Born Gladys Mary Smith in 1892 in Canada, Mary Pickford began her career when she was only five years old. By the time she was eight, she was already an experienced actress and financially supporting her mother, brother, and sister. It was David Belasco who gave her the stage name Mary Pickford when he cast her in his Broadway production The Warrens of Virginia (1907). Her film career began in 1909 when she made her first one-reeler at the Biograph Studio entitled Her First Biscuits. Soon the moviegoing public was clamoring to see more of “Little Mary” and “The Girl with the Curls.”
Poor Little Rich Girl was produced for Artcraft at Pickford’s studios in Fort Lee, NJ. It is most noteworthy because it was the first of Pickford’s features in which she played a child, the type of part that was to become her trademark. It’s not that she could really have passed for a pre-pubescent girl—she didn’t skimp on the lipstick or mascara—but she exuded a childlike quality that made the illusion work well.
Slightly oversized sets, clever camera angles and tricks, such as having other cast members stand on boxes, added to the illusion that the 24-year-old actress was only 11. Moreover, during filming, Pickford discovered by chance a lighting effect that made the illusion even more believable. Light hitting a hand mirror on her dressing table illuminated her from below, taking years off her face. When she told her director Maurice Tourneur about it, he was skeptical but Pickford insisted on having a scene shot once with the lights set up in the traditional way and once with them set up in the new way. The effect was striking and the “baby spot” became a standard lighting technique throughout the industry.
Pickford’s disagreement with Tourneur over her lighting was typical of their working relationship. With the help of scenarist Frances Marion, a former San Francisco newspaper reporter, Pickford improvised on the script, working in as many gags as possible, while Tourneur attempted to maintain what he considered a more dignified approach. “Poor Mr. Tourneur,” wrote Pickford in her autobiography, “the teasing and wheedling and lashing he had to take from Frances and me while we were filming this picture. We thought we had a masterpiece of comedy on our hands, and where there was not enough comedy we invented little slapstick scenes of our own.” When Pickford and Marion wanted to add a mud fight for the plucky heroine, Tourneur’s response was as usual: “But my dear young ladies, it has nothing to do with the picture. It is not in the play and I do not find it in the script … c’est une horreur!” followed by a speech explaining that French children would not be permitted to engage in such activities. That Gwendolyn, the poor little rich girl of the title, is an American did not seem to have registered with him.
Pickford and Tourneur’s previous films together had been less than successful and much was riding on Poor Little Rich Girl. When studio officials and potential exhibitors were given an initial screening of the film, their response was not enthusiastic. As a result, Paramount studio head Adolph Zukor was able to pressure Pickford into sending a telegram to Cecil B. DeMille, the director of her next picture, apologizing for her recent “interference” during production and promising never to do it again. Pickford was so disheartened by this and her home life with alcoholic husband Owen Moore that she actually contemplated throwing herself out a window. To her relief, Poor Little Rich Girl proved to be a huge critical and popular success.
In her illustrious career, “America’s Sweetheart” ended up starring in 200 pictures, including the silent classics Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Tess of the Storm Country (1922), and Sparrows (1926). In 1919, her abilities as a businesswoman led her to join D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in founding the film studio United Artists. She retired from the screen in the early 1930s and began to buy up the rights to her films, locking away both prints and negatives with the intention of burning them upon her death. Pickford believed the audience for silent films had evaporated with the advent of sound and that even the talkies she made at the end of her acting career would not be appreciated by later audiences. Filmgoers everywhere are fortunate that Lillian Gish, one of Pickford’s great friends, knew better and succeeded in changing her mind.
Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons are the founders of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Presented at SFSFF 1997 with live music by Michael Mortilla