high with no graininess detectable to the naked eye and all the marvelous tonality intact.
About one-fourth of the photographs in this book were made from the original nitrate still negatives that I found in Pickfair's garage while gathering up the Pickford Collection for the Academy Library. The remaining stills were reproduced from original vintage prints by making 8x10 copy negatives, and from them 8x10 double-weight fiber-base custom archival prints. The copy negatives were made by Producers and Quantity Photo, and the superb prints (from both the original and copy negatives) were painstakingly produced by Manoah Bowman. The source for the frame enlargements from the Biograph films were 35mm safety fine-grain prints made by direct contact from the original nitrate Biograph camera negatives, which were donated by Mary Pickford to the Library of Congress in 1969.
The 8x10 negative format was almost totally phased out by the early 1950s, after which only special gallery settings were occasionally photographed with the 8x10 camera. Since about 1960, almost all still photography has been handled in the 35mm and 2 1/4 x 2 1/4-inch formats.
As in all other areas of her productions, Mary Pickford acquired the best still photographers available to cover her films, and the results were spectacular. She also sought the same quality for her gallery portraits, and was photographed by virtually all the best artists in the business. The work of many of the masters of the day is here on these pages: Evans, Hartsook, Abbé, Moody, Campbell, Fairchild, Hill, Rosher, Rahmn—and even Steichen and De Meyer.
Because this book deals primarily with Pickford's films, space considerations have precluded representation of many other fine portrait photographers who captured her: Witzel, Russell Ball, Melbourne Spurr, Alfred Cheney Johnston, Nickolas Muray, and so many others. But maybe that's another book!