In August 1913, I attended a small studio party, where I met up with my old nemesis Gladys Smith, or Mary Pickford as you may know her. Although I always harbored some small resentment against her, I was always friendly towards Mary – just for old time’s sake. And, of course, those old times (just two years back) were what we always talked of. One subject that always came up, when we Biograph girls got together, was that little minx Mae Marsh. You are all undoubtedly aware that one way directors and producers seek to boost their films is by introducing scantily dressed women. However, we Biograph actresses were staunch Edwardian girls, and the whole idea of showing even a bare ankle, was anathema to us (yes I did appear in a swimsuit twice, but as an athlete, not a bathing beauty). One day Griffith approached Mary Pickford, saying he was going to star her in a film called Man’s Genesis. “You mean you want me to prance around in a grass skirt” replied the indignant Mary. “Well I won’t do it!” Mary called all the actresses together, and we all agreed to turn the part down. Later, Griffith came to us, saying that, as we had behaved so despicably, he was giving the part to the new girl on the lot, Mae Marsh. What was more annoying was the fact that she was starred in the next film ‘The Sands of Dee’. Of course, she later did the big one, ‘The Birth of a Nation’. We blackballed Miss Marsh for many years after, until she finally said this to the press:
“Of course, I was thrilled, and she (Pickford) was very much hurt. And I thought, Well, it’s all right with me. That is something. I was, you know, just a lame-brain.”
Naturally, I have forgiven her long ago. One thing that came of this incident was an agreement between the Biograph girls that we would do only wholesome films, and we would never disrespect each other in public. We remained firm and resolute, and it was only in the late 20s that the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Dorothy Mackaill, began to kow-tow to the directors, and expose themselves to the detriment of the industry. I feel these actresses will soon fall [author’s note: they could and did].
Having got that off my chest, I will tell you of the rest of my discussion with ‘America’s Sweetheart’. I told Mary that we’d received word from Adam Kessell that he was about to sign a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin, as part of his program to give us credibility by taking on actors from the legitimate stage. I had seen Chaplin perform, and knew he always had star billing (separate from his company, Karno). Mary had not seen him perform, but, amazingly, had seen him in real life – in a restaurant. The ‘Sweetheart’ went all dreamy eyed, as she described his bohemian appearance, his tousled hair, and his small, delicate hands that moved in deliberate, but subtle ways. Her companions, all silly young girls, thought he must be a Greenwich Village poet, an artist, or a writer. They were gobsmacked when told he was Charlie Chaplin, the famous vaudevillian. “Of course, you spoke to him” I said. “Well no”, she replied “, we had not been introduced!” Typical prissy Mary.
I have to admit that I dreamed about ‘Bohemian Charlie from Bow’ for the next few days. When I was young I’d been a strange, lonely girl, and often wandered the Greenwich area hoping to meet a bohemian artist who’d want to put me on canvas. I imagined he’d whisk me away to some South Sea island, where we’d spend long hours on the beach painting each other (didn’t all artists do this?). As you know, I did become an artist’s model, but under a more commercial circumstance, and in wet and windy New York to boot. Getting back to Charlie, I was sitting in Mack’s office one day in September, casually looking through a pile of letters on his desk. I noticed one from Kessell and Baumann instructing him to get down to a certain L.A. theater and meet Chaplin, who they had now signed. “Why didn’t you tell me about this”, I shouted at Mack, “when are we going to see him!” “We’re not”, he replied. I knew why – Mack had been rejected by the theater in his early days, and had harbored a grudge ever since. However, I had no problem persuading Mack to go, as K & B would be furious if he didn’t. When the day came, we went down, and saw Charlie’s show, but I was too nervous to go backstage and meet him. I stood outside on the pavement, and Mack brought Charlie out to see me. Both Charlie and I were most embarrassed, and more stared at each other, than spoke to each other. As the great master, Griffith, always warned – “never meet your idols”. I had come to idolize Chaplin on the stage, and he had idolized me in my films. Mack broke the ice, and suggested we all go to dinner at a restaurant. As we sat at the table I saw a great change come over Mack’s face. He’d obviously detected some chemistry between us, and thought Charlie could easily sweep me up, and gallop away, like some Arab sheik. I can understand his concern, as, if I had left Keystone in 1913 or ‘14, the studio would have been done for (Ford Sterling was already about to leave). Mack was still sulking, as he dropped me off at home, but things were obviously worse the next day, when I heard him shouting down the phone, on a long distance call to Adam Kessell. “I won’t have that egotistical limey here”, he raged. Of course, he was out-voted by K & B, so had to comply.
As you know Chaplin eventually arrived, but before he did so, Mack put me in Mabel’s Dramatic Career. The film was the usual Keystone nonsense, in which I am abducted by rejected suitor Ford Sterling, and tied to a barrel of gunpowder. This is, however, all on a film, shown within the actual film, and Mack is seen watching the picture. I was his former love, and Mack loses it, and fires his pistol at the screen. I remember making a scene, which I thought was the final one, in which the ‘villain’ (played by Ford Sterling) and I are married, and have three children – the usual happy ending. For some reason, I never saw all the rushes, and only saw the completed picture at a cinema with some of my friends. We were all shocked, for scenes had been inserted, which showed Mack hunting down the ‘villain’ to our house, then, seeing me and the children with him, he prepared to kill us all. In those days such things were not portrayed in comedies, and the inference was clear. If Chaplin ever laid a finger on The Keystone Girl, Mack would kill him (and, in all probability, me too).
When the day came, and Chaplin did arrive, I kept well clear of him, and Chaplin, who must have seen the film, made no attempt to see me. Mack tried to keep us apart professionally, but eventually had to bring us together. We were stuck for some gags in an early scene for Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and Mack called Charlie over to provide some of his English Music Hall gags, for which he was well known. Charlie complied, and did his now famous tramp routine for the first time. He ran through his one minute long repertoire, which had us all in stitches, and then did a 13 second filmed scene with me.
He was then whisked away to shoot a short picture in Venice, under Pathe Lehrman. We continued filming without Chas, but, on his return, we shot more scenes with him. Chas seemed more confident in his new costume, got up to speed, and finished up chasing me around the hotel in my pajamas. I felt obliged to keep up with the tramp for professional reasons, but the tuberculosis, which I was now suffering from, was sapping my energy. I ended up mentally and physically exhausted by the film’s end. Again, things happened in the film, of which I was totally unaware. It seems Chaplin was given an extension to the hotel lobby scene, in which I appeared for 13 seconds, making the scene almost a minute long. My scene where I pause outside, before entering the hotel, was meant to be the first scene, but was relegated to the third scene. I was absolutely furious, and charged into Mack’s office, ranting and stamping my feet, as I did in the park scene for His Trysting Place. I told Mack to keep the limey tramp out of my pictures.
Two months went by, and K & B decided I should be paired with Chas for the two-reeler, Mabel at The Wheel. This was my big one, as two-reelers were a new innovation. I had the expected big argument with Mack, telling him the limey would steal my picture. Mack simply shrugged his shoulders, saying “Orders is Orders.” O.K.”, I said, ” I’ll do the film, but I must have directorial control, and there is to be no tramp costume!” Alright, alright”, said Mack, and we set to making the picture. Poor old Chas was completely unsettled, when he saw me behind the camera, out on location in Santa Monica. Of course, he got all shirty, and began trying to change all the scenes. Nevertheless, we got a lot done, but Chas went on strike mid-afternoon. This was disastrous, as it was an expensive film, and we could not afford any hold ups. With so much film shot, I could not fire ‘Mr. Ego’, so I ordered everyone back to the studio. Of course Mack soon spotted that we were back two hours early, and flew out of his office. “What the..” he ranted. “That Englisher refused to work”, I said. Mack charged into the dressing room and confronted Chas, threatening to fire him. Of course he could not fire Chas, and in the ensuing long-distance call, Kessell told him to smooth things over with the tramp, who was making
them a whole load of bucks. Things were smoothed over, and we both realized that a leading lady is never in competition with her leading man. Consequently, we combined our efforts, and directed each other in our joint films. In effect, we had both won. Mack was never happy about Chas, though, and even put private dicks on my tail, to see if I was meeting up with the tramp. He had heard that we were getting together in my dressing room, and sometimes ‘stealing’ a company car to go into L.A. when we were bored with filming.
Dining every night with Mack at The Athletic Club was becoming very tiresome, and his friends there were also un-charismatic and dull. Chas had taken a room at the club, and I suggested we should have him along with us. Mack agreed, only because he would know where we were every night. Fortunately, boring old Mack always fell asleep after dinner, so we two would skip off to see a show or a picture, waking the old boy up when we returned. Oh, how young, and how gay we were, in those days before the storms hit us.
The lesson in all of this is not to dismiss any person or their views, you can always learn something from your fellow actors. Your enemies are in the studio office, not on the set. Furthermore, never head for the dressing room as soon as you’ve done your bit – those bums might be filming you right out of the picture.
* In part 4 I tell how Chas and I learned advanced comedy, and I get to understand how to manipulate the studio system.