“‘Do you care for photoplays, other than your own? Seeing them, I mean?‘ I stammered.
“‘Yes, indeed. I am an inveterate photoplay fan. I think every player who has any ambition at all, any desire to get ahead in his work, should spend as much or more time seeing other people’s pictures as his own. I think that only by comparison and good hard work can we hope to succeed. And it is my highest ambition to reach the zenith of a professional career.’
“‘And will you name some of the great photoplayers?‘ I persisted.
“‘Of course. I’ll name some that I consider the greatest — Mary Fuller and Mary Pickford. I enjoy their work on the screen more than any others I have ever seen.” Blanche Sweet, interviewed in “The Girl Who Reads Tennyson Between Scenes,” By Barbara Courtlandt, Motion Picture Magazine, April 1916.
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Mary Fuller made more than 200 short films, features and serials in a career that lasted a little less than a decade. She was one of the most popular and successful actors of the 1910s, and earned the respect of her esteemed colleagues, such as Blanche Sweet. Unfortunately, very little of her work survives on film. The groundbreaking 12 episode Edison serial in which Fuller starred from 1912-1913, What Happened to Mary?, survives, more or less, in 16mm reduction prints in archives. A “sequel,” Who Will Marry Mary? (Edison, 1913) has fared worse, only one complete and one partial installment of the six episode serial survive. And but a single episode of her later 12 part serial, The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies (Edison, 1914) exists. It was found in a New Zealand archive in 2010 and restored.
Two short films starring Fuller, Thirty Days at Hard Labor (1912) and The Ambassador’s Daughter (1913), held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were restored and reissued as part of an Edison compilation on DVD by KINO, Edison: The Invention of the Movies in 2005. The still frames reproduced in this article are from that set.
As one of the most popular stars of her era, Mary Fuller was frequently the subject of articles, interviews, essays and poetry in the motion picture fan magazines and trade periodicals that also published articles, essays and film scenarios penned by Fuller herself. Given the paucity of her existing film work, this is perhaps the best remaining way to get to know and appreciate this important actor of early film. What follows is Mary Fuller, in her own words.
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“I like ‘Electra’ best of all the roles I have played. It has depth and tragedy, poetry, loftiness, and sorrow. It is satisfying, too. One feels that it is work worth doing. It was two years ago that I played it. I would like to do it again, for I know I could do it much better now. That is what I aim for — to try, and keep on trying till I reach perfection. I am always interested in watching my work on the screen, to see where I can improve it.
“I love books, and I have done some writing myself — magazine stories and Motion Picture scenarios. Some people call my work bizarre, but I know that it is good, and that in the matter of scenarios I am simply ahead of my time.
” . . . Oh, politics don’t interest me much. That sort of thing isn’t in my line. There’s nothing artistic about it — except the lies they tell. I don’t believe the majority of women are ready for suffrage yet — they are not broad-minded enough. But I would like to vote for Roosevelt.”
” . . . I guess I am an old maid now [Fuller was not yet 24]. I shall never get married. . . I am wrapped up in my work. Improvement, self-cultivation — that is my ambition — that, and having people like me.” Mary Fuller, “Chats With The Players,” by Gladys Roosevelt, Motion Picture Story Magazine, July 1912.
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“She greeted me with a friendly smile and handshake, both given with the naive heartiness of a person whom one knows is ever glad to make a new friend. . . Her voice, let me say, is as great a wonder as her eyes, and it is to be regretted that her public cannot hear her speak.
“‘The technique of acting for the screen is more intricate than most people think. But no amount of technique will insure success without natural talent for expression. One must act with more feeling and sincerity than is required on the dramatic stage.’” Mary Fuller, “The Girl on the Cover,” by Colgate Baker, Photoplay Magazine, June 1915.
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“Up to this time scenarios have been so loosely constructed that players have had to call on their own imaginations to supply minutiae of the plot as well as characterizations; so that after this creative practice, we can conceive an idea and ‘send it across’ in a twinkling. It is a striking example of telepathy, and some players in the movies possess this quality so strongly or have developed it so, that they live in the minds of their audiences long after the film strip has run its course. That is one of the fascinations of this art; one dwells not only within one’s own body, but in the minds and hearts of thousands of others. It is a thought dear and snug and warm.” Mary Fuller, “Photoplay Acting is Mental Radiation,” The Moving Picture World, July 11, 1914.
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[Note: In the early morning hours of March 28, 1914, a fire broke out at the Edison studio in the Bronx, destroying much of the interior, sets, props, costumes, and shattering the huge glass roof which came crashing to the floor. Firefighters had responded to the 4:00 AM alarm call by a night watchman and a group of workers who had been building film sets. Heavy smoke trapped the workers in the building until the first responders were able to free them. Miraculously, no serious injuries were reported.]
“March 28th. — Quite a shock to be called out of bed in the morning with the news that your studio has burned down, destroying all one’s wardrobe. . . I clutched my disheveled hair and said, ‘I cannot believe it; it cannot be,’ over and over. When I arrived at the studio, what confusion! The main portion of the building was charred wreckage, the halls were cluttered with debris, and the floors swam in water. Contrary to reports, my wardrobe was safe both from fire and water and all my precious ‘props,’ collected with care, were unharmed, Merciful Providence, or my lucky star, be thanked!
“Actors and employees were buzzing about like bees deprived of their hive, and every one was giving accounts of his particular valor in saving films or stove-plates, when, as a matter of fact, they were at home asleep during the fire. Firemen and reporters walked about with grimy faces and cups of coffee, given an effect of recent heroism, which was not borne out by their actions earlier in the engagement. Some actors who had lost their wardrobes were busy with pen and pad, making a $15 suit look like $60 for the benefit of the insurance company. A little monetary circulation is good for the system. I investigated the loss, viewed the remains and listened to several heroes, mounted on piles of scenery, discourse on the event. Then I went out and bought some buttermilk.” Mary Fuller, “Extracts from the Diary of Mary Fuller,” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1914.
[Note: The Biograph Company and D. W. Griffith left their old studio headquarters at 11 East Fourteenth Street in Manhattan at the end of 1912, moving to their newly constructed studio in the Bronx (as had Edison half a decade earlier). For the next several years, the old facility was used by others -- George Kleine, Klaw & Erlanger and, in a pinch, Edison. It is interesting to see, judging by Fuller's diary entry from 1914, that it had already acquired "legendary" status in movie history, as Fuller communes with the shadows of shadow-players "past" -- whose names were redacted by the editors of Motion Picture Magazine. My guesses to fill in the blanks? Florence Lawrence, Henry B. Walthall, Arthur Johnson and Blanche Sweet.]
“March 31st. — Owing to the wreckage in the studio, we worked at the old Biograph on Fourteenth Street today. It is a small place, but rather homelike, and one’s forces seem more concentrated — the way I prefer to work. The rooms, not having been used for some time smelled dank and musty, and all the ghosts of former Biograph days came and leaned over my shoulder and told me interesting things as I sat in the dressing-room waiting for my cue. It was like conquering Time to go back and live with the spirits of the past. Lovely ____ was there in the springtime of youth; and ____ in his poetic beauty, as he appeared in ‘The Oath and the Man’; and tall ____ , recalling the first time I saw him on the screen, in satincoat and buckled shoes, blessing a child at a church corner, in the snow; and ____ , like a lily fair . . . So many interesting shadows. I was sorry to leave them at 11 P.M., when our work was finished and we started for home. “Extracts from the Diary of Mary Fuller,” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1914.
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[Note: The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies (Edison, 1914) was a twelve-part serial centered on the exploits of Dolly Desmond (Mary Fuller), an investigative reporter for a daily newspaper. Episode No. 7 was titled, The End of the Umbrella. Only one episode, No. 5, The Chinese Fan, is known to survive. It was found in a New Zealand archive in 2010. The restored one-reel film was premiered at the 2011 Cinecon Festival in Los Angeles.]
“April 6th. — They blew me up with a Black Hand bomb today, doing ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ (No. 7). The charge of dynamite was very heavy. The shack was wrecked, my clothes were torn and blackened, and blood ran from a scalp wound. It was exciting. I hope my ‘fans’ will like it. [Note: At Left is an ad for this episode of the "Dolly" serial.]
“April 7th. — We finished Frederick the Great today. In one of the platform scenes I wore the black velvet Watteau hat trimmed with lillies that I sat up making late last night. It turned out a great success. I hope they don’t cut that scene out.”
“April 8th. — I received on this date a letter from one of my dear movie fans relative to the recent studio fire. She writes: ‘I read in the Philadelphia Record of the terrible fire and destruction of your studio. . . I shall tell you my first thought after reading it: Good Lord! I hope ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ is not destroyed!’”
“April 10th. — I was pulled up a coal-hole today. We were taking a scene from ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ (No.8), on Decatur Avenue, and when I emerged thru the coal-hole and scrambled out with face and hands black with soot, hair down and dress torn, puffing and blowing like a grampus, the crowd shouted with glee. The worst of these outside scenes is that there is always such a crowd. And how they do eat me up!” “Extracts from the Diary of Mary Fuller,” Motion Picture Magazine, August 1914.
“While tragic roles appeal to me most, I like a variety. The light, the humorous, the fantastic, the sinister,the bizarre, the mystic, the wholesomely conventional, all appeal to my imagination. Little Elise, in ‘The Forester’s Daughter,’ was a favorite of mine, and I made her a mischievous, capricious, gay little flirt, in a fur skirt and tattered tunic, riding an ox down the mountainside to drive the cows home at sunset. And Eva Angelica in ‘A Woodland Paradise,’ who had never seen a man and was kist and married on the same day, I like for her Greek dress and lack of sophistication. As for the bizarre type, I hugely enjoyed playing the Sphinx in ‘A Daughter of the Nile.’” Mary Fuller, interviewed in “Favorite Scenes from Favorite Plays,” by Mabel Warren, Motion Picture Magazine, December 1915.
“Most girls lay aside their dolls when they begin to grow up, but I just couldn’t part with mine, even when mother said I was too big to be seen playing with such little people. I owe a great deal to these little creatures, for it was while playing with them that I discovered my talent for ‘make-believe,’ and whatever progress I have made in my profession I owe to the doll family tucked away in my trunk.” “The Doll Lady: Disclosing the Peter-Pan-ishness of Mary Fuller,” by H. H. Van Loan, Motion Picture Magazine, April 1917.
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“MARY FULLER SIGNS WITH UNIVERSAL.
MARY FULLER, one of the most popular girls upon the screen to-day, has signed with Universal. Negotiations to this effect were closed on June 20th, when Miss Fuller visited the New York offices and put her name to the contract. . . . As the heroine of ‘What Happened to Mary’ series, Miss Fuller received more advertising and, perhaps, more popularity than any other girl in motion pictures. That the Universal has secured her is considered in the way of a scoop.” The Moving Picture World, July 4, 1914.
“We beg to announce Mary Fuller’s return to the screen, with the Lasky Company, playing opposite Lou-Tellegen in ‘The Long Trail,’ and a series of others, production to be made in California. Miss Fuller is one of the wealthiest actresses of the screen having cleaned up a small fortune in Wall Street at the opening of the war.” “Little Whisperings from Everywhere in Playerdom,” Motion Picture Magazine, March 1917.
“Oblivion — The vapor of fame. (For further particulars the reader is respectfully referred to Mary Fuller, Maurice Costello, Florence Lawrence and others.)” “The Movie Dictionary, Compiled by ‘The Photoplay Philosopher,’” Photoplay Magazine, May, 1918.
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April 3rd. — “I wish I could afford a large mansion. What delight to live in a place large enough to expand one’s ideas in, sleep on a sumptuous bier in a lofty room as large as, say, the Grand Central Station rotunda! I would like that above all things. And long, columnated halls, and handsome slaves, and purple cushions with gold fringe, and men of science and art to discourse with, and no interference of Cupid, with his painful darts.” “Extracts from the Diary of Mary Fuller,” Motion Picture Magazine, July 1914.