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)

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Ten Favourite Films of the 1910s

When people write film lists, it’s generally the “best” films that are included, with their enjoyability not always taken into account.  So, here is my own film list (or at least part one of it), in which I highlight some personal favourites.  Don’t expect to see many critics choices here; after all, I’d rather watch Final Destination than wade through Barry Lyndon or Metropolis!  The films for each decade are in chronological order.  And these aren’t my “favourite ten films”, but simply “ten of my favourite films” for each decade.  And so, come with me back to the 1910s!

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The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

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This short film from 1912 is not for those who cry easily at films.  Directed by Harold M Shaw, it stars young Martin Fuller as a boy who sneaks away on an outing for poor children to the country.  Once there he hears a fairy story about a land where children live happily and feel no pain.  At the end of the day, the boy makes a decision which is bound to have you reaching for the tissues.  Beautifully filmed and movingly acted, this was released on DVD as part of the Treasure of American Film Archives set.

Old Scrooge (1913)

Seymour Hicks appears on film for the first time as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he would return to in a 1930s remake.   Hicks is perfectly cast here, in the first film treatment of the story to be more than just a series of tableaux based on the novel.   The effects are surprisingly good, and this early adaptation is well worth seeking out.

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

One has to wonder what audiences made of this bizarre gender-bending comedy when it appeared in 1914.   After taking some seeds, a woman realizes that her soul changes gender while she retains the same looks.  She then proceeds to have a great deal of fun at the expense of others that results in what appear on the surface to be same-sex relationships.  Daring for the time, but with a cop-out ending, this has to be seen just in order to realize how barmy some early feature films actually were.

Intolerance (1916)

Ok, I confess.  I like Intolerance.  I can agree with most of the anti-Griffith sentiment out there, but here his love for epic proportions work in his favour and, while the narrative format doesn’t always work, it’s a hugely entertaining failed experiment.   There is much more to enjoy here than the sluggish and offensive Birth of a Nation, and much for the eye to take in.  Most of all, though, is the touching “modern” storyline which remains as moving now as when the movie was first shown nearly a hundred years ago.

Poor Little Peppina (1916)

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Anyone who knows my ramblings well will know that my love for Mary Pickford is not great.  That said, this rare little film is both ridiculous from a narrative point of view, and charming from the point of view of characterization, and well worth seeing.  Pickford plays a girl kidnapped by the mafia, presumed dead, but then lands up in Italy knowing nothing of her past.  When she later stows away to New York she (very) coincidentally finds herself involved with the members of the mafia that kidnapped her in the first place.  Jack Pickford has a lovely little cameo as her brother.

Vingarne (1916)

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This is Mauritz Stiller’s take on the novel Mikael by Herman Bang, in which an a princess comes between an aging artist and his protégé.  Generally thought to be the first gay-themed feature film, but there is a problem in that the nature of the relationship isn’t made totally explicit.  Nonetheless, it contains early performances from Lars Hanson and Nils Asther, and Mauritz Stiller pulls out all the stops with a complex structure in which a framing device is used in which the actors play themselves making the film.  Confused?!

Himmelskibet (1918)

One of the first feature-length science-fiction films, this Danish movie directed by Holger-Madsen doubles up as a plea for peace in war-torn Europe.  Thought lost for many years, this is a wonderful find.  Of course it’s all rather naïve, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining, and the thought of there being a race of peace-loving vegetarians on Mars is much more pleasant than most modern tales of alien life!

Anders als die Andern (1919)

As a gay man, I could hardly leave out this remarkable film pleading for the legalization of homosexual acts in Germany.  Directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt, the film is still remarkably touching even when viewed today in its fragmented form.  Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld helped write the script and appears in the film playing himself.   Surprisingly ahead of its time – Victim would be seen as progressive when it tackled a similar theme and narrative over forty years later.

In Wrong (1919)

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There was a cycle of rural coming-of-age dramas during the late 1910s and early 1920s and, of those that are still in existence, this is one of the most charming.  Jack Pickford plays the somewhat lazy but likeable teenager who can’t seem to do anything right, until finally he does and wins over the girl.  That’s pretty much it, folks, but this is a delightful character study, and Pickford demonstrates just why he was a box office draw during the 1910s.  The vast majority of his work from this period is lost, but this shows just what he was capable of – and there are some lovely moments between him and a mongrel dog as well which are really rather touching.

The Lost Batallion (1919)

A rarity in that this is an entertaining war film from the 1910s, based on the true story of a battalion fighting in World War I that is saved from certain death by a carrier pigeon that, rather oddly, was then awarded a medal!  The soldiers mostly play themselves, and make a good job of it, with the first half of the film being particularly entertaining as they sign up, train and get to know each other.  The second half isn’t so successful, but this is still good stuff.

JACK PICKFORD: THE MAN WHO HAD EVERYTHING

I am pleased to announce that a significantly extended rewrite of the piece that was available here is now published on the Bright Lights Film Journal.  Please head over there to read it.  Thank you.

http://brightlightsfilm.com/blog/the-man-who-had-everything-the-curious-case-ofjack-pickford-and-the-new-york-times#.Uuf-zb5FDcc