“Last night, as we were coming home from the theatre, three great fire engines thundered by us. It was the coldest night we have had this winter in New York, and we could see the blanched, blued faces of the men who clung to the wagons, some of them still putting on their coats, having responded to the call on a second’s notice.
“A few blocks away, we could see the flames illuminating the sky and knew they had a terrible ordeal before them. From all directions came the engines and we turned our machine around and followed the crowd.
“As we drew near to the fire, the policemen hurried up to us and warned us away, telling us one of the large ice plants was on fire and there were terrible dangers impending if the flames licked their way to the great ammonia tanks. As fast as the eager, curious crowd pushed its way forward the officers, almost using force, would order us back, but no one stopped the firemen from going near the building. Silhouetted against the flames, we could see their ladders and the poor boys going up the building, groping their way through the poisonous fumes and blinding, suffocating smoke.
“’Oh, why don’t they order the firemen back?‘ I finally asked breathlessly. ‘If one of the tanks blew up wouldn’t there be dozens of them killed?‘
“’Sure,’ Replied a policeman, looking at me with surprise, ‘but ain’t that their line of business? Somebody’s got to do it, but –‘ he added, with a touch of compassion, ‘they’re brave, them cusses, and they’re tender hearted, too. I’ve known them to risk their lives to save some old woman’s canary, and they’d go through ten stories of hell to save a little kid.’
“I thought of the boys who had fought the flames all night long when our studio burned. Early in the morning, when there was nothing left of the building but a mass of smoldering coals, the firemen were called off duty. One of the boys was missing. They told us he had been killed early in the evening when a hose burst and the nozzle struck him in the temple. I was aghast when I heard of the tragedy, but one of the firemen smiled at me, saying, ‘Well, I guess a life ain’t of any more value than property, after all, Miss Pickford. It don’t seem so to us boys who don’t know what we’re going to face every time we’re called to duty. And pretty tough times we have, at that.’
“As he and I were talking, nine or ten of the firemen came out of the building and circled around me, looking at me with gracious curiosity. ‘Say, Miss Pickford,‘ one of them asked me, almost sheepishly, ‘you don’t mind if us fellows give you the once over, do you? John and Pete here deserve a look because they pretty near broke their necks trying to beat the flames to it and get into your dressing room first. They thought you might have a lot of little trinkets you’d be glad to have saved.’
“I couldn’t thank them enough nor could I throw off the depressing thought that one of their crew had been killed.” Daily Talks By Mary Pickford, “The Firemen,” February 18, 1916, The McClure Newspaper Syndicate.
* * *
Labor Day Weekend, 1915, saw the opening on Broadway of a pair of events of the first order of magnitude. Two plays, one of the footlights, the other of shadows, presenting two stars both rapidly rising, just beyond their teens, barely of voting age if women had been granted the right to vote: Ruth Chatterton returning to New York for a special one week only, final Broadway presentation of her smash hit, Daddy Long Legs, and Mary Pickford at the huge new movie palace, The Strand, in the premiere of Esmeralda, her fifteenth feature film release in twenty-four months for Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players, with two more movies in post-production. And yet another was being filmed at Famous Players Studio in New York, a converted armory on West 26th Street, where two years before on a hot summer night her first feature, A Good Little Devil, had been previewed for a film industry convention audience.
But on September 11, 1915, a fire consumed the Famous Players studio . As five New York fire companies battled the intense heat and toxic smoke, Mary Pickford and Adolph Zukor could only watch from a safe distance two blocks away, along with 25,000 onlookers. Pickford recounted her experience of that day in her syndicated newspaper column, “Daily Talks By Mary Pickford,” that had begun appearing in papers across the country in November of 1915. The famous player seen and loved by millions was now an author being read by as many with their morning breakfast or evening dinner, giving all the life experience and folksy, youth-oriented advice that a twenty-three year old who had spent nearly all of those years on stage or before the camera could give.
Two years before her column, “The Firemen,” appeared, Mary Pickford had just scored her biggest hit with her third feature film release, Hearts Adrift, in which she played a young castaway on a desert island who must grow up without adult supervision, just her wits and the friendship and protection of a wolf-cub she raises to be her only companion. Hearts Adrift is a lost film, a missing Pickford, one which might raise some modern eyebrows — those whose impression of Mary Pickford is of a prim Edwardian miss embalmed in amber-toned silent film.
Julian Johnson of Photoplay Magazine referenced her unexpected voluptuousness in Hearts Adrift (which Pickford blamed on the excessive intake of the bounty of her Southern California film location). The film apparently contained a nude scene, shot from a distance, which Pickford and Famous Players demurred, saying it was performed by a stand-in. Nevermind. Pickford was portraying a character frolicking naked, a twentieth century Eve on an island Eden awaiting her shipwrecked Adam. For fans of Mary Pickford, Hearts weren’t Adrift, they were Afire.
Tess of the Storm Country.
Her follow-up to Hearts Adrift for Famous Players and Zukor was Tess of the Storm Country. Whether by merit or simply by default, “Tess” is the film in which we see the Pickford persona begin to take shape. Audiences of 1914 had already experienced the full force of Pickford’s screen presence in feature films with In the Bishop’s Carriage, Caprice and Hearts Adrift. But “Tess” was the film best-received to date by both audiences and critics of the period and would cement Pickford as the top draw in motion pictures.
Tess of the Storm Country is the earliest of the Pickford feature films to survive. For modern audiences, having access to only a few dozen of the approximately 120 extant short films she made between 1909 and 1912, and with her first four features lost, Tess of the Storm Country is the first film to give us Pickford full strength and feature-length. And although the focus of this series of articles on Mary Pickford is the “missing” works, for its impact on Pickford’s career and to place the missing films in better context, “Tess” is worthy of a quick study, particularly of its reception in the press and by audiences of the time.
In her biography, Pickford: the woman who made Hollywood, Eileen Whitfield describes the feeling of her fans in 1914, at the time of “Tess:”
“In popularity polls, Pickford ranked sometimes above, sometimes below such passing fancies as Clara Kimball Young, Earl Williams, Mary Fuller, and J. Warren Kerrigan. But only Pickford was loved throughout the entire course of silent film. Only Pickford inspired a peculiar intensity that made her ‘the intimate possession of all the people.’ And Mary was forever set apart from other actors as the first pop icon who took shape through moving images. The romantic shock with which she entered viewers’ hearts hung about her for decades. Tess of the Storm Country brought this delirium to a fever pitch.”
Based upon a novel by Grace Miller White, Tessibel Skinner is the daughter of a family of fisherman squatters living on shore of property owned by a wealthy family whose son meets and falls in love with “Tess.” As played by Pickford, Tess is a force of nature, wild but intelligent and loyal, a temper barely controlled by a native goodness, ultimately selfless. It is a characterization that Pickford had been building, reel by single reel in Biograph shorts: “Harum-Scarum” in The Mountaineer’s Honor (1909), the titular roles of Wilful Peggy (1910) and The Mender of Nets (1912).
The son of the wealthy family, Frederick, falls in love with Tess, who overcomes her hesitancy given their stations in life, and she reciprocates. But an impossibly huge obstacle to their relationship develops, having nothing to do with their social disparity. Frederick’s sister, Teola, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a child out-of-wedlock. Teola is suicidal. Tess, fearing for the mother and the child, takes responsibility for the baby, unafraid that others now believe it was hers to begin with. Frederick, not knowing the child is his sister’s, drops Tess flat.
Tess, in her squatter’s existence, cannot afford to feed the baby, and is forced to steal milk — from Fred and Teola’s family. She is caught and beaten (with a whip, no less) by Fred’s and the real mother’s father. Two incidents show her character and her resolve. After she is whipped, rather than fleeing or weeping, she remains steadfast and calmly asks the father for the milk. Later, when the child is dying, she takes it to church, and in mid-service, presents the baby for baptism before it dies. When the pastor refuses, she takes it upon herself to “bless” the child with the holy water. At this point, Teola, who is at the service, claims the child as her own, to the gasps of the congregation, including Frederick. It is a scene among the high points of American cinema.
In The Moving Picture World, George Blaisdell, an unabashed fan of Pickford, captured and expressed what Eileen Whitfield described as that “peculiar intensity” felt by many,
“As the interpreter of the part of Tess we have the always-charming Little Mary — it is doubtful if ever she will be to us a player by any other name. As she was in “Caprice,” as she was in “Hearts Adrift,” so she is in “Tess of the Storm Country” — inimitable, always doing the unexpected thing, yet always human, lovable; . . .”
And as it continues, Blaisdell’s description of the qualities of Little Mary the actor and those of Tess the character blend together:
” . . . impulsive, her affections for her father as deep as her detestation of the elder for whose son there rises in her breast the first springs of love; religious, her faith in the God . . . So, too is she self-sacrificing, assuming without murmur of complaint the stigma of unwedded motherhood to save the reputation of the slowly declining sister of the man she loved . . . ” “‘Tess of the Storm Country’ Reviewed by George Blaisdell,” The Moving Picture World, April 4, 1914.
Directing “Tess” was film pioneer Edwin S. Porter, who Pickford thought more of a technician than a director of actors, but reviewers of the period usually give credit to what was his strong point as a filmmaker (possibly his only one), as cinematographer. The New York Dramatic Mirror noted this as well, but more noteworthy was how Pickford dominated the film, and that the many twists and turns of the original plot were subordinated “to give us as much as possible of Mary Pickford, and few will be found to complain of this.” (One wonders how much Pickford herself was responsible for this, with Zukor’s approval, given that she felt that despite his technical abilities, Porter had little concept of properly constructed drama.)
“Tess of the Storm Country was not originally written for Mary Pickford, but we doubt if the author, Grace Miller White, could have created a more suitable character for ‘Little Mary’ had she kept that wonderful exponent of personality in mind while writing every page of the manuscript. Tess is a Mary Pickford role, and when that is said, you know the rest. Backed up by direction that only rarely slips a cog, photography and settings that are feast for the eye, and a story that abounds in both smiles and gulps, and the result is a picture that will send them home feeling even more than satisfied.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, March 25, 1914.
Clearly Pickford — an actor, not a mogul (at least not yet) — was now the dominant force on the American screen, as demonstrated in these reviews from two of the most important trade publications in the rapidly growing motion picture industry. But despite her growing fame she was unafraid to mingle openly with her public. She went to see “Tess” with a small party including mother Charlotte, and found she had to join a throng of her fans outside the theater unable to enter the sold-out showing:
“LITTLE MARY A STANDEE AT ‘TESS.’
“Miss Mary Pickford saw herself in her greatest success, ‘Tess of the Storm Country,’ for the first time recently at Loew’s Circle Theater. In spite of the rain the crowd was so great that several hundred admirers of the dainty star were ‘locked out,’ and when Miss Pickford arrived she couldn’t even buy her way in. Anxious to see the picture that the critics unanimously termed her greatest effort, she boldly told the doorman she was Mary Pickford, and asked to be admitted. The doorman’s eyes widened perceptibly, but he called the manager, Mr. Oppenheimer, who instantly recognized the star and admitted her and the party accompanying her, including her mother, a young-appearing little woman, intensely interested in her remarkable daughter and her phenomenal talent.
“Once the party was inside the theater, they found hardly room to stand — much less to sit down. ‘Little Mary’ had difficulty in seeing over the heads of people standing in front of her, until Mr. Oppenheimer brought her a chair to stand upon. Judging from her inimitable and famous expression, Miss Pickford enjoyed the picture almost as much as did the audience — but, unlike the others, she did not applaud.” The Moving Picture World, May 23, 1914.
In 1964, author, historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow had the good fortune to be able to interview Pickford at length and in a relaxed situation while she was visiting family in England. They discussed “Tess,” and Pickford told him that aside from his abilities as a motion picture technician, Edwin S. Porter “knew nothing about directing. Nothing.” When Brownlow asked, quite reasonably, if the resulting film was “a poor one,” Pickford replied,
“No. It saved the company. They thought I was just another actress, but when I made Tess of the Storm Country, that was really the beginning of my career. . . But it was a such a surprise for everybody, myself included, because we didn’t see any rushes. They had no means in Hollywood to develop the film. The negative was sent to New York, which was very dangerous; so none of us knew what the picture was going to be like.” Kevin Brownlow, Mary Pickford Rediscovered: rare pictures of a Hollywood legend, (Abrams, 1999).
Brownlow describes Pickford’s performance as “. . . brilliant; her character, incredibly strong, frenetically angry, bursts from the screen. You wonder how anyone so small can be so powerful; it is perhaps the most violent performance she ever gave.” Brownlow, Mary Pickford Rediscovered.
While it was common for studios, stars and directors of the 1910s to “remake” their biggest successes of that era, later, in the 1920s, when technology had supposedly advanced the art of filmmaking, Mary Pickford remade only one of her successes: Tess of the Storm Country, in 1922.
The Eagle’s Mate.
Pickford’s next film was unusually important for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that it followed her most successful film to date. It would also be the first Pickford film Zukor distributed not via “states rights” regional sales, but nationally through Paramount Pictures. It was only the first step in Zukor’s plans. (In 1916 he would merge with Jesse Lasky Productions and the two men would effect a takeover of Paramount.) But for now, he was looking to control and hopefully reduce distribution costs for his advertised “30 Famous Features A Year,” and find the money to pay Pickford’s anticipated future contract demands. He was clearly thinking ahead.
In Pickford’s case, she had been averaging nearly “One Famous Feature a Month,” or would have if her September illness hadn’t knocked the release schedule just a month or so out of whack. Five features in six months, including the delayed release of the original first Pickford feature, A Good Little Devil, which finally hit the screens between Hearts Adrift and Tess, almost a year after it was produced.
The followup was The Eagle’s Mate, a surviving film that might as well be missing, as it is rarely screened. Pickford never mentions it in her autobiography. The Eagle’s Mate reunited her with her former Biograph and Majestic colleague, actor-director James Kirkwood who was assigned to direct and act the male lead in the film.
The film concerns a clan of backwoods moonshiners (are there any other kind?) who abduct the genteel character played by Pickford with the marvelous moniker, Anemone Breckenridge. (The Famous Players ads distilled the plot to its 180 proof essence: “A Thrilling Romantic Drama of Life in the West Virginia Mountains!”) Anemone is raised by an aunt who married outside of the clan — Anemone is unaware she is one of them until after the leader of the clan is arrested, and one of the clan members, wounded in a fight to free their leader, is nursed back to health by Anemone with whom he falls in love and then abducts. But the leader’s son, Lance (James Kirkwood), also loves Anemone. Conflict ensues.
Clearly, the audiences of 1914 were eagerly anticipating her first film after the enormous popularity of “Tess.” The Moving Picture World‘s George Blaisdell describes the scene at the huge (3,000 seat capacity), new movie palace on Broadway, The Strand. And this was for a Monday matinée, the day after the premiere of The Eagle’s Mate:
“Practically every seat was filled, . . . and a silent house it was throughout the five reels. It was the silence significant of close attention and deep interest. . . Difficult indeed was the task assigned to Producer Kirkwood that his initial picture in his new engagement [i.e., with Famous Players] should also be the immediate successor of one of Miss Pickford’s greatest successes. Mr. Kirkwood has done well. He has made much of a story remarkable more for steadily maintained interest than for its ability deeply to stir the emotions; there are numbers of situations that rouse the blood and a few that reach the heart.” The Moving Picture World, July 18, 1914.
Unlike Tess, Anemone gives Pickford the opportunity to wear both the gowns of a young lady and the rough clothing of a backwoods girl. Naturally, the men of the clans compete, violently, for her affections, and as one might expect of a Pickfordish girl, they are not easily attained.
“Miss Pickford knows how to wear clothes, but her success as an actress in nowise depends on that not negligible attribute. . . Anemone is a most lovable character. Small wonder the rough men of the hills fight over her, heedless of her assurance that such a combat is utterly pointless, as she would marry neither. She is as strong in her affection for the young eagle which she fondles, for the dogs with which she romps, and for the horse she rides as she is in her aversion for the men by whom she is carried away to the hills.” The Moving Picture World, July 18, 1914.
After ruminating on the implications of such a name as “Anemone,” the New York Dramatic Mirror, hones in on the qualities Pickford brings to a character, uniquely suited to her, so that character and player — as they would so many times to come — are indistinguishable. Yet those qualities are not by any means one-dimensional.
“All that is fresh and lovely in Miss Pickford’s personality, all that is girlishly winsome and appealing in her acting, has free outlet. The part calls for variety, a real indication of character in the molding, a touch of childishness here, a suggestion of maturity there — laughter, tears, and sacrifice. A thoroughly human girl is this Anemone Breckenridge, and Miss Pickford slights none of the emotions associated with her proverbially complex sex.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, July 15, 1914.
The Eagle’s Mate was another hit for Pickford. Critical consensus indicates that although it was a strong effort in all respects, it did not — and could not — match the emotional, gut-twisting moments of high drama of Tess of the Storm Country. It was important for Pickford in that she found a director with a similar artistic sensibility — she and Kirkwood were familiar as co-workers, and some said they were now familiar in other respects more personal. Be that as it may, Pickford made eight more films with Kirkwood as her director in just over a year.
Mary Pickford’s films were now such powerful money-makers that her former employers did something that previously was almost unthinkable — they began to re-release her “old” films. Aside from a handful of early imported features and religious works, film producers and distributors had seen no profit and therefore no point in undertaking the expense of making new release prints of old films for audiences that had, for the most part, already seen them. By 1914 feature-length films had become the dominant dramatic form in the domestic market (and multiple reel comedies began to appear as well). Single reel films from the Nickelodeon era were not seen as re-saleable. That is, unless they had something the world of motion pictures had never before seen, the attraction of a mega star: Mary Pickford.
Carl Laemmle must have felt burned by Pickford and Owen Moore after they left him for Majestic in 1911 in the middle of their contracts with his Independent Motion Pictures Company. Pickford had successfully fought Laemmle’s injunction against her working elsewhere; in April 1914, Moore sued Laemmle for lost wages, alleging breach of his 1910 IMP contract. In July, almost simultaneous with Famous Players’ release of The Eagle’s Mate, Laemmle announced that Universal, his new production company, was re-releasing (one every two weeks) the Pickford and Moore IMP titles from 1911. Certainly his timing was right. Pickford had millions of new fans who had never seen her older films from what must have seemed the Pleistocene Era of the movies, when they had been screened in storefronts, backrooms, nickelodeons and arcades like Adolph Zukor’s old “Automatic Vaudeville.”
Biograph was more subtle. Attempting to capitalize on the growing fame and reputations of their two former employees, Pickford and D. W. Griffith, they began to re-release a varied selection of older titles directed by the man the press now called “the Genius of the Movies,” with a healthy sprinkling of Pickfords in the mix. But this time Biograph made sure their names were prominent in the credits as well as the advertising.
Universal seemed to make it clear that their offerings were old Pickfords being rereleased, but apparently there was enough hysteria generated amongst her fans that some people were misled into thinking these were new films. There were also reports, likely swirling about during the New York Motion Picture Exposition in mid June, that Mary Pickford was leaving Famous Players and Zukor for Laemmle’s Universal. Pickford had seen first hand Laemmle’s ability to manipulate the press and the public with his Florence Lawrence publicity stunt four years earlier and may have suspected he was behind the reports. Pickford fired back in The Moving Picture World:
“A LETTER FROM MARY PICKFORD.
“Editor, Moving Picture World,
“Dear Sir: — An unauthorized report, detrimental to both myself and the Famous Players Film Co., has been circulated to the effect that I intend to leave that concern and become associated with the Universal Film Co.
“This story is entirely without foundation or authority, and you will do me and the Famous Players Film Co. a great favor if you will contradict this report in the strongest language possible.
“As is commonly known, the Famous Players Film Co. have supplied me with opportunities and play material unequalled by any other company, and the report is therefore unjust and injurious to everybody concerned.
“Very truly yours, MARY PICKFORD.”
Pickford’s letter appeared in the very same issue of The Moving Picture World , July 4, 1914, in which Universal advertised their release of the Pickford IMPS (which The Moving Picture World also noted in a separate news item). Several weeks later, The Moving Picture World dutifully complied with Pickford’s request with a strong rebuke of Laemmle without naming him or his company. Laemmle responded in a letter in which he defended his and Universal’s actions regarding the Pickford IMPs, and strongly denied any allegation that he or Universal were the source of the rumors regarding the employment status of Mary Pickford. The editors of The Moving Picture World now realized that linking the source of the Pickford defection rumors to Universal, even obliquely, was without foundation. On August 29, The Moving Picture World published an excerpt from Laemmle’s letter, and in an accompanying article, the editors absolved Universal of any unethical acts in the matter they now referred to as “an interesting situation.”
Whatever rancor Carl Laemmle felt toward Pickford, Owen Moore or The Moving Picture World, likely dissipated as he counted the box-office returns from his re-released Mary Pickford IMP’s. Exhibitors who were showing the older Biographs with Pickford also discovered that they were well-received and attracted large audiences:
“Audiences at the Majestic Theater, of Louisville, were much pleased with the reviving ‘Garden of Roses,’ which was shown at the theater on Sunday evening, August 2. This was one of the early Mary Pickford pictures, in which Owen Moore played the leading part, and was made by the Biograph Company. Few of the audience had ever seen the picture and such as had seen it had forgotten it. This was a one-reel production and took very well.” “Exhibitors News, Louisville,” The Moving Picture World, August 15, 1914.
“The Lyric of Portsmouth, Ohio, showed Mary Pickford in one of her earlier successes, ‘The Thread of Destiny,’ one night last week. . . Old releases in which ‘Little Mary’ is featured are proving as good drawing cards as anything which can be had, according to exhibitors, as the mere announcement that such a picture is to be shown is sufficient to draw crowds.” “Exhibitors News, Cincinnati,” The Moving Picture World, Sept 28, 1914.
By the middle of 1914, the box-office drawing power of Mary Pickford was so strong that one New Jersey exhibitor, Raymond Pawley of the Lyric Theater in Asbury Park, held what may have been the first Mary Pickford film festival by creating a program of her first five Famous Players features, with a matinée and an evening showing of each film, one per day over five consecutive days. The Moving Picture World (May 18, 1914) reported that “he thinks [it] is the first effort to present one actress for an entire week in a repertoire of plays.”
Raymond Pawley may have been the first to showcase a week-long series of Pickford features, but others across America had similar ideas. And rather than being marketing gimmicks, they were often a response to the demands of their customers.
“The Royal Theater at San Antonio, Tex., heeded the requests of his patrons and gave four consecutive days to return engagements of Mary Pickford in four of the Famous Players features.” “Exhibitors News, In the Southwest,” The Moving Picture World, August 1, 1914.
“‘Mary Pickford Weeks’ have been conducted with success by two Illinois managers. The Star Theater, at Aurora, had the little favorite in seven different pictures in as many days, while the Princess, at Peoria, in a review gave consecutively for two days each five of the Famous Players features in which Miss Pickford starred. The Park Theater, at Champaign, was unable to handle the crowds the first time, and brought ‘Caprice’ back for a second engagement. “Exhibitors News, Illinois,” The Moving Picture World, August 1, 1914.
Mr. Pawley, who was also a member of the Famous Players Exchange, the company’s regional distribution network, would shortly become Secretary-Treasurer of the newly reorganized and incorporated Paramount Pictures, a distribution company. The new arrangement, finalized in May, 1914, was an alliance of three privately held film producing firms, Zukor’s Famous Players, Jesse Lasky Feature Films, and Hobart Bosworth’s Jack London Features, for distribution purposes, not production.
Though The Eagles Mate was the first Paramount release for Famous Players, Such a Little Queen, released on September 21, 1914, was the first to have the benefit of the advertising campaign that coalesced around the new distribution arrangement with Paramount. It didn’t need it. It had great reviews and it had Mary Pickford.
Such a Little Queen.
Channing Pollock, a playwright, lyricist, critic and screenwriter, had written a hit comedy for the stage, Such a Little Queen, that ran more than a hundred performances on Broadway in 1909. Pollock adapted the hit play for the far less successful 1913 musical, Her Little Highness, starring Mitzi Hajos, with Mae Murray in a bit part and Lilyan Tashman in the chorus. The musical’s lackluster Broadway performance, blamed on its star’s illness, didn’t deter Famous Players from producing the original stage comedy as Pickford’s next vehicle, adapted by Hugh Ford, who co-directed with Edwin S. Porter. (Pickford’s first feature, In the Bishop’s Carriage, based upon a 1904 novel, had been adapted for the stage in 1907 by Channing Pollock. However, Pollock had received no credit for Famous Players’ version.)
From the second half of the nineteenth century, well into the first several decades of the twentieth, audiences in America had a near-insatiable appetite for tales of the imagined lives of middle-European royalty — their loves, their scandalous behavior, their wealth or their loss of fortunes, and their adversity in the face of revolution. It was fodder for drama, comedy and music, probably best exemplified and certainly best remembered by The Merry Widow and its children, legitimate and bastard, having their source in Franz Lehar’s 1907 operetta. Such a Little Queen was a minor variation on the basic theme of royal love, arranged marriage, revolution and temporary descent into poverty and the life of a peasant. For Pickford, playing the title character who experiences all of these, it had the requisite elements for a nearly perfect Pickford picture.
Pickford plays Queen Anna Victoria of Herzegovina, living and ruling contentedly among her subjects, guided in her rule by her Prime Minister (Russell Bassett). By contrast, in neighboring Bosnia, King Stephen (Carlyle Blackwell), is weary of rule, preferring the gambling tables to the problems he faces in his nearly bankrupt kingdom. His advisors’ solution is an arranged marriage to Queen Anna, to which she agrees, based upon the trusted advice of her prime minister. Her loyal subjects, however, balk at the marriage. They stage a revolution, interrupting the royal wedding ceremony, forcing the participants, including the Queen, the King and their ministers to flee.
Assisted by an American traveller (Harold Lockwood), both regents wind up in America, in New York, disguised as peasants — Queen Anna with her prime minister, sharing a Harlem flat, soon joined by King Stephen. Along with the predictable comedy of strained circumstances (predictable to us, having seen similar scenarios played out on film and television for decades), the exiled Queen and King fall in love. When King Stephen’s nation requests that he return, minus Queen Anna, he balks. But after a last-minute change of terms by the King’s ministers in which they relent on the subject of the royal marriage, the monarchs return and their two kingdoms are happily united.
It was a far cry from reality in the Balkans in the summer of 1914, when revolutionaries assassinated the visiting Austrian royal heir and his wife, precipitating a new European war along the fault lines of central and eastern Europe, among them the real kingdoms or nation-states of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Released less than six weeks after Germany, Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Russia declared war, these developments went largely unmentioned in press reviews and articles on the film, leaving the modern reader to ponder the wider gulf that existed then between popular culture and world events than we see today.
The Moving Picture World‘s George Blaisdell ranked the film among the best Famous Players releases — and Pickford performances — to date:
“It would be hard to find a keener or more critical audience than an afternoon house in the Strand. Over the great theater on Tuesday afternoon, one of the hottest of the year, there swept continual waves of subdued mirth, alternated with deep silence, in response to the varying emotions stirred by Channing Pollock’s romantic comedy. . . ‘Such a Little Queen’ . . . is an all-around production and ranks with the best previous efforts of the Famous Players.
“Miss Mary Pickford has the role of Queen Anna Victoria of Herzegovina; and her performance is of that rare quality which we always expect from this star. Comedy and drama are alike to her. She is as delightful in the one as she is moving in the other. As a comedienne she seldom does the anticipated; and therein to a great degree lies the charm of her work.” “‘Such a Little Queen,’ Reviewed by George Blaisdell,” The Moving Picture World, October 3, 1914.
The New York Dramatic Mirror was effusive in its praise.
“‘Such a Little Queen’ bears only a distant relationship to the hundred and one photoplays released each week. It moves in a realm above the passable average, which leaves many Doubting Thomases unconvinced of the possibility of a motion picture entering the artistic land of delicate humor, charm and whimsical romance. This film was just made to prove to these skeptics that they were mistaken. There are so few productions to approach ‘Such a Little Queen’ . . . that it becomes a photoplay event too good to miss.
“The little queen is precisely the sort of a person Miss Pickford can become by donning royal robes and a crown. So attired, she looks every inch the winsome little ruler of a two-by-four comic opera kingdom. But when her rule is unceremoniously ended, the deposed queen is shown to be a quite normal girl after all. She grabs her pet bird, tosses her royal train over one shoulder, and runs for her life. Needless to say, Miss Pickford is quite as fetching in flight as in power, and pleasing to the eye, whether the setting be a flat or a throne room.” “Such a Little Queen,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, September 23, 1914.
Such A Little Queen is a lost film, a “missing Pickford.” This is a double tragedy. An early five reel American feature film by the most important motion picture actor of the era, it is also one that appears to have been an important step in her development. She plays a character in a feature film who is more woman than ingenue, and she gets considerable comedy out of unexpected displays of emotion, as the contemporary reviews describe — and the written record is all we have left to inform our opinions. That George Blaisdell, critic of The Moving Picture World, was an obvious fan of Pickford, doesn’t detract from his keen observation that “she seldom does the anticipated; and therein to a great degree lies the charm of her work.”
Time after time we see Pickford’s characterizations being described as unique to her. The term “Pickfordish” was used to describe her characters, indicating how closely such work was identified with this unique performer. Pickford had achieved a synthesis of comedy and pathos (“comedy and drama are alike to her”) in her work in the Famous Players features that had been revealed only briefly in her short films. No one else was doing this synthesis, at this level, in motion pictures in 1914. Chaplin, who receives so much credit for being a pioneer in the blending of comedy and pathos, had only begun making his first appearances in comedy shorts with Keystone, and would make his first short masterpiece, The Tramp, in 1915. Pickford was already doing groundbreaking work of this nature in features such as Hearts Adrift and “Tess.” And in Such a Little Queen.
Chaplin and Pickford would both come to realize, not at exactly the same point in time, but at roughly the same point in their careers, that if they were to continue to progress in their work, they would need more independence, a difficult trick in a collaborative art form requiring substantial financial backing before a single foot of film turns in the camera. And as Pickford continued to make “Famous Features” like clockwork as the next twelve months unfolded, she would face her greatest challenge — finding suitable material to showcase her talent and advance her art.
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“At the Firemen’s Ball.
“The boys asked me if I wouldn’t attend their ball, which was to be for the benefit of the firemen’s widows and orphans, and I was very glad to accept their invitation.
“At the ball, I made a speech, but it was mostly to the mothers, sisters, sweethearts and wives of those brave boys, who deserve not only consolation for having the terrors and dangers always confronting them, but to be proud they belong to men who were giving their lives for the protection of humanity and the interests of society.
“An amusing memory of the evening was my dancing with one of the firemen who told me that the happiest day of his life would be when I would ride to a fire, sitting beside him on his engine!
“’I think you are a plucky enough little fellow to do that, Miss Pickford,’ he added, as he guessed all the time what was revolving in my mind, ‘and it is a thriller, too. I tell you, there isn’t nothing prettier than looking down on those three big husky horses of mine. You know, we firemen don’t care so much for our engines when they give us ninety-horsepower trucks.’
“I shall always remember that ball as a very happy event in my life.” Daily Talks By Mary Pickford, “The Firemen,” February 18, 1916, The McClure Newspaper Syndicate.
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http://mediahistoryproject.org/ For The Moving Picture World, Volumes 19-22, January – December, 1914, and Photoplay Magazine, September 1915;
http://fultonhistory.com/ For The New York Dramatic Mirror; The New York Sun, September 12, 1915, and The McClure Newspaper Syndicate column, “Daily Talks By Mary Pickford”, in The Syracuse Herald, February 18, 1916;
http://newspaperarchive.com/ For The McClure Newspaper Syndicate column, “Daily Talks By Mary Pickford,” in The Bakersfield Californian, February 18, 1916.
Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: the woman who made Hollywood (2007, University Press of Kentucky), quoted from page 130.
Kevin Brownlow, Mary Pickford Rediscovered: rare pictures of a Hollywood legend, (Abrams, 1999), quoted from page 91.