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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 477
article date 08-18-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Million Dollar Babies Part 2: Mary Pickford Thinks She’s Worth More than Charlie Chaplin, 1916
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is decorated with pictures and captions of found in other books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

* * *

MARY, QUITE CONTRARY, TAKES A MILLION

JUST after New Year’s Day in 1916 Mary Pickford and Adolph Zukor had a chat. The subject was salary.Zukor and Pickford agreed on a new arrangement like that of the year before, a fifty-fifty participation in a Mary Pickford-Famous Players Corporation, but with the drawing account increased from $2,000 to $4,000 a week.

This was very nice and satisfactory—but, Zukor indicated that there were some special reasons why he chose not to sign such a contract just then and there. So Mary and Adolph shook hands on it, by way of sealing the deal.

There were many of those special reasons why Zukor did not want to sign that contract then, as was to be revealed in the ensuing excitements of 1916.

The newspapers of January 8 carried a one-paragraph announcement that Pickford and Zukor had closed a contract. This item made no mention of salary but it stressed the assertion that she received fifty per cent of the stock of a new company.

It was intended to serve Famous Players’ strategy by keeping bidders away from Miss Pickford. It might have served well, but the unexpected happened.

In February the exciting announcement that John R. Freuler of the Mutual Film Corporation had contracted to pay Charles Chaplin $670,000 for a year’s work came to upset the scheme.

Mary had been in the films five industrious years before Chaplin started. Now she was getting a mere $4,000 a week while this stranger helped himself to almost three times as much. Here and now there was a head-on collision between that Chaplin contract and Mary’s pride.

It seems that Mary discussed her discontent with Cora Carrington Wilkenning. Mrs. Wilkenning had come into contact with Miss Pickford as a scenario agent.

Also she had been instrumental in the making of an agreement with the McClure Syndicate for the selling of newspaper articles signed by Miss Pickford and written by Frances Marion, beginning the autumn before. This was Miss Marion’s first motion picture contact, leading to an important career as a scenario writer and a share in the triumphs of ’Abraham Lincoln’ produced by Al and Ray Rockett.

That syndicate series was but one of the ways in which Miss Pickford realized upon the values of her valued name. She also leased her features and fame to the Pompeian Company, makers of a massage cream, heralded over the land with calendars picturing “America’s Sweetheart.”

By another deal Mary arranged to collect royalties on a radiator cap for motor cars, and by yet another for the use of her name by a music publisher. The McClure Syndicate series paid Pickford $24, 243.30 between October 31, 1915, and September, 1918, which was sixty per cent of the gross sales.

When Mrs. Wilkenning heard how Mary felt about it she went out to see what could be done. There has been a law suit pending nearly ten years to decide whether or not Mrs. Wilkenning was Mary’s agent, which is another and an incidental story. At any rate she went out to sell Mary.

Naturally and immediately Mrs. Wilkenning went to see John R. Freuler of the Mutual, the man who had done so handsomely by Chaplin. It was an opportune call.

Freuler was exceedingly aware that Mutual’s old line producers were going to let the concern die the same death that was overtaking the General Film, and for the same uninspired reasons. If there were to be Mutual pictures, Freuler had to get them. He wanted Pickford.

Then Miss Mary went down to the Mutual offices with the green carpet and the red mahogany and sat right where Chaplin had sat before her. Inevitably that Chaplin deal came into the conversation.

“I think,” observed Freuler with typical deliberation, as he reached to his breast pocket, “that we might make Miss Pickford happy, yet. You might sign a contract with this pen—it is the one Mr. Chaplin used.”

Freuler flourished the big Waterman. Perhaps it was in preparation for this gesture that he had bought it from Chaplin’s attorney.

“But before I offer any figures,” Freuler continued, “I must consult our exchanges and some of the exhibitors to see how much your pictures would be worth.”

Mary tapped the floor with a petulant foot. She did not like that. She felt the whole world knew what she was worth.

“You see,” Freuler went on, ignoring the storm in Mary’s eyes, “my investigation may show that you are worth a great deal more than I would venture to offer, off hand.”

This was a pacifying thought.

Freuler issued a “pink letter” to the Mutual’s branch managers, making inquiry about probable earnings on Pickford pictures in all parts of the country. The Mutual’s “pink letter” system derived its name from the color of the paper which denoted a confidential communication from the home office, to be kept under lock and key in a special binder.

Unfortunately this made it very convenient for the spies of competitive concerns to locate important correspondence. The offices of all the major film concerns were in this time sprinkled with espionage agents, planted as employees.

   
Cinderella, with Mary Pickford and Owen Moore produced by famous players in 1914.

The fact that Mutual was investigating Pickford possibilities became known among the competing film chieftains immediately.

Mrs. Wilkenning, the agent, was still looking for a chance to stir up new bids for Pickford. The report came up Broadway by way of Wall street that 111 Fifth avenue, the office of the American Tobacco Company, was seething with millions and motion picture ambitions. It was reported that Benjamin B. Hampton, vice president in charge of advertising, was about to head a big money invasion of the film field.

Hampton was interested when Mrs. Wilkenning called. There were conferences in her offices. Pickford and Hampton met there.

Mary seems to have been a bit hesitant, now that she was face to face with a step that might break her long and profitable connection with Famous Players. Hampton wanted to talk certainties and insisted on something tangible upon which to base his contemplated promotional efforts.

On that brave day, the seventeenth of March, in 1916, he received a tiny note on a bit of blue paper, reading:

"I have positively made up my mind to leave Famous Players.
MARY PICKFORD"

The next day Hampton achieved a real option, in a lengthy letter written by Mrs. Wilkenning and signed by Mary. Mary got a thousand dollars down on that option and gave Hampton thirty days in which to make his arrangements for a corporation which was to give her fifty per cent of the stock and a drawing account of $7,000 a week—not so big as the Chaplin deal but better than the Famous Players arrangement at $4,000.

With this option signed Hampton began looking about for capital and the creation of excitement generally in the inner and upper circles of the motion picture industry.

It was time to see how Zukor might react. Mrs. Wilkenning called on him with the tidings.

“He really questioned that she had signed with Mr. Hampton, and he said if he lost Miss Pickford then he intended to go out of the motion picture business, which he had no intention of doing,” Mrs. Wilkenning quoted Zukor in testimony relating to that session in subsequent litigation.

Meanwhile the leaven of the Hampton promotional efforts was working. The motion picture industry was ripe for ferment. The old order of the nickelodeon age was sinking and the new dramatic feature period was uncertainly formative.

Within a week of the Pickford option, on March 23, to be exact, the rumors broke into print. The ’New York Times,’ without direct quotation of authority, discussed reports sufficiently comprehensive to indicate that anything, or everything, or both, would happen in the motion picture world.

Mergers were hinted involving Lubin, Essanay, Selig, Triangle, Mutual, Famous Players, Lasky and Morosco and Pallas, the latter two being contributors to the Paramount program.

The story included, too, the news that Benjamin B. Hampton was reported to have made a tentative offer of $500,000 a year to Mary Pickford. The ’Times’ was inclined to be cautious about the Pickford paragraph. A reporter called up Mary, who was quoted as saying she was then working under a temporary or tentative contract of the handshake with Zukor. There are of course such things as tentative handshakes.

The whole motion picture industry was tentative. Every thought or move of the day was filled with ifs, ands and buts. A banking syndicate, with an eye on a big promotional merger with Triangle, offered Zukor $1,500,000 for his control of Famous Players. Here was, in the realm of the motion picture, precisely what is meant by the term “psychological moment.” The psychologist was Adolph Zukor.

“I knew then,” Zukor remarked to the author ten years later, “what I could do with a million and a half dollars. It would have been a nice nest egg for the family. But I didn’t know what I could do with myself. I didn’t have any picture of retiring to run a shoe store or something like that. There I was with it all on one ace, you might say. I decided to stay in and play.”

The lone ace was Mary Pickford. Zukor went to walking again, studying his strategies. A pedometer record of Zukor’s mileage would reflect motion picture conditions as accurately as the barometic readings on a weather map.

The day after the story of the merger talk and the Pickford-Hampton deal, the ’Times’ carried a brief statement from Zukor to the effect that Miss Pickford was in fact under a contract which was a renewal of the 1915 at double the money. It was that handshake again, not so tentative in Zukor’s view.

The fact was, in this great tentative situation in the film industry, whoever emerged from the situation in possession of a contract with Mary Pickford was going to hold the whip hand in the whole industry.

   
Early in 1919 Mary Pickford, after having been successful as her own producer, joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and David Griffith to form the famous foursome known as United Artists. Each of the quartet was his own producer, with entire control of casting, directing, and financing. United Artists is a pretty imposing title, but judging from this shot of three of the Big Four, Charlie, Mary, and Doug didn’t take their aesthetic responsibilities too, too seriously.

In some dim way every concern in the business realized this. The price of Mary Pickford became the price of supremacy.

Because it was the Chaplin contract with its reaction on Pickford which had become the source of the ferment in the industry, it is necessary to compare their places before the screen world.

Pickford was obviously in this situation more important commercially. This did not mean she was the greater star. It did mean that she was a bigger leverage in the hands of a selling organization. She appeared in a rather continuous supply of five-part feature pictures, eight or more a year.

Chaplin appeared in two-reel comedies. The big feature length comedy was not yet established. Relatively, Pickford appeared in larger packages.

Pickford was a fancy staple, Chaplin was a rare spice.

Meanwhile the announcement that Chaplin pictures made by the Lone Star Corporation, although marketed through Mutual exchanges, were to be sold independently of the Mutual program, so that no theatre would be compelled to take anything else with them, had its effect on Pickford.

And still the angling for offers went on. William Randolph Hearst and Mary Pickford met in Mrs. Wilkenning’s office. Hearst wanted a proposition. Pickford wanted an offer. It did not come to figures.

Hampton was seeking to place his Pickford option. He found Vitagraph over in Flatbush interested. A bright picture of an infusion of new capital and Vitagraph domination of the film business was painted.

The gloriously pictured prospect opened the way for a promotional reorganization of the Vitagraph company, which had stood unchanged since that remote day when William F. Rock with his handful of films joined J. Stuart Blackton, the cartoonist and lecturer, and Albert E. Smith, the spirit cabinet performer, with their “American Vitagraph” version of the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.

On May 5, 1916, a statement was issued over the names of Smith and Blackton announcing that plans had been completed for a new concern, Greater Vitagraph, with a capitalization of $25,000,000. B. B. Hampton and H. H. Vreeland were added to the board of directors.

But the Hampton-Pickford option had lapsed before any deal could be completed. Mary refused to extend that option. There were plenty of prospects for her now.

Albert E. Smith was still hopeful of capturing Pickford for Vitagraph. He opened negotiations with favorable prospects.

Smith and Pickford had become friendly. There was a new baby at the Smith household, and Albert E., the father, was as proud as fathers usually are in such circumstances. Considerable discussion of the world’s most wonderful little Smith percolated into the Smith-Pickford negotiations.

A conference which was expected to complete negotiations was held at the offices of Denis O’Brien, of O’Brien, Malevinsky & Driscoll, attorneys for Pickford. Smith, hat in hand, bowed his adieu for the day.

“And, now, when am I going out to see that wonderful baby?” Mary trilled.

Smith’s mind was intense upon that contract which seemed right in his grasp. He hoped to close with Pickford at $10,000 a week.

“Just as soon as we get this business signed up and out of the way,” Smith replied. Business was first in his thought.

“If that’s it, I’ll never see the baby,” Mary tossed back at him, and turned away.

That was the end of Vitagraph’s negotiations. In a flash Smith knew that Pickford had taken offense, as though the idea were to make a social visit a reward of the contract. But it was too late. Big business hangs on little threads.

Now John R. Freuler of Mutual returned from a tour of investigation and presented Pickford with a proposition which included the alluring terms of a fifty per cent interest in a new company, a drawing account of $10,000 a week, a bonus of $150,000 for her signature, and, over all, a guaranty of one million dollars a year.

Mary said “Yes.”

Samuel M. Field, attorney for Freuler and Mutual, set about drawing a contract with a dotted line at the bottom to be decorated with the autograph of “Mary Gladys Moore, known as Mary Pickford.”

Mary went back to Famous Players and the glad, glad news was broken to Adolph Zukor.

   
Adolph Zukor with Mary Pickford and her mother, Mrs. Charlotte Smith. 1916.

Zukor took another walk. Things were thickening up rapidly for him. A few days were to decide his fate and the order of events for motion picture history of the next ten years.

There were some late sessions and conferences of secrecy at Zukor’s residence on Riverside Drive. It was a good place to walk. Al Lichtman, Hiram Abrams and Walter E. Greene, both of power in Paramount, which distributed Zukor’s pictures, attended these sessions. There were a number of sequels.

June 13, 1916, W. W. Hodkinson was succeeded in the presidency of Paramount Pictures Corporation by Hiram Abrams.

Hodkinson, the organizer and master of Paramount, had controlled distribution, and distribution controlled the film business, simply by force of the fact that the distributing concern held the scepter of the biggest organized buying power.

It was fore-ordained that Zukor and Hodkinson should come to issue and clash, from that day in 1914 when Hodkinson insisted on making an independent contract with Lasky.

This silent, adamantine Hodkinson from out of the West could not be brought under control. He might be eliminated, but not subdued.

Now Hodkinson was out—to form another concern, the Hodkinson Corporation, which after various readjustments and refinancing operations is now known as the Producers Distributing Corporation.

   
’The Poor Little Rich Girl,’ with Mary Pickford. directed by Maurice Tourneur. produced by Artcraft in 1917.

With the field clearing before him in the Paramount situation, Zukor was now ready to supplement that handshake with Mary Pickford by a written contract.

Samuel M. Field of Mutual, with the million-a-year contract waiting, received a telephone message stating that Miss Pickford would not sign it.

June 24, 1916, Mary Pickford signed again with Zukor. It was not for a million a year. But it sounded almost as good. Mary’s new contract called for a guaranty of $1,040,000—but the term was for two years. It put the million in headlines, anyway.

Technically the contract was with the Pickford Film Corporation, with Mary’s compensation set at half the profits, with the guaranty paid in installments of $10,000 each Monday.

In addition there was a bonus of $300,000, but payable, if, when and as earned by the pictures. This was to compensate for the fact that Freuler had paid Chaplin $150,000 cash for signing his one year contract.

Mary’s new contract contained several prideful provisions.

- It was agreed that her name was to be in the biggest type and the only featured name in any advertisement of her pictures.
- She was guaranteed parlor car transportation for herself and her mother to and from California and a motor for services outside of Greater New York.
- The corporation agreed to provide a studio to be known as the Mary Pickford studio, in which no other pictures could be made, and in the event she made winter pictures in California, she was to have a stage to herself.
- She was to have a voice in the choice of stories, casts and everything else.

Just by way of completeness, Mary under this contract collected $40,000 for the time between May 29 and June 24, when she had not been on the payroll, this on the ground that the time was spent in examining scenarios.

June 28, fifteen days after the dethronement of Hodkinson in Paramount, and four days after the Pickford contract, Zukor announced a sweeping merger, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which took in the Lasky Feature Play Company and various minor concerns, including Bosworth, Morosco and Pallas. Note also that Adolph Zukor was President.

Jesse Lasky continued to be the executive more especially concerned with production of pictures, with Zukor in business control. Samuel Goldfish, Lasky’s brother-in-law, continued as manager of the Lasky studios in Hollywood.

Zukor had Mary Pickford—and he had consolidated production for Paramount distribution. He had put Hiram Abrams at the head of Paramount. Zukor was on his way, full speed ahead.

August 12, 1916, in the Moving Picture World Zukor ardently declared for the wisdom of program booking, Paramount’s method of distribution, by which it sold its product “take all or nothing.”

August 16, 1916, came an intended bombshell of mystery—Artcraft Pictures Corporation, formed to distribute the products of the new and costly Mary Pickford concern, in competition with Paramount. Walter E. Greene, previously of Paramount and former partner of Abrams, was Artcraft’s official president. Lichtman was general manager.

Action was being had on all sides. Three weeks later, September 3, 1916, Samuel Goldfish was disconnected with Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. There were business and personal differences. It was reported that Goldfish received a million in cash for his interest.

A few weeks later Zukor swung again, and Paramount Pictures Corporation was acquired, for stock and cash, by the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation—a twenty-five million dollar concern, controlling pictures from the studio camera to the theatre.

Zukor ruled production and distribution. It was just four years since he started with his feature picture idea, the term of a college course. He had taken his Master’s degree. Zukor was certainly “The Doctor.”

There were, however, a number of minor chores yet to be done along the path and around the premises of the citadel of control. There was William Sherry, for instance. Sherry was probably the largest single shareholder in the Paramount and in the merging process became an important holder of Famous Players-Lasky stock. This was in the nature of an inadvertence.

   
’Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ while not written for her, was obvious starring material for Mary Pickford. Paramount made it in 1917.

It was unforeseen that this was going to happen when Sherry, a loan agent, answered Al Lichtman’s blind ad in the classified “Business Opportunities” column of the ’New York Times’ and invested $5,000 in the New York rights on Zukor’s ’Queen Elizabeth’ in 1912.

Since New York proved to be, in point of revenue, about ten per cent of the United States, the rise of Paramount carried Sherry to fortune. He had the best corner lot in the new screen development. Sherry had $800,000 worth of Paramount and enough incidentals to rate him a millionaire.

Sherry got in by buying a picture. The way in is often also the way out. He has told the story on the witness stand. The great Famous Players-Lasky combine had a picture entitled ’Joan the Woman,’ starring Geraldine Farrar. It had a big title and a big star. But in some way it did not seem essential to the program.

Sherry was offered some more bargain rights, this time on ’Joan the Woman,’ for $125,000. They compromised at $100,000.

Sherry, rushing for the bonanza, put up his new Famous Players stock with the Irving National Bank for collateral on a loan. The stock was still at 80, or thereabouts. He got Joan. Then Joan got him. His $100,000 investment returned $50,000.

Meanwhile Famous Players discontinued dividends and its stock sagged off to about 30 or less. Sherry eventually had to sell his stock.

The Zukor absorption of Paramount also took Hiram Abrams, its president, into the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation as an employee, as well as a shareholder. Shortly a feud between Abrams and Zukor arose, with the inevitable result. Abrams left.

When Samuel Goldfish left the Lasky studios on the West Coast he headed East with a deep resolve to reassert himself. In affiliation with Edgar Selwyn of Selwyn & Company, dramatic producers, and Margaret Mayo, an author, Goldfish announced the formation of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation Christmas week, 1916.

It is a stock joke of the industry that one of the tentative names was Selfish Pictures.

Goldwyn Pictures Corporation indulged in some of the most profound announcing that the industry had heard. It was largely a reiteration of the Famous Players idea, with a close paralleling of pattern:

- Maxine Elliott was the Goldwyn equivalent of Zukor’s first star, Sarah Bernhardt. Mae Marsh, signed by Goldwyn, carried some of the same glamour of Biograph that Pickford had brought to Famous Players.
- Mary Garden was the Goldfish ditto to Lasky’s contract with Geraldine Farrar, and
- Madge Kennedy of the original Goldwyn group was an expression of the general “famous players” notion.

The famous players fetich did not prove a sensational success. Some elements of the trade were so ungallant as to refer to Goldwyn as “the old maids’ home.” The first picture, featuring Maxine Elliott, was stored away in the vault at Craftsman Laboratory for more than a year before it was thrust upon the market.

The Goldwyn concern experimented with a drive aimed at creating in the author a new order of stardom. “Eminent Authors” were imported by the Hollywood studio in quantity lots. They included Rex Beach, Rupert Hughes, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Sir Gilbert Parker, Eleanor Glyn and others of magazine glory.

No new stardom resulted. The authors proved to be writers still, not picture makers.

The Goldwyn concern in its subsequent career underwent many struggles and reorganizations, incident to which Samuel Goldfish changed his name to Goldwyn. However, the corporation parted with him and later enjoined him against the use of his new name, unless accompanied by the phrase “not connected with Goldwyn Pictures Corporation.”

For a time the Dupont interests, grown familiar with and callous to explosions in the dynamite business, entered into the affairs of the Goldwyn concern. Somewhere interwoven into the mixture and connected by an attenuated thread were the political ambitions of Coleman T. Dupont, who was once willing to accept the White House.

The only enduring mark of the Dupont invasion is the great Capitol theatre in Broadway, which passed with other interests into the ultimate Metro-Goldwyn merger control.

Meanwhile the Duponts have been these several years engaged in experimental production of film stock, an incident of extensive chemical activities in Delaware. They may yet importantly affect the screen by technological developments.*

* In 1924 DuPont started to produce nitrocellulose movie film.

The intrusion of the Goldwyn concern in the winter of 1916-17 was, however, only a casual matter in the campaigns of Adolph Zukor. He was frying fish on several fires.

   
Mary Pickford’s contract with Famous Players expired in 1918, and between Liberty Loan drives she seized the opportunity to become her own producer. She made three pictures, releasing them through First National. One of them was the famous ’Daddy Long Legs;’ another, in which she appears here with Ralph Lewis, was ’The Hoodlum’ (1919).
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