On March 20, 1909 in New York City, the cast of The Warrens of Virginia gave their final performance of the Civil War drama staged by legendary Broadway producer David Belasco. The show had opened sixteen months earlier on December 3, 1907 at the Belasco Theater on West 44th Street. Playing a supporting role in the production was a 16-year-old Toronto native, a 10-year stage veteran and Broadway newcomer formerly known as Gladys Smith. “Warrens” had been her Broadway debut and Belasco had provided her new stage name, Mary Pickford, though Belasco and his staff would continue for several years to call her affectionately, “Betty,” the name of her character in “Warrens.”
The Warrens of Virginia concluded its first Broadway run in May of 1908, a popular and critical success. For the next ten months the touring company of “Warrens,” including Mary Pickford, would play cities across America and Canada (in her hometown Toronto she was welcomed as if she were the play’s star). The company returned to New York and gave their final performance in March, 1909.
David Belasco, a familiar name even in non-theatrical circles of the time, was one of the two or three most important producers on turn-of-the-century Broadway. He was particularly noted for epic productions with elaborate sets and spectacular special effects — the progenitor of modern Broadway productions such as Spider-Man. (His Broadway colleagues, William and Cecil DeMille, would bring “epic productions” to movies in another decade.) Belasco recognized the talent of young Miss Pickford and it seemed likely that he would cast her in future productions (and a few years later he did).
Unfortunately for Mary Pickford, her mother Charlotte and siblings Jack and Lottie (who also made modest livings on stage), theater work was seasonal, and they couldn’t survive solely upon the occasional, seasonal Belasco production. And seasonal work was a problem faced by all but the most famous stars of the stage. By mid-April, with cash running low, it was time for the Pickford-Smiths to look for creative solutions to the financial problems of the family for whom Mary had been principal support — the “breadwinner” — for ten years.
In 1907 and 1908, before the Broadway opening of “Warrens” and during its tour, she had sought work at three motion picture studios: Essanay in Chicago, and the Kalem Company and Biograph, both in New York, all without success. Now, in the spring of 1909, there were no immediate jobs or even solid prospects for other stage work. Mary Pickford could not motivate herself to seek work once again “posing for pictures,” as condescending stage actors often called film work. Instead, knowing it was inevitable, she waited for mother Charlotte to raise the subject. Charlotte did.
In her autobiography 45 years later, Pickford recalled her reaction to her mother’s request that she try looking for work at the Biograph studio, which had by now acquired a growing reputation as the best motion picture production company in the business:
“‘Oh no, not that, Mama!’
“‘Well now, it’s not what I would want for you, either, dear. I thought if you could make enough money we could keep the family together. I’m sure it would make up for the lowering of our standard.’
“I wanted to argue with her, but I knew better. I agreed.”
Mother Charlotte’s guilt-trip — “I thought if you could make enough money we could keep the family together” — must have made Pickford feel as if she were being forced to relive the most painful and traumatic time of her childhood. Ten years earlier, the same considerations — and the same fear — had motivated 7-year-old Gladys. After her father’s desertion of their family and his subsequent death, Charlotte could not afford to feed all three children. Gladys, the oldest, was about to be separated from her mother and siblings and sent to live permanently with a foster family. Gladys decided that she would not allow that to happen and appointed herself family breadwinner so that her family would never again be pulled apart by poverty. She decided to make her life’s mission the financial security of her family, which became for her (as well as mother Charlotte and siblings Jack and Lottie) a career in the theater.
On this occasion, however, mother Charlotte added a sweetener: “I’ll let you wear your first silk stockings and high-heeled shoes.” And as Pickford candidly admits, “Maybe that as much as anything else decided me.” (Mary Pickford, “Sunshine and Shadow,” Doubleday, 1954, including all the above quotes.)
The next morning, she left their apartment on West 17th Street, rode the trolley to East 14th Street and asked the conductor for a Broadway transfer — which after her stop at Biograph would allow her to make the rounds of theater-district casting offices without having to waste a nickel on another fare. In her light blue Easter suit, spring hat, new silk hose and high heels, she alighted the trolley on East 14th Street in front of Number 11– the ancient brownstone once occupied by an elderly veteran of Washington’s Army and the American Revolution — now the studio and headquarters of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, “The Biograph” as actors working or seeking work there called it.
She stopped for just a moment on the sidewalk, still wondering silently how her mother could ask her — a “Belasco Actress” — to do such a tawdry thing. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and then, “Belligerently I marched up the steps of Biograph.” (Mary Pickford, “Sunshine and Shadow.”)
There is little doubt in my mind that based purely upon appearances, Pickford would have been hired on the spot — and essentially she was. Biograph office clerk Bobby Harron had intercepted her in the foyer, and having ascertained her purpose, he announced to Griffith “There’s a young lady here to see you — a real looker.” Griffith, not wasting a second, selected a costume and applied her makeup himself, then gave her a perfunctory screen test as “Pippa” in “Pippa Passes,” a film in the early planning and casting stages which would not be made until months later. (As she noted dryly in her autobiography, it was “the only [screen] test I was ever subjected to at Biograph.”)
Pickford spent most of that first day cooling her (high) heels, watching, waiting, trying on ill-fitting costumes, taking them and the heavy movie make-up off, and sizing up these crude “moving-picture” people. But at the end of that first day (over ten hours, she recalled, hardly the quick stop on her way to the Broadway casting offices she’d anticipated), Griffith gave her a voucher for five dollars — the standard pay for a day’s work at Biograph, and told her to report the next morning.
But as a harbinger of things to come, and indicative of the business acumen credited her by virtually everyone who came into contact with her in the “business” end of the film industry over the next forty years, she negotiated an extra five dollars for the next day, making 15 dollars her first two days at the studio, fifty percent more than the standard rate. Griffith, not wanting to lose this sweet young thing, would probably have paid it out of his own pocket (and for all we really know, maybe he did). He stipulated that she not tell a soul or there would be rioting at the Biograph!
The next morning he had a small part — a bit — in mind for her, and asked “Miss Arvidson,” as he addressed her, a Biograph actress, to please take Mary to the department stores on Fifth Avenue and get the appropriate clothing for her part: a linen and lace dress, shoes, socks and hat to match, all of which were bought for the outrageous sum of $10.50! — for her, an unproven movie actor in a bit part! Why, her blue Easter suit and hat, new stockings and shoes, worn to her initial interview the day before (and ruined in a rain storm after she left the studio that evening), had cost only a few dollars more. She correctly concluded “the picture industry was mad.” Had she known that the nice lady, “Miss” Linda Arvidson, who had been asked to take her on this costume shopping trip was secretly the wife of Mr. Griffith, she might have thought them worse than “mad.”
Her First Biscuits, was Pickford’s first movie — and the fiftieth made by Griffith and the Biograph Company in the first four months of 1909 alone. It was a five-minute “split-reel” (i.e, less than 500 feet in length) in an era where film was sold to exhibitors by the foot. Her First Biscuits was a sketch comedy in the “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” comedy series, a forerunner of the film comedy serials of the later silent and early sound periods. In retrospect, it can be appreciated as a primordial sitcom, a turn-of-the twentieth century I Love Lucy starring Florence Lawrence as Mrs. Jones — a sandy-blonde “Lucy” — and John Cumpson as her “Ricky.” But unlike the successful, conservative Cuban bandleader, Mr. Jones was much older and every bit as dizzy as his spouse.
Like Lucy, Lawrence was the real star of the series. Fans loved her, but because Biograph didn’t give out the names of their actors, she became known to audiences simply as “The Biograph Girl,” and by the time Pickford joined Biograph, Lawrence was ascending toward the peak of her popularity. But Her First Biscuits was nearly the last of the Jones series. Lawrence would leave Biograph, fired three months later along with her husband, Biograph actor Harry Solter, for negotiating with another film producer. And it would be at another studio, Carl Laemmle’s I.M.P., where Lawrence would become the first film personality whose face and name were used to promote an actor, a film and a film studio: the first “movie star.”
At the end of her first day of shooting, Griffith asked Mary if she would be willing to play the lead role in a new film starting the next morning. A stage veteran without an acting gig is hard-wired to say yes to such an offer, and Griffith surely anticipated this. After she agreed, he qualified his offer based upon one personal question, a question that in 1909 to a girl of 17 (15, she claimed) was embarrassing and humiliating. Did she know anything about love-making?
Even though the phrase was not overtly sexual in meaning at the time, it was extremely rude in an era where polite people addressed each other as Mr., Mrs. or Miss, and never by first name, as she had noted these rude, crude Biograph people did. In the legitimate theater from whence she came, it was outrageous behavior.
After asking her to demonstrate her “technique” on a prop — a plaster “marble column” — Griffith spared her the indignity of using an inanimate object when he spied young, handsome Owen Moore coming out of the men’s dressing room. Griffith had her practice on him, the man who would become her first husband in less than two years. Though her heart was beating so hard as she embraced Moore she feared it could be heard out loud, her “technique” was convincing to Griffith. She was now about to make her first movie in which she played a leading role, The Violin Maker of Cremona.
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If the amount of ink expended by critics, writers and historians is an indication of the importance of a film — or for that matter, any work of art — “The Lonely Villa” would likely rank in the top ten percent in film history and place second in Griffith’s films of 1909, just behind “Corner in Wheat” from December of that year. “Lonely Villa” was one of several important Griffith Biograph films of 1909 in which Mary Pickford participated, though not as a “lead.” But keeping in mind Biograph’s (and Griffith’s) stock company approach to casting actors in roles, the nature of role — lead, support or bit player — is not an indication of progress or lack thereof by Pickford, or any of the Biograph company of players. This may also be as good a point as any to consider what has become known in film study and the study of film history as “The Griffith Effect.”
“The Griffith Effect” — and I would posit a better name whether you seriously entertain the “Effect” or not, is “The Biograph Effect.” Bluntly stated, “The Griffith Effect” puts forth the proposition that because Griffith’s films, particularly his Biograph productions, have a physical survival rate of at least ten times the films of any other filmmaker or film producer of this era, 1908 to 1931, that the importance of Griffith’s work has been (and here’s the really controversial part) overrated, overstated, inflated, exaggerated, insert your favorite synonym here.
In broad terms, if 90 percent of all films made before sound no longer exist, at least 90 percent of all films directed or supervised by Griffith survive — and his Biograph films’ survival rate exceeds 95 percent, then most that one can logically deduce is that Griffith’s work, while important, is not the entire picture. At best, film history at least as it appeared in texts and classrooms through the 1970s and into the 80s is incomplete — but unless the “remainder” of the works of that period, Griffith’s era of activity, can be found — and viewed, not just a synopsis or record of a no-longer-extant film — then that is all that can be said in conclusion, legitimately: the record is incomplete. The rest is speculation, maybe highly informed speculation, but not more than that.
For the past thirty years it has been obvious to those who have studied his films, particularly the early films, the Biograph Shorts, that Griffith did not do much of what he had been credited with in the past, primarily because the people who made those claims had not seen the films in years or had never seen the films themselves, only written descriptions. But a renewed effort to study those films — and please check the bibliography page above for specific works on the subject — clearly shows that he made many heretofore undiscovered or unmentioned or unrealized contributions to the craft and the art of narrative filmmaking. And given the breadth and length of his works — more than 500 films, and nearly 450 before 1914 — it is not illogical to assume that his contributions far exceed that of any other individual. However, given that unavailability of information to finally conclude this argument — the films of others that have not survived — I cannot state without any doubt that Griffith is the most important filmmaker in the history of the medium. If my standard was slightly less rigorous, as in “beyond a reasonable doubt,” then the verdict is clear: Griffith is Guilty of being the most important filmmaker ever.
Interestingly, “The Lonely Villa” is seen by scholars to have as its source a French play of “Grand Guignol,” of the 1890s, “Au telephone” by Andre DeLorde. Tom Gunning has discovered that prior to Griffith’s “Villa,” there are three known cinematic adaptations: a 1907 film from Pathe, “Terrible angoisse,” a 1908 Edison film, “Heard Over the Phone,” and another from Pathe, “Le Medecin du Chateau,” released in the U.S. in March 1908 as “A Narrow Escape.” Of these three films, only the last is known to exist. And though Gunning concludes that it is likely Griffith saw and was inspired by this film in his own experiments with parallel editing, its predecessor did not use it as systematically, as formally and as detailed in its initial “set-up” of the story within the narrative structure of the film as did Griffith in “Lonely Villa.” (see Gunning’s entry on “The Lonely Villa” in “The Griffith Project, Vol.2, BFI Publications, 1999).
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In the next three sets of image frames, below, Mary Pickford plays a handmaiden of the Princess Angela, played forcefully by Florence Lawrence. The film is “The Cardinal’s Conspiracy,” shot in late June, and probably the last or next-to-last of the Lawrence Biograph films to be released while she was still their employee. A costume drama in the style of French film d’art, “The Cardinal’s Conspiracy” was one of the last of this type directed by Griffith at Biograph (other examples from 1909 include, “The Sealed Room” in which Pickford had a bit part, and “The Golden Louis,” made before she arrived at Biograph). As in this scene with Mary Pickford being corralled so that she can be disguised as the Princess, the emotional and physical center of the film belongs to “The Biograph Girl,” Miss Lawrence (who by this time had married fellow Biograph actor Harry Solter). Her performance is worthy in itself of further study.
Below, “The Country Doctor.” Considered one of Griffith’s key films of 1909 — which has been referred to as Griffith’s “miracle year,” it uses parallel edits not so much to build tension as to increase pathos, sense of irony and, ultimately tragedy. It is also noted for the two lengthy (for 1909) panorama tracking shots that open and close the film like bookends or metaphorical front and back book covers.
“The Renunciation,” though not strictly a comedy, has a series of dramatic moments in which the misunderstandings of the characters becomes the source of comedy. Two miners, lifelong friends, are introduced to an attractive young woman and their desire for her leads each to suspect the other of dirty dealing to steal her affections. They each misinterpret her disinterest as interest in the other — an interest gained secretively in violation of the code of male friendship.
This light-dramatic-comedy would be the genesis for a series of comedies pairing Mary Pickford and Billy Quirk, and would fill a gap left by the conclusion of the “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” comedies when Florence Lawrence (and husband Harry Solter) left Biograph at about the time “Renunciation” was released. The series would be a vehicle for Pickford to hone and display her talents as comedienne, which with time proved considerable.
Amazingly, the films I’ve highlighted here span only the first two months of Mary Pickford’s film career — “Her First Biscuits” was filmed on April 20, and “Renunciation” was completed June 18, 1909. Pickford was of course a novice film actor making increasingly important contributions with each film, but it is the rapid development of D. W. Griffith as a filmmaker during 1909 that accounts for the level of quality of this group of films, and they are only a sampling of his efforts in 1909, a time when the single most important person in the development of motion pictures as an art form, and the most important person in the early development of film acting, first combined their talents. It is a combination without equal in the history of cinema.
Suggested further reading:
Mary Pickford, “Sunshine and Shadow,” Doubleday, 1954;
Whitfield, Eileen, “Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood,” University Press of Kentucky, 2007, paperback;
Usai, Paolo Cherchi, General Editor, “The Griffith Project, Volume 2, Films Produced in January – June 1909,” BFI Publishing, 1999;
Schickel, Richard, “D. W. Griffith: An American Life,” Limelight Editions, 1996, paperback;
Griffith, Mrs. (Linda Arvidson), “When the Movies Were Young,” E.P. Dutton and Co., 1925; (Later editions including a paperback “facsimile” from Dover Press, 1974, are available used and also in e-book format);
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);
Tom Gunning, “D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film,” University of Illinois Press (1991, 1994 paperback);
Scott Simmon, “The Films of D. W. Griffith,” Cambridge University Press (1993, 1998 paperback).
“D. W. Griffith, Director (Volumes 1 through 6)”, Grapevine Video, www.grapevinevideo.com, covers select films of Griffith at Biograph, 1908 to 1910. Quality varies with the source material, but it is the only way for the average person to see the films from 1908 and first half of 1909.
See also: the “Bibliography Page,” under the header image for book and publishing details and additional suggested reading.