Now, from the title, you might think the good old days of silent film, refers to a time in the 1920s. This was, of course, the time of the fully developed pantomimic motion picture, but if you’d asked a star in the 1920s, when were the good old days, they’d have probably answered, 1907 to 1912. To a 1920s movie star, caught up in the complex and dog-eat-dog nature of the 1920s film business, the memory of those early, halcyon days of moving pictures, brought with it a waft of tranquillity to their now hectic lives. Many, like Mabel Normand, wrote briefly, and with a sigh, of those early days, at studios like Vitagraph and Biograph. Others, though, were more industrious, like Mary Pickford and Mrs D.W. Griffith, and wrote lengthy accounts of those days, long before their minds had begun to fog over. These accounts refer only to the Biograph studio, where the movie genius, D.W. Griffith, reigned supreme, but in general, the accounts also speak for the other studios.
The moving picture, as we all know, did not appear in 1907, but was a product of the late 19th Century. To begin with, the U.S. film business was small and scrappy, and was not helped by the Edison Trust, which sought to monopolise the business. It was a poor relation, in those days, of the European film industry, and was not regarded favourably, at first, by most of the American public, or at least the theatre-going public. However, the first movie actors came directly from the stage, though not without some reluctance, for being seen entering a movie studio was tantamount to ending your stage career. Movies were immoral, simple as that. When the then stage-actor D.W. Griffith entered Biograph for the first time, he pulled up his coat collar, and pulled down his hat, so as not to be recognised. Not much later a young Mary Pickford entered the building, cursing her mother, for sending her to this den of iniquity. The following comes from her autobiography. Things had been tough for the Smith (Pickford) acting family, and there was no work in sight for Mary. Consequently, a distraught Mary was ordered to 11 East Fourteenth Street, to gain a few bucks from posing in pictures. This was terrible, for Mary was a stage actress, trained by none other than David Belasco. Later, Mary was to also claim that these were the good old days, but she was unhappy about the informality among the company. My god, the actors and actresses were addressing each other by their first names, and were getting way too familiar. Mary turned to leave, but then a tall man with a hooked nose, rushed by, but stopped in his tracks, when he saw her. He stared at Mary, and screwed up his eyes, seemingly framing her. What a rude man, thought Mary, but then the man spoke:
“My name’s Griffith, I’m the director down here. Are you looking for work, young lady?”
“Yes, but I’m a stage actress, from the Belasco company.”
Griffith looked her up and down, then said:
“No, sorry, I can’t use you.”
He turned to walk away, and Mary shouted after him:
“Too fat!” Came the answer.
Then, he turned back. He studied Mary’s face, then ran her flaxen curls through his hands.
“Well, perhaps I can use you.”
“I must have Belasco pay, ten dollars a day.” Mary stammered.
“Well, when I see Belasco, I’ll tell him I’m paying you ten dollars.”
So it was that Gladys Smith, aka Mary Pickford, began work at Biograph studios. Griffith never truly made up his mind about Mary. She was podgier than most of his leading ladies, and weighed 20 to 30 pounds above the usual 100 pounds. Mary could never glide around, as the waif-like Blanche Sweet, but her face was beautifully oval, symmetrical and camera-proof. To Mary’s chagrin, Griffith put her into a compartment, from which he occasionally pulled her out. Let’s dally a moment, with Mary’s perception of Biograph, which differs from that of other Biographers. What she saw shocked her, for, while some players were acting on the various stages, others were milling around, laughing, joking and guffawing.
The noise made by the hundred or so people present, was deafening. One lounging oaf, caught her attention. He was a big guy, leaning against a piece of scenery, chewing gum and grinning at her. Mary glared back at this moron, who turned out to be a Canadian, like herself, but this man was a country boy, with manners to match. His name was Mack Sennett. He was still grinning, when Mary was put on a stage, where a banjo was placed in her hands. For the first time, she had to mime, which was a difficulty for her. She ignored the grinner, but then her leading man entered, ad-libbing “Who’s the dame?”, nodding towards Mary. Well, Mary had had enough, and throwing down the banjo, she stormed off. Never before, had she been so insulted – calling her a ‘dame’ was tantamount to calling her a prostitute. Sennett’s grin broadened, and Mary’s insolent leading man was Owen Moore, later to be her husband.
The studio turned out to be nothing, if not democratic, with everyone getting a fair crack at leads, although it seems clear that this was part of the management’s ploy to prevent any actor’s cranium swelling too much, and we will get back to Mary’s view of this practice, later on. In general, the players were happy with the situation, but as time went on, the early-comers came to think that they should have first shot at the plum parts. In the very early days, there was one actress that thought she ranked above all others, and that was Florence Lawrence. A former child stage star, recruited to films by Vitagraph, she was head-hunted by D.W. Griffith, and coerced by him to leave Vitagraph. She breezed like a queen through the studio, pushing the other actresses aside, if in a hurry to reach the set or dressing room. On her first day at the studio, Mary Pickford locked horns with ‘the queen’ after she used Mary’s powder compact, without a bye or leave. Her majesty simply glared at her accuser, then stomped off, after pushing Mary aside. Mary, of course, was as balloon-headed as Florence, but, like the other actresses, she realised that it was best policy to keep on good terms with her peers. In this respect, there was soon to be a role model figure to follow, at the studio, and that was Mabel Normand. Mrs Griffith described her as “generous-hearted to a fault”, but also “daring and reckless, she was like a frisky young colt, that would brook no bridle.” Unsurprising, then, that many of the youngsters began to emulate her, and actually wanted to be her. Mrs Griffith again: “Yes, Mabel was the most wonderful girl in the world, the most beautiful, and the best sport” (or “a good fellow” as Chaplin later told it).
It was the departure of Florence Lawrence (under a dark cloud) that opened the door of opportunity for the other actresses. Any semblance of elitism left with the self-styled queen, and feigned democracy came into vogue. Everyone had their chance at leads, but that democracy was carefully managed on the studio floor, by Griffith. Nobody was more annoyed about this than Miss Pickford, who often quizzed him as to why he did not give her this, or that part. Griffith would ignore her (and others who had similar questions) then break out into operatic song, as only a Welshman can. Many years later, he admitted that Mary was suitable for many parts, but he wanted to keep her feet on the ground. Griffith was also a cruel man that loved to see his players suffer. At times when Mary and Blanche Sweet seemed to be a little lacklustre in performance, he would bawl them out. Any insolence in return, would result in Mary being thrown at the wall, or Blanche being kneed off the stage. As Mary once told him “Sir, you are no southern gentleman.” Mack Sennett, became a perpetual thorn in Mary’s side, as she was a serious-minded girl, who could readily be made the butt of a joke or two. Mack got deep in with Mary, as she was helpful in his quest to be a screenwriter. Mary had more scripts accepted than Mack, and so Mack would give a script to Mary to present to the management. She’d present it as her own, and they’d share the fifteen dollars. One day, Mack plagiarised a story he found in a newspaper column, and he gave it to Mary to present. Unfortunately, the story was recognised, and Mary got a good ticking off from the office. How the future King of Comedy must have roared with laughter, but soon he had someone else to pursue. It was, of course, Mabel Normand. Now, getting to Mabel, unless you were in with ‘the crowd’ was difficult. Mack was regarded as a loser in the social stakes, and no girl would have anything to do with him. However, came the time when Mack needed Mabel – badly. He’d been made director of comedy, and finding a leading lady was difficult. Mabel, was unapproachable, but she had one weakness – diamonds! Mack began to shower her with sparklers, and eventually won her round, although it was not all plain sailing. Mrs Griffith records the time, when Mabel threw a two-thousand-dollar bracelet back at The King. So it was, that the guy Mrs Griffith said would never buy a girl a milk shake, came to be expending his entire income on one girl. A very good investment, so it turned out.
Inside the Studio.
When the movie industry first departed for Los Angeles, they used rough, outdoor stages, with splintery boards set up as stages. Back at the Biograph, though, the situation was different. The old brownstone building had once been a mansion, with beautiful wooden floors, although now hollowed, due to the passage of a million feet. The main studio, with its stages, had once been the ballroom, and the dressing rooms, prop room and wardrobe, were scattered throughout the four-storey building, which included a basement. Hordes of actors, wannabes, and extras were all over the house, many in the studio proper, but they also spread out on all floors, and dozens could be found lounging in the hallway, or on the stairways. A recipe for frayed tempers and fist fights, obviously, although mostly there was good-natured banter and friendly sarcasm. Queen of the banter and sarcasm from 1911, through 1912, was Mabel Normand. Reckless, but generous to a fault, she was the fulcrum around which the studio turned, or at least the social side of the studio. There were other fulcrums, at least for the actresses. A king-pin for the girls with problems, was Kate Bruce, or ‘Brucie’ as she was known. Brucie put up many of the out-of-town girls at her Manhattan apartment, and provided a shoulder for those with role rejection and boyfriend troubles. Essential also, were the stage mothers. A thorn in the side for the director, as they pushed their young charges forward for the best parts, they also benefitted him, when their recalcitrant and surly girls refused to do the great man’s bidding. Mama always knew best, and it was best to follow the director’s orders. Mary Pickford, in those days, was already a stage mother in her own right, pushing for her own leading parts. Her mama, was left to sort out Mary’s siblings, Jack and Lottie, although Mary often intervened to get them parts as well. Fortunate it was that Mrs Pickford was also a good seamstress, and Mary and Lottie were able to compete against most comers, wearing mother’s hand sewn, but usually gingham dresses. However, there were some that were so well-attired that competing against them was hopeless. Enter the modish (as Mrs Griffith called her) Dorothy Davenport, later Mrs Wally Reid, whose family often visited Paris, and returned bearing armfuls of the latest costumery from the capital of world fashion. Sometimes Mary, Blanche and Mabel, got to wear these fine clothes, as Griffith would pay $10 for the use of particularly stunning garments. As Mabel was to say years later, returning these costumes was the most painful thing in the world. In fact, she determined, at that point, that she’d have wardrobes full of fashionable clothes, and she’d buy Parisian frocks, six at a time, wear one, and give the rest away. Her dream came true, soon enough. Dorothy Davenport, as everyone knows, had a stage mother, Alice Davenport, an actress that was to play Mabel’s mother in many, many films down the years. Mabel was one of the few girls in films that never had a stage mother – she made her own way in the world. The Biograph and Vitagraph stage mothers worried over Mabel. She was reckless of her own safety, and was far too familiar with the boys. The mother of the Talmadge sisters used to tell them “Never commit to a man, until I’ve seen the size of his wallet.” Falling off of cliffs, and diving off high boards was O.K. for Mabel, but the mothers would not allow it for their girls – unless, of course, the director paid a premium. They were the guardians of their daughter’s morals, but they’d willingly throw the girls onto the casting couch, if it meant a good part.
The good times, of course, were not confined to the studio, and many directors were keen to get out into the landscape, where they wouldn’t be bothered by the Parks Police, and rascals mocking the actors, or making suggestive remarks to the actresses. Strait-laced women coming across a street corner or park bench love scene would be furious with the actresses, who they termed immoral something or others, occasionally lashing out with well-weighted handbags. Within driving distance of New York there was splendid scenery that could pass for the wild west, or even Mexico. Fort Lee, New Jersey was close to the Palisades that made dramatic background for action and other films. Eventually, Fort Lee became over-run with film companies vying for the best spots, so that Griffith looked further afield – often way out towards the Canadian border. Free holidays it was for the players, but the days were not so good, when they lodged in reasonably classy hostelries, but three to a bed for the men, and two-a-bed for the women. The lovers among the group cared not, for they simply grabbed a Biograph canoe for the night, and paddled off to some lonely spot, disregarding the fact that this was bear country. Anyhow, it beat petting behind the studio scenery, which could inexplicably move at any time. Mrs Griffith makes it clear who was the biggest groucher, over beds, food and everything else. It was Mack Sennet, who thought he should dine like a lord and sleep comfortably in a four-poster – entwined within silken sheets, no doubt. Sennett was, nonetheless, a good bass singer and along with piano-playing and tenor singing actors, provided the evening entertainment, when he wasn’t grouching, of course. In future years, he would sing at the piano with his star-of-stars Mabel Normand, but we have no indication that Mabel joined the Sennett quartet in those early days. Perhaps she had better things to do, and better people to do it with, like live-wire Jack Pickford. Mabel did join Mack Sennett, however, out on the Jersey Shore proper, around Atlantic City, where the King of Comedy would organise the Biograph cross country runs, across fields and over farm gates. Only one person could keep up with the flying Sennett, and that was Mabel Normand, swift of foot, and queen of the fence jump.
The young New Yorkers made the most of their freedom away from the city. The men organised crap games, and youngsters like Jack Pickford and Bobby Harron, were interested, and got a taste for the whisky that accompanied these games. The girls brought gin and other ladies’ spirits into their hotels, to add some naughtiness to their lives. Things would have been fine, but for one rowdy, midnight card game rousing the movie genius from his slumber. D.W. Griffith confiscated the hard liquor, and banned the crap games, but to maintain the general good will, he brought in iced India Pale Ale. The allegation that it was Mabel Normand who introduced the girls to gin, dirty jokes and the demon cigarettes has yet to be proven.
Actors and actresses from the New York boroughs, like Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island, had been mesmerised by the bright lights of Manhattan, but their horizons had been further broadened by the Griffith excursions that they would never have otherwise seen. Later, of course, they would transverse the continent, populate far away California and Florida, and eventually some would gravitate to Europe.
Strange Goings on Out West.
The greatest location for the film companies was California. Many studios moved west for the winter season, and this gave the players even more scope to throw off their eastern-imposed manners. Some of course, used to the bright lights of New York, became homesick, but in general we can say that a good time was had by all. Not all of stage-mamas came west, which gave their charges a chance ‘do their thing’. Ostensibly, they were under the scrutiny of elected chaperones, but the youngsters soon found a way to slip away from their guardians. Night-life was restricted to a small part of downtown Los Angeles, but was nothing approaching what they’d experienced back east. Mostly they worked on the far edges of central L.A., for in the early days, Hollywood was not a place that welcomed movie people.
By 1913, change was in the air. Mabel Normand, the legend, the darling of the Biograph people, had settled in dusty, bottom-drawer, Edendale, where she starred in the new Keystone pictures, and was anointed Queen of The Movies, by the proto-movie press. The new girls coming out west with Griffith for the first time, like Dorothy Gish and Gertrude Bambrick were mesmerised by the stories of Mabel that they heard. No doubt they got to see her in the flesh, although they did not actually meet her until some time later. A somewhat larger than life young lady, unashamedly wearing a white mink wrap, and sporting the biggest boa feather anyone had ever seen, Dotty and Gertie were impressed. They set out to be Mabel, for just one night. Suitably fortified with gin and tonic, they hitched down their waistbands to expose a little midriff, then hit the town. What happened? Nothing happened, for DWG and Del Henderson hunted them down, and returned them to their chaperones before the came to harm, or were arrested. Whereas Dotty went on to be the insolent scourge of D.W. Griffith, Gertie, Griffith star for a while, settled down and married Marshall Neilan. Unfortunately, Dotty never mastered the art of plucking the heart strings of those she offended. In this respect, she was most unlike her idol.
Quite likely the 1920s stars were looking back through rose tinted spectacles. However, we have to consider the general situation for people like themselves, in 1907. Many came from poor backgrounds, and those that were stage performers, were, likely as not, doomed to spending their lives travelling, from one two-bit town to another, sometimes sleeping in rough hotels, or sometimes bedding down on hard, railway station benches. When looking at it this way, we can see that a film studio, with all year-round work, and regular pay, without travelling at the actor’s own expense, was a much easier way of life – why they did not even have to learn any lines! At between five and ten dollars a day, life was a cinch, by comparison. Nor did the studios have much control of the actors, for they were, then, a rare breed. D.W. Griffith bemoaned the fact that he had to admit all and sundry, so that the building could be bulging with as many as two hundred souls, many of whom would never be more than ‘atmosphere’. There was nothing he could do, except keep them fed and happy, on the famous curled Biograph sandwiches. No-one was ever fired from Biograph, even those that committed cardinal sins. Sullen and insolent actresses were tolerated, but step over the line, and they would not play the lead in the next Griffith picture. The performers were ambitious, and ready to steal any scene, but society was much more parochial back then, and people were more likely, and expected, to help their brethren. The slip-ups, however, were never thereafter, alluded to, like the time that Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, and Blanche Sweet black-balled fourteen-year-old Mae Marsh, for taking the lead role in ‘Man’s Genesis’ and ‘The Sands of Dee’. A Griffith stunt, no doubt, but black-balled poor Mae remained, within the future Hollywood social scene. A black mark, clearly, on Hollywood society, but in the main, the stars preferred to reserve their venom for the evil producers. By the 1920s, the producers were becoming very hard-nosed, as the cost of movies soared, and accountants and bankers moved in. No wonder the stars looked back through a pink mist, to the time of the five-dollar day and curled up, but honest, sandwiches. Old alliances were cemented, when Mabel Normand had the first of her scandals in 1922, and the aspiring stars of 1911, came out and publicly supported her. Attempts to turn the finger of blame on the producers, inevitably came to nought, but the players had shown that they would not be pushed around by their ‘betters’. Mrs Griffith said of the early days, “This was the age of our innocence”, and perhaps it was, although we might consider that Mrs Griffith’s ‘innocence’ was a relative term.
When the Movies Were Young by Linda Griffith (1925).
Working-Class Hollywood by Steven J. Ross (1998).
King of Comedy by Mack Sennett (1954).
Love, Laughter and tears: My Hollywood Story by Adela Rogers St. Johns (1978).
Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (1956).
Mabel Normand: A Source Book to her Life and Films by Wm. Thomas Sherman (2006)
Behind the Screen by Samuel Goldwyn (1923).
The Man Who Invented Hollywood: The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith. Edited and Annotated By James Hart. 1972.