Movie Making Madames Part Two: Mary Pickford and the Early Movie Magnates

19 Oct

We move from the dawn of filmmaking to the early days when the seeds were sown for the most powerful movie-making hub in the world: Hollywood USA. Originally, America’s films were all made on the west coast, predominantly New York but it soon became clear that this was too expensive for fledgling filmmakers who often paid extortionate prices for equipment, locations and patents. California offered a much more attractive option not only because it was cheaper but the weather was better and there was space to expand. So a tiny town in the desert became the place were dreams became reality.

photo from here

Record numbers of feisty female directors worked within the fledgling industry while others were still calling the moving pictures a fad, but many of their names have been forgotten or associated with acting instead. Standing at just under five feet tall with masses of golden curls and a delicate face, Mary Pickford, or “America’s Little Sweetheart ” looked like a china doll come to life. By the age of twenty she had acted in 176 films playing mostly demure, naïve characters. In reality she was the first Hollywood mogul. After 1920 Pickford directed and produced every single one of her films but this fact remained a closely guarded secret. Pickford was a master at cultivating her on screen persona of “The Girl with the Golden Curls”. In reality she was now in her thirties but she recognised that audiences were in love with the “little girl” on the big screen.

Pickford was a canny businesswoman, she knew every step of the movie making process inside and out and was well aware of what an asset she was to the studios. She made it her business to know the salaries of the other big stars at the time including Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and moved from studio to studio to keep her wages and control over her films. Finally she took this to its logical conclusion. Along with Chaplin, Fairbanks (her then husband) and the now infamous director D.W. Griffiths, she co-founded United Artists so that they would have no one to answer to except their audiences, keeping complete control over their movies.

photo from here

Mary Pickford was hardly the only woman keeping Hollywood moving at the time. There were entire networks of female writers, actors and directors collaborating and supporting each other. The prolific screenwriter Frances Marion who penned over 300 scripts in her career wrote many of Pickford’s greatest hits and even ghost wrote a newspaper column for the star. Along with this she directed three films of which only one, The Love Light starring Pickford, survives. Marion was also an early stunt person and in many of her scripts she included notes for sets design, camera movement and other directorial details.

In turn Frances Marion was the protégé of the great social filmmaker Lois Weber who was allegedly the highest paid film director of the silent era and tackled subjects such as domestic violence, birth control and child labour at a time went such topics were strictly taboo. Marion paid her mentor’s funeral expenses when she died penniless. Weber in turn encouraged many actresses to follow in the footsteps of Mary Pickford and direct their own films. Pickford was also the one who arranged for the Gish sisters, Dorothy and Lillian, to get their first auditions as actresses. They also went into directing and in 1920 they made Remodelling her Husband, a feature that was not only Lillian’s directorial debut but also featured the first all-woman production crew.

These women worked tirelessly in the silent era, often teaming up and sharing ideas. At this point in filmmaking history there was much more equality between male and female directors mostly because it was still undervalued as an art form. With the dawn of the “talkie” came the realisation that movies were big business financially and so the big male dominated studios moved in and women remain only as screenwriters and actresses.

The exception to this rule were two women I’ll be visiting later on in the series: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. In the next issue of Yellow Bunting I’ll be looking at a director who helped pioneer a completely different type of filmmaking, animation.

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.

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