Mary Pickford Really Was “A Living Doll”

One of my grandfather’s favorite lines was something that he heard when he and his best friend, Paul, took their famous trip to California during the winter of 1927-1928. As they were seeing the sights in Hollywood, they spotted Mary Pickford. Then, they heard a lady standing nearby say, “She’s a living doll!”

Grandpa loved repeating that line for the rest of his life. Although he told me plenty about the charming and talented actress who became Hollywood’s first great star, I hadn’t seen any of the Living Doll’s films. That changed last night, when I went to the Wexner Center for the Arts to watch Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in a special screening of their 1929 film, The Taming of the Shrew. 

Postcard for Mary Pickford: Queen of the MoviesChristel Schmidt, film historian and editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, introduced the film. An Ohio State University graduate, Schmidt received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities to research the actress who was involved in making over 200 films between 1909 and 1933. 

There’s nothing better than a talk that blends interesting information with plenty of visuals, and Schmidt’s had plenty of appeal. She brought the Pickford story home to her audience by sharing two ties that “America’s Sweetheart” had to Columbus. While passing through Columbus circa 1904, the child star had her photograph taken at Baker Art Gallery. Located on the corner of State and High Streets at the time Pickford visited, the photography studio was run by four generations of the Baker family between 1862 and 1955. 

But the Columbus tie that proved to be more significant to Pickford was her friendship with actress Elsie Janis, a native of Columbus. Janis’s summer home, the El-Jan Shack, was located on the northeast corner of 18th Avenue and High Street, across from Ohio State’s campus. In 1915, Janis hosted a party at her Tarrytown, New York home, and it was at that party that Pickford and Fairbanks met. Schmidt described how that although Fairbanks and Pickford were married to other people at the time, he was immediately taken with her. While Janis, Fairbanks, Pickford, and their spouses walked the grounds, Pickford found that she couldn’t cross some high water because of the long velvet skirt and white suede boots that she was wearing. Fairbanks chivalrously came to her rescue and carried her across. That’s when I caught myself listening with my mouth open, the sure sign that I like what I hear! 

Schmidt described how Pickford and Fairbanks’ friendship developed over dates for tea with their mothers and visits at Fairbanks’ home with his wife and son. She told us about how the pair joined Fairbanks’ friend, Charlie Chaplin, in selling war bonds in 1917 and forming the United Artists film studio in 1919. And then she described their eventual divorces, their marriage on March 28, 1920, and their European honeymoon, where they were met by throngs of fans in London and Paris. Showing us a 1933 telegram between the pair, Schmidt told us the significance of the phrase, “more than ever by the clock,” to their relationship. The code message involving a clock on Fairbanks’ car dashboard and a sign from his deceased mother became the couples’ personal pledge symbolizing their love for each other. 

Describing how war-weary people delighted in this couple who symbolized optimism, strength and youth, Schmidt shared wonderful photos of Pickford and Fairbanks with their friends, Lord and Lady Mountbatten; on vacation in the Swiss Alps; and posing at their Hollywood home, Pickfair. Seeing photos of the Living Doll frequently wearing pearls, hosting a tea party in a stylish suit and cloche, and protecting her famous hair  with a flower-covered bathing cap made my mouth fall open again. 

I was equally transfixed during what happened next. As a special treat, we watched three rare film shorts from the Library of Congress’s collection while Schmidt told us more about what we were seeing. First came charming footage of Pickford’s cousin Verna’s 1925 wedding at Pickfair, where Fairbanks characteristically monkeys around for the camera. While watching Screen Snapshots newsreel footage of the couple from the 1920s, Schmidt pointed out well-known people of the day, like Dorothy and Lillian Gish; the couple’s dog, Zorro; and the Goodyear blimp landing on the Pickfair lawn. Finally, we watched The Dream, a 1911 short film starring Pickford; her first husband, Owen Moore; and her sister, Lottie Pickford. 

Then came The Taming of the Shrew. Recently restored by the Museum of Modern Art, the film was the couple’s first and only appearance together on the screen. It also was their first talking picture.

Schmidt told us how the film is a visual record of the couple’s tumultuous relationship and their disintegrating marriage. For example, she shared Pickford’s exasperation at Fairbanks’ delays on the set, which cost $30 a minute; how the couple had predicted a higher return than the $1 million the film grossed; and how the New York Times had called it one of the ten best films of the year. To make the screening even more meaningful, the program notes which we were given as we entered the auditorium included the text of Mordaunt Hall’s review of the film, which was published in the November 30, 1929 issue of the New York Times. 

Hearing Schmidt describe how Fairbanks’ boisterous personality dominated the movie, yet Pickford’s performance was equally spirited and strong, I was anxious to see and hear the couple for myself. As I started watching the film, I wondered whether this was going to be like Singin’ in the Rain. Would Pickford sound like Lina Lamont in The Dueling Cavalier? But oh, was I wrong! Pickford had a lovely voice. And yes, indeed, she was a Living Doll! Her expressive face, rosebud mouth, and beautiful costumes were terrific! And oh, how I loved Fairbanks’s ebullient nature and showy outfits, especially his headgear for his wedding day! I wondered whether anyone else in the audience spotted the run in his tights as he carried on. And I’ll never look at an apple core the same way again! 

AChristel Schmidt signing a copy of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Moviesfter the screening, Schmidt signed copies of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. Published by the Library of Congress in association with the University of Kentucky Press, the volume sheds new light on the star. Essays by Schmidt and other film historians discuss Pickford’s characters, how she used her costumes and curls to define her image, her marriage to Fairbanks, and the couple’s work promoting World War I. The book also explores Pickford’s contributions as a producer and businesswoman, her work as a philanthropist and her contributions to the archival film movement. 

Archivists will be glad to know that the book describes the Mary Pickford Film Collection at the Library of Congress, the world’s largest collection of Pickford’s films, including her personal film collection which she donated to the repository in 1946. Additionally, the book introduces readers to the Mary Pickford Photograph Collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, and the Mary Pickford Costume and Ephemera Collection at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The large-format book is illustrated with more than 200 illustrations. My favorites are photographs not only of some of Pickford’s costumes, but also of an actual lock of her famous ringlets.  Postcards promoting the book were on hand for the taking, so I happily tacked mine to my bulletin board at work today.

From December 2012 through June 2013, Schmidt is traveling the country, discussing Pickford’s career at more than 25 film screenings similar to this one. For a schedule of her upcoming appearances, click here.

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