Narrator: It was the golden age of silent film and the most famous actress, the most adored woman in the world was America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford.
Eileen Whitfield, Biographer: Mary Pickford was the first modern celebrity, the first celebrity to be created through moving images.
Tino Balio, Film Historian: She invented acting for film.
Eileen Whitfield: She was the first person to get out there and show everyone how to do it.
Narrator: In a fairytale romance, she married Hollywood's leading man Douglas Fairbanks. Together they invented the myth of Hollywood come true. With Charlie Chaplin, she and Fairbanks began United Artists and changed movie history.
Tino Balio: She was a woman in a man's world and she played the game of business and beat the moguls at their own game.
Scott Eyman, Biographer: She set the parameters for movie stardom. And she also was the first to pay the price for movie stardom. And it's a terrible price.
Narrator: In a handful of years she lost it all. The fans forgot her, forgot the glow of her image, and the magical presence of the world's first superstar. She began as plain Gladys Smith. At fifteen she dreamed of stardom, of glamour, of a career on the Broadway stage.
Jeanine Basinger, Film Historian: She wanted to better herself. So her sights were set on working for the great and famous impresario, David Belasco.
Robert Cushman, Film Historian: She began to haunt David Belasco's office. She would go everyday, wait all day, only to be told to come back tomorrow.
Narrator: One day in the summer of 1907, she decided not to wait quietly.
Robert Cushman: She stormed the office, and started yelling at the top of her lungs, "My life depends on seeing Mr. Belasco."
Narrator: Her outburst finally won her an audition. "So you want to be an actress, little girl?" Belasco asked. "No sir," she replied. "I have been an actress. I want to be a good actress now." Gladys's encounter with the most important man on Broadway was all she hoped for. It was a meeting that would change the rest of her life. Gladys grew up in Toronto, Canada in a family with no father and no money. Her father died when she was just five. Her mother Charlotte struggled to raise her children, Gladys the eldest, Lottie and Jack.
Scott Eyman: Basically Charlotte was looking at destitution. And Gladys remembered her mother in the middle of the night sewing in order to put food on the table.
Narrator: Desperate, Charlotte considered giving Gladys up for adoption to their family doctor. Gladys was excited - she would share her newfound riches, like a pony and cart with Lottie and Jack. Charlotte gently explained that she would no longer be part of the family.
Eileen Whitfield: So she asked her mother, she said "Don't you love me anymore?" And Charlotte said, "I will never stop loving you, but I cannot give you the things this man can give you." And Gladys said, "Then I don't want the pony. I don't want a cart. I want you."
Narrator: From that day, on Gladys and Charlotte were bound by a fierce determination that nothing would ever break up their family. But they needed a way to survive. Charlotte learned that the local theater wanted children for their next production. The pay was $8.00 a week.
Jeanine Basinger: Charlotte naturally hesitated, because first of all Gladys was a child. And secondly, in those days there was this puritanical attitude toward the stage, theater people, actresses. It wasn't socially respectable. It was almost considered a slight step above prostitution.
Narrator: Charlotte had no choice. They needed the money. In January 1900, seven year-old Gladys made her stage debut. She played "Big Girl" in a Victorian melodrama called The Silver King.
Eileen Whitfield: There's a scene where some other schoolchildren in the play want to play with Sissy Denver, and Big Girl won't hear of it, she says, "Don't go near her, girls. Her father killed a man." Well, just for that moment, Gladys Smith felt this attention and what it feels like to have an audience in the palm of your hand. And she loved it.
Narrator: Soon the whole family were actors. They played bit parts in shabby, third rate touring companies. It was an exhausting life of endless trains, stale food and rough audiences. There was no time for school, or friends, or fun. At first they traveled together, but many companies would only hire Gladys. Alone on the road, she learned to negotiate with producers and boarding house owners. At twelve, Gladys was the family breadwinner. She began to have the nightmare that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She went out on stage and there was no audience.
Eileen Whitfield: Gladys would have been fearing every day that there might not be an audience; there might not be a play tomorrow. Because there was never enough money, and because of the horrible instability of that family, it must have been quite terrifying. The responsibility that Gladys was carrying for herself and for her brother and sister was tremendous.
Narrator: In the summer of 1907, after seven years on the road, she finished a play in New York and set out on her pursuit of impresario David Belasco. He was immediately impressed.
Scott Eyman: Gladys already had that kind of glow that critics call "star quality." The eye went to her. Whether she was, uh, appearing on stage or just walking into the room, everybody would say, "Oh, what a beautiful child!"
Narrator: Belasco offered her a part in his next production. But he insisted she change her name to something more glamorous. They went through the names of her family. Gladys Smith emerged from the meeting a triumphant "Mary Pickford." Mary Pickford made her Broadway debut at the Belasco Theater. She was thrilled by the beauty of the space, and the affluent audiences. Pickford didn't have star billing but she was certain that it was just a matter of time. But even on Broadway theater work was seasonal. When the play closed in March 1909, Mary faced months without work. Charlotte knew there were jobs in a new form of entertainment that was sweeping the country: the movies. For workers and new immigrants movies seemed like magic and they only cost a nickel to watch. Respectable society viewed them with suspicion.
Jeanine Basinger: If, uh, theater was the bottom, movies were the bottom of the bottom. Movies were possibly the gutter.
Narrator: As a Belasco actor, Mary thought they were far beneath her dignity.
Robert Cushman: But it was Charlotte's orders, and so she dutifully went down to the Biograph Studios, and the director, D.W. Griffith walked out into the lobby.
Narrator: D.W. Griffith was an innovator, trying to shape moving pictures into a new art form. At the same time, he had to keep the studio profitable by churning out three films a week.
Scott Eyman: She was slumming by going down there, pure and simple. So she wasn't about to be deferential. As it happened, Griffith was impressed.
Eileen Whitfield: He was thinking, how beautiful her eyes were, and how they had languorous possibilities. What Mary Pickford remembered him saying was, "You're too little and you're too fat." Finally, within one conversation he had hired her.
Narrator: The next day she appeared as an extra in a short comedy. Soon she was playing major roles. "The thing that most attracted me was the intelligence that shone in her face." Griffith later said. "She has a most remarkable talent for self-appraisal." And, as he would learn, for business: Sixteen-year-old Mary swiftly negotiated double the going rate of $5 a day. Most films at the time ran 10 to 15 minutes and were shot in one to two days. They told simple stories in wide shots so the actors could be seen head to toe. For Mary and the Biograph crew filming was long and hard but it was also fun -- a continual scramble of improvisation and accident.
Jeanine Basinger: The great thing for Mary working with Griffith was watching him use camera movement, think about the editing process, the telling of the story. Here is a time when movies are being invented and she was in on the ground floor, but at the highest possible level. And she learned.
Narrator: She studied her performances carefully and realized that the camera demanded a new style of acting.
Scott Eyman: In Mary's era the prevailing acting method was the Delsarte method, specific emotions were indicated by fairly specific gestures. Anger would be you know the narrowing of the eyes; make them burn. Distress would be (gesturing.)
Narrator: Pickford changed that.
Tino Balio: She invented acting for film. She understood that you have a close, intimate relationship with the camera, and more subtle, more naturalistic gestures would be very effective. She stands out because she has more vibrancy, she has more immediacy, and she actually conveys more emotion in the process.
Narrator: In her first year at Biograph, Pickford appeared in more than sixty films. She played mothers, deserted wives, prostitutes, and virgins. She realized that she was basically a comic or light actress. "It was a shock" she said, "but in stature, temperament and general appearance, I was not fitted for great emotional roles." She began to fight with Griffith to interpret parts the way she wanted.
Jeanine Basinger: Griffith and Pickford were not a comfortable mix. He wanted a kind of ethereal, beautiful, romanticized version of a Victorian woman: vulnerable, just not who Mary Pickford was. Mary Pickford was resilient; she was tough; she fought back.
Narrator: When they started filming Wilful Peggy in July 1910, she complained that she was tired of insipid heroines. Griffith told her to play the part the way she wanted. Wilful Peggy is peasant girl forced to marry an older nobleman.
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, Film Historian: From the very beginning audiences could tell that she was something different. She just lights up the screen.
Narrator: Embarrassed and awkward, Peggy is desperate to escape her new surroundings. Her husband's nephew suggests that she change to men's clothing and visit a local tavern.
Eileen Whitfield: What the audience responded to was a woman who was absolutely ready to burst out of society's conventions; was a woman who wanted to take control of her own life; was a woman who wanted to be a woman and a wife but also do all the things that a man can do.
Narrator: Her fresh interpretation of women as strong and resourceful struck a chord with audiences. She was soon Biograph's most popular actress. The movies were not prestigious but they paid her well. At 19, she was earning an impressive $150 a week. She moved her family into a prosperous, New York neighborhood. "Oh was I happy!" she remembered. "When I stood in front of the camera, it was just like heaven." Mary also loved the work because of one of Biograph's leading men: 25 year-old, Owen Moore. She had been infatuated with him since they played their first scene together.
Eileen Whitfield: When they touched each other, the cameraman Billy Bitzer said they both suddenly stepped back as though they were kind of shocked. They really each fell for the other one very, very deeply.
Narrator: Charlotte did not approve. Owen had a reputation as a drinker and lady's man.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film : I think she was wrong in her approach and I felt sorry that he was forbidden in the house and that Mother disapproved of him. And I think that if she had encouraged him to come to the house and I could see more of him outside the studio, I might not have done the thing that I did do.
Narrator: For the first time in her life, Mary defied her mother.
Robert Cushman: In early 1911, they eloped to a courthouse in New Jersey. No one knew about it for months and months after that. Mary still lived with her mother and family, and hid her wedding ring on a string under her clothes.
Narrator: Finally she confessed to Charlotte.
Scott Eyman: Charlotte was furious, and Mary was defensive, and Owen was in the background. If you're a second-string actor and you're married to a first-string actress, it's very difficult for the ego. So he drank more. And the more he drank, uh, the worse the acting jobs got; and the worse the acting jobs got the more obvious the disparity between his career and her career.
Narrator: The movie business was developing at break neck speed. New techniques were tried and discarded. Companies opened and closed. Everyone was trying to get rich. A Hungarian theater owner in New York came up with an idea most producers considered crazy. Adolph Zukor would increase his audiences by showing longer films with complex stories and stars from the stage. He started the Famous Players Film Company. One of the first actors he wanted under contract was Pickford. Charlotte and Mary drove a hard bargain: $500 a week. At only 21, she was earning every week close to what most Americans earned in a year.
Scott Eyman: Personally, he was the kind of man she could deal with. He was tough. He was pleasant. A deal was a deal. They understood each other as equivalents. They respected each other.
Eileen Whitfield: To Mary he was a tender, a tender man. He used to call her Sweetheart Honey, and she called him Papa, Papa Zukor.
Narrator: The next year Pickford starred in an 80-minute feature, Tess of the Storm Country. Tess is a heroic young spitfire who battles the injustices of a cold-hearted landlord.
Jeanine Basinger: A lot of the audience was a working class or immigrant audience. So she made a direct connection to her audience by playing a role they could understand and identify with.
Scott Eyman: Mary's orientation was always proudly working class. She preferred playing working class people or lower middle class people, because those are the people she knew.
Narrator: Tess saves the reputation of the landlord's daughter by taking in her illegitimate baby. Desperately poor, she cares for the infant as best she can even stealing milk for it from the landlord's kitchen. The end is pure melodrama. The baby becomes ill; as it is dying, Tess takes it to be baptized. She shocks the congregation by "sprinkling" the baby herself.
Kevin Brownlow, Film Historian: She puts so much into this picture. It was probably the most violent performance she ever gave. And she bursts out of the screen. There is nobody else you are looking at when she is there.
Narrator: Tess catapulted Pickford to a level of stardom that no one had ever seen. The film played on four continents. Fan mail poured in from every corner of the world.
Eileen Whitfield: People simply did not know what to do with their emotions that they had about Mary Pickford.
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley: She's not only the girl every boy wants to marry, but she's the girl every American girl wants to be like. She's the daughter every parent wants to have.
Narrator: Mary, Charlotte, and Zukor had never imagined such phenomenal success. They went to work building her image as a pure, innocent young woman. She didn't drink or smoke in public. She was rarely accompanied by her husband, Owen. Instead, Charlotte chaperoned her nearly everywhere she went.
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley: Zukor is posing Mary Pickford in diamonds and furs, with her hair up. She's being shot by all these glamour photographers. Zukor helps build her star persona as the all-American girl.
Narrator: Pickford was making the movies respectable. Advertisers saw she was gold and sent her lucrative offers. The campaign for Pompeian beauty products made her the touchstone of fashionable taste. "I still wonder whether it wasn't all a dream," she later recalled, "a dream from which I never quite woke up." In the summer of 1915 her movie Rags opened to adoring audiences.
Kevin Brownlow: Charlotte and Mary went down Broadway and outside the theater were people waiting to get in. And then she went back another week and she saw another picture by Mr. Zukor's company, and there was nobody outside. And Charlotte and Mary had long talks about: Why was it that her pictures got such crowds, and other people's didn't? So very sweetly she brought the question up with Mr. Zukor.
Narrator: Zukor's distribution company was Paramount Pictures.
Robert Cushman: She requested Zukor to open up his books and she reviewed all the receipts of all the Paramount pictures. And she concluded that the other films were really being sold on the coattails of her films. The studio would say to the exhibitor, "You can have this Mary Pickford but you have to take these other five Paramount pictures too." And this rankled her.
Narrator: Pickford saw that her films powered Zukor's company but she didn't share in the profits. Years of negotiating had made Mary and Charlotte skilled businesswomen. In 1916 it was time to renew her contract.
Scott Eyman: Mary would sit there and be sorrowful about what she had to ask for, and it was a shame that it had to come to this. And Charlotte would do the grunt work. And Charlotte would be the muscle. But Mary was perfectly capable of playing the muscle too.
Narrator: The deal made national news. When she first signed with Zukor, Mary earned $25,000 a year. With this deal, just three years later, she was paid $500,000. She got her own production unit where she shared creative control with Zukor. He set up a separate company to distribute her films and they shared the profits. She took a few perks as well: a secretary, a press agent and $40,000 for the time spent negotiating.
Jeanine Basinger: Adolph Zukor met his match. And he freely admitted it, and always paid tribute to her, saying, had she not been a movie star, she would have been the head of the United States Steel Corporation.
Narrator: In 1917 Pickford was 24. She was one of just two international superstars. Charlie Chaplin was "the Little Tramp, she was "America's Sweetheart." From California, to England and Japan, more than 12 million people watched her films every day of the year.
Jeanine Basinger: Everyone felt that they knew and owned and loved their little Mary. Stardom is partly about acting, partly about looks, but mostly about audience identification, about the audience somehow believing in this actor/actress as the person they are playing; that that is who they are.
Narrator: She told a fan magazine, "People consider me their personal friend. They not only want me to be, but expect me to be, in real life exactly what I am in the pictures."
Jeanine Basinger: The concept of stardom didn't really yet exist in the way we know it today. No one yet knew what it was, including her.
Narrator: Success and Zukor drove her to take on a staggering workload: at least five full-length pictures a year.
Scott Eyman: It was hard for her to relax because as far back basically as she could remember, from the time she was 6 or 7, she had had this oppressive responsibility loaded on, that it all rested on her shoulders.
Narrator: To add to the pressure, she had to hide the fact that her personal life was miserable.
Robert Cushman: Owen Moore was a violent, abusive, alcoholic husband who only had criticism and derision in his words toward Mary. She would stay apart for, say a week or two or a month, and then they would try to get back together. And back and forth and back and forth.
Narrator: In January 1917 after a bitter fight with Owen she was alone in her hotel room. At 25, she was suffocating in her marriage and exhausted by the unending marathon of work. She leaned out the window, transfixed by the pavement below. She pulled herself back and called the one person she could trust, her mother. Charlotte decided Mary should no longer see Owen. Within days they set off to make her next film in Los Angeles. But Mary could no longer escape her feelings through work. She was in love with another man. Douglas Fairbanks was a talented, flamboyant Broadway actor. They had met two years before at a party. A group went for a walk in the woods. As she tried to cross a stream, Mary paused. Douglas saw her hesitation.
Eileen Whitfield: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford clicked immediately. I think the major reason is that he wasn't afraid of her. He had a very healthy ego.
Scott Eyman: He was funny. He was vibrant. He lit up the room when he came in. He didn't drink. All these things put him in direct, stark contrast to Owen Moore.
Narrator: Douglas was fast rising to stardom making breezy comedies and swashbuckling adventures. His strength and athleticism delighted audiences, and Mary.
Scott Eyman: She'd never been around an exuberant, larger-than-life man. Mary's sense of the world was as something to hide from. Douglas' sense of the world was as a, as a wonderful oyster, and it was all his, and it was all there for the taking.
Narrator: But both of them were married, and he had a young son.
Robert Cushman: Not only was divorce totally unacceptable by most of society at that time. They both had these careers that were completely dependent on public support. So the agony was "If we get a divorce, we'll probably lose our careers."
Narrator: One night Douglas asked Mary to go for a drive in New York's Central Park. His mother had just died. As he drove he talked about her death and began to cry. A few minutes later, Mary noticed that the clock in the car had stopped. They took it to mean that somehow his mother sanctioned their feelings. From then on they used the phrase "by the clock" as a private reference to their love. In 1917 the government called on Hollywood to play a new role: selling Liberty bonds for World War I. Along with Fairbanks' best friend Charlie Chaplin, the three stars whipped up crowds in Washington and New York. In front of thousands Pickford shouted, "I'm only five feet tall but every inch of me is a fighting American!" To their delight, the rallies gave Pickford and Fairbanks an excuse to be together in public. Under her new contract with Zukor, Pickford began to take creative control of her films. She selected a popular, but gloomy story The Poor Little Rich Girl and added a streak of energetic comedy to the screenplay. It was the first time she played a child - an eleven year old, all the way through a film.
Jeanine Basinger: People believed in her as a feisty little all-American girl who could handle anything that came her way; not just handle it but also triumph over it; and not just handle it and also triumph over it, but to have a good sense of humor about it.
Narrator: Poor Little Rich Girl made more money than any other film she had made. Six months later she played another 11 year-old, in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. She enjoyed the part, she told a friend; they allowed her to live a childhood she had never had. Her fans loved them too and the Little Girl role quickly became her most popular on screen persona. But Pickford was too ambitious to limit herself to a single screen type. She wanted to play parts that Zukor would not approve. In Stella Maris she decided to play the two leads: the predictable wealthy young beauty, Stella Maris and a new character, an ugly servant, Unity Blake, who struggles for love in a harsh and violent world.
Robert Cushman: She knew that Adolph Zukor would never want her to do it. So basically while he was on an extended trip out of town, she sneaked it into production. And he happened to come back on a day that she was on the set as the Unity Blake character.
Eileen Whitfield: There's Mary Pickford looking like she's just climbed out of a gutter and is looking for a grave. And he said, "What is this, Sweetheart Honey?"
Robert Cushman: Zukor couldn't believe it, and he just thought, it's going to be a disaster. Trying to mollify him, she said, "Well, don't worry, Mr. Zukor. I die before the end."
Eileen Whitfield: And she said, "Don't worry," I play another part where I look very nice. And the audience will like me a lot. And meanwhile, all he's thinking is, "You die in this movie? Mary Pickford dies in this movie?"
Narrator: Zukor's fears were unfounded. Audiences and critics raved about the film. Zukor conceded that her performance was "the most remarkable" of her career. By the end of World War I, most films were shot in California. The American movie business was a cutthroat, hundred million dollar industry. On one side was Zukor's Paramount Pictures, now the world's largest production and distribution company. On the other was First National Exhibitors, a group of theater owners.
Kevin Brownlow: Adolph Zukor had a terrible reputation in the industry. He sent out men who were known as the "wrecking crew." They would destroy the business of a theater in the town he wanted, and he'd buy it.
Tino Balio: First National were outraged by Adolph Zukor's tactics. And to prove to Adolph Zukor the seriousness of their intent, they went after his biggest asset, Mary Pickford.
Narrator: In 1918, as Pickford's contract with Zukor was coming to an end, First National went on the attack. They offered her an extraordinary $675,000 for three pictures, 50% of the profits and artistic control of her films. Zukor refused to match it.
Eileen Whitfield: She told Adolph Zukor over the phone that she was going to go with First National. Both of them were practically in tears. And she finally said, "I can't talk anymore." And he said, "I can't either." It was a horrible moment for them. However they both recovered quite quickly.
Narrator: Pickford had just started her contract with First National when she was alarmed by rumors that Zukor was fighting back. His company was going to merge with First National.
Mary Pickford: I learned from my mother that the big men of the industry, including Mr. Zukor, were getting together to control the salaries, not alone of the actors but the writers and the directors and they were going to dictate to us what we were to do. So I spoke to Douglas and he saw Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
Narrator: In January 1919 the four biggest names in the movies responded to Zukor's threat. They announced the formation of their own distribution company, United Artists.
Tino Balio: Forming United Artists was part of a natural trajectory in Mary Pickford's career. She and Douglas Fairbanks had their own companies. So it was imperative for them to find a way to distribute their films and that way they could still have control over the making of their pictures.
Narrator: No one thought actors could run a business. One observer remarked, "The lunatics have taken over the asylum."
Scott Eyman: The leading role was taken by Pickford and Fairbanks. Douglas was a very good businessman. And of course Charlotte and Mary were, shall we say, formidable. Chaplin always saw United Artists as a convenience operation for the films of Charlie Chaplin. He had not that much interest in it as a company.
Narrator: Chaplin was astonished at Pickford's business skills. "She knew all the nomenclature, the amortizations, the deferred stocks," he recalled. "She understood all the articles of incorporation." But even with all Pickford's skills it was a huge risk. Each partner put up $100,000 for the new company.
Kevin Brownlow: When you have a distribution company, it's rather like a bakery turning out wedding cakes only. You've got to turn out bread and scones and things, in order to make the money to keep the outfit going. And they were these four fabulous filmmakers. But they couldn't sustain United Artists unless they were all working flat out.
Tino Balio: They were always searching for films, good films to distribute. They discovered that other stars did not have the courage that they had to form their own independent companies and to go through UA.
Narrator: City by city they fought Zukor's stranglehold on the country's theaters. They testified against him in a federal investigation. Slowly they attracted some of the best talent in Hollywood: producers like Sam Goldwyn and stars like Gloria Swanson, and Buster Keaton. United Artists became a prestige company, a source of great pride for Pickford.
Scott Eyman: Douglas and Mary saw United Artists as something that extended beyond their individual careers. And they were in fact correct, because after World War II, the studio system began to collapse of its own weight. And then the industry largely became what United Artists set out to be in 1920.
Narrator: Mary and Douglas were now public business partners. They were still lovers in secret. He was determined to marry her, but she remained terrified that divorce would ruin their careers. Fairbanks got his divorce easily. He begged and cajoled Mary to marry him. Then he gave her an ultimatum. Marry or never see him again. As always, Mary turned to her mother for advice. Charlotte encouraged her to follow her heart. In March 1920, Mary went to Nevada and divorced Owen. Three weeks later she and Douglas married in a small, private ceremony. They waited to see how their fans would react.
Scott Eyman: The public basically shrugged their shoulders and said, "What marriage? What divorce?" What could be more perfect than America's favorite man marrying America's favorite woman? Of course, this is America.
Narrator: The couple sailed to Europe for their honeymoon. In England a sea of people greeted them with cheers and roses. At one point Douglas had to carry a terrified Mary to safety. In France they were mobbed everywhere they went. After the honeymoon they returned to Hollywood. Douglas gave Mary a wedding present, an 18-acre estate high in Beverly Hills. The press dubbed it Pickfair. Everyone who was anyone wanted an invitation the King of Spain, the Prince of Sweden, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart. The uncrowned king and queen of Hollywood, Mary and Douglas gave the upstart movie business a glittering sheen of sophistication and romance. They set up their own production studio where they worked side by side. Now in complete control of her work, Pickford chose her directors, writers, cameramen. She approved budgets and distribution, casting and costumes.
Robert Cushman: She treated her people very well. She hired only the best, the best cinematographer, the best art director, the best writers. She was willing to pay top dollar, but you'd better be the best and you'd better do your best.
Kevin Brownlow: They all adored what they were doing and she knew that if you wanted quality, the only way to get it was to spend time. She supported them up to the hilt, and was very critical of herself. When she saw the rushes, she would say, "I'm no good in this. We've got to retake it." And she became known as Retake Mary Pickford.
Narrator: She cut back on the number of films she made each year. She did not want to saturate the market. And she wanted each film to set new standards. In 1921 she made Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Kevin Brownlow: Mary Pickford plays two roles. She's Little Lord Fauntleroy with the curls, and she's the mother. The mother is asleep, and Little Lord Fauntleroy comes in and kisses her and how is it possible that Mary Pickford kisses herself? Nobody would have thought how difficult it was. Steel girders had to be placed down to keep the camera still enough. And the mat, special mats had to be prepared, because it was done in the camera. You wound the shot back and you re-exposed it, and you had to block out the previous figure. You can see technicians tackling the impossible. I still don't know how they did it.
Narrator: The next year Mary turned 30. For her fans she was forever Little Mary of Poor Little Rich Girl and Little Lord Fauntleroy. But she felt trapped by the role. "This dramatic rut keeps me eternally playing the curly-headed girl. And I hate curls, I loathe them," she said to a journalist. To help her break free from this image she wanted to find a strong director with his own aesthetic. "Most directors" she said, "defer too much to my opinion. I wish they wouldn't." She made a daring choice. She invited Ernst Lubitsch, the German director known for his dark, sophisticated comedies, to work with her. As their first project, they chose one of the bleakest tragedies in literature, the story of Faust.
Eileen Whitfield: Mary Pickford would have been playing a role in which she, as Lubitsch said in a German accent, "strangles the baby." Now, Charlotte heard this and said, "Are you telling me that you are going to make a movie in which my daughter Mary Pickford strangles a baby?" That project hit the dust awfully fast.
Scott Eyman: Charlotte guarded Mary's image, vigilantly. And Charlotte was afraid of destroying the franchise. She was worried that Mary would alienate her core audience and wouldn't necessarily attract a different audience. Charlotte might have been right. Purely from a creative point of view, Mary needed a picture like that the way she needed oxygen. And she wasn't getting the oxygen.
Narrator: They finally settled on Rosita, the story of a Spanish street singer and the king who tries to seduce her. Production was difficult. As Pickford discovered, she and Lubitsch had fundamentally different world-views.
Jeanine Basinger: He was European; she was American. Lubitsch is very slyly sophisticated, with a highly sexually charged universe. He's all about sex. Mary Pickford, although she could play a sensuous looking, older woman, was not about sex.
Narrator: Critics raved about "a Mary Pickford different and greater than at any time in her career." But her long time fans stayed away.
Eileen Whitfield: It all seems too sophisticated. It's not the Mary Pickford that they love; it isn't them. The film did not do well in small towns.
Narrator: Pickford was unnerved by the audience reaction, by the financial pressures of United Artists, by growing old. Uncertain what to do next, she turned to her fans.
Robert Cushman: She asked Photoplay to send out a question to the general readership, "What characters do you want to see Mary Pickford play?" And the resounding majority was famous little girl stories like Heidi, or Little Red Riding Hood. So she did Annie Rooney, did a very credible job of playing a 12-year-old, but the writing was on the wall. She knew this could not go on.
Narrator: Off screen Mary and Douglas remained Hollywood's royalty. But the demands of the role put huge strains on their marriage.
Scott Eyman: She's got so many balls in the air. She's helping to run a major motion picture corporation, United Artists. She's running her own motion picture production company, the Mary Pickford Company. And she's attempting to maintain a marriage with a very vital, very active, very dominant movie star in his own right, with very, very strong ego needs of his own.
Malcolm Boyd, Personal Friend: Their whole life was on. But, she couldn't be "on" all the time. She'd be working all day, and then Douglas would have forty people coming for dinner. They were very different at that level. Mary didn't really like to be around people very much. It seems that Doug always enjoyed it.
Narrator: Her family was a constant source of tension between them. Her brother Jack had a serious drinking problem. So did sister Lottie. Charlotte drank heavily as well, but she managed to hide it from Mary.
Scott Eyman: Douglas was offended by their raffishness and he was very offended by their alcoholism. Fairbanks was a teetotaler. He did not drink. He couldn't stand to be around them.
Narrator: In the fall of 1927, for the first time in nearly 3 decades, Mary stopped working. Charlotte was dying of cancer.
Robert Cushman: Charlotte was her confidante; she was her advisor; she was her best friend; she was her mother; and it was just inconceivable to her that she wasn't going to be there.
Narrator: Charlotte died in March 1928.
Robert Cushman: It was one of the most cataclysmic emotional disasters of Mary Pickford's life. She practically had a nervous breakdown. Even though it was known that Charlotte was dying of cancer, she was not in any way emotionally prepared for it.
Narrator: "She was almost my very life," Mary said. Without Charlotte, she felt she barely knew how to live. Exactly three months after her mother's death, she emerged in public to discard her Little Girl image forever. She was 35 years old.
Eileen Whitfield: She didn't do it while Charlotte was alive, because Charlotte loved her hair. But as soon as Charlotte died she cut it. And Douglas Fairbanks had also loved her long hair. He began to cry when he saw what she had done.
Narrator: An avalanche of criticism overwhelmed her. "You would have thought I murdered someone and perhaps I had," Mary said, "but only to give her successor a chance to live." But it wasn't enough. The world, and her audiences, were leaving her behind. It was the jazz age, a time of speakeasies, sensuality, and provocative, young stars like Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. And then came another huge challenge: sound.
Male Voice, Archival Film: Sound waves are picked up by the microphone and converted into electrical impulses.
Scott Eyman: It was a big change. What you lost with sound pictures was the cocoon. You had an orchestra on the set and they would play your favorite music while you were acting. And the director would be speaking to you very gently underneath the music. It was like acting in a dream state.
Jeanine Basinger: There was a camaraderie there and a casualness that of course could not happen once sound came. They had to move indoors, onto sets. Everyone had to be very quiet.
Narrator: Pickford loved silent film. But the producer in her realized that sound was the future.
Director, Archival Film: Quiet...
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: We just naturally seem to have a lot to say to one and other don't we? I always did think you were interesting.
Narrator: She launched into talkies, the first major star to dare make the transition.
Robert Cushman: Everyone in the world wanted to hear what Mary Pickford's voice sounded like. It made more money than any Mary Pickford picture ever.
Mary Pickford-Archival Film: Darling...
Narrator: But the awkwardness of early sound production showed. And her choice of story was a mistake.
Mary Pickford-Archival Film: Oh you don't know my daddy. He's so terribly stubborn, if you go against him he'd do most anything.
Jeanine Basinger: When you see Mary Pickford in Coquette, you confront the problems of persona breakdown. First of all, she's talking.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: I know you will Michael.
Jeanine Basinger: Right away that's like, "Wait, Mary doesn't speak."
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: I'll keep house and I'll cook and I'll scrub and I'll take care of you.
Jeanine Basinger: Then secondly, you have the bobbed hair, the flirtatious personality. And this is not who people thought Mary Pickford was.
Actor, Archival Film: Why you old fool, you ought to be begging me to marry her!
Jeanine Basinger: She could adapt to sound; but she was a theatre actress. The issue was she was aging, she was now an older woman and times were changing.
Robert Cushman: It got mixed reviews. However, she was given the first Academy Award for an actress in a sound film. People in the industry respected her so much, and realized that probably the end of her career was not that far off, and for everything she's done, she deserves this.
Narrator: Fairbanks too was facing the end of his career. He was 46. He hated the constraint of sound. And he was finding it harder to do the extraordinary stunts that were his trademark. To boost their careers the couple decided to try something new: they would make a film together.
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film: "Oh come Kate, come. You must not look so sour."
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: "It is my fashion when I see a crab."
Kevin Brownlow: Fairbanks seemed to arrive later and later each day, which outraged Mary Pickford, who was a real Puritan as far as punctuality was concerned. And it was costing so much money.
Narrator: When Fairbanks did arrive he often didn't know his lines. He argued with her in front of the crew. For Pickford the experience was devastating. "My confidence was completely shattered," she confessed, "and I was never again at ease before the camera or microphone."
Eileen Whitfield: Everyone knew that her career was going on the down curve. And just as she was the first great star to be created by film, she was the first great "has been" to be created by film. And everyone watched it. There was no privacy there.
Narrator: Fairbanks fled, from Mary and his career. "When a man finds himself sliding downhill," he said, "he should do everything to reach bottom in a hurry and pass out of the picture."
Newsreel reporter, Archival Film: Mr. Fairbanks, how long have you been away?
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film: About six months.
Newsreel reporter, Archival Film: Have you quit acting entirely?
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film: I think so.
Narrator: In an effort to save their marriage, Mary decided to join him on a long world tour. Fairbanks still thrived on the constant change and attention. Pickford had come to see the emptiness of the flattery and the fans, and she had begun to drink.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: We're delighted to be home. I haven't seen such a lovely sight in four months and 24,000 miles.
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film: Six months.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: Pardon. Six months, I stand corrected. Oh, Douglas, I'll wager you forgot to stop the milk in Beverly Hills before we left.
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film Why mention milk after 24,000 miles of light wines and beer?
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: What do you want me to say after that?
Douglas Fairbanks, Archival Film: Nothing. Well say good-bye. We are now going home.
Eileen Whitfield: He was getting depressed. And he began to sort of blindly look for something else the way she was kind of blindly stumbling around in the dark, looking for the next thing. And he found the next thing in Lady Sylvia Ashley.
Narrator: Lady Sylvia Ashley was an ambitious English socialite. It didn't take long for Mary to find out about the affair. Still Fairbanks couldn't leave her and she couldn't cut him off.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: Mama, there's a bee in your bonnet.
Actress, Archival Film: Don't be impertinent!
Narrator: Pickford did the only thing she knew how. She went back to work. Secrets was an earnest portrait of a marriage threatened by the husband's infidelity.
Leslie Howard, Archival Film: What's the use? You wouldn't understand.
Narrator: Some scenes played like an awkward love letter to Douglas.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: You want to tell me, don't you John, that you never once stopped loving me, even when you were most unfaithful.
Narrator: Secrets was her last movie for United Artists. When it lost money, her nightmare of the empty theater seemed to be coming to life. She realized her starring days were over. "I've worked all my life," she said. "Work has become my life. I can think of nothing to fill the void." One after another the losses mounted. Jack died from years of drink and drugs. And then Lottie, from a heart attack. Her life with Douglas was over as well. She filed for divorce. Douglas tried to woo her back. But too much damage had been done. The divorce became final in January 1936.
Robert Cushman: She was the love of his life. He was the love of her life. And I think that they both felt they had made a terrible mistake. And I think they both lived to deeply regret that.
Eileen Whitfield: She had the horrible experience of having everything fall apart at the same time. Losing loved ones. Losing her career. Losing her husband. Losing her celebrity.
Scott Eyman: She's regarded in the movie magazines, in the newspapers as almost a fading antique. What do you do? How do you cope with that? She didn't have an education. She didn't have a philosophical bent. So she began to anesthetize the panic with alcohol.
Eileen Whitfield: Mary Pickford kind of disappeared inside that bottle and never came out again.
Narrator: She began to rely more and more on a new friend, Buddy Rogers, her co-star in her last silent film, My Best Girl. He had fallen in love with her during the filming. She was flattered. Rogers was now focusing mostly on his band music.
Scott Eyman: He was a nice, nice guy. Would have been a great greeter at a casino, a hotel. Was always happy. Nobody's as happy to see any body as Buddy was to see everybody.
Narrator: A year after her divorce from Fairbanks, Mary and Buddy were married.
Eileen Whitfield: She'd call him Douglas constantly, and in front of other people. And he would just try and laugh it off. But it had to hurt. I think for Buddy Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks was always hanging over Pickfair, mid-leap.
Narrator: In December 1939, Fairbanks had a heart attack.
Eileen Whitfield: When Douglas Fairbanks was just hanging on to life, he had one of his brothers tell Mary Pickford that he had a message for her. It was "by the clock." It was always a phrase between them that meant, "My heart belongs to you."
Narrator: Mary could not bring herself to attend the funeral.
Narrator: She lived on in Hollywood attending openings, hosting charity events at Pickfair, and trying to find new work.
Scott Eyman: She tried radio. She tried theater. She tried producing. It was all unsuccessful. Her luck vanished, partially because, I think, her instrument, her values, her sense of herself as a performer, were corroded by alcohol and fear.
Narrator: She remained involved with the running of United Artists. But by the 1950s there were too many problems and the partners she cared about were gone. In 1956 she reluctantly sold her shares. As the years passed, the public slowly forgot about Mary Pickford. In the 1960s she began to withdraw from the world.
Scott Eyman: She simply refused to come out from behind the walls of Pickfair. She wanted to be alone. People would occasionally go in, but often they wouldn't actually see her. They would see Buddy, and Buddy would talk about her. Particularly grotesque occasions, Buddy would play a tape of her welcoming the person to Pickfair. And then he'd switch the tape off and say, "Well, she's a lot better than that, and she's still my best girl."
Announcer, Archival Film: To more than three generations of moviegoers, this is the face, the face of the most popular woman in the world.
Narrator: In 1976 Pickford was awarded an Honorary Academy Award.
Academy Award Announcer, Archival Film: She created a unique and personal film literature.
Narrator: She was too weak to attend the ceremony, so a crew came to Pickfair.
Presenter, Archival Film: Mary, I present this to you with great pride and with the love and admiration of the whole Academy.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: That's wonderful.
Narrator: Her appearance horrified viewers.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: I shall treasure it always.
Scott Eyman: People's image of her was essentially that of the Mary Pickford of the twenties. So the audience at large just it was my God, you know, what happened? What happened? Well, life happened.
Mary Pickford, Archival Film: "We were pioneers in a brand new medium of art. I was terribly ambitious you see, my pictures were my whole life, outside my family. Let no one tell you that they don't miss their career. I miss it terribly. My pictures were my whole life."
Narrator: In May 1979, Mary Pickford died at 87 years old.