Before there was Star Wars, before there was Gone With the Wind, before Al Jolson opened up his mouth and sang "Mammy," there were silent pictures.
We may think of silent pictures now—when we think of them at all—as ridiculous; old, yellowing film of people making funny faces, sporting Victorian hairstyles and ghoulish makeup. But Hollywood became Hollywood—the international headquarters of cinema—due to silent pictures; it was built on the backs of these funny-looking, voiceless actors and actresses. Silent pictures were the very first examples of an exciting new art form that was being created, minute by minute, idea by idea, on the very streets of a Los Angeles that was different than it is today. And it is this wild, woolly, innovative, inspiring world that I hope I captured in The Girls in the Picture.
The oldest surviving example of a moving picture is a 1.6 second snippet, filmed in 1888, of footage of two people walking, called the Roundhay Garden Scene.
Thomas Edison was one of the first to develop the type of film and equipment necessary to capture moving images, but he initially failed to secure a patent and soon there were imitators cropping up all over the world. The Lumière brothers in France, for example, developed their own, and their short film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory is considered the first motion picture. (It consists of footage of exactly that—workers leaving the factory gates.)
What Edison, or anyone else, couldn't yet do was find a way to record both audio and visual at the same time. So films were "silent"—but no less miraculous. The audiences were instantly captivated by the flickering images, often shown on sheets hanging from the back of stores, the projector hand-cranked. At first they were content simply to look at people like themselves, going about their daily life. But they soon grew more sophisticated; they wanted to be told stories.
1903's The Great Train Robbery is considered the first silent movie with a traditional narrative. And the golden age of silent film began in 1910 and continued until 1929. The early films were very primitive indeed; often only one or two reels (generally speaking, one reel ran for fifteen minutes). The camera was static, the costumes and sets flimsy, the story silly. But true artists and innovators flocked to the new medium and soon, techniques that are used today were being invented by such men such as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Albert Capellani and the Lumière brothers in France, F. W. Murnau in Germany. And women, too; in those early years, women were almost as apt as men to be directing, writing, producing. They were making everything up as they went along; nobody minded what sex you were. So Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Lois Weber, Frances Marion, Anita Loos, June Mathis—they were pioneers, too. To read more about the pioneering women of early Hollywood, visit the Women Film Pioneers Project.
The Squaw Man, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel in 1914, was the first feature-length film made in that exotic, far-off land called Los Angeles. They fled to the west coast to escape Edison's thugs, who wreaked havoc on any film crew that failed to pay the steep license fee to use his and his collaborators' many patents—finally, he registered them! Basically all the equipment necessary for film was controlled through a monopoly called the Motion Picture Patent Company. So many film companies fled east from New Jersey—where Edison was headquartered, and where the American film industry first took root—to the west coast.
So they were far away from Edison's goons. But what, exactly, did they find in Los Angeles in 1914?
Los Angeles, in 1914, was no smog-filled, highway-covered, office park-dotted urban environment like it is today. Founded in 1781 by eleven Mexican families, it went through several population booms until, in 1900, it had a population of over 100,000, making it the 36th most populated city in America. However, compared to its snooty neighbor to the north, San Francisco, it was still considered the wilderness. Yes, the weather and landscape was remarkable; the climate temperate; it was covered in orange groves (that were often dotted with oil derricks); flowers bloomed profusely and the air was scented with them. But culturally, it was a barren landscape. Its Anglo citizens were mostly stuffy old teetotalers from the Midwest. There were hardly any theaters, museums, libraries. Cows still were driven in the middle of the streets.
And it was lovely, nonetheless; the Spanish influence present in tiled roofs, squares with mosaicked fountains. It was also—as Cecil B. DeMille and others like him found out to their astonishment—relentlessly sunny; important in those days before the gigantic studio arc lights. And there were mountains, if a film required an Alpine setting. And the ocean, of course, for seafaring adventures. The desert, perfect for cowboys to gallop across.
Los Angeles had it all. And soon the filmmakers from the east were taking the train across country; actors and writers followed, and the town was simply lousy with these "movies," as the people caught up in this new medium were called. Landlords regularly announced they would not rent homes to "Actors, Jews or dogs." So the movie people flocked together out of necessity, and the tables were soon turned; they became the establishment, and the original citizens became dependent on the revenue these "movies"—now referring to the product and not the people—brought to the area.
Hollywood itself was located just outside the boundaries of Los Angeles. One of the town's founders, Henry Wilcox, had a wife named Daeida who named the town "Hollywood" after a Dutch settlement. Compared to Los Angeles, by 1900, Hollywood only had a population of 500. But Hollywood is where DeMille and company established their studio—the very first in Hollywood—and Hollywood soon became synonymous with the movie industry itself. While most of the studios—in those days, there were dozens and they rarely lasted long—were located in Hollywood, which was more rural and had a lot more land to build on than Los Angeles—not all were. Still, with the erection of the famed "Hollywoodland" sign in 1923, the area came to represent the film industry to the world.
In the first years of silent movies, actors' names did not appear in the credits of films, unless they were already major stars of the theater or opera, whose performances were filmed (such as Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso). But for the most part, the actors whose faces the audience grew to love remained nameless; the studio heads felt this was the best way to keep the bulk of the profits themselves. For once a star had a name and the public knew that name, the star would be in a better bargaining position regarding salary.
The first "movie star" is acknowledged to be Florence Lawrence. She grew to fame being known only as the "Biograph" girl, at the studio that D.W. Griffith grew into a major player in the industry. Florence, however, was lured away to a rival studio, Independent Moving Picture Company, by the founder, Carl Laemmle. (IMP would later become Universal.) Laemmle lured Florence with the promise that her name would appear in the credits and on the marquees. So Florence Lawrence was the first movie star whose name became universally known.
Soon, others followed—Frances X. Bushman, Mabel Normand, Harold Lloyd, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, William S. Hart, Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and the biggest movie star of them all, Mary Pickford.
Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1892, Gladys Smith was the eldest of three children. Like so many stars, hers was a troubled childhood; her father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when little Gladys was only six and he died soon after. To make ends meet, Gladys's mother, Charlotte, took in boarders, one of whom was in the theater. He saw pretty little Gladys and suggested that she go on the stage. Her mother at first was horrified, but ever practical and desperate to support her children, she agreed. At age 7, Gladys Smith first appeared on the stage.
Soon the entire family was touring the United States in dreary road companies. Gladys was the one with the talent but she and her mother shared the drive and the responsibilities. Her younger siblings, Jack and Lottie, also were forced onto the stage, but they were never as successful as little Gladys. In 1907, she finally made it to Broadway in the play "The Warrens of Virginia," produced and directed by the great impresario, David Belasco. Belasco didn't think the name "Gladys Smith" was very glamorous, so he changed her name to Mary Pickford.
In 1909, with no work in sight, Mary had no recourse but to try the "flickers." Stage actors in those days looked down upon their movie counterparts. But ever-practical Mary had a family to feed, and she showed up at the door of the Biograph studio in New York City, where D.W. Griffith saw her potential. She was more natural in front of the camera than most of her peers; her face was lovely and expressive, and she was a hard worker. Soon, she had taken Florence Lawrence's place as "The Biograph Girl."
In her early years, Mary did not usually play the little girl characters she became so famous for. She played feisty but mature young women; she fell in love on screen, married, had children. She even played Madame Butterfly! It wasn't until she befriended a sophisticated young woman from San Francisco that her enduring image—that of the little girl—was cemented.
In 1914, a young woman by the name of Marion Benson Owens DeLappe Pike followed her husband to Los Angeles after he was transferred. While she was only twenty-six, she was on her second marriage and it was failing. This young artist (she painted and drew commercially) was born in San Francisco in 1888, and while her childhood was much more financially secure than Mary Pickford's, she, too, had a father who abandoned the family.
After the breakup of her marriage and the return of her ex-husband to San Francisco, Marion decided to remain in Los Angeles. She was growing aware of the fledgling movie industry—in those days, movies were shot outdoors, on every corner, practically—and was enchanted by it. She had no desire to become an actress but it was as an actress that she was first given a contract, by the female film pioneer, Lois Weber. Rechristened "Frances Marion," this determined young woman learned how to do every job there was to do on a film set.
She met Mary Pickford when Mary's first husband, the actor Owen Moore, invited Frances to sketch his wife. The two immediately bonded; they both recognized a shared passion for this new art form. Soon they were living next door to each other, supporting each other, and with Mary's help, Frances began to learn the nascent art of screenwriting.
In 1916, Mary had to return east to New York to film for Biograph, and Frances soon followed her, getting a job as the head of the screenwriting department at World Films. But working together was always their goal, and after their first collaboration—a film that Frances had written, called The Foundling—was destroyed in a fire before it could be distributed, Frances told Mary about an idea for another. It would be based on a play called "The Poor Little Rich Girl," and for the first time, Mary—by then a young woman of twenty-six—would play a child.
Mary by now had become the first actress to head her own production company at Biograph, and had more control over the films she made. She and Frances eagerly put this film into production—Frances writing, Mary starring, and Maurice Tourneur directing. Despite Tourneur's doubts on set, the two women were certain they were filming a classic. But, when they previewed the film, the studio heads—all men—gleefully pronounced it a bomb, and chastised both women.
However, when The Poor Little Rich Girl finally premiered, it was an instant, enormous hit. The success of the film allowed Mary and Frances to do whatever they wished; they returned to Los Angeles and, with their great friend, the director Marshall Neilan, proceeded to make the films that established Mary Pickford as the most famous movie star in the world—Pollyanna, The Little Princess, Stella Maris, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
The two women remained the closest of friends. Until Mary met the man she would risk her entire career for, and Frances, too, found love, in the midst of war.
Douglas Fairbanks was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1883. Another actor with daddy issues—his father, too, abandoned the family—the compact, athletic Doug began acting at an early age and by 1902 was on Broadway. He married another actress, Beth Sully, and they had a son, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Doug's infectious grin made him famous but on stage, he was known for his dandy drawing room comedies. It wasn't until he started making films like The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Baghdad and Robin Hood, that he developed the swashbuckling, action-figure image he became famous for; it was advertised that he did all his own death-defying stunts. (Although Doug was a fine athlete, he did not do his own death-defying stunts.)
He met Mary Pickford at a party in 1916, when both were married to other people. There was an instant attraction, but they resisted it until Doug's mother died; his grief brought them closer, and they embarked on an illicit affair. Mary knew very well that her image—that of the virginal little girl with golden curls—would suffer most if they were discovered. Doug divorced his wife and begged Mary to divorce Owen but again, it was her fear of losing her beloved fans that made her stall. They became very close on a tour in 1917 to sell war bonds for World War I.
Finally, in 1920, Mary divorced Owen and married Doug. Their fans instantly swooned, declaring it the love affair of all time. They were more popular than ever, and reigned as the unofficial king and queen of Hollywood for the rest of their marriage. And they reigned at a castle worthy of any royalty—Pickfair.
In 1919, the burg known as "Beverly Hills" was still a mountainous, wild area best known for hunting. Fairbanks bought a hunting lodge there for his new bride, and they set about building a mansion on the property. Once "Pickfair," as it was christened, was finished, Mary and Doug took up residence and began to entertain.
Pickfair was the first home in the area to have an in ground pool; it boasted tennis courts, manicured lawns, and the 25-room mansion was furnished exquisitely. It was said that no one of importance visited Hollywood without also visiting Pickfair, and the Fairbanks hosted such real life royalty as the Duke of York—later King George the VI; the Duke and Duchess of Alba, and the King and Queen of Siam. Albert Einstein was a guest. So was George Bernard Shaw. Charlie Chaplin, who eventually built his own home nearby, was always there.
Evenings at Pickfair were actually rather staid compared to other Hollywood parties. Doug was a teetotaler, and Mary—who could claim her family's "curse," alcoholism—drank in private. So alcohol was not flowing. Hijinks were limited, except for Doug's penchant for boyish practical jokes. Usually after dinner a film was shown and the evening ended early when the servants brought around cups of Ovaltine for the guests, who took the hint. But not many minded; after all, most of the guests were actors—Greta Garbo, Valentino, Gloria Swanson—who, like Mary and Doug, had to be at the studio early the next morning.
Soon, other Hollywood luminaries realized that this area—these Beverly Hills—would make ideal retreats from the studio, and Mary and Doug had neighbors such as Harold Lloyd, who built "Greenacres," Rudolph Valentino, who had his "Falcon Lair," and Mary's friend, Frances Marion, and her new husband, the fledgling cowboy star, Fred Thomson. The Thomsons built "The Enchanted Hill."
So many of these mansions are now lost, including Pickfair. But here's a great link about them, offering a glimpse into this glamorous, bygone era.
Frances Marion was introduced to the love of her life by her best friend, Mary Pickford. Mary was on location in San Diego, shooting a film that Frances had written (Johanna Enlists) when she was made the honorary colonel of the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment, then training before going overseas to fight in World War I. Mary knew a handsome face when she saw one, and made sure her friend, who was getting ready to go overseas herself as a war correspondent, met this tall (over six feet), handsome championship athlete and minister, who was a lieutenant in the regiment.
Fred Thomson was born in 1890 in Pasadena, California, to a Presbyterian minister; Fred followed in his father's footsteps. While attending Princeton Theological Seminary, Fred was named the All-Around Champion of amateur athletics several years in a row; he played all sports, but was especially gifted at track and field.
A widower—his first wife died when he was 26—Fred fell in love with Frances at first sight. The feeling was mutual and after the war, the two married.
Frances was always ambitious and she saw in her handsome husband the makings of a movie star. Fred was intrigued, and decided to become a cowboy star, along the lines of Tom Mix. Fred trained a horse he named "Silver King" to do stunts, and with Frances's connections, he was soon starring in westerns for a studio known as FBO—Film Booking Offices of America. The head of FBO was a man named Joseph P. Kennedy, later known as the father of a president.
By 1926, Fred was the number 2 Box Office star in America, and he and Frances had built their mansion called "The Enchanted Hill." They had two young sons, and the future seemed bright. However, Kennedy then loaned Thomson out to the rival Paramount Studios, knowing that Paramount—whose cinemas were primarily in the cities, compared to FBO's more rural following—would have to raise the average ticket price for a Thomson film to cover the costs and his new salary. It also meant that Fred's loyal fans in the country had to wait months before seeing his first run films. It turned out that the urban audience did not view a Fred Thomson picture—which were more like "B" pictures than major releases—worth the price of admission. Fred saw his career go in decline, as Paramount, still paying him, kept him off the screen. And Joseph P. Kennedy made a huge profit on the loan out, at his star's expense.
Fred Thomson never recovered from this blow.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks saw themselves as ambassadors of Hollywood when they traveled the globe, and they embraced their roles eagerly. They also put a lot of money and energy into Hollywood itself, helping to establish many of the institutions that still thrive today. Mary, for example, was one of the founders of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which helped struggling members of the industry, as well as the Motion Picture (and later Television) Country House and Hospital, which is a facility that provides long-term care for industry professionals.
In 1919, alarmed by the frenzied merging of major studios, designed to limit the negotiating power of stars like themselves, and determined to have more control over their movies, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith (William S. Hart was initially attached but soon bowed out) formed United Artists. They each, along with a lawyer, held a 20% stake in the company. Unlike most studios, United Artists didn't have a physical location in Hollywood; each of the stars either had built, or soon would, their own studios. Each were to contribute 4-5 pictures a year (although that turned out to be impossible), and by dint of their names alone, were able to arrange bookings (at this time, most of the studios had their own individual distribution entity; United Artists did not). Thus, Mary Pickford became the first female head of a major motion picture studio. Each star then was the sole producer of his/her films; they hired and fired and were financially responsible for everything.
It wasn't always profitable, and there were dissensions among the principles (especially Mary and Charlie Chaplin). After Mary sold her stock in 1956, none of the original principles remained with the company (only she and Chaplin were still alive). But United Artists, in some form or another, has been around ever since. For more information visit the United Artists Wikipedia page.
In 1927, Louis B. Mayer came up with the idea of starting an organization that would negotiate on behalf of the studios with unions, and also lend prestige and an air of respectability to the industry, which had suffered more than its fair share of scandal. Douglas Fairbanks was elected the first president of the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences at the first meeting on May 11th. 230 people were invited to become members in one of the following categories: Producers, Actors, Directors, Writers or Technicians. At first, most were simply concerned with labor issues, as the unions were trying to make inroads into the studios. But soon they decided to concentrate more on brushing up the image of the industry, and this led to the first Academy Awards banquet, held in 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The winners were announced in advance; it was mostly a social gathering. Over time, the Academy Awards have blossomed into an international event.
The Academy is devoted to the preservation and advancement of the film industry; it will open a new headquarters building in 2019. There are two separate branches: The Fairbanks Center for Motion Picture Study on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles (and this is where, in the Margaret Herrick Library, I did my research for The Girls in the Picture), and the Pickford Center for Film Study in Hollywood. For more about the Academy, visit the Oscars website.
No one quite understood the impact of what they were seeing, when Al Jolson—in blackface—opened up his mouth and sang, "Mammy".
Silent movies had grown very sophisticated in the mid-twenties; some were in color, techniques were improved so that the camera was no longer static but fluid. Sets were sumptuous, costumes lavish, and films that are still considered works of art—like Murnau's Sunrise, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis—were being made.
And silent movies, of course, were never really silent. In the early days, piano players played popular songs while the flickers were projected on the screen. Then, starting with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, original scores were created for major features, and as movie palaces were built, they contained room for entire orchestras, which would play the score along with the film.
Inventors were looking for techniques to record sound on film practically since the birth of the cinema. But synchronization of audio and visual remained maddeningly impossible until 1919, when inventor Lee De Forest won patents for the first ever sound-on-film technology, and made a series of shorts under the banner of "De Forest Phonofilms." However, legal battles ensued between De Forest and another one of his employees, Freeman Harrison Owens, for one of the patents. While De Forest won, Owens is recognized today as the true father of sound.
Improvements continued to be made in the sound-on-disc field; Fox's Movietone was the first viable technology in this field held by a major studio. But it was one of the smaller studios—Warner Brothers—that finally made the breakthrough, in 1925, with the Vitaphone system. Vitaphone perfected the sound-on-disc technique, by which sound was recorded on an audio disc at the same time film recorded the live action. Microphones were large and static and had to be covered up on set, usually in lamps or in flower arrangements. The first Vitaphone film was 1926's Don Juan, starring John Barrymore. In that film, the technique was only used for sound effects and music, not dialogue.
In May of 1927, Fox Movietone was able to show film of Charles Lindbergh taking off for Paris that included the sound of his engine. But it was Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer, which premiered that October, that really marked the end of the silent era. The film was still mainly silent, using intertitles, but when Al Jolson, the star, adlibbed prior to singing two of his songs, the first recorded dialogue in a major motion picture was heard. And the industry was never the same again.
At first, some of the greats of the era didn't take sound seriously. It was felt that the art of movie making would be degraded by the reliance on sound. Mary Pickford likened it to "Putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo." Charles Chaplin declared he would never make a sound film—and he didn't, not until the end of his career. But the audiences would not be denied, and films that had been made without sound were held until they could at least add sound effects. And every studio, overnight, hired a sound engineer and converted its stages—now known as "soundstages"—to be able to record sound.
Actors, naturally, were the most vulnerable in the face of this new technique. While some—like Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks—were stage trained, many were not. And then, there were the accents. Vilma Banky was a huge star, but her Hungarian accent made it impossible for her to transition to sound. Ramon Navarro, with his thick Mexican accent, had the same problem. So did Clara Bow, whose Brooklynese did not match her image on film.
Some major stars did survive, and thrive, into the sound era. Ronald Colman had a mellifluous English accent that matched his debonair persona. Gary Cooper, too, had a voice that only added to his onscreen image. The big question of the era was Garbo—would she survive?
The film she was working on when sound changed everything was Anna Christie, adapted from the play by Frances Marion. Production was halted and Frances had to rewrite the script for sound. Great care was taken, and the film was delayed until 1930. But Garbo, indeed, did "talk." And her career was ensured.
Frances Marion found the art of writing for sound just as exhilarating as writing for silent movies, and her career thrived. She won two Academy Awards, one for best adapted screenplay for The Big House, and one for her original screenplay of The Champ. She went on to write many of MGM's biggest early sound films, including Dinner at Eight.
But some careers didn't survive.
Given her age and image, it's doubtful that Mary Pickford's career would have survived much longer, anyway. After all, she was now nearly forty, and despite her attempts to break out, her public still only wanted to see her as a little girl. But that public's tastes were changing, and the silent era soon was thought of as old-fashioned and quaint. Stars like Mary—and Doug—who had so embodied the era found themselves no longer popular.
Mary and Doug each made a couple of sound films—including their first film together, The Taming of the Shrew, but they weren't successful. Their voices, when you view these films, aren't the problem; they both had fine voices that recorded well. But their performances are very old-fashioned, as are the films themselves. After Mary won the second ever Academy Award for Best Actress, for her first sound film, Coquette, in 1929 (in which she played a flapper for the first time, and her audiences didn't really buy it) she only made two other films, including her last with Frances, Secrets.
It was the end of an era in more ways than one. Douglas's heart wasn't in Hollywood anymore; he became restless and addicted to traveling. Mary drank openly, now. People still came to Pickfair, but it was more out of habit and duty than anything else. The two divorced in 1936; each married again. Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939, at the age of 56.
Mary still wasn't willing to hang up her star; she dabbled in some ideas, including working with Walt Disney to film a live action/animated version of Alice in Wonderland. But none of them came to fruition. She also was still a major shareholder in United Artists and continued to produce films there, until she sold out in 1956. Mainly, she remained at Pickfair, a recluse and an alcoholic.
Frances was still writing for films up until 1940. She had sold "The Enchanted Hill" after Fred's death; she remarried in 1930, to the director, George Hill, but they divorced in 1933. She spent the rest of her years surrounded by her close friends, including Hedda Hopper; unlike Mary, Frances had cultivated many other friendships over time. Frances traveled, wrote books, and enjoyed a simpler life.
The difficulties caused by Mary and Frances working together in the one film Frances directed, The Love Light, in 1921, had cooled their friendship. So, too, had their marriages. But by the 1960s, the two women were writing each other, assuring each other that they had been at their best when they had worked together.
Frances Marion died in 1973, at the age of 84. Mary Pickford lived until 1979. But their films, of course, survive today.