“The only objection I ever had to her was her name. I first took a dislike to it in an east side theater when a woman sitting beside me exclaimed to her escort, ’O, there’s little Mary Pigsfoot, isn’t she grant!’” “Observations by Our Man About Town,” The Moving Picture World, January 4, 1913.
An early Mary Pickford movie fan magazine cover, The Motion Picture Story Magazine, November, 1913, coinciding with the release of her first feature film, In the Bishop’s Carriage (Famous Players, dir. Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley, Sept. 1913). The Motion Picture Story Magazine was less a fan magazine than a short story magazine, with fleshed-out scenarios from recent film releases and, as in the case of In the Bishop’s Carriage, a form close to what we know today as “fan fiction.”
The Moving Picture World’s “Man About Town” was commenting on the announcement by Broadway producer David Belasco that Miss Mary Pickford, late of the “movies,” was returning to the legitimate theater to star in his latest “grant” production, A Good Little Devil, an extravagantly staged fairy-tale of the sort that was seen by more adults than children at the beginning of the twentieth century — adults wishing to reconnect, if only for a few short hours, with their childhood. (A Broadway revival of Peter Pan starring Maude Adams played to sold-out audiences the same season). However, unlike their twenty-first century counterparts, when their immersion in juvenilia and fantasy was over, they returned home adults.
The slightest bit of resentment can be detected in “Man About Town” as he notes that Pickford “has left us to go into the ‘legit’.” Yet he wishes sincerely,
“Success to her. May we live to see the day when she will be spoken of with the same admiration we have for [the] others of Mr. Belasco’s proteges. She certainly made good in the pictures and was one of the first actresses in the business to attain the position of intimacy and popularity with the public that so many now enjoy.” The Moving Picture World, January 4, 1913.
Most interesting is that there is an underlying assumption that she is gone from movies, that her experience and subsequent fame in film was no more than a jumping off point, a springboard to stardom on stage and a return to her real home in the “legit.” Mrs. Griffith, Linda Arvidson, had felt it coming and dreaded it, as early as the summer of 1910. Upon their return from the first Biograph California trip, Pickford’s co-workers had been praising her performance in Ramona when, according to Arvidson,
“Mary, quietly, but with considerable assurance said, ‘Some day I am going to be a great actress and have my name in electric lights over a theatre.’ I turned pale and felt weak. We all were shocked. Of course, she never meant the movies, that would have been plumb crazy. No, she meant the stage, and she was thinking of going back. The thought of losing Mary made me very unhappy. But just how had she figured to get her name in electric lights? What was on her mind, anyway?”
Restless Mary would remain in the movies for another two years, though she would bolt Biograph the fall of 1910 to join Carl Laemmle’s IMP, then Majestic, before returning to Biograph and Griffith in January of 1912. Still mindful of her earlier “boast” about returning to Broadway, but unsure of how to do so after having been away from the stage for what must have felt an eternity, in the fall of 1912 David Belasco made the decision for her. He sent for Pickford, having read a manuscript of a new play with a major part he thought perfect for her. She returned to Fourteenth Street to tell Mr. Griffith the great news that she would be appearing in a new play and starting rehearsals, and to ask him, “May I go?”
There was no formal contract to be broken, bought out or sold, only the courtesy of letting her movie mentor know that she would need time away from filming to rehearse, and of course, to leave Biograph and the movies altogether once the production began, to explore a new chapter in her career. Pickford recalled that Griffith’s response was to wish her God’s blessings and to tell her, “Be good. Be a good actress.” She would, and more.
A Good Little Devil.
The Broadway cast of A Good Little Devil, including (just left of center, seated) Mary Pickford as “Juliet,” Ernest Truex as “Charles (the good little devil),” and (standing near center) a dark-haired Lillian Gish as the fairie ”Morganie.” Lying on the floor is the dog, “Rab,” played by Arthur Hill. From Harper’s Weekly Magazine, February 8, 1913.
A French play adapted for the American stage, A Good Little Devil was what was known at the turn of the 20th century as a “fairy play.” The “Good Little Devil,” is a boy named Charles, a bright and imaginative child who lives with his aunt, an “old hag” who is also a witch, conjuring up evil spells and spirits. He is visited nightly by fairies and falls in love with a little blind girl, Juliet, who lives in an enchanted garden. The witchy aunt sends him away to a pauper’s prison, but soon it is revealed that he is heir to a vast estate and fortune. Though in his good fortune he forgets his roots and his love for Juliet, the fairies and a spirit from his own past restore both his childhood love and Juliet’s sight.
Rehearsals for A Good Little Devil began in earnest in early December, in Philadelphia where the play would have its premiere on December 12, 1912. Pickford and friend Lillian Gish, who had a small role in the play as — not surprisingly — a fairy, received moral support from their Biograph colleagues: D. W. Griffith and company traveled to Philadelphia and Baltimore to see them in these early road-performances of A Good Little Devil. (The play proved to be a major break for Lillian Gish, but not in the way she may have anticipated. Her character was suspended by wires at times, and she was injured in a fall during the production. While she was recovering, D. W. Griffith invited her to join his Biograph group in California. 1913 proved to be her breakout year, with her classic role in The Mothering Heart.)
David Belasco was noted for his extravagant productions with state-of-the-art special effects and lighting, elements that required precision in their execution and in their timing within the text of the play. The rehearsals must have been grueling and Belasco was universally known as a tough, sometimes brutal taskmaster, throwing fits of anger that were in reality carefully calculated set-pieces designed to prod his actors and technicians to nothing less than perfection in performance. The goal was a production that functioned as a machine, one that had to be absolutely flawless in execution before it could open on Broadway, where Belasco ruled along with the Frohmans, Charles and Daniel, as the dominant producers of the American stage.
To accomplish this, A Good Little Devil played one week in each of three cities that were home to audiences and a theatrical press as savvy as any on the east coast, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. (Boston’s Hollis Theatre had been the original choice of venues to open the production, but the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had recently enacted a law banning stage performances by minors, an unexpected obstacle that forced Belasco to reroute his production to Philadelphia, at the Broad Street Theater.)
After a solid week of rehearsals, day and night, A Good Little Devil premiered December 12. According to The New York Dramatic Mirror‘s Philadelphia correspondent, J. Solis Cohen,
“A very pretty fairy play called A Good Little Devil was produced for the first time on any stage in America last week at the Broad, by David Belasco. . . and has been staged exquisitely . . . Mary Pickford’s wistfully lovely heroine made a dent in the hearts of all,[and the other performances] showed a master-hand of David Belasco.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, December 18, 1912.
The play moved to Baltimore for Christmas week. The crowds at that city’s Ford’s Theatre adored Pickford – at one performance, the drama was interrupted when a young man in the audience shouted a marriage proposal to her. The critical reception there, however, was mixed — The Dramatic Mirror‘s Baltimore correspondent found the writing bad, but the sets and the acting – Pickford in particular – outstanding:
“A Good Little Devil, judged solely as a play, lacks several elements considered essential to the success of any piece. Its interest is not sustained and there is an almost total absence of suspense throughout the entire piece. Its dialogue is certainly, for the most part, stupid and lacking sorely in poetic feeling . . . If the play is a success, it will be chiefly because of its exquisite staging and delightful acting. To Mary Pickford and Ernest Truex, all praise. The former is the most delightful ingenue on the American stage.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, January 1, 1913.
A Good Little Devil, a David Belasco Production. 1912-1913 Season. “Premiere,” Dec 12, 1912, through Dec 21, Philadelphia at The Broad Street Theatre; Dec 23 – 28, Baltimore at Ford’s Theater; Dec 30 – Jan 4, 1913, Washington, D.C., at The National; Jan 8 – May 3, New York City, at the Republic Theater.
Above, Baltimore fans greet their “Little Mary” outside the theater after a matinée performance of A Good Little Devil, in December, 1912. Pickford is the tiny figure with the raised hand, left of center in the doorway. The man just behind her left shoulder is legendary Broadway producer David Belasco, famous for his shock of white hair and the round “priest’s collar” he always wore.
The mixed critical reception was unacceptable to Belasco. When the company moved on to Washington for the first week of 1913, he put the production — cast and crew — through their paces to eliminate their shortcomings. Washington Post drama critic Ralph Graves wrote in a lengthy article published in the Sunday edition after the play completed its week in the Capital,
“David Belasco remained in Washington all last week making alterations . . . and perfecting the mechanical details of ‘A Good Little Devil,’ so that toward the end of the engagement at the National the performance reached that state of complete efficiency generally recognized in ‘a Belasco production.’” The Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1913.
As did writers in other cities, Graves compared A Good Little Devil with Peter Pan, the revival of which was playing Broadway during the holidays, finding “Devil” more sophisticated, if ultimately less poetic a depiction of childhood imagination.
Stunningly, Graves ponders why the lead role of the “Good Little Devil” is played by a male actor, rather than a female as in Peter Pan, and suggests that Pickford should have played it instead of the twenty-four-year-old male actor, Ernest Truex:
“It is somewhat surprising that Mr. Belasco has not followed the ‘Peter Pan’ production and cast an actress in this role, especially when he had at hand a young woman so wonderfully equipped for the part as Miss Mary Pickford, the most interesting and appealing personality revealed to Washington since Emmy Wehlen made her American debut here in musical comedy three years ago [in December, 1910].
Nevertheless, Graves was impressed by Pickford’s work as the female lead and saw for her a bright career in the theater:
“As the blind girl Juliet, Miss Pickford transmutes the dross of the commonplace into the pure gold of fantasy. She has ‘the spark’ which seems destined to illumine the stage as a genuine star in the near future.” Ralph Graves, The Washington Post, Sunday, January 5, 1913.
Having ironed out the wrinkles, A Good Little Devil took the Broadway stage at The Republic Theater on January 8, 1913. Again making comparisons with the well-known (and playing on Broadway at The Empire Theater) Peter Pan, the Dramatic Mirror found the play,
“possesses a good deal of the charm that made Peter Pan popular, without the subtle humor and distinctly universal characters of that unique work, but still with an abundance of appealing qualities in the rich variety of its incidents, characterizations and poetic colorings. . . Mr. Belasco has no apology to make for the splendid production, and the play could hardly have come into better hands to serve in introducing it to an English-speaking audience.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, January 15, 1913.
And as to Pickford’s performance,
“Juliet is delightfully portrayed by Mary Pickford, who appeared as a child in The Warrens of Virginia [on Broadway the 1907-08 season], but has recently made a reputation in moving pictures.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, January 15, 1913.
But while the reviewer for the Dramatic Mirror mentions Pickford’s movie career merely as an afterthought, The New York Times reviewer makes the motion picture connection much more directly, and with a sarcastic barb aimed at stage actors:
“Both in her malicious and softer moods, Miss Mary Pickford not only looks the little Juliet to perfection — a beautiful picture child — but acts the role with abundant grace and feeling and real childish spirit, a quality which is most admirably conveyed. Also, Miss Pickford’s diction is so good that it suggests the ‘movies’ as a desirable place for some of our actors to improve their elocution.” The New York Times, January 9, 1913.
To The Moving Picture World she was once again, “our Little Mary” (and they also took the opportunity to needle the New York Times reviewer):
“OUR LITTLE MARY MAKES A HIT.
“Our ‘Little Mary’ wins golden laurels for her acting in Belasco’s production of ‘A Good Little Devil’ in the role of Juliet . . . We who have been watching the silent drama are not a bit astonished that our “Little Mary” has taken everyone into camp in the poetic role given to her by Mr. Belasco. As for the elocution, that is of course a critic’s way of increasing the value of his compliment, but there is something in it, even literally. As to the value of motion picture work in the way of a school of acting, ask any of our more competent players.” The Moving Picture World, January 18, 1913.
In making the point that film acting was not only an equivalent art form, but one that could be instructive for even the experienced stage player, The Moving Picture World was stating the case that Mary Pickford was beginning to understand for herself – she found more excitement in filmmaking and more satisfaction in acting for the motion picture camera than she ever did on the speaking stage. Her return to the “legitimate” theater would prove short.
In April, The Moving Picture World noted the excitement over the release of a “new” Mary Pickford movie by Biograph, excitement tempered by the knowledge of her new stage success:
“The admirers of ‘Little Mary’ received a pleasant surprise in the Biograph release of March 15 — ‘The Unwelcome Guest’ — in which this popular actress appeared. It is said that this picture, which was made last summer, has been withheld from the market in the hope that it might be used as the first of a series. The success of Miss Pickford in ‘The Good Little Devil’ has been so marked, however, that it has practically precluded the possibility of her return to the screen.” The Moving Picture World, April 5, 1913.
When the Broadway run of A Good Little Devil concluded the evening of May 3, 1913, Mary Pickford would walk from the stage for the final time. However, she would appear with the original cast in a motion picture version of A Good Little Devil produced by the man whose company was the aptly named, “Famous Players in Famous Plays.”
Adolph Zukor arrived in America in 1889 at age 16, an immigrant from Hungary who worked as an apprentice in the leather and fur trades, then became self-employed as a designer and seller of furs before moving to Chicago in 1893 where he opened a fur company. He entered show business as an investment partner in a chain of small arcade-style “theaters,” the most notable being “Automatic Vaudeville,” an early multimedia entertainment arcade that featured a panoply of Edison innovations, including phonographs, kinetoscopes, electric light displays and a second floor movie theater, “The Crystal Palace.” Automatic Vaudeville was located on East Fourteenth Street, just a block east of The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company that produced many of the mutoscopes and the short films seen at Zukor’s arcade, and would soon produce early film figures D. W. Griffith and Mary Pickford.
Zukor was among those exhibitors who had the foresight to see that feature films were the future, and had the business acumen to obtain the necessary capital to be a viable producer. His vision of feature films was a combination of art and commerce, combining the best of the art of motion pictures and the stage to produce feature films of successful theatrical works starring the popular players who had made them famous. Thus was born, “Famous Players in Famous Plays.” Where others had similar ideas, Zukor was able to make his into reality by forming a partnership with Daniel Frohman, who with his brother Charles and David Belasco were the major Broadway theatrical producers of the period. By enlisting Frohman, Zukor was able attract both the investment capital and a stable of Frohman’s players, a who’s who of the stage in 1912. Mary Pickford, though not yet at such an exalted level of stardom on Broadway, would prove to be the jewel in the Famous Players’ crown.
As the Broadway run of A Good Little Devil wound toward its close in late April, 1913, Mary Pickford had just turned 21, and she now had serious misgivings about the stage. As was the norm for a Broadway hit, A Good Little Devil would be expected to begin a national tour no later than September. Pickford was under a long-term contract to Belasco, who had just given her a raise, to $200 per week. She and mother Charlotte began tentative — and secret– negotiations with Zukor, and with Biograph through Griffith. Her film mentor offered $300 per week, compared to the $175 she had earned with Biograph during 1912. Zukor was willing to pay her $500 a week. Pickford somehow convinced Belasco that she was not physically up to the challenges of A Good Little Devil roadshow. He released her from her contract; within days she was working for Zukor and Famous Players in Famous Plays.
Belasco had to have been disappointed with Pickford’s inability (or unwillingness) to continue, but he had other productions underway, both new plays and revivals, and Pickford, his newest star, was far from his most important. However, Belasco was intrigued by the possibilities of a film and stage synergy, and so he agreed to co-produce and provide Zukor and Frohman — Belasco’s Broadway “rival” – the material for their first feature film with Pickford. Belasco even agreed to appear in the film’s “prologue,” to introduce the characters and the story, A Good Little Devil. The film was shot with the original cast during the waning days of the Broadway production.
On July 10, 1913 during the Third National Convention of the Moving Picture Exhibitors’ League in New York, a special screening of A Good Little Devil was held at a reception for convention delegates at the Famous Players studio on West 26th Street. In addition to music, dancing and dining, attendees were not only treated to what amounted to a world premiere of the first Mary Pickford feature film, but also to a live performance including stars Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford enacting a prologue and then a scene from the play, before screening the picture:
“To see this scene as played and then to see it shortly afterward as pictured, was a great treat to most of the spectators, for it gave them a chance to get an insight into motion picture making that few are fortunate enough to have. It was educational, too, as pointing out the difference between a scene on a stage and a picture on the screen.” Hanford C. Judson, The Moving Picture World, July 26, 1913.
The live performance — for which Pickford received “tremendous applause” from the audience – then gave way to a screen “swung out from the side and the complete picture thrown upon it.” Though the viewing conditions [New York in mid-July in an era without air conditioning],
“were not ideal [and] the room was warm and overcrowded and many had to crane their necks to see it all. Some . . . stood up through the whole of its four reels. That the audience watched it so closely and was so markedly pleased with it is a good indication that it will go very strongly in the regular picture houses.
“It is, indeed, a most artistic production, full of beautiful scenes and backgrounds, and full too of pleasant sentiments and of human situations and characters. There is hardly an artistic flaw in it through all its four thousand feet. That it is one of Mr. Belasco’s big successes is, alone, enough to make people want to see it. We think it as good, almost, as any fairy picture could be. . . Mary Pickford has a role suited to her genius for delicate sympathies and as delicate pathos.” Hanford C. Judson, The Moving Picture World, July 26, 1913.
Keeping in mind that the convention, including the screening and this review, was geared to the exhibitor and not a general movie audience, Mr. Judson concludes, “It is an offering that will excite enthusiasm and fulfill the promises of the exhibitor, who may pave the way for it with extensive and strong advertising.”
The Moving Picture World editors even coined a new name, the “Theatrical Feature Play,” to describe what Famous Players was attempting, with Frohman and Zukor in the vanguard of what seemed to the industry press a new motion picture art form.
Above, a remarkable, full color one-sheet (27″ x 41″) poster for A Good Little Devil, featuring the image of Mary Pickford as the blind girl, Juliet.
Weeks later, when Famous Players, who promised “30 Famous Features A Year,” announced their fall release schedule, A Good Little Devil was conspicuous by its absence. In its place as the first Pickford feature was In the Bishop’s Carriage. Pickford’s first release was sandwiched between Mrs. Fiske in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Famous Players releases by other stage stars such as Lillie Langtry and James O’Neill.
Only fragments of A Good Little Devil exist, suggesting that it was a static reproduction of the play. Pickford thought it was the worst movie she had made, and Zukor must have had a similar reaction. It was not publicly released until March, 1914, after Pickford had completed three more feature films — and had become the biggest star in the movies.
In the Bishop’s Carriage, Caprice.
In reality, In the Bishop’s Carriage was the third Pickford feature filmed by Famous Players, after A Good Little Devil, and after the film originally intended to be released first in September, Caprice. However, Caprice was deemed too inconsequential to be the first Pickford Famous Players release. Obviously, Adolph Zukor was taking no chances with his newly acquired star of the stage and screen. However, Pickford was already so popular and had such a devoted following that Famous Players could have released a feature of Mary Pickford doing her laundry for five reels and still made a fortune.
We have Pickford’s word that the movie A Good Little Devil was atrocious (though she is known to have been an overly harsh judge of her own work). But Caprice, in which she was teamed with husband and popular star Owen Moore and the young star of “Devil,” Ernest Truex, should have made the grade. The fact that none of these three films exists — except for fragments of “Devil” — limits considerably our ability to judge. However, we do have the contemporary press accounts, rather than memories put to paper decades after the events.
Complicating matters further, Pickford suffered a medical emergency on or shortly before September 4 — released to the press officially as appendicitis. She underwent surgery and was reported in critical, potentially life-threatening condition:
One version of events leading to the appendectomy is that the condition was precipitated when Pickford injured herself while filming a scene in Caprice where she was required to carry another actress down a flight of stairs. But how could this have happened during Caprice, a film made before In the Bishop’s Carriage? According to The Moving Picture World of August 2, 1913, Caprice had already been completed and rehearsals for “Bishop’s Carriage” had just begun. In the Bishop’s Carriage was completed and then released on September 10 while Pickford was likely either still hospitalized or recovering at home. Is it possible that Caprice had not been completed before the decision was made to switch production to “Bishop” and that the scene in which Pickford was supposed to have been injured was during the filming of additional footage for Caprice? That would explain the two month delay in the appearance of Caprice — a gap that makes little sense absent some sort of unforseen development, such as the star’s emergency surgery and subsequent period of convalescence. (And there is the alternative theory that instead of an appendectomy, Pickford underwent an abortion of Owen Moore’s baby which, given Moore’s violent reaction to his wife’s surgery, does have a twisted logic to it.)
The film that became Pickford’s inaugural feature release was In the Bishop’s Carriage. She plays Nance, a “charity girl,” a single, unemployed, childless woman in what amounts to a poor-house, a debtors’ prison. She escapes the horrors of that house only to meet a criminal with whom she takes up a life of lawlessness. By pure chance she escapes the police during a jewel heist by jumping unwittingly into a bishop’s carriage. Separated from her fellow thief, she finds a new life free from crime and eventually becomes an actress and a star and falls in love with her manager. Though she later re-encounters her old partner in crime, she rejects him and her former life to be with her new love.
The nine months preceding the September release of In the Bishop’s Carriage had seen only one Pickford film (the Biograph release of March 15 — The Unwelcome Guest). Her public was starved for anything with Mary Pickford, and “Bishop’s Carriage” did not disappoint them — or the critics.
“It is several months since picture lovers have seen on the screen Mary Pickford in a new film. In this refined melodrama they will see Little Mary in a new light. The picture is more than interesting; it is instructive. Nance’s attempts to reform, her failures, and her final triumph over wrong will be followed with the closest attention. The interest is established in the first scene, where Nance is beaten by the matron. Her escape and pursuit by the police and the finding of shelter and protection . . . mark the beginning of a train of adventures the number of which precludes description.” George Blaisdell, The Moving Picture World, September 15, 1913.
George Blaisdell concludes his review with blunt praise, “In the Bishop’s Carriage” is a strong picture.” That strength, with Pickford solid in a role that seems to have required great range as her character Nance goes from poorhouse to playhouse, and a story with great variety in scenes and settings, convinced Zukor that it was the proper choice for the first Pickford release under his name. Another in-depth review (the lengths of which were increasing proportionately with the new “feature” films) appeared two days later in The New York Dramatic Mirror, a publication that served a more general audience:
“‘LITTLE MARY’ IN FINE ROLE
Film Production of ‘In the Bishop’s Carriage’ is a Winner
“It excels in every element that goes to make a good picture . . . each reel is crammed full of action, some of it much out of the ordinary. The development is plausible, the acting of a uniformly high order, and the photography excellent. . . And more than all else we have ‘Little Mary’ at her best, which in itself would be reason enough for wanting to see the picture. So much we gather from watching Miss Pickford’s beautifully varied performance. At no time does she fail to hold both sympathy and interest . . .” The New York Dramatic Mirror, September 17, 1913.
Almost two months later, Famous Players released Caprice.
Mary Pickford starring in Caprice fit the core concept of “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” having been an early stage success for Minnie Maddern before she became Mrs. Fiske, one of the first of Frohman’s major stage stars to sign with his and Zukor’s new feature venture. The play and the role were perfect for Pickford, similar to a number of her Biograph roles, and an archetypical character of her features — much more so than her “child” roles — in years to come.
In Caprice, a variation on Pygmalion, Pickford plays an untamed girl of the woods, an urchin not of the streets but of the forests, with almost supernatural power over animals (she subdues a bear in an early scene). But she is accidentally wounded by a well-to-do hunter who may have mistaken her for a forest creature. They fall in love, they marry. He tries to “civilize” her without success. They break apart — she is too wild for him, he realizes, and his family had always objected to their union (a near-mirror image of the Pickford/Moore marriage). Later, his sister is away at college and tells tales of a wonderful roommate who turns out to be his wife. They are “introduced,” and they reconcile. If only her real marriage had been as easy to repair.
The Moving Picture World’s George Blaisdell gave Caprice nothing less than a rave review upon its release November 1, 1913:
“Miss Pickford at Her Best
In ‘Caprice,’ a Four-Part Famous Players Production, She Gives Unusually Fine Performance.
If you would see a delightful picture go see Miss Pickford in ‘Caprice.’ . . Throughout the four parts [reels] it seems as if the heartstrings are under the influence of a hair-trigger control; and there is no foretelling a moment in advance on which side of the emotions the strain will lie . . . It is not possible to enumerate the many fine situations crowded into this picture . . . the support is excellent . . . It is a picture containing so many fine touches one viewing serves only to whet the appetite for another look. George Blaisdell, The Moving Picture World, November 15, 1913.
And The New York Dramatic Mirror named it “the week’s winner:”
“This comedy-drama affords Mary Pickford an excellent vehicle for exercising her distinct artistry. She succeeds with remarkable skill in making every effort bear histrionic fruit, and though some of the comedy situations seem forced, the crisp humor and easy naturalness of her pantomime completely carries the canvas to a mirth-provoking issue. Owen Moore contributes sterling support . . . Excellent direction and camera effects were reached in the burning school scene. The week’s winner.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, November 19, 1913.
The “burning school scene” in Caprice may have been the incident that caused the injury that led to her hospitalization and further estrangement from husband Owen Moore in early September. As Pickford drifted further from Moore, film production was moving away from its old New York-New Jersey axis toward the west coast and California. Famous Players sent Edwin S. Porter west to assume control of production (which in his case included the jobs of director, cameraman and electrician), and with him went Mary Pickford and mother Charlotte. Having recovered physically, if not emotionally, Pickford began work on her next feature for Zukor and Frohman.
Hearts Adrift came from a magazine story recommended to Famous Players by Pickford. No one bothered to obtain the rights for it. Despite Pickford’s concerns, she was asked to write a scenario adapting the story for film. A variation on the Robinson Crusoe/Bird of Paradise theme, it told the story of Nina, a castaway girl stranded on a remote island who spends several years surviving, fending for herself and growing into young womanhood, just in time for the appearance of another castaway — male, of course. Naturally, they overcome their mutual fear and suspicions and mate, producing a child. But he has regrets — he was married — and sure enough his wife reappears, with dire consequences for Nina and her baby involving self-sacrifice and a fiery volcano. It was explosive on-screen and at the box-office: Pickford had her biggest hit to date.
The Moving Picture World’s George Blaisdell, who was hardly alone in his enthusiasm for Mary Pickford, found nothing but superlatives for Hearts Adrift, and on this occasion included director Porter in his rave:
“Miss Pickford, Under the Direction of Edwin S. Porter, Appears in a Superb Four-Part Famous Players Subject.
“MISS PICKFORD triumphs again. Sharing with her in the honors of ‘Hearts Adrift,’ . . . is Edwin S. Porter, the producer of the picture. The backgrounds are remarkable for natural beauty; and the photograph will delight the eye. . . There are few titles — it is said there are but 100 feet of them in the four [reels] — and we could read the story with even less. . . A simple story . . . Yet, from first to last, it holds tight.
“There is not adequate space to describe the last reel. It is crowded with dramatic situations, with deep appeal in all of them. The views of the ocean, some with the camera pointing toward the sun, the waves reflecting the rays, are exceptional. ‘Hearts Adrift’ is the first production of the Famous Players on the Pacific Coast. It is a picture of beauty, of power.” “‘Hearts Adrift,’ Reviewed by George Blaisdell,” The Moving Picture World, February 21, 1914.
As may be gathered from the review, Hearts Adrift was one of the early feature films made entirely in California, before the various new film production colonies established there became known uniformly as “Hollywood.” But Mary Pickford was already a veteran west coast filmmaker, having worked on dozens of single reel productions in California with Griffith and Biograph in both 1910 and 1912. While all of these early west-coast efforts with Griffith survive, sadly Hearts Adrift does not. It may be the single most important film among the lost works of Mary Pickford.
In her biography of Pickford, Eileen Whitfield explains, “The disappearance of Hearts Adrift is calamitous, for Nina, the child-woman, was the very heart of Pickford’s image,” though ”Pickford’s work was far from prudish.” In his four-part “biography” of Pickford in Photoplay Magazine in 1916, Julian Johnson wrote that Pickford’s Nina in Hearts Adrift “revealed unsuspected suggestions of physical voluptuousness.” Pickford herself attributed this newfound “voluptuousness” to something more prosaic.
Published in The New York Dramatic Mirror under the news roundup titled,
“IN THE COAST STUDIOS
“It isn’t ‘Little Mary’ any more.
“The petite Pickford person says so herself. ‘I am Big Mary now,’ is her wail. ‘They won’t get me into the country any more. Goodness me! I positively grew fat on that trip. I have gained and gained until now I weigh 110 pounds. Just think of it!’ It is too much to think of all at once, Mary.” W. E. Wing, The New York Dramatic Mirror, February 11, 1914.
And immediately following was a note that “The last of the Griffith Players have arrived in Los Angeles and are at work. . . Among the arrivals of notables” were Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Dorothy Gish, with Blanche Sweet and Director Griffith to follow soon . . . And Owen Moore. There was a temporary reconciliation, apparently one of many, all brief.
Not being able to resist picking humorously on Pickford, the Dramatic Mirror needled her again the following week:
“Little Mary Pickford is having her troubles all of a sudden. In addition to becoming ponderous to the tune of 110 pounds, here comes her first genuine love letter, and she doesn’t know whether to reply or not to the amorous youth in faraway England, who confesses to seventeen years of age. And an Eastern publisher wishes to dedicate a song to her. As she has no idea of the tune, how can she tell whether it will be sufficiently Pickfordish or not. The matter of a new gown and sufficient tango steps for the Photoplayers ball also are adding their burdens to this petite person.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, Feb. 18, 1914.
But taking advantage of an easy target for comedy didn’t prevent the Dramatic Mirror from a serious assessment of her latest work:
“‘Hearts Adrift’ is Mary Pickford at Her Best –
“Everybody at one time or another would like to be cast adrift on a desert island. If [they] could see Mary Pickford as the castaway . . . Elusive, graceful, captivating, at all times realistic to the entire illusion of the spectator, Mary Pickford dominates the film from caption to climax. She is but one of the attractive features of this production.
“The director has endeavored to give the film scenic beauty and has succeeded. Great depth and breadth is the unusual achievement of every perspective on the film. The ordinary topography utilized to the full by intelligent selection is what has made this film a gem of scenic pleasure. The ‘tame’ volcano, a studio eruption, would never be guessed by the uninitiated.
“The plot is everything that could be asked. Just the right length, it never allows the attention to pause for a moment. A gradual development up to the climax where she jumps into the crater gives the play an even balance of construction it will be hard to surpass. In spite of the fact that Miss Pickford pre-empts the majority of the space, this has not led to a play of one personality. . . The fact that a good many people have imagined themselves in just these very circumstances will be the answer to whether the subject of an Adam man and an Eve young girl in an isolated place, and what they are going to do, will interest or not. It is a topic of universal attention.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, February 25, 1914.
After the release of Hearts Adrift, Mary Pickford was a topic of universal attention. Hearts Adrift appears to be the film that lifted Pickford’s name above any other actor of the time, on stage or on film — in a film that was a critical breakthrough. But there are two reasons it is not the film that is usually thought of as her breakthrough to superstardom. One, it is a lost film — it has not been seen since its re-release in 1919. The other? It was followed in less than six weeks by another film, one that Pickford would later claim as the best work of her career — and the only story she would film twice – Tess of the Storm Country. Fortunately for us, this “Tess” is not missing.
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Suggested Further Reading:
Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, Kentucky Press, 2007 (Paperback);
Christel Schmidt, Editor, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Kentucky Press, 2012;
Kevin Brownlow, Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend, Abrams, 1999;
Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, Doubleday, 1954;
Linda Arvidson (Mrs. Griffith), When the Movies Were Young (E. P. Dutton & Co., 1925)
Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith, An American Life, Limelight Editions, 1996 (Paperback).
All of the above, plus . . .
The Internet Archive (internetarchive.org) at The Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) for The Moving Picture World.
Archives of The New York Dramatic Mirror at fultonhistory.com, for The New York Dramatic Mirror.
The Washington Post at newspaperarchive.com.
Photos (excluding reproductions from periodicals cited above):
David Belasco, Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, and Mary Pickford with David Belasco, New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection (at digitalgallery.nypl.org).
Mary Pickford cover, The Motion Picture Story Magazine, November, 1913, and Broadway cast photo, “A Good Little Devil,” Harper’s Weekly, February 8, 1913, both from the author’s personal collection.