THE PICKFORD BIOGRAPHS: “AS IT IS IN LIFE” (with a nod to Gladys Egan)

“CHOOSE BETWEEN US”  (Intertitle, As it is in Life.)

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Oooooh, Baby — There goes her man!  Mary Pickford ogles a fine-looking tourist at her father’s pigeon farm, and lives will be torn apart . . . As It Is in Life (Biograph, 1910), directed by D. W. Griffith.

D. W. Griffith took the core of his Biograph team to southern California in late January 1910, almost as a reward for their performance in a grueling schedule in 1909.  They had completed 143 short films (78 in the first six months of the year), nearly 3 per week on average.  But it was more opportunity than reward.  California provided almost limitless scenic possibilities in an outdoor environment far more hospitable for motion picture work than New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the winter months.  And although Biograph had secured the rental of an indoor stage in Los Angeles that was at least twice the size of what they had available to them at the New York studio, most of the thirty or so films completed during the three months they would spend in California were shot entirely outdoors.

Among these outdoor films was As It Is in Life, made during the fourth week of shooting in California.  Though a minor Biograph film, As It Is in Life is interesting in several ways, particularly its structure and the acting styles.  Essentially the film consists of three parts, an introduction to the primary characters and their motivations, a central section where most of the action and all of the “drama” takes place, and the dénouement: a resolution that takes tragedy and gives it a positive conclusion — a “happy ending” that was hardly typical of the Biograph product of the period.

Opening with the portentous intertitle explaining “The Mother is Gone,” we meet the widower, George Forrester (George O. Nicholls) and his young daughter (Gladys Egan) in deep mourning.  But their circumstances begin to improve when the father obtains a job at a pigeon “farm.”  The farm with its swirling flocks of pigeons gives Griffith the chance to indulge in some spectacular shots of the birds against the mountainous backdrop, with the creatures at times nearly overwhelming the actors.

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The pigeon farm was an actual tourist attraction, giving the filmmaker the opportunity to use the ebb and flow of “tourists” to introduce the important characters into the story.  The father meets a former flame (Marion Leonard) at the farm.

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They both are interested in rekindling their old romance, as the father shows his lady friend the spectacular scenic views offered near his home.  She shows him more scenery, as well, spectacular in its own way.  And with its over-the-top hats and silk scarves, it appears out of his current league.

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George tells her, via obvious pantomime, that he has a short problem — that is, a small child to care for first and foremost.  He realizes he cannot afford a new wife and her expensive lifestyle and still care properly for his daughter.  They both appear bitterly disappointed.

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But George is a selfless father, or so it seems at this stage.  He wants the best for his child and is able to pay for a private education that will send her far away from the pigeon farm and home.

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After an indeterminate length of time (judging at least eight years or so), his child returns — a beautiful young woman (Mary Pickford).

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“He has had to labor hard to give her an education and she appreciates his devotion by declaring that she will never marry, but will remain with him to cheer his declining years.” [From the plot synopsis by ‘The Spectator,” in The New York Dramatic Mirror review of the film, April 16, 1910I include this to give an indication of how the story was understood by the audience of 1910, in consideration of the importance placed upon “getting the story over” (a common phrase in early film criticism) by viewers and critics of the time.]

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Gesture and pantomime were mixed interchangeably by early film actors to make the interactions of the characters understandable to the audience.  Here, in place of pantomime or stock gesture, Mary Pickford uses her fathers worn and rough hand as an object to describe her sorrow for the care and hard work he has had to endure to give her a better life, then subtly places her own hand on her heart to indicate her gratitude.  Pickford and Griffith would often use the handling of objects, more often inanimate, to flesh out characters, their motivation as well as  to propel a narrative.  Who stumbled upon the idea first is a chicken vs. egg question, and it may well predate Pickford at Biograph, but no one used it as extensively as Pickford, and it can be seen in the work of Lillian Gish and to a lesser extent, Blanche Sweet, years later.

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Below, after her father removes his hat, his daughter notices the complete gray head of hair and as she touches it she gives yet another indication of her realization of his years of sacrifice for her.

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Below, the father takes her back to the pigeon farm, indicating she was but a small child when she was last there with him — the same gesture he had used earlier when rejecting his “old flame” due to his parental obligations.

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“But the girl has reckoned without forethought.  Along comes a young man who wins her heart . . .” [Synopsis, New York Dramatic Mirror]

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The daughter meets a young man (Charles H. West) who makes a strong impression upon her — “oooooooooooooooh, baby!”  we swear we can hear her exclaim.

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She meets the young man along the same path where her father had chosen her over his ex-girlfriend years before.  Griffith, as in the “scenic view” and “pigeon farm” scenes, once again uses the circular structure — the repetition of backdrops for the plot development — to weave together tightly the disparate but connected elements in the one reel film.

It is at this point where Griffith inserts the portentous intertitle “CHOOSE BETWEEN US.”  Its use this early (nearly a dozen shots before the actual climactic “choice”) indicates that it is more a chapter heading than a written record of a spoken line.  Many if not most of the Biograph films, particularly those of 1909-10, used intertitles in this manner,  a sort of signpost for what was to come, rather than something that had already occurred or was imminent.

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Father is not quite paying attention as his daughter, with the help of a coworker at the pigeon farm, meets clandestinely with her young man.

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Father finally gets in the game as he realizes his daughter has other interests.  Sneaking up (using an old remnant of the speaking stage — getting close enough to eavesdrop yet somehow escaping notice), the father’s worst fears are realized.  He may lose his daughter to another man!  He is too distraught to confront them.

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Selfishly, he decides to confront the couple:

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Using the gestural approach — showing his worn hands and gray head — he forces the issue.

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“The old father, enraged at the young interloper, and still clinging to the hope that the girl will keep her original promise, calls on her to decide between the two.”  [Synopsis, NYDM]

This is where one would expect the “CHOOSE BETWEEN US” intertitle if it were being used to give us the character’s actual words.

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“She obeys the call of young love and the father banishes her from his home and heart, settling down himself to a solitary and morbid life.”  [Synopsis, NYDM]

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“A year or two later we see the young wife the happy mother of an infant.  She expects everybody to see in the child as much loveliness as she herself sees, but her acquaintances are only casual in their admiration.  [Synopsis, NYDM]

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“In childish despair she runs to her father, whose house she has not entered in the meantime.”  [Synopsis, NYDM]

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“She places the baby in his lap and the result is that he is a wakened from his morose lethargy, admires and loves the child and becomes reconciled to his banished daughter.”  [Synopsis, NYDM]

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The final sequence of the film, from our introduction to the newborn to the reunion of father, daughter and grandchild, may seem a bit forced, but a tidy and, yes, hasty conclusion was a product of the hard reality of the single-reel, 1000 foot maximum length imposed by the industry — the producers, distributors and exhibitors — in the years preceding the rise of the multiple reel and “feature”-length motion picture.  The alternative would have been to end the film with tragedy.  Biograph was already well-known for such endings, and this may have been no more than an effort by Griffith to do what was, perversely, the unexpected for a Biograph product of 1910.

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The Moving Picture World found As It Is in Life to be an interesting tale of human nature with all its flaws that may appeal in various degrees depending upon the individual viewer:

“Whether this picture is true to life or not is a question which must be decided  by each individual for himself, but it is not too much to say that it contains much human nature.  Personal jealousies often play a larger part in the lives of individuals than is realized, and this picture is based upon this potent fact.  But there is some degree of  happiness injected into the old man’s life when the grandchild is taken to him and he agrees with the mother that it is quite the most beautiful baby ever seen.  But the principal point of interest will center around the representation of personal jealousies which develop as the story is told.  Acting and photography are both adequate and the picture will undoubtedly create more than ordinary interest.”  “Comments on the Films,” The Moving Picture World, April 9, 1910.

The New York Dramatic Mirror reviewer, under the nom de plume, “The Spectator,” was in reality Frank Woods, a journalist who became a film scenarist, later working for Biograph and Griffith.  He adapted the Thomas Dixon novel and stage play, The Clansman, into Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation.  Although the reviewer from The Moving Picture World found the acting and images merely “adequate,” “The Spectator” in The New York Dramatic Mirror found them among the high points of the production.

“An excellent illustration, is this picture, of the presentation of an apparently minor subject in a way that brings out a really strong idea. . . the love scenes, by the way, being deliciously acted.  There is some lack of clearness in [the] closing scene, but it is not serious.  The main idea is clear enough.”  “Reviews of Licensed Films,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, April 16, 1910.

Frank Woods, in the same issue of The NYDM, expounded at length that the ideal story for the one reel drama should be based upon a “big” or “unusual” idea, yet “A light and airy story with a poetic touch of nature may be far bigger or more unusual in idea than some blood-thirsty tragedy.”  He apparently found As It Is in Life to be an interesting twist on this concept.

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Gladys Egan first appeared in Biograph films in 1908 as the daughter of Florence Lawrence in Behind the Scenes, and in more than 70 short films directed by D. W. Griffith from 1908 to 1912.  Although she is often credited with playing the title role in Griffith’s first directorial effort, The Adventures of Dollie, this is not evident in a review of the records or the film itself.  Among her more memorable early film appearances was The Romance of a Jewess (1908) as the daughter of a dying Florence Lawrence, where she is filmed on the very real, teeming streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan as she looks to pawn her mother’s necklace.

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Gladys Egan of course was among the Biograph employees who went to California in January, 1910.   Gladys was also part of Griffith’s second California excursion in early 1911, and appeared among the cast of the wagon train in The Last Drop of Water with Blanche Sweet.  She was the daughter of Claire McDowell in Her Trust and Her Trust Fulfilled (1911)) , and Marion Leonard’s youngest child in one of Mary Pickford’s first Biographs, The Lonely Villa (1909).  She may have made her most lasting impression, however, as a starving child with haunted eyes in A Corner in Wheat (1909).

After 1912, she appeared in only a handful of films directed primarily by Griffith’s second unit directors, the last being Men and Women (1914) directed by James Kirkwood, with Blanche Sweet and Lionel Barrymore.

Unfortunately, information on Gladys Egan’s life beyond her work in films between 1908 and 1914 is meager.  (The entries on her birth and death dates on IMDB and Wikipedia are are unsourced, and appear to be derived from individuals who are not the correct Gladys Egan.  They should not be relied upon.)  My own research via Ancestry.com leads me to believe that she was born in May, 1900 in Somerville City, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, to Thomas F. and Margarette Egan — this according to the 1900 United States Federal Census and Massachusetts birth records.  By 1905, per the New York State Census of that year, the Egans were living in New York City, in Manhattan, at an apartment building on 424 West 30th Street.

U. S. Federal census records show that in April, 1910 (just after she would have returned to New York from Biograph’s California trip), Gladys was attending school and living with her parents and six siblings ranging in age from two to nineteen, and still resided at 425 West 30th Street, Manhattan.  The New York State Census of 1915 shows Gladys, age 15, still attending school and residing with parents Thomas F. and Margarette at 754 Greenwich Street in what is now the West Village neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

From that point on, Gladys Egan becomes elusive in the historical record.  The research, however, has produced some promising leads, and is ongoing (see the Comments section at the foot of this article).  The article will be updated accordingly as soon as it is appropriate to do so based upon new information.

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Bibliography:

Paolo Cherchi Usai, General Editor, “The Griffith Project, Volume 4, Films Produced in 1910,” BFI Publishing, 2000;

Roberta E. Pearson, “Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” University of California Press, (1992, 1997, paperback, print-on-demand);

Cooper C. Graham, Stephen Higgins, Elaine Mancini, Joao Luiz Vieira, “D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company (Filmmakers, No. 10),” The Scarecrow Press, 1985.

Original Sources:

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.

Ancestry.com for the 1900 United States Federal Census, the 1910 U. S. Federal Census and the New York State Census, 1915.

For Viewing:

As It Is in Life, and eight other Biograph shorts directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909-1910 can be found at Grapevine Video on their DVD, The Biograph Series, D. W. Griffith, Director – Volume #5 (1909-1910).  The still frames used in this article are from that DVD edition.