Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Allan Dwan, Silent Movie Director

Allan Dwan, born in Toronto, Canada, April 3, 1885 was another contempory of Mary Pickford. "Joseph Aloysious" Dwan moved with his family to the US when he was eleven. He attended the University of Notre Dame, studying engineering. He went to work for a lighting company in Chicago, and it was there that he developed an interest in the brand new motion picture business.

When Essanay Studio (Spoor and Anderson) offered Dwan a chance to come on board as a scriptwriter, he jumped at it. In 1911, he began working in Hollywood. A number of movie companies had relocated to the west coast in order to take advantage of a 360 days of sunshine per year.

Allan Dwan directed both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in a number of their early pictures. He directed Pickford in A Girl of Yesterday in 1915, the film that made Mary the first actress ever to fly in a plane in a movie.

In 1922, Dwan directed Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In an interview the year before Allan Dwan died, he said of Fairbanks that the actor was athletic, "but not always smart." Once while Dwan was directing, Fairbanks insisted on leaping off a balcony onto a horse. Dwan told him that the idea was insanity. But Fairbanks did the leap -- and ended up in the hospital.

 Dwan admired Douglas Fairbanks Sr. According to the famed director, unlike Faribanks's son Doug Jr., who had a reputation as a ladies' man, Doug Sr. was "devoted to Mary." Well, for a few years anyway.

Allan Dwan died in Los Angeles in 1981, at the age of 96.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mary Pickford and the Nickelodeon, Part II

It was Mary's mother, Charlotte, who broached the subject of her eldest daughter applying for work at Biograph, the leading film company in New York in 1909. The Biograph studio was sending two reels of film every day to the exhibitors, and word had it that the company was paying five dollars a day for actors in their movies.

"Would you be very much against applying for work at the Biograph studio, Mary?"

Go into the movies? Mary was incredulous. How demeaning! She was a Belasco actress; the flickers were beneath her dignity.

But a job in moving pictures would mean the four members of the Pickford family could stay together in New York for the summer, and Charlotte wasn't long in pointing that out.

 Charlotte wasn't above a little bribery either. If Mary would agree to try her luck at Biograph, her mother would allow her to wear a pair of silk stockings for the first time. And a pair of high-heeled shoes.

Because she always did as Charlotte told her, Mary swallowed her pride. She dressed in her navy blue serge suit, striped shirtwaist, and a new, rolled brim straw hat, and boarded the streetcar to West 14th Street.

Mary had planned her route to the Biograph studio very carefully, in order to spend only one nickel on the cross-town trolley. Why waste precious money on such a pointless trip, anyway? She would step inside the hated studio, pay the call she'd promised her mother she would, and get out of there as quickly as she could.

The above is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.
Look for it in bookstores in September, or preorder now, online.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mary Pickford and the Nickelodeon

Seventeen-year old Mary Pickford believed that nice people didn't go to nickelodeons. In 1909 there were thousands of these makeshift theatres in America, showing the latest rage -- motion pictures -- and they were often housed in converted storefronts, the plate glass windows covered over. Most stage actors like Mary, considered moving pictures, or "the flickers" as they were often called, beneath them.

 Nickelodeons were so called because the price of admission was usually a nickel. For that price, one might see three reels of motion picture film and an illustrated song. Tickets for a Broadway show or vaudeville were expensive, out of reach of most of the working poor. But nickelodeons were affordable.

Often located in downtown neighbourhoods, nickelodeons were potential fire traps, cramped and fetid, the seating a collection of rickety old chairs. A piano player or violinist would be seated at the front next to the screen (usually a white sheet hung up) to provide musical accompaniment to match the action in the silent film.

The stock stage companies of which Mary had been a part and which had provided her and her family with a living, shut down for the summer months because the theatres got too hot. But the voracious appetite for motion pictures created by the nickelodeons meant the film studios were busy year round.

And Mary Pickford was looking for work.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The King of Comedy

Mack Sennett, founder of Hollywood's Keystone Studio and hailed as the "King of Comedy," was another of Mary Pickford's contemporaries. Like Mary, Sennett was a Canadian. He was born January 17, 1880 in Danville, Quebec, the son of a blacksmith. The family moved to Connecticut when Mack was 17.

Although he originally hoped to become an opera singer, the story goes that it was meeting Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born star of vaudeville, that led him to New York in search of work on the stage. Dressler was appearing in The Lady Slavey in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1898 when Sennett told her he wanted to break into show biz. Marie Dressler wrote a note to David Belasco, famed Broadway producer, on Sennett's behalf.

After appearing in burlesque and vaudeville shows, Mack Sennett apprenticed at the Biograph studio in New York from 1908-1912. This was where he first met Mary Pickford. They were both appearing in the early silent movies directed by D. W. Griffith. Both Sennett and Mary were also writing screen stories and having friendly competitions with each other to sell their work to Griffith.

There's an amusing story in my soon-to-be-released book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, about how Mack wanted to put Mary's name on one of his scenarios because he thought Mary's writing was being accepted only on account of her long, blonde hair.

 Mack Sennett became a producer and director himself, founding the Keystone Studio where he became famous for his slapstick comedies, including the zany Keystone Cop series. During his career, Sennett directed most of the well-known comedians of the silent film era. He has to his credit more than 1000 silent movies as well as a number of talkies.  Sennett died in 1960, just before his eightieth birthday.