The Question of Jack Pickford (1924 article)

The following article by Grace Halton first appeared in Motion Picture Magazine in October 1924.   Along with twenty-seven other interviews with silent film stars, it is reprinted in Silent Voices:  Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and kindle formats from Amazon online stores.  The pictures do not originate from the original article.

 

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Huck and Tom (1918)

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THE QUESTION OF JACK PICKFORD

An appreciation of this young star who, if he stood alone, and were measured in the public eyes only by the merit of his work –as an artist should be measured – would accomplish very great things indeed

Author: Grace Halton

(Motion Picture Magazine: October 1924)

He sat there behind a desk in the small studio office-room, and from time to time he lit a cigarette, rather nervously.  When he smiled, it was quickly but with no reflection of an inner amusement in his eyes.  He talked rapidly, but without ease.  I felt that in his mind he was wondering what I would ask him next and wishing quite fervently that I would leave.

Outside the summer sun beat down on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot.  The walls of Mary’s old Rosita sets seemed to curl and quiver in the downpour of tropical sunshine.[1] The minarets of Bagdad rose, an eye-piercing blaze of silver against the hard blue of the sky.  Only in the shelter of the mammoth walls of Doug’s mediaeval castle, erected for Robin Hood and later serving Mary well in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, was there shadow and cool.[2]

And, quite wisely, a Pickford-Fairbanks chauffeur had parked one of the family’s Rolls-Royce cars in this grateful shade.

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The Double-Dyed Deceiver (1920)

So Jack Pickford and I sat in the little office – Jack most immaculate in white trousers and well-cut gray coat – and when the riveters, working on a giant gas-tank nearby, did not drown out our conversation with their staccato clatter, we talked of various things.

But I knew, even as I asked him questions and he answered them obediently, like a little boy who hopes he’ll grade at least eighty per cent in examinations, but rather doubts it, that it was no sort of interview.

One gets no glimpse of the real Jack Pickford this way.  I know, for I’ve met him a dozen times in the last half-dozen years, at parties, formal and informal, at the various dancing places, on transcontinental trains.  Times when he was his natural, youthful self.

He was not himself the other day.  His manner was guarded.  He was earnestly striving to uphold the dignity of the Pickford family.

He endeavoured not to arouse interest in himself and in his reactions, veering ever from the personal with talk of Marilynn (sic), or Mary and Doug.[3]

“It’s lonesome around here without them,” says Jack.  “Sure.”

He has a way of saying “Sure,” as tho to emphasize his remarks.

News had come that day of a decoration upon Doug in Paris by the Ministry Beaux Arts.  Two gold palms, crossed, and suspended by a purple ribbon.  A great honor for Doug.  No actor has ever before received this decoration, which was originated by Napoleon and has heretofore been awarded only to educators.

Doug and Mary “have a new stunt” – thus the conversation continued.  They like to go down to the Orpheum sometimes, when they’re here at home.  It’s hard on Mary never having a chance to go out anywhere without being mobbed, and at last she and Doug have solved the difficult problem and how to enjoy a peaceful evening at a vaudeville show.  They buy seats in the last row on the aisle, dress more inconspicuously and put on dark glasses.  Then they slip into the theater after the show has started and out again just before the last act is over.  The stunt works fine.

Then – Marilynn.  Marilynn Miller, before whom jaded first-night Broadway has bent the knee in homage, more than once.  Mailynn of the soft golden curls, the babyish face, the twinkling toes.  The adored “youngest star on Broadway.”  Jack’s wife.

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Brown of Harvard (1926, with William Haines)

Of these he will talk.

He and Marilynn are going abroad later in the summer, he says.  Marilynn is to meet Barrie.  She’s bringing Peter Pan to the stage in the fall and, well, it seems a good idea to meet Barrie beforehand.    It’s an awful responsibility, you know, following Maude Adams in Peter Pan.  Sure.  Jack likes London.  He has lots of friends in London.  He lit another cigarette.  No – he doesn’t like Paris.

It is later, perhaps, one remembers that Jack’s first wife, the beautiful Olive Thomas, met her tragic death in Paris, and one senses that Jack has been remembering all the time.

One brings him back from London – and Paris to the sunshine and heat of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, the rat-tat-tat of the riveters working on the gas-tank, the light laughter of Marilynn and some other girls playing badminton on the studio court.

Jack’s next picture, he says, will be made in New York.  Marilynn will be working there, he explains, as sufficient reason why he should desert Hollywood.  Young Mr. Dudley is the title of the story and, the plot being conveniently laid in New York anyway, they’re going to shoot everything from the Battery to the Bronx.

His ideas of what he would like to do in future seem rather vague.  The majority of actors, when one has talked to them for one consecutive minute, will tell one confidentially of their burning desire to bring to the screen some certain story or play, to create some certain character known to history or literature. But not Jack Pickford.  In the main, his life has been mapped out for him by The Family.  One feels that decisions as to what Jack will and will not do, rest with them usually, rather than with himself.  Initiative is not developed under such circumstances.  One feels also, that if he did cherish a secret longing to create some daring, difficult role, to depart in some manner from the comfortable, even routine mapped out for him, he wouldn’t be apt to say anything about it until he had The Family’s O.K.

In some obscure way, this irritates me, belonging as I do among those wilful persons who consider him an actor with tremendous possibilities.  His work before the camera is stamped with authenticity.  He possesses the rare ability to submerge himself in the character he is portraying.  He never struts and poses in the well-known Hollywood male star manner.  If his wild, primitive mountaineer boy in The Hill Billy isn’t as genuine a portrayal as the screen has seen this year, I’ll eat my fall chapeau.[4]

But he won’t talk about himself.  Facing the interviewer, he becomes inarticulate.  He’s not thinking of his work.  He’s wondering just what sort of impression he is making on me.  He is self-conscious, lacking the egotism on which a less sensitive soul might rely.

That soul of his has been scarred.  He has seen his name in ugly headlines blazed across the world.  That slight, nervous body has bent before the storm, and the years have passed.  Jack hasn’t forgotten.

As I say, it was no sort of interview.

I left him presently, and the white-hot glare of the Pickford-Fairbanks lot, with the haughty Rolls-Royce still standing in the thickening shadows of grey stone castle walls, and the silver minarets of Bagdad writing fairy tales unnumbered across the sky.

But the feeling of irritation persisted.  I found myself wishing that Jack wasn’t a Pickford.  That he hadn’t the fortunes of Hollywood’s royal family behind him.  That the rare, delicate artistry of his work might draw strength from some hardier atmosphere.  In short, that Jack wasn’t quite so smothered in The Family ermine.

After watching the sensitive play of expression across his face for an hour, it intrigues one to muse on what Jack might accomplish if, freed from all prejudice, he stood alone, measured in the public eye by the merit of his work, as an artist should be measured.

It is good work, that the boy of Seventeen,[5] The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, and innumerable other photoplays of the native American type, has given us.  To one who watches with somewhat bored amusement the tug-of-war now going on between our middle-aged film heroes and the Latin lads, a Jack Pickford performance with its blending of humor and pathos, provides a welcome distraction.

We find it within us to hope that some day he may contribute to the screen a truly great performance.

[1] Rosita (Ernst Lubitsch, 1923)

[2] Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922); Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (Marshall Neilan, 1924)

[3] Marilyn Miller:  Jack Pickford’s second wife.

[4] The Hill Billy (George W. Hill, 1924)

[5] Seventeen (Robert G. Vignola, 1916)

Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

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I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

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Review: 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)

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Once in a while, a TV drama series comes along that is genuinely important – and Netflix’s offering 13 Reasons Why is one of them.  Teen dramas seem to be notoriously hard to get right – they are either light and airy with no substance, or they are so intent in getting “messages” or “issues” across that they lack dramatic substance.  13 Reasons Why isn’t perfect by any means, but it does manage to straddle the categories of “issue” TV and “effective drama” for the most part.

Hannah Baker, a teenager, has committed suicide.  Two weeks later, a box of cassette tapes winds up on the doorstep of her friend Clay.  Over the coming days, Clay listens to the tapes, each side of which gives another of the “13 reasons why” Hannah took the step of killing herself.   The series is based on a book I haven’t read but, by all means, is decidedly less bloated than the near 13 hour Netflix adaptation.  But the adaptation benefits from showing the stories of the present day stories of the people mentioned on the tapes, and the affect that the airing of their stories and actions has on them.

What is key here is that 13 Reasons Why is an intelligently written, superbly acted piece of television that deals with bullying, depression, sexuality, assault, and suicide.  A bundle of light-hearted fun it isn’t.  And yet the structure of the series (showing the post-suicide stories) allows for it to be more than just a worthy after-school special type programme.

One would argue that this wasn’t even made for teens at all – indeed, inexplicably the BBFC in the UK have given this an 18 rating.  This is, presumably, because of the two rape sequences which, while uncomfortable, are certainly not of the ilk we are likely to find in an 18 film.  It seems totally counter-productive to have a series dealing with teen issues in an intelligent way being branded as unsuitable for teens under 18!  Perhaps there was a fear that, somehow, the option of suicide would look attractive to the viewer – but anyone seeing the final episode where we see the act itself will know that isn’t the case either.  Thankfully, the series is on Netflix and younger people will no doubt have access to it anyway – but a 15 certificate would certainly have been more apt and appropriate.

But 13 Reasons Why is most important because it deals with mental health issues – with depression and suicide – without lecturing, and without talking down to the viewer, and without trivialising it.  In fact, the term “depression” is barely mentioned at all.   But this is the topic that dare not speak its name, of course.  We don’t talk about mental health.  But here it is “discussed” along with teen issues “responsibly.”  A number of episodes have warnings about the content before they start.  The first episode has helpline numbers before it.  And there is a documentary appendix episode dealing with the issues featured in the series.

All of this, and yet any adult who has gone through mental health issues has to ponder quite what the point of those phone numbers are.  We should seek help if we are going through the problems featured in the series, we are told.  And yet there are thousands of us with mental health issues who have come forward and asked for help with our condition and yet cannot receive any.  We are told on the NHS in the UK of a year-long waiting list for counselling, for example.  It is rather scary that a TV drama can be more responsible about the damage mental health issues can do than our own health system or our own government in recognising its failings.

But I have written about that at length elsewhere, and this is about the series.  The “13 reasons” are spread over 13 episodes and, as some others have noted, this is too many.  Quite easily, there are occasions where two reasons could have fitted into one episode, for example.  The central episodes, directed by Gregg Araki, are bloated and move very slowly before the series gathers pace again around episode 10.

As much as I admire and “liked” the series, though, there is a feeling that the final instalment is unsatisfactory.  The realms of possibility are stretched, as not one, not two, not three, but four students in the same group of friends get their hands on guns – and we’re not told of the consequences of this in most cases.  Instead of giving us a neater ending, the series makes the mistake of making sure it is left open for a second season.  It’s the one thing that lets the programme down.  All of this good work, this great writing and wonderful acting, is jeopardised because the programme makers/Netflix wanted to make sure they still had a story to tell if a second season was decided upon.

Sometimes a story just needs to be told and then finish – especially when adapting a novel, which obviously does have an ending.  In fact, the problem here is that, rather than giving the viewer the idea that there is a second season in the offing, it gives the impression that someone forgot to make a final episode – because episode 13 acts like a penultimate one, not a final one.   And this is such a shame.

But even this error of judgement can’t undo the good work here.  Dylan Minnette gives one of the best performances in a TV series I have seen for a very long time – and one of the most nuanced accounts of a “troubled teen” I’ve seen in film or TV.  Everything about the performance rings true.  The same is true for Katherine Langford as Hannah, although she, ironically, has less to work with – not least because of those bloated episodes in the centre of the series, and the fact that she is only on screen for around half of the running time.

As a final note, Netflix chose to release all of the episodes of the series in one go – and this was possibly a mistake.  This is not binge-watch television, and it really doesn’t work well when watched in that way as it slowly numbs the viewer to each new event that is revealed in the story of Hannah Baker, and nothing becomes shocking.  While there is a “thriller” – even a “whodunit” – element to the story, that isn’t what this is about, and a weekly episode format would have worked better.  But it is what it is – an intelligent, gripping, and responsible series that deals with teen life in an undeniably adult way, and in a way that most dramas simply don’t have the balls to do.

Tchaikovsky, Rostropovich and Me: A Passionate Affair!

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When I turned 13, I was then getting interested in classical music – something that my parents didn’t really listen to, but my interest had been aroused by one of those inspiring teachers at school that we all too often believe only exist within Goodbye Mr. Chips or Dead Poet’s Society. With my birthday money in my pocket, I headed off to the local department store to buy an LP of the fifth symphony. I was a little naive in thinking that only one composer had written a fifth symphony, and so was a little traumatised when confronted by many different works with the same title. I had heard of Tchaikovsky, and so bought that one and headed home. Job done. Then I placed the LP on my record player and realised it didn’t sound a bit like the work I had heard (which was, of course, by Beethoven), but I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony nonetheless, somehow absorbed by the while EMI Eminence label as it spun around, the informative liner notes (that I didn’t wholly understand at the time) and the painting on the front of the LP cover. The recording was the one contained in this boxed set.

A few years down the line, I came across Manfred, clearly part of the same series of LPs, and bought that too, and then some of the others as and when I came across them – which was more difficult back in the days before looking something up on Ebay and being given a choice of copies to buy. A few more years later, and I was converting to CD, and bought a different cycle of the Tchaikovsky symphonies, which I suppose I thought would sound the same no matter who was conducting. My Rostropovich LPs were disposed of, and I was left with a rather unsatisfying set of the music I had loved.

Eventually, the Rostropovich set on CD came my way but some symphonies were split over two discs – a ridiculous idea – and the artwork which had clearly first attracted me wasn’t there either. But it was a step in the right direction. A further step came last year, when Warner in Japan released the seven symphonies on seven individual discs but, alas, only the first three had the original artwork of the LP, and the other four just had a generic picture of Tchaikovsky (no idea why).

Now, with this current set, we are almost reaching perfection. No symphonies are split over two discs, and the artwork of the LPs can be found on the front of the cardboard sleeves containing each CD. There is one exception (hence the “almost” perfection) in that the first two LPs are combined onto one CD and so only the artwork from one LP is retained. It’s a shame the missing artwork wasn’t used for the front of the box, but this is, I think, good enough. Why, at 43 years of age, LP artwork matters to me so much, I have no idea. Perhaps a mid-life crisis as I yearn for the things that gave me pleasure in my youth. Perhaps I’m just a sentimental old fool (and that is the only explanation for me re-buying the 5th symphony on vinyl last year!).

But this is truly a wonderful (and ridiculously cheap) set.  Rostropovich’s interpretations aren’t for everyone. But his passionate, emotional readings of these works sparked something in a 13 year old boy thirty years ago, something he has never ever forgotten – and if a recording can do that, then you can’t ask for much more. I fell in love with these recordings back then, and am just as much in love with them now as me and the Rostropovich Tchaikovsky cycle celebrate our Pearl anniversary. There are no plans for separation any time in the future, for there is enough passion in these six discs to sustain any relationship.

Dangerous Years (1947)

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The various DVD-R archive series from the major studios over the last decade have certainly helped to get many forgotten films back into the public domain, and also replaced poor quality bootleg copies with pristine ones.  Some of the films involved have been revered classics, others are not so – and yet sometimes just as interesting in their own way.

Dangerous Years (1947) is one of those not-very-good and yet interesting films.  It is chiefly remembered today for being the first film appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe (centre. below), playing a waitress in a couple of scenes and, it should be said, with a very different voice to that which we are used to!  Monroe’s appearance alone would make the film an interesting curio, but the presence of Billy Halop (here called William) and Scotty Beckett add to the film’s worth for fans of 1940s cinema.

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The film, which runs only just over an hour, is a heavy-handed tale of young men going astray during the “dangerous years” of adolescence.  Billy Halop plays Danny Jones an older boy (“of voting age”) who heads/controls a gang of sixteen and seventeen year olds who carry out robberies and, of course, one night it all goes wrong and somebody gets killed.  The rest of the film is dedicated to the court trial of Danny, together with flashbacks to the night of the crime.

The younger members of the cast manage to make the most of their clumsily-written, clichéd roles of naïve troubled kids with hearts in a story with far too many twists and turns, but it is the adults who drag the exercise down, barely speaking a line that doesn’t come across as contrived.  Clearly intended as something of a morality tale, the film comes across as remarkably preachy and one only can wonder what youngsters at the time thought of what they were seeing.

And yet the cast still makes it intriguing.  Billy Halop plays the central role of Danny in his first (and only) major role after four years away from the screen, after fighting in World War II.   While Halop performs well, much had changed during those four years.  His youthful looks had disappeared, and here he looks considerably older than his twenty-seven years (see above, left).   He is, in fact, almost unrecognisable.  It would be his last major role in a film, only intermittently on screen afterwards, and then only in small or uncredited roles.  In the 1970s, he would have a recurring role in All in the Family, but looked two decades older than the fifty-something man that he was (see below, right).  He died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-six.

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Also of interest is the appearance of Scotty Beckett, who played the young Al Jolson in The Jolson Story just the year before (below, right).  This was his last film before being signed to MGM for what must have seemed at the time like the opportunity to forge a career as a leading man (he had been a prolific child actor).  Here he steals the show as the troubled son of an abusive father, somehow adding an element of realism to the clunky dialogue and turning his role into a foreshadowing of the type that Sal Mineo would play during the mid-1950s.  However, his career at MGM would be short-lived as his behaviour became erratic and he was arrested for drunk driving.   After earning a part in Rocky Jones, Space Ranger on TV in the 1950s, he was arrested again, and subsequently fired.  As he left showbusiness, more arrests followed, and he passed away at the age of thirty-eight.

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Dangerous Years might well have been a prophetic title for the times that were to come for three of its stars, all of whom would die young:  Marilyn Monroe, Billy Halop, and Scotty Beckett.   However, while the film is hardly a masterpiece, 20th Century Fox have to be applauded for rescuing it from complete obscurity with their good quality archive release (a far cry from the barely watchable version that could be seen on YouTube prior to the DVD issue).  Despite its heavy-handed approach, it is certainly interesting to see how the talent of the young stars make it still watchable – two of which were already approaching the end of their cinematic careers, while the third was only just embarking on hers.

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

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For some unknown reason, it’s at this time of year that I often turn my attention to films from the early 30s and B-movies of the 40s. The brisker running times of 60-70 minutes are often useful in the busy run up to Christmas!

Not very Christmassy, though, is Wild Boys of the Road, directed by William Wellman in 1933, and included in a set of his films entitled Forbidden Hollywood, volume 3. Wellman, rather like Michael Curtiz, was a remarkably fine filmmaker that probably is little known today outside of film fans simply because he moved from genre to genre. He directed the brillant war aviation drama Wings in 1927, and then turned his hand to westerns, war films, murder mysteries and even a film about God giving speeches on the radio!

Wild Boys of the Road, though, is a social conscience film which I remember first seeing on the BBC, probably about twenty years ago – although I’m guessing that version might have been edited given the fact that this pre-code era movie contains sexual assault, violence, murder, and a rather horrific accident.  Indeed, the latter caused Screenland magazine to ask whether something could be done to “spare us the anguish” of the scene in question.

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People unfamiliar with this era of film-making might be surprised at some of the content.  As with many pre-code movies, it still packs quite a punch today, and its story of kids travelling from one town to the next by illegally riding on trains (and risking their lives all too often) because their parents are out of work and can no longer afford to feed them certainly has uneasy parallels with the migrant crisis in Europe today. At one point, the kids even make their own camp in a junk yard with permission from the owner, but are forced by the authorities to disperse and move on, with water hoses used to enforce it. Sound familiar?

Frankie Darro, the young star of the movie, spent much of the 1930s playing tough kids with a good heart, and that’s exactly what he does here, but it’s the little-known Edwin Phillips, with only three screen credits to his name, that steals the show as his best friend. Darro would fall out of favour in the 1940s, and was reduced to bit parts and stunt work by the end of that decade – ending up as the actor INSIDE Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956! Wellman directs this episodic tale with typical efficiency and flair, and manages to keep sentimentality at bay until the last few minutes and the story’s rather unlikely (but welcome) end.

It’s often easy to forget just how adult (and yet classy) cinema was in the early 1930s before the Production Code was enforced, and this fine drama about the effects of the depression on young Americans is just about as hard-hitting as it gets.  Such a tale involving adults would be grim enough, but with this being about youngsters makes it one of the most devastating films of the period.