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article number 414
article date 01-20-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
America Falls in Love with Movie Star, Mary Pickford, 1909
by Terry Ramsaye

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.


A LITTLE miss in a gray jacket, with curls down her back and an earnest, wistful face, stepped off a, street car at Fifth avenue and went walking slowly along Fourteenth street looking up at the house numbers.

This was in early May in 1909, seventeen years ago by the calendars, but a century ago in the affairs of the motion picture.

The little girl was on her way to see, if by chance, there might be a place for her in Biograph pictures. She jingled a couple of stray pennies in her pocket, to remind her that her last nickel had gone for carfare and, if she did not get the job that she hoped for, there would be a long walk back to the boarding house way uptown in Thirty-seventh street.

No one gave special notice to this rather unimportant little person of sixteen, except perhaps the passing glance of approval that youth and a pretty face always get in New York. She was just one of the crowd that is always passing in the busy forenoon in Fourteenth street.

But if it were announced today that this same little girl would walk along that same path in that same street the police reserves would have to be called to keep back the crowds and business would stop as proprietors, clerks and customers rushed to the doorways.

The girl was Mary Pickford, the Cinderella queen-to-be of the motion picture.

In just six years more, the amazing day was to come when the little girl with the curl could smile into the face of an anxious motion picture magnate and say, in all seriousness: “No—I really can not afford to work for only ten thousand a week.”

That last five cent piece invested in a car ride to Fourteenth street was the beginning of a remarkable journey.

MARY PICKFORD, pictured in 1916 when the fate of half a dozen motion picture corporations hung in the balance as the producers battled to get her name on a contract.

But back of that day in 1909 Mary Pickford had a life experience on the other side of the picture, worthy of recording here by way of contrast and for those who see her successes of today through the eyes of envy.

At sixteen Mary had been at work for eleven hard years. She was already old with experience of the stern realities of this workaday world. She was born into the most humble circumstances of life and lived close to the shadow of want.

Miss Pickford was Gladys Smith, an infant of four when her father died in Toronto, leaving his widow nothing, except a family of three, with Gladys the oldest.

That morning when one of the neighbors came and took Gladys away for the day, the little girl knew that in the darkened “best room” her father lay dead, with candles burning about the crucifix that stood at his head. She knew, too, that things were going to be harder now for her mother. In a vague childish way she wanted to help.

There were many other tragedies after that.

The slender capital of the family was invested in a little candy shop that shared half of a fish store. The candy counter did a small business, selling gum drops at a penny each to the passing school children, but it sufficed for the time.

Then came the ill fated day when Baby Jack was left alone in the store with the family’s pet dog. Jack found that the dog liked candy and fed him the entire stock of the establishment. The dog died, Jack was spanked, and—the candy store was bankrupt.

Gladys’s mother went out to look for work. The little girl was old enough to go along with her mother when she went to interview the manager of the Valentine Stock Company of Toronto, and it was ambitious little Gladys herself who suggested that she might have the baby part in the production under rehearsal.

The amused director tried her, found that Gladys could act and promptly engaged her for the part.

From that day on Gladys Smith was on the stage. The next season she played in ‘The Little Red School House’, and not long thereafter appeared in the cast of that sterling melodrama entitled ‘The Fatal Wedding’. Many other melodramas followed.

Then came an engagement for the whole Smith family, mother, Lottie and Jack, with Chauncey Olcott, in ‘Edmund Burke’. Jack, by the way, was cast as a little girl in a frilly dress, to the extreme unhappiness of the young man.

In the course of this engagement the mother decided to put away the popular but unromantic name of Smith for the purposes of the stage and took for the family name Pickford, the name of her paternal grandmother. “Gladys Pickford” did not ring right to her ears and so Gladys was changed to “Mary,” the most glorious name in Ireland.

Mary Pickford in “Ramona” directed by D. W. Griffith of Biograph.

Mary shared with her mother the burdens and responsibilities of the family as best she could and developed an initiative of her own.

She strove mightily in her way, trooping with the road-shows and living the often precarious life of the wandering player. She was of those itinerant folk of the road-show melodramas, who call Broadway home, but seldom see it except in those unhappy idle days when they were “resting” while “at liberty.”

Mary was on her way up in the world if she could find that way. She learned to read and write on the road and between scenes backstage, under the tutorship of the “female heavy” of a melodrama company.

Meanwhile Mary listened and learned of the world about her. She heard a very great deal of the chesty gossip of melo actors discussing “when I was with Belasco,” and came to learn that on this wonderful Broadway, Belasco was master. This established, she made her decision. She would play with Belasco.

One day when the company was called for rehearsal for a change of bill over in a little New Jersey opera house, Miss Pickford was missing. Over in New York, Mary was storming the stage door of Belasco’s theatre, demanding audience with him.

“But he won’t see nobody at all, he’s rehearsing the company, right now.” The guardian of the stage door thought that ought to be enough and final.

“I don’t care if he is—I cut a rehearsal over in Jersey to come and he’s going to see me.” Mary Pickford charged past the astonished doorman in a gust of mingled rage and determination. He followed, on tiptoe, prayerfully hoping that this slip would not bring down on him the wrath of Belasco and the loss of his job.

The doorman was just in time to see Mary dash into the center of the stage, where a company was rehearsing ‘The Warrens of Virginia’.

Belasco was in a bad humor over the play. It was going all awry, mostly because of an unsatisfactory child part.

The abrupt appearance of little Mary, projecting herself into the middle of his troubles, struck Belasco with the full force of its drama. He stopped, waved his company to silence and smiled down on his caller. She was breathless and awed, but she had yet the courage of her sensational entrance.

Ten minutes later Miss Mary Pickford was rehearsing in ‘The Warrens of Virginia’ under the eyes of the great Belasco. She had come to Broadway and won. For three seasons, until she had outgrown her part, Mary played in this production.

With the courage of this conquest behind her it is easy to see how it came that Mary was willing to toss her last nickel for carfare on a long chance that she might get into the pictures with Biograph. That was her way. She decided what to do and forthwith did it.

When Mary came that June morning to Number 11 East Fourteenth street and turned up the steps to the Biograph studio, she was faced with even less promise than the day she applied at Belasco’s stage door.

The reception room at Biograph was presided over by a secretary whose disposition had been written off as a total loss years before. Her slender impatience had been worn away by the abundant annoyances of the motion picture business. Her words were sharp and few. Mary tiptoed up.

“I want to see Mr. Griffith.”

“Mr. Griffith is busy, he will not see anybody—”

Then the secretary looked up and into the wistful smile of Mary.

Griffith, with his mind bent on his work in the studio above, was passing at the moment. He stopped abruptly when he heard an amazing change of tone come into the voice of the woman behind the desk, still addressing the caller—

“—but he might take time to see you, my dear.”

Griffith wheeled about. Who could this be that the reception room clerk would address so tenderly? What miracle had been wrought? Then Griffith saw Mary. Together they went up the big staircase to the studio.

‘The Lonely Villa’ was in the making. It was a typical Griffith drama of the day, a Biograph feature, to be one whole reel in length, twice as long as the skits and comedies that made up the staple film output of the trade.

Marion Leonard was the leading woman in ‘The Lonely Villa’. Robbers were trying to break into the villa, while the wife, with her children clutching at her skirts in terror, frantically tried to telephone for help. Her message of dire distress was but half told to her husband miles away.

Mary Pickford was put in to play the part of one of the children, imperilled while the robbers battered at the door.

That afternoon at quitting time Mary got a handsome blue ticket which enabled her to draw five dollars at the cashier’s window, in payment for her first day’s work in motion pictures.

Her last nickel had been returned to her a hundredfold-—and, although she did not suspect it, she had entered upon a career that was in time to make her the most famous woman in the world and endow her with a wealth beyond her most ambitious fancy.

Griffith had a bit of difficulty with his complicated drama of ‘The Lonely Villa’. The robbers were expected to batter away at the door of the villa, while the rescuing husband with reinforcements was on the way, arriving at last in the well known nick o’ time, winning against all obstacles, including motor trouble in a horseless carriage.

The work of the robbers at the door was just a shade unconvincing. Griffith was not satisfied and decided on a retake, which was considered rather a wasteful procedure in the motion picture practice of the day.

“THE LONELY VILLA,” a Griffith one-reel melodrama produced at Biograph in 1909, with Marion Leonard, at the telephone, and Mary Pickford at her right.

While the remaking of these scenes was in progress a stranger found his way as far as the studio door. It was James Kirkwood, just off the road from playing in ‘The Great Divide’ with Henry Miller, and, by the bye, with Henry Walthall, a fellow member of the company.

Kirkwood had wandered into Biograph, looking for his friend Harry Salter, an actor who had become an assistant to Griffith.

Salter introduced Kirkwood to Griffith.

Griffith sized up Kirkwood at a glance.

“Here, put on a beard and get into this scene as one of the robbers.” Kirkwood had heard of these motion picture things, but he had the standard and orthodox actor’s suspicious contempt for them. “No, no! I can’t do that.”

“Yes, you can, and you’ll fit the part fine.”

Griffith and Salter would have their way.

“If I wear a beard nobody will know me anyway—here goes,” Kirkwood decided. He went on.|

Kirkwood joined the mob of robbers smashing in the villa door. He remained with Biograph the rest of the year, and presently Henry Walthall, who had been with him in ‘The Great Divide’, came down to join the company.

‘The Lonely Villa’, aside from its historic service as the vehicle of the introduction to the screen of Mary Pickford and James Kirkwood, is worthy of remembrance because of the durability of the plot. It has lived in Griffith’s memory ever since, and in 1922 it came to flower as a pretentious feature drama, somewhat modernized and revamped, under the title of ‘One Exciting Night’. The basic elements of the two stories are well near identical.

Mary’s appearance in that small part in ‘The Lonely Villa’ was enough to show Griffith something of the screen value of her winsome face. She was cast for the part of Giannina in ‘The Violin Maker of Cremona’. The hero role was played by David Miles, an actor from the stage who had been added to Biograph stock by Griffith.

The ‘Violin Maker of Cremona’ was released by Biograph June 7, 1909, in 936 feet, subject No. 3575, as may be seen in the old catalogues of the period.

There was joy in the Pickford family at Mary’s success and the prospect of steady employment through the summer.

Even in 1909 the peep show machines, which readers of earlier chapters will recall as the foundation of Biograph’s beginnings, were still widely in service in penny arcades, and at odd moments between more pretentious subjects, the Biograph studio turned out the little one-minute dramas and farces for the Mutoscopes.

Lottie and Jack Pickford made their first appearances before the motion picture camera for these Mutoscope subjects, through arrangements made by Mary, who let no opportunity for the family pass untried.

MARY PICKFORD’S first real part, playing opposite David Miles, in “The Violin Maker of Cremona,” a one-reel drama released by Biograph July 7, 1909.

Griffith delegated the direction of these Mutoscope pictures as much as possible to budding directorial material in his company. Many of these reels were directed by Eddie Dillon and Harry Salter. And the little card wheel pictures of the peep shows contained casts with now famous names that no feature drama of the screen has ever brought together.

Mary Pickford played bits, too, in those days, one reel dramas, split reel comedies and peep show pictures, all the grist of Biograph’s mill.


This same season of ‘09 added other names of subsequent renown to the growing roster of picture players. Over at the busy Vitagraph plant in Flatbush a photographer suggested to J. Stuart Blackton, that he knew “the prettiest girl in New York.”

“She is posing for style pictures for the Butterick people. They use them in ‘The Delineator’,” the photographer confided.

“Bring her over.”

And that was Mabel Normand’s introduction to the motion picture stage. She was not an exciting success at Vitagraph, however, and before long came back to Manhattan to join the Biograph stock company and make the acquaintance of Mack Sennett, the young man who wanted to make comedies with policemen in them.

An almost identical agency brought Alice Joyce, also a photographer’s model, employed by Davis & Sanford, to the service of Kalem. Kalem was making “westerns” in the authentic badlands of New Jersey at Coytesville.

“Can you ride? It would be worth ten dollars a day if you could,” the director suggested.

“I couldn’t do it if mother didn’t need the money,” Miss Joyce responded. She was a practical sort. She began her working life at thirteen as a telephone operator.

Over in Philadelphia the Lubin studio acquired Harry Myers and Rosemary Theby, as additions to the roster of stars-to-be.

Down in Florida the Kalem company, moving south to escape the New York winter, pioneered the motion picture history of Jacksonville, which continued for some years to overshadow Los Angeles as the winter studio capital.

Kalem was still running strongly to outdoor action dramas, inspired by the low cost and high profits of the Coytesville wild west subjects.

In the making of one of these pictures Sid Olcott encountered John P. McGowan, an adventuring person of parts who had seen service as a dispatch rider in the Boer-British war.

McGowan became a picture actor because he could shoot a rabbit on the run from the back of a galloping horse—a highly essential piece of business in the making of Kalem’s ‘Seth’s Temptation’.

And, while Kalem was experimenting with the sunshine of Florida, J. Searle Dawley of the Edison company, enthused with the eloquences of J. Parker Reed, a free lance who had offered countless scenarios with a West Indian setting, took a company to Cuba, seeking winter sunshine.

The motion picture world was widening its horizons. It had outgrown the little rooftop studios of Manhattan, and now was fairly started toward making in reality “all the world a stage.”

MABEL NOOMAND, with John Bunny, at left, and Jimmy Morrison, in one of her first screen appearances, “Troubles and Secretary” at Vitagraph.
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