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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Just Pals (1920)

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It’s quite a while since I’ve written about film here, particularly silent film, and so time to put that right.

Many people are familiar with the 1921 Charlie Chaplin film, The Kid, but not so many will have heard of Just Pals, a 1920 film directed by John Ford that has much in common with the more well known film.  Just Pals stars Buck Jones as Bim, the “village bum” according to the intertitles.  Here, he makes friends with a young boy, Will, who enters town on a train that he has stolen a ride on.  Together they find themselves caught up in multiple adventures.  As with The Kid, moves are made to take the boy away from Bim, although this takes up less time than one might expect.  Elsewhere Bim and Will find themselves accused of stealing money, not once but twice.  Buck Jones has never been more likeable in a rather atypical role for him, and he has a natural relationship with George (aka: Georgie Stone), a prolific child actor of the time, who plays Will. Stone left films in 1923 at the age of 14, and died in 2010, aged 100.  John Ford, meanwhile, still at the beginning of his directing career, keeps the film moving along at such a quick pace that it makes this fifty minute movie ideal for those only now discovering silent films.  What is perhaps most surprising is how the mood of a film from the period can change with almost shocking rapidity.  Here we have a light-hearted film in the main, but then a sequence involving an attempted lynching before moving back to lighter fare.

Motion Picture News wrote that “it is the human touches, both of comedy and pathos; the well created atmosphere of the Montana town; the very natural dialogue; and the picturesque character of Bim that will win favor for this picture” – and that still stands today.  In a sign of how things have changed in the last 95 years, Film Daily said the film didn’t make enough jokes at the expense of the country “hicks,” but elsewhere they find it “a pleasing bit of entertainment along the type of Huckleberry Finn.”

Just Pals is available on DVD as part of the John Ford Silent Epics boxed set.

An interview with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

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From the mid-1910s until 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular of film comedians.  However, at the height of his fame, he was tried for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe.  After three trials (the first two of which resulted in a hung jury), Arbuckle was acquitted, and received a written apology from the jury.  However, it was too late.  He was made a scapegoat for the so-called lack of morals in Hollywood and the current ban on his films stayed in place until 1923.  The jury verdict seemed unimportant; he had been one of the first victims of “trial by media” and he was unable to get work in front of the camera, although he directed a number of films during the remainder of the 1920s.  An on-screen comeback took place in the early 1930s, but just as his career was taking off once more, Arbuckle died of a heart attack, aged 46.

The following article is from a happier time in Arbuckle’s career, and he comes across in the interview as a warm, gentle man who was totally dedicated to his craft.  Written in 1916, the article also indicates just how quickly film was changing and becoming ever more sophisticated during this period, with Arbuckle commenting on the way comedy was progressing from the pure slapstick of Mack Sennett.  It’s a wonderful historical document and a lovely portrait of this much-loved comedian.

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Fatty Off Guard

Author: Elizabeth Sears

(Film Fun, March 1916. Source: Media History Digital Library)

“Let’s go ‘round to the office,” said Roscoe Arbuckle.  “We are not rehearsing today, so there is nothing doing here.”

He had been standing in the huge studio, with its roof of glass, watching workmen make a set and rapidly paper two walls with a vivid pink hanging.  At the end entrance there was bunched an eager group of men and women, hoping against hope that they would have an opportunity to speak to him and get in the cast.

When you see his jolly grin facing you from a picture or the covers of a magazine, you are minded to say, “Hey, there’s Fatty!”  Somehow you have no inclination to call him “Fatty” when you come face to face with him in the flesh.   True, if he were not fat, he might not be so funny; but there are brains there as well as bulk.  And Arbuckle has not been idle all these years that he has been in motion pictures.  He has been thinking out his plans and dreaming his dreams, and not he has an opportunity to put them on the screen and see how they pan out.  He has passed the acrobatic stage and the business of flapping his hands against his sides, as the symbols of fun.

“Of course we have to keep up a little of that stuff,” he explained.  “The public has associated it with the Keystone Comedy, and it would not think it a Keystone without a little rough stuff.  Wait a minute, until I call the projectionist room.  I want you to see the first showing of the first picture we did back in New York – and you will see what I mean.  We have tried to get some fine photographic effects here.  I have always though there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie.”

“The motion picture world has turned over several times in the past two or three years,” I suggested, which we waited for the man who was to show us the picture.  “What is the outlook?”

“Outlook!” repeated the comedy star.  “It’s as wide as the blue sky.  Film standards change so fast and film styles come in so often that the director whose ideas were heralded as the climax of brilliancy six months ago is old-fashioned now.  And if he fails to discard his old ideas and keep at least two laps ahead of the procession – you know what’s going to happen to him.”

The director-author-actor paused long enough to courteously assure a would-be actor that the rehearsals would not begin for a day or two and that there were no good positions open as yet.  He bows out his applicants in such a pleasant and friendly fashion that they forget they were turned down and remember only that they have met “Fatty” and found him most delightful in his manner to them.

“I hate to turn ‘em down,” he apologized, “but I haven’t a thing for them just now.”

“Just a word about your scenarios,” I begged.  “Where do you get them, who writes them, and how do you direct them?”

Mr. Arbuckle paused long enough to bid a courteous good-morning to three or four young women employes (sic) who passed through the office and who spoke to him shyly.  He held open the door for one of them who wore her black hair low and held fast to her forehead with a blue silk garter.

“Not a scrap of scenario paper in my studio,” he admitted. “I wouldn’t know what to do with a manuscript in my hand.  I plan out the pictures, and we rehearse them – that’s all.”

Easy enough, isn’t it?  And Arbuckle has discovered a grand bit of audience psychology that some of the other stars might well copy.  He allows a bit of the picture to film along without him once in a while.  He gives the rest of the company a chance.  He says he’d rather the audience would wish he would come on back than to wish somebody would sweep him out of the picture.

“An actor doesn’t lose anything by effacing himself once in a while,” he said, as he swung himself comfortably aboard a chair to see the picture in the little projection room.  “If he is a favourite, they are all the more certain to welcome him when he gets back in the picture.”

We viewed the opening of the picture in silent.  Arbuckle, as the doctor in He Did and He Didn’t has struck a new note, although the film cutter has cut out a trifle too much footage here and there and leaves the picture a bit minus in continuity once in a while.

“You are breaking away from the slapstick stuff,” commented some one (sic) from the gloom of the room.  “How’ll Mack Sennett like that, huh?  Sennett’s idea of humor seems to be one garnd slam of kaleidoscopic action that tires the eye and leaves no one strong point in the memory.”

Mr. Arbuckle continued to watch himself on the screen diving under the bed for a collar button.

“Well,” he said calmly, “Mr Sennett trusted me to come to New York and put on these plays.  He knows what my ideas are along the newer lines of screen comedy.”

It may be that Sennett has noted the trend and begun to moderate his inordinate frenzy of acrobatic falls and tumbles and violent and unnecessary smashes through breakfast rooms, with the unvarying accompaniment of broken china and ceilings.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to an actor?” I asked, apropos of the remarkable tumble down the stairs of the doctor in search of the burglar.  Mr. Arbuckle handed me the answer slap off the shoulder.

“To arrive,” he said promptly.

“I thought that was what they all desired more than anything else,” I said, in surprise.

“They do,” he replied, “but the trouble is, once they arrive, there isn’t much to do but leave again.  When they are climbing up, the public applauds and says ‘That chap is coming right along – doing better every day.’  But once the actor is heralded as an absolute arrival, the public begins to criticise and pick flaws and expect him to better his own standard, and it is a tremendous strain.  He simply is forced to keep ahead of the public’s opinion and to spring something newer and better every season.  The man or woman who can survive an ‘arrival’ is a star of the greatest magnitude.”

There’s a bit of thought for you.  We mulled it over and watched the picture silently, until Mr. Arbuckle began to chuckle over a scene.

“We had an awful scrap over that,” he said. “You see, sometimes some of us disagree on an essential point of the production, and we stop the picture and thrash it out right there.  Miss Normand is a very charming little lady, but she has a mind of her own, all the same, and we had some argument over that.  My idea was to mystify the audience right there – not let ‘em have an inkling of why Mabel gets her visitor into her room there, until they see the burglar hauled out from under the bed.”

I noticed that it was his part of the idea that got over, though.

“That’s a good bit,” some one (sic) commented in the group, when the screen flashed the picture of the armchair before the fireplace.  Mr. Arbuckle smiled happily.

“That’s what I meant when I said that we need not rob the picture of scenic beauty to get humor into it.  Clean comedy, with an artistic background, not merely hysterical laughter and situations.”

“Think the public wants that kind of comedy?” queries one of the visitors.  “I don’t believe the public wants to get its laughs mixed up with its thoughts, do you?”

“I’m banking on it,” said Arbuckle confidently,” although older and more experience men that I am have failed to grasp the way of the public and what it will do at a given period.  I believe in the comedy that makes you think, and I believe that the time has come to put it on – and that is what I am going to do.”

We stood a moment in the doorway, when the picture and the interview were over, and watched the little file of actors and actresses in the yard, who had been informed that there would be no use in waiting.

“I’d like to go out to the car with you,” said Mr. Arbuckle, nervously glancing out of the window at the group; “but if I go out there and they see me, they’ll ask me for a job – and I haven’t a thing to offer them.”  His blue eyes looked concerned with a boyish sentiment as he bent them on us.  “I – I sort of hate to turn them down,” he said deprecatingly.

You see, responsibility takes the laugh out of you sometimes.  And although Roscoe Arbuckle loves to see his public laugh, it takes the smile off his own face when he much in any way distress even a small proportion of it.

“Miss Normand has a longing to play drama on the stage,” he said, as he bade us good-by (sic); “but I don’t believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh, do you?”