PICKFORD and GRIFFITH: The Clash of Film’s First Great Egos.

(Part Day One) 

“Oh no, not that, Mama!”

Willful Peggy (Mary Pickford) gives Mother (Kate Bruce) a “tongue lashing,” or is it the French school of pantomime?”  “Willful Peggy” (Biograph, 1910), dir. D. W. Griffith.

In my secret heart I was disappointed in Mother: permitting a Belasco actress, and her own daughter at that, to go into one of those despised, cheap, loathsome motion-picture studios . . . Belligerently I marched up the steps of Biograph.” [Mary Pickford on her arrival at the Biograph studio, April 19, 1909, from her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, Doubleday, 1954.  For a bit more on what motivated “Belasco actress” Mary Pickford to seek work “posing for pictures” at Biograph, see this prior article.]

He paused and then commented that she was certainly a good looker.” [D. W. Griffith on Biograph ‘office boy’ Bobby Harron’s announcement that a girl (Pickford) was there to see him.  D. W. Griffith (James Hart, Ed.), The Man Who Invented Hollywood, The Autobiography of D. W. Griffith, Touchstone, 1972.]

As I crossed the marble-floored foyer of the old mansion occupied by the Biograph Studio, a man came through the swinging door opposite me and began to look me over in a manner entirely too jaunty and familiar for my taste.

Are you an actress?

I most certainly am.

“‘What, if any, experience have you had, may I ask?’

Only ten years in the theater, sir, and two of them with David Belasco.” [Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow.]

She was small — cute figure — much golden curls — creamy complexion — sparkling Irish eyes, but eyes that also had languorous capabilities” [D. W. Griffith, Autobiography.]  Griffith’s recollection of meeting Mary Pickford shows clearly that he was entranced by her.  Pickford had just turned seventeen.  She told Biograph and Griffith she was fifteen.  Either way, jailbait.  Griffith was married and thirty-four.  He may, however, have been able to conceal his carnal interest — but with an insult?

“‘You’re too little and too fat, but I may give you a chance.'”

Pickford in Sunshine and Shadow, her 1954 autobiography, attributes this insult to Griffith in their first meeting.  I’ve yet to see anyone question this, which I find incredible.  I find it even more incredible that Griffith, a “southern gentleman,” would say such a thing to a young woman before even introducing himself, IN 1909 FOR GOD’S SAKE!  Life was harsh then, but people still had manners.  I find it interesting that Pickford, though reporting this alleged remark, doesn’t say more about it, and actually spends more time telling the reader how offended she was by the way the Biograph actors called each other by their first names, something “improper beyond belief,” and unheard of in the legitimate theater.

She was upset with her mother for asking her to seek work at Biograph, and was quite eager to split once she got there.   She asked the trolley conductor for a Broadway transfer before she alighted.  She would “pay the promised call and get out as fast as I could.”   This meant she planned on spending, at most, 30 minutes at Biograph — the maximum usable time for a typical transfer ticket.  Griffith calling her “too short and too fat” would have been more than sufficient reason for her to get back on the next trolley headed uptown with that Broadway transfer, and make the rounds of the theatrical booking agencies along the Great White Way.  And had she come home that evening and told her mother how she had been insulted by these loathsome picture people, Mother Charlotte would likely have understood and even approved her daughter’s actions.  Hell, the next morning Mother Charlotte may have paid a visit to Biograph herself to give Mr. D.W.G. a piece of her mind.

Instead, according to Mary, the exchange continued . . .

“My name is Griffith.  What’s yours?

The name meant nothing to me at all.  I thought him a pompous and insufferable creature, and I wanted more than ever to escape.”  [Mary claims that she held her tongue and later vented on another Biograph employee, the actor Owen Moore.]

“‘Who’s the dame?’ [Owen Moore’s ad-lib remark aimed at Pickford during her “screen test.”]

That was going too far.  I forgot all about . . the scene, my grotesque make-up, and Mr. Griffith, and turned the full force of my indignation on this boor.

“‘How dare you, sir, insult me?  I’ll have you understand I’m a perfectly respectable young girl, and don’t you dare call me a bad name!’

With that, Mr. Griffith let out a roar that would have done the M.G.M. lion credit.

“‘Miss . . . Miss . . . what the devil is your name? . . . Never, do you hear, never stop in the middle of a scene.  Do you know how much film costs per foot?  You’ve ruined it!  Start from the beginning!’

In those days ‘dame’ meant to me just one thing — a loose woman.  I had just never heard a girl publicly referred to as ‘a dame.’  Of course that young Irishman had meant no offense and was simply ad-libbing as they all did in the early movies.  Whatever his faults, obscene language in the presence of a lady was not one of them . . . he later became my first husband.” [Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow.   For more on her early relationship with Owen Moore see this previous article.]

After the ordeal was over, at “well past eight o’clock,” make-up and  costume removed, back in her Sunday best street clothes, she encounters Griffith waiting in the foyer.  This is how Griffith remembered it more than three decades later:

Well, Miss —

Miss Pickford is the name — Mary Pickford.

Well, Miss Pickford, I think you’ll do,  We’ll take you on trial and guarantee three days’ work each week at $5 a day, and if we should need you more often, we’ll pay $5 for each extra day.

“‘Well, Mr. Griffith, you must realize that I’m an actress.  I have had important parts with Mr. Belasco on the real stage.  . . . I’m an actress and an artist, and I must have a guarantee of $25 a week and extra when I work extra.’

“Boy!  When that little girl talked up that twenty-five bucks, her eyes fairly gleamed.”  [Griffith, Autobiography.]

According to Pickford, the first words from Griffith in this exchange with her were:

“‘Will you dine with me?’

“‘I’m sorry, Mr. Griffith, I’ve never dined with any boy, let alone a man, and besides I have to leave immediately for Brooklyn.  My mother and sister are playing there with Mr. Olcott.’

“‘Will you come back tomorrow?’

Why Mr. Griffith asked me to come back the next day is still a matter of amazement to me.  I was positive this was the end of my career in the ‘flickers.’  I knew it in my heart.  I had put ten years in the theater, and I knew whether a performance was good or bad.  Mine that day at the Biograph Studio was distinctly bad.

“‘Our pay for everybody is five dollars a day.  We pay only by the day.’

“‘I’m a Belasco actress, Mr. Griffith, I must have ten.’  He laughed.”

Agreed!  Five dollars for today and ten for tomorrow.  But keep it to yourself.  No one is paid that much, and there will be a riot if it leaks out.  ‘Til tomorrow at nine sharp.”  [Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, including the remaining quotes below.]

By this time, well after 8 PM, with thoughts of booking agencies on Broadway long gone, Mary headed to the subway.  It had started raining before she left the studio, and by the time she finished her negotiations with Griffith about her pay it turned into a torrential downpour.  Griffith, with umbrella in hand, kindly escorted her to the subway entrance.  By the time she arrived at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn where Mother Charlotte and sister Lottie were appearing in a play, she was drenched, her beautiful new blue serge $15 Easter suit “a wringing mess” and her new high heels (her first) ruined.  She sat on a heat register backstage with brother Jack, trying to warm up and dry herself, still clutching an equally soaked five dollar bill from Biograph in her hand.  Her mother found her backstage.

They’re going to pay me ten dollars a day from tomorrow on, Mama,’ I told her, my teeth chattering.

“‘You see, I was right after all, dear,’ she said.

I didn’t dare tell her how much I hated that awful place on Fourteenth Street.”

The next morning [Day Two] . . .

An alarm clock shimmied off the table and onto the floor of my bedroom. Sleepy and aching all over, I was never so reluctant to rise in my life.”

On the morning of April 20, 1909, Mary Pickford awoke at 7:30 and began to ready herself for the 9 o’clock start of her first scheduled day at her new job performing for the camera at the Biograph studio. She had spent nearly twelve hours there the prior day with screen tests, a walk-on (that was subsequently not used in the finished film) in “What Drink Did,” and observing, rather dubiously, the atmosphere and work methods of moving picture production.

She had met and been hired by D. W. Griffith, who in the previous ten months had directed more than a hundred short films after having had minimal exposure to film as an actor and scenario writer, and none whatsover directing for either film or stage. Pickford most likely was unaware of this, or else she might have arrived at Biograph the next morning with a bit more confidence than when she left it the previous evening, having had a “distinctly bad” first day.

But this morning she was up early, despited being tired and achy from her prior day’s sojurn to Biograph then to Brooklyn in a torrential downpour and finally back home late that night. And she decided that rather than waste a nickel on transporation, she would walk to work today. She left the flat Mother Charlotte was renting on West 17th Street in Manhattan and walked three blocks south and several more east across town. Biograph was just a few doors off Fifth Avenue and less than a block from Broadway and Union Square. A decade or two earlier the area had been close to the heart of the theater district, but now was primarily home to vaudeville and the newest form of pop entertainment, moving pictures — the “movies” or “flickers” in period slang.

Although she hardly thought so at the time, it was a day she would describe many years later as the time when “Gladys was sent back to Canada and Mary was to embark on a great and thrilling career.”

But now, on that first morning as a an employee, she arrived at the studio promptly at nine “praying that no one from the theater would see me going up the Biograph steps.”

Biograph studio entrance on East 14th. Where a future film legend reluctantly sought work one early spring morning in 1909: "Belligerently I marched up the steps of Biograph." Mary Pickford, "Sunshine and Shadow."

* * *

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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3 Responses to PICKFORD and GRIFFITH: The Clash of Film’s First Great Egos.

  1. Pingback: Film Friday | Weekly Roundup « Pretty Clever Films

  2. Kelly Brown says:

    For me, Griffith’s comment about her size and weight weren’t too unusual for an exchange between a director and player. He was a businessman above all — his business being directing — and she was just another actress to come floating through that studio. I can imagine she had heard worse from other directors and managers. For her not to have heard “dame” before seems more incredulous.
    Great article! Thanks so much for your blog! Love it!

    • Thanks so much. I think the first meeting of these two “giants” of motion pictures is such a great story. Pickford’s overreaction to the “dame” remark may simply have been the tipping point for someone already on edge who may not have been called that word before within the context of her prior theatrical experience. That’s not hard to believe — she was only fifteen when she landed the part of “Betty Warren” in “Warrens of Virginia” for Belasco in late 1907, and she had spent the next year and a half in that company, on Broadway and then on the road. In HER mind she probably felt she had now risen to a level as a “Belasco actress” where it was almost intolerable to bear such language from these “loathsome” picture people. And as to the “fat” remark, I don’t think Griffith said that at their initial encounter. If I’m not mistaken, I believe he said that to her at a later date, possibly before the California trip in 1910 when she asked him for a raise, and she may have confused the two events — I’ll have to go back and check that. Either way, it’s pretty clear we are talking about two “Great Egos,” isn’t it?

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