Mary Pickford Interviewed by Tony Thomas of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation at Pickfair
May 25, 1959
Tony Thomas: Miss Pickford, in Canada we’ve always taken delight in the fact that America’s Sweetheart was a Canadian. Now just where did you come from?
Mary Pickford: I was born in Toronto, Canada, and so was my father, and my mother.
TT: Whereabouts in Toronto?
MP: On University Avenue.
TT: Have you seen it lately?
MP: No, it’s torn down now.
TT: Because University Avenue is a big, wide thoroughfare of office blocks and hospitals and things.
MP: Do you want me to tell you how I feel about it?
TT: Please do.
MP: Oh, I’m very sad about my old Toronto.
MP: Mmm-hmm. You know, I used to ride down on my bicycle right from Young Street down to Queen and I didn’t have to pedal at all. You know, there’s quite a little hill there.
TT: Yes, you wouldn’t notice it today. Of course, nobody ever rides a bicycle down University Avenue.
MP: Well, I did, you know. When I went back even after the trees had been taken down in the bicycle path, I told the newspaper people how I loved my bicycle and when I was photographed in front of the house where I was born, there stood a bicycle.
TT: (Laughing) What was Toronto like in those days? I suppose it was quite quiet and provincial.
MP: We used to have you know horses, naturally, and I still bear a scar that uh… coming down University Avenue and turning west, I think, on Queen, I got right in front of a pair of horses. And I had to put the brakes on the best I knew how, and I gouged my ankle and I still have the mark there. I like it, you know.
TT: What, the mark?
TT: It gives you something to reminisce about.
MP: Oh yes, and you know, I think at least once a month I dream that I’m back again in Toronto. Up in Queen’s Park, High Park, up north on Young Street…
TT: Tell me, what kind of a family was yours? What did your father do and how many Pickfords were there?
MP: Well you see, my father’s name was Smith.
TT: Oh, Smith.
MP: John Charles Smith. And I get the name of Pickford from my mother’s people. My father’s people were born in England and came up the Saint Lawrence River. Grandma Smith went to Toronto when she was six years of age and attended the Methodist church, the same church for eighty years.
TT: Quite a record isn’t it? Eighty years.
MP: And when she was eighty-six she retired and died at the age of ninety-one. And my grandfather Joseph Smith also was born in… Liverpool, I think. Grandma came from London, and my mother’s people were Irish. They came from Tralee, County Kerry.
TT: That’s where the rose came from, isn’t it?
MP; (Laughing) We’re the black Irish, you know. The dangerous kind. You look like a black Irishman yourself.
TT: I’m a black bushman.
MP: Oh, sure you are.
TT: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
MP: I had one brother, Jack. When I loved him very much I called him Johnny, when I didn’t like him so well I called him Jack. And then I had a sister, Lottie. They were both younger than I, and my mother and father were also born in Toronto. So you see, I’m a real Torontonian.
TT: Now, where did the interest in the theatrical life come into being as far as you’re concerned?
MP: Well, it was a matter of economics. None of my family on either side ever were in the theater, in fact they disapproved of it heartily. Grandma, being a very strict Methodist of course, didn’t believe in the theater or dancing or anything like that. But when my father died I was four years of age, and mother was left with the three of us and her paralyzed mother, so she had five mouths to feed. And when my father died, they had used up all of their savings for doctors. Even sent to the States as we called it – do you still call it the States in Canada?
MP: You do?
MP: Well, so we came to the States after my father died but that… I’m going ahead of myself. When father died, mother had nothing but her furniture and so, after a very sad time, we were all dispersed. My brother was in one house, my sister in another and I in another. I don’t know where my poor old grandma was because mother… well, she was so terribly upset about my father’s death she wanted nothing to do with anyone she’d ever known until my brother, Jack, became ill and they said to her, “Do you know, Lottie,” – that was my mama’s name – “that little Johnny is very ill and needs you?” And that did more than all the doctors and all the medicine for my mother. She realized then she had no time for sorrow, and so we were reunited. And mother sewed very well. She was reared a Catholic in a convent… she didn’t remain in the convent, she went there during the day, and they taught her to sew. So she became a seamstress and made dresses for the people of the neighborhood, and rented out our master bedroom, and never to anyone but to a woman. One day, a man came to the door and said he wanted to rent our bedroom, and mother said, “Oh no, I’ve never rented to a man.” He said, “Well, I’m a married man. I’m sure you’d like my wife. May I bring her to see you?” Mother said, “I’d be delighted to meet her,” and with the result that they took the bedroom. Well, he happened to be the manager, the stage manager of a company then called the Valentine Stock Company, and he said, “Mrs. Smith, we’re putting on a play next week that requires children. Would you allow your three babies to appear in the school room scene?” Mother said, “Gracious, no! I wouldn’t allow my children to meet actresses – why, they smoke!” He said, “Well, some of them do smoke but not all of them, Mrs. Smith.” And he said, “I assure you that the ladies and gentlemen of this company are just as nice as any of your friends.” He said, “As a matter of fact, they’ve been together many years… it’s like a family.” He said, “Come down with me tonight backstage and if you find anything that is unpleasant or anything that you wouldn’t like, then I agree with you.” So mother went to the theater that night and of course they were charming and nice people. You know, in our profession there are good, bad and indifferent, but these people happened to be very nice, so mother agreed with the result that I became a member of that company.
TT: How old were you then?
MP: Five. Five years of age. Lottie was a year younger and Johnny two years and a half.
TT: That’s a very early start in the acting profession.
MP: Oh, there are some that have been carried on the stage, you know. (Laughing)
MP: I remember it as though it were yesterday, and I just loved it. You see, I think… I don’t know where I got this ham blood in me. Certainly it must… yes, I do know. John Pickford Hennessey, that’s where I got it from. He was the only one in my ancestry as far as I know that loved the theater. You see, that’s where I got my name of Pickford. His mother’s name was Elizabeth Pickford and she was born in England, so you see I’m predominantly English.
TT: Well now, were you on the stage at the age of five?
MP: Yes, forever after.
TT: (Laughing) But what about schooling? Did you go to school in the day and work at night?
MP: No, as a matter of fact I think I only went to school about three months.
TT: Only three months schooling?
MP: Well, my mother taught me and I am self-taught. I got the best books I could find and I have a very good ear and a splendid memory, I am grateful to say. And do you know that they say I speak fairly good French?
MP: I learned that too, but I was taught that. But mother was, as I said, convent-bred and had a splendid education and I worked from the time I was five until today. I’m still working.
TT: When did you feel that you had really arrived in the theater? At what age were you established?
MP: Well, not actually until I’d had three or four years in motion pictures. And as a little girl I was playing in these dreadful melodramas. Do you want to hear some of the names of them?
MP: (Laughing) Well, The Fatal Wedding, Wedded But No Wife, The Child Wife… I wasn’t the bride, however… In Convict Stripes… oh, there were some worse names than that. Lottie the Sewing-Machine Girl, I didn’t happen to appear in that. But these were rip-roaring melodramas.
TT: These were early silent motion pictures?
MP: No, they were stage plays.
TT: Stage plays? Oh. And all in New York, I suppose?
MP: Oh no, oh gracious no, we were on the road. My poor little mother, she was my size, about five feet, you know, and she had traveled for nineteen weeks of one-night stands.
TT: Did your mother ever reconcile herself to the fact that you were in the theatrical profession, which she seemed to dislike so much?
MP: Oh I think she got over it, yes. She even appeared on the stage herself.
TT: Did she?
MP: Yes, and was very good too. My mother could mimic any accent. She was a much better actress than I ever thought I’d be.
TT: Well, of course, only you can say that. We wouldn’t know.
MP: No, mother had real talent. And the night that she appeared in The Fatal Wedding and you see, she told a fib and that was the unforgivable thing in our family – for anybody to tell a fib. And she said she’d had experience, so we were sure that God would reach down out of heaven and grab my mother up. So the three of us knelt down and prayed that they wouldn’t find out.
TT: And they didn’t?
TT: Well, I won’t tell anybody.
MP: Don’t you tell. (Laughing) No, we… you know, I’d send Lottie or Jack or I’d go myself to find out how mother was doing. If she would forget her lines, you know it’d be a terrible thing to do, but she didn’t and nobody found out that she had told a fib.
TT: Well, Miss Pickford, when did you first become associated with motion picture work?
MP: Well, I was fifteen years of age and we needed money as usual, and mother, to my great unhappiness and I would say almost annoyance – because you know my mother was a goddess to me, her word was law – and when she said to me, “Gladys,” because that’s my… you know, I was baptized Gladys Marie… and she said, “Gladys, what about trying those motion picture studios?” I said, “Oh, mama. Not that!” “Well,” she said, “It’s better that than to be separated this summer.” So very reluctantly and maybe belligerently I went into the Biograph Company, hoping that they wouldn’t see me enter. This was a disgrace, you know.
MP: Oh, definitely.
TT: Tell me, where were the picture studios in those days?
MP: Well, the majority of them were in New York. One was in Brooklyn, the Vitagraph Company was in Brooklyn. Then there was the Lubin Company, Edison, Thanhauser, Biograph, and… what is the name of… Ruben, Lubin? There was a company in Philadelphia, and there was another in Chicago, that was Broncho Billy’s company, they were there. Nobody was out here at that time in California. And you know that the exteriors were very important. They aren’t anymore because they take these process shots, you know. I could be walking through the Sahara Desert and stay right here in this room, because they shoot the desert first and then they put the live figure in front of it, but then it was very important. And I might add, and I hope the Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles don’t hear me, but we had no smog in those days.
TT: The smog came after?
MP: No, it came later.
TT: You were saying that you went into motion pictures almost with a chip on your shoulder. Well, how did you first get your work?
MP: Well, as I entered the Biograph studio – and it was a big, old mansion with a beautiful winding staircase, a circular staircase, marble floor – and out of the opposite door, a swinging door that led to the studio proper, which was a ballroom, came the one and only D.W. Griffith, David Wark Griffith. And he looked me up and down and I resented it very much. I thought, here’s one of these awful people that work in motion pictures, and he said to me, “What do you want?” I said, “I’m looking for work.” He said, “What experience have you had?” Well, this was adding insult to injury. I said, “Only ten years.” He said, “You don’t look that old.” Well, I said, “I am. I’m fifteen years old.” Well, he said, “What did you do last?” I said, “I just came from the David Belasco Company.” He said, “That’s good enough. Come with me.” So he put on my makeup, the first motion picture makeup I ever had, and I want to tell you, I looked more like Pancho Villa…
MP: I did, you know he put enormous black eyebrows on me and in those days we used to wear chalk-white makeup, and our eyes and our mouths were greatly exaggerated. Of course we had no sound, so pantomime was the order of the day and naturally when one waves the eyebrows that’s very important, you know, in an emotional scene, but I would never do that. Mr. Griffith used to argue with me and I said, “No, sir. It’s not natural and I won’t do it.” And he… I since have wondered why he put up with a naughty little girl like I was, but he did.
TT: Well, you got your start then through the great D.W. Griffith.
MP: I was trained by him, and I’m so very, very grateful to him.
TT: Well, he appears to be the major legend of Hollywood, the greatest man in pictures. Why? What was his quality?
MP: Well, he had tremendous imagination. In those days they didn’t have what they call a cut-back, for instance showing you downtown in Los Angeles and showing me up here at Pickfair. They didn’t have that switch-back, you know?
MP: And also, he… well, I think the first close-up was made of me in a picture called Friends with Henry Walthall and Lionel Barrymore. And he… oh, many, many mechanical things like irising down or irising in, you know, or fade-out. All these things came from D.W. Griffith. He was a bad actor himself.
TT: Well, do you feel that most producers are frustrated actors?
MP: Oh, definitely. I should… I would think so. He had a beautiful, sonorous voice and he could’ve been a singer, but when he started to act he used to frighten me because you know he exaggerated things so. And the Pathé Company, the French actors, were greatly admired by us, I mean all the Americans, and he used to try to make me do things and I just wouldn’t. I said, “No, I think if I feel it enough,” this is my mother’s training, she said, “If you feel something very, very much, your hands, your feet, every part of your being will respond to that thought.”
TT: What do you think was your first really great motion picture?
MP: Well, let me see. Do you mean in the very old days?
TT: Yes, the one which I think would establish you as America’s Sweetheart.
MP: You’re very nice. You know, I’ve never accepted that title. (Laughing)
MP: It’s too complimentary. I’ve never thought that… but I do appreciate it. Well, I would say that… Tess of the Storm Country.
TT: That was… wasn’t that about the beginning of the First World War?
TT: Before it, then? Oh yeah.
MP: You know I’m getting to the age now where I’m very proud of the stripes on my arm. (Laughing)
TT: (Laughing) Service stripes.
MP: Yes. It was in 1914 that Pop Grauman, he was the father of the fabulous Sid Grauman, you know Million Dollar Theater?
MP: Chinese Grauman? He put the name outside, and it didn’t take… well, it took many years for it to catch on. But that was given to me in love and I’m so, so pleased about that. If it had been dreamed up by a press agent I wouldn’t have liked it, but this came from the heart of someone who was really fond of me.
TT: What was it like making pictures in those days? From what I’ve seen today it looks like extremely exacting, hard work. In those days, was it fun or was it just as difficult?
MP: Everything’s fun when you’re young.
TT: And everybody felt that way then, did they?
MP: Oh, I think so.
TT: What was the spirit and the atmosphere of the silent picture…
MP: Well, it was exciting and we were pioneers in a brand-new medium of art and… well, as I say when you look back and think on your childhood, everything… well, I don’t know about that either. I think sorrow can be very great to the very young. But I was terribly ambitious. You see, I was the father of the family and I wanted security for my people and I didn’t know anything but work. I never went anywhere, I didn’t buy clothes, I had no jewelry or… oh, my first extravagance was a car.
MP: And I loved my car. It was called an M… let’s see… EMF. And Johnny Pickford said, “Even Mama Fell.”
MP: And “Every Morning Fix it.” You could just know what kind of a brother I had.
TT: Sounds like a typical brother.
MP: And you know, years before that I said, “Oh, I’m not worried about being poor. One day I’m going to have a beautiful automobile.” So when I’d come home from work, from the Biograph, Johnny would say to my sister Lottie, “Look out the window and see if Mary has tied the Stanley Steamer to the hydrant.” And “Lottie, get out of the fun seat, I want to sit there myself.” So they’d bring up chairs and pretend they were in the Stanley Steamer.
MP: One day my cousin, one of… the Irish side, we were on 42nd Street and Broadway and I was appearing with Cecil B. DeMille at the time, The Warrens of Virginia, and this birdcage, glass birdcage went by and splashed mud all over my cousin’s one and only Sunday dress. You know, for years I used to say my “Sunday dress,” you know that was my best dress, and she would say, “Now look at those old hens.” She said, “We’re younger and prettier than they are and they splashed me with mud.” I said, “Never mind, Mamie,” I said, “We are going to have a beautiful car one day. We’re going to come by this street and maybe we’ll splash somebody.” She said, “Pardon me, Mrs. ‘Astorbilt,’ but your tiara has slipped.” And then years after, we did go by and she said, “Mary, do you remember that day?” I said, “What day?” And she repeated the story. I said, “I knew it!” I was… we were in a beautiful Cadillac. So you see that I had the feeling that I would have all these things, but of course it was a goal and I believe we always have to have a goal no matter what it is. But of course the material things now don’t mean so much to me.
(Pause of silence)
TT: Well, in reviewing your career, may we assume that the twenties were the greatest era in your career?
MP: Yes, I would say so.
TT: This is when they were making really fine pictures at the end of the silent era.
MP: Well, I’d say anywhere from about 1914 on up to about 1930.
TT: Mmm-hmm. Tell me, when did you first meet Charlie Chaplin?
MP: I met him in 1912 and I didn’t… well, I didn’t realize what a great genius he was at the time. I remember seeing him at the old Levy’s Café, do you know anything about that?
MP: It still exists. And my companion said, “There’s Chaplin.” And I turned around and I expected to see a middle-aged man, of course I was very young, and here was this black-haired man that looked more like a violinist, and delicate hands and sensitive face. And the waiter came along and opened a transom and let a lot of dust down onto his head and into the soup. And the waiter was very apologetic and said, “Sir,” I could tell from the pantomime, “May I get you another bowl of soup?” And Charlie just waved it away, he said, “No.” That was the first time I ever saw him. And then one time, later, there was a big ball given at Long Beach and he and a man called Pathé Lehrman who was a Biograph actor, he had been – I was out of it then, I was with Famous Players, Paramount, you know, that became Paramount later – and Charlie Chaplin took off his shoes and was imitating J. Warren Kerrigan, did you ever hear of him?
MP: You didn’t?
MP: Well, he was the Clark Gable of the day, or the Brando, or any… he was the… one of the great stars. And I thought it was very undignified. Now I can think it funny, but I didn’t think so then. (Laughing) And Pathé Lehrman introduced Chaplin to me and he gave me what my mother used to call a “cold fish hand,” you know, sort of limp and kind of cold. But I was completely disgusted with his behavior. It wasn’t naughty, it was very funny. They were imitating this very handsome… Charlie was playing my part, you see, and Lehrman was Kerrigan. And that was my first meeting with Chaplin.
TT: Well, what do you feel about Charlie Chaplin today?
MP: Well… that’s quite a question. I think he is, or was rather, the greatest comedian that the world has ever known.
MP: I think he changed the mask of comedy – he put a mustache on it. I think it’s too bad that he destroyed the little man with the big feet.
TT: The Little Tramp?
MP: That’s right.
TT: You think he became too grandiose?
MP: No, I think he got tired of the little man and then tried to be a statesman or a politician or something that doesn’t… I think he descended. He never should have played Hitler, for instance. He could have gone on until he was ninety years of age playing a Little Tramp. He personified everything that is… well, miserable all over the world. He was a poor little human being, but had the philosophy to overcome all of the things that attacked him. And then when he became Hitler, and a murderer in Monsieur Verdoux, and the last one I haven’t seen…
TT: A King in New York?
MP: No, and I don’t intend to.
MP: Limelight I was sad about. I didn’t want to see Charlie as an old man, and I regret it very much, and as I said to you the other day, in destroying that Little Tramp, it’s quite possible that the Little Tramp in turn will destroy Chaplin.
TT: How about Charlie as a person? Is he embittered, mad at the world?
MP: Well, you see I haven’t seen Charlie in eight years. But I think he’s terribly hurt from what I hear. Of course, he has a lovely wife, he has six… eight beautiful children.
TT: He certainly has made a contribution to the world in several ways. (Laughing)
MP: (Laughing) And I’m sure that they’re going to be talented babies. Of course Charlie Jr. I love, I don’t know much about Sidney. I saw Sidney in the theater and he gave a magnificent performance, and I think… you know, he’s just like an English squire, country squire.
TT: I think you could tell us more about the great Douglas Fairbanks than anybody. When did you first meet him?
MP: I met him at Elsie Janis’s. Now you probably don’t know her either, but she was a great star in the theater. She was… well, I’d say the most successful theatrical child and when I was getting eight dollars a week, she was getting seventy dollars a week. And the Torontonians will probably recall Shea’s Theatre on…
TT: Oh, yes. Yes, you may be sad to know that it’s been pulled down.
MP: Well, it won’t be pulled down in my memory. I can see it now and can see Elsie, and she was called the sweetheart of the American troops. She went right up to the front to entertain them, wonderful entertainer, wonderful mimic. And I went out to her house, let’s see… it was called Philipse Manor, and they claimed that George Washington stayed there, and that was the first time I met Douglas Fairbanks. I had seen him in the theater in A Gentleman of Leisure.
MP: And to tell you the truth I wasn’t impressed by him.
MP: Well, maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, I don’t know. (Laughing)
MP: But I thought he was too exuberant.
TT: That was his trademark almost, his abundance of energy.
TT: His vitality…
MP: Well, I was intolerant and maybe not in a happy mood that day, it was cold, it was November and… well, he had just come into pictures. He had been a big star in the theater. He was contemporary of Barrymore.
MP: Jack. He and Douglas were always together on Broadway, in different plays of course, and that was my first meeting with him. And… Elsie and he and Owen Moore started out together and they said, “You stay here, Mary, and we’ll be back.” And I said, “Oh no you don’t,” so I went after them. And I had on some beautiful new shoes that cost me fifteen dollars – well, that’s like seventy-five today, you know – and they were white kid, and Elsie called back, she said, “Don’t ruin your lovely shoes, you’d better go back to the house.” Well, I had different ideas and I started across this creek. I was walking on this log, and I got in the middle of it and of course it was a freezing cold day and I was frightened to go back or go forward and Douglas said, “Do you mind?” And he came across the log and picked me up in his arms and put me safely on the other side. I didn’t think it was romantic, I just thought it was a polite gesture. It was only after in years that I saw that that was the beginning.
TT: You did get to like him?
TT: Yes. (Laughing)
MP: (Laughing) As the English say. Oh, he was a wonderful person, you would have loved him. He was a little boy always, and he was just in life as he was on the screen, and do you know, he never, never used a net or a wire or what we call a double? Everything that you saw him do on the screen he did himself.
TT: You mean he was like that around the house?
MP: Oh yes. He’d have you out there on the lawn or up there, you know the water tower up there, he’d probably in the next hour have you up climbing that.
TT: Did he never run out of energy?
MP: No, never. He was just as he always was, and I’m grateful, you know, that he didn’t have a long illness. He went quickly. And I had a cousin who loved him very much and he said about Douglas, he said, “No matter how many people were in the room, when he left the room was empty.” This was after he died. And he said that he was like an arrow in full flight.
TT: All the time, I suppose?
MP: All the time.
TT: But isn’t that very hard on the heart, that super abundance of energy?
MP: Well, I would imagine so. He played as many as fifty-four holes of golf a day, and then he invented a game called “Doug” that was between badminton and tennis. The racquet was heavier than a tennis racquet or than a badminton racquet, and the bird was, the bird was heavier than the badminton.
TT: I see. Well, what did he die of?
TT: Did he realize he had this condition?
MP: No, I think he thought it was indigestion.
TT: Miss Pickford, when did you and Mr. Fairbanks form your own motion picture company?
MP: In 1919.
TT: What was the name of it then?
MP: United Artists.
TT: Oh it still is?
TT: Didn’t Chaplin have something to do with that as well?
MP: Yes, he and D.W. Griffith and Douglas and I formed the company.
TT: It seems to me that in 1919 you made a picture in which they wanted you to appear with bedbugs. I was reading an anecdote in a magazine the other day.
MP: Oh, I think they’re mistaken about the bedbugs. I did appear with twelve New York sewer rats. Griffith said that I was so crazy that if he set the house on fire and put me on the roof and he said to me “jump” I would.
TT: You would?
MP: Yeah. You know, I’m very obedient in some respects. That rat thing was terrible. You know that the directors are typed just like actors or writers. Some of the directors have no sensitivity where women are concerned; they cannot direct a woman. Lubitsch was one of them. Ernst Lubitsch.
TT: The Lubitsch touch.
MP: Well, he only… he was a frustrated actor himself, and he didn’t know how to direct a woman. But Marshall Neilan was the tops to my way of thinking and Griffith. Now C.B. DeMille couldn’t direct a woman.
TT: When did you first meet him?
MP: I met him when I was thirteen years of age. He played my brother. There were four, supposed to be four children. It was The Warrens of Virginia, and his brother William wrote the play and David Belasco produced it. We remained good friends ever after that. I made two pictures with him, The Little American and A Romance of the Redwoods, that was in 1917.
TT: I was… been wondering about this. The stars of the silent era seem so remote to us now. What were they like in behavior? Were they more flamboyant and remote than they are today, the stars of this era?
MP: They were more remote, but I wouldn’t say more flamboyant.
TT: We get the impression that they all lived in castles…
MP: Oh no, that’s not true…
TT: And that they were never seen in person.
MP: That’s so… you mean, not actual castles?
TT: Well, huge mansions.
TT: They lived a sort of a life of… in a never-never-land.
MP: Well, that may be true. But we certainly didn’t advertise what breakfast food we had in the morning and things like that.
TT: Yes, the movie stars today seem to be more businesspeople, they’re less colorful, I think. You can meet them and you’re not quite as thrilled.
MP: Only because we have tremendous competition today. We had no TV, we had no radio, we didn’t have airplanes, we didn’t have long-distance phone, we didn’t have the world at our… on our breakfast tray. What’s happened yesterday in London or even this morning in London, it’s photographed and we have it in our morning paper. Well, that wasn’t so in those days. We just… we had the motion picture industry, we had the theater, and what motion pictures did to the legitimate theater, TV now, in turn, has done it to motion pictures. I, in my short life, well comparatively short life, have seen the birth and the death of motion pictures.
TT: You think the motion picture has died?
TT: But why should it?
MP: Because of the competition. You know, you can see the old motion pictures that are just as good as some of them… and better than today. And why should people leave their house?
TT: But you can see a picture so much better on a big screen in a comfortable theater than you can on a box in your living room.
MP: Mmm, that’s true. But it’s very expensive, and you have to face the fact that at one time there were 17,000 theaters. I don’t know what the number is today, but… it breaks my heart to go by them and see them bowling alleys and skating rinks. Certainly the motion picture will always be there, but I believe that when paid TV comes in, and I’m sure it’ll be less expensive than going to the theater, then it’ll be the real death knell of motion pictures.
TT: Getting back to the stars of the silent era, is it true that people in those times earned fabulous salaries and that there were no taxes?
MP: That’s not true. I paid fifty percent of my salary and that was 1917. We went into the war, that is the Americans did, in April of 1917 and it was retroactive. My $10,000 a week has shrunk to nothing at all compared to… who was it that I heard?
TT: Marlon Brando is supposed to be getting a million or something like that.
MP: Was it? No, I read the other morning that he was going to get a million and ten percent of the gross.
TT: That couldn’t be matched in the old days, could it?
MP: No. (Laughing) And it’s impossible for people to keep money today, unless of course it’s capital gain. And that’s what you were asking me a little while ago. Well, now the actors have managers, which we didn’t have in those days, and investors, and they have to do it because the life of an actor, the average actor, is very short. And of course if he’s disfigured, if he gets… becomes ill, or if he loses an arm or a leg, or… they’re like doctors. I maintain that doctors and people who make big money for a short period of time, that should be taken into consideration.
TT: Well, Miss Pickford, when did you stop making motion pictures?
MP: (Laughing) I stopped in 1933.
MP: Well, you see I was my own producer. My first independent picture was Daddy-Long-Legs. Maybe it’s my Irish blood, I don’t know, I guess English are also rebels, but I didn’t… you know, it’s very hard for actors. They… those that haven’t anything to say about the kind of roles they’re going to play and the type of picture they’re going to make, and then they die out. The producers of course can get another actor, but an actor can’t get another career. And so I wanted to make my own pictures and I did, but it was too hard for me to be a producer and an actress. You see, when everybody else went home, I had to approve of sets, costumes, sign checks, and when my mother was alive I never attended to any of the business. She passed on in 1928, and I retired five years later…. actually, about four years later because it was the beginning of 1933. It was just too much for me. You see, the average actress goes home if she’s had an emotional day. If she’s wise, she’ll just take a cup of soup or broth and go to bed at six o’clock. But there I’d be at the studio until eleven at night and back the next morning at six, and it was just… I couldn’t take it.
TT: Well, let’s talk about the Mary Pickford of today. What are your activities?
MP: Well, meeting charming people like yourself.
TT: Thank you.
MP: I have a record that I want to make for Columbia University. Well, of course there’s real estate, bonds, securities, and then there’s the civic things and then my charitable work.
TT: I’ve heard a lot about your charitable work, and I was told I shouldn’t mention it to you, but I understand you do quite a lot of that.
MP: Well, I don’t think I deserve any credit for that. You see, the world’s been wonderful to me – people have been wonderful to me – the least I can do it to try to pay it back in a small way, any way I can. And I love the very young and the very old. In fact, it’s awfully hard, you know, I’d like to be a Barbara Hutton or a Miss Duke. I’d like to have tremendous wealth that I could… because every, everyone that comes to you, you know, every charity deserves consideration and moral and financial support, but of course I’m relatively the poor little rich girl.
TT: (Laughing) Tell us about this wonderful home you have, Pickfair. When was this built?
MP: Well, I don’t know actually what year it was built. It was a shooting lodge at one time. The quail still come here.
MP: And red fox… not so much today, and coyotes, and they used to come way out in the country. There was only one house between us now here, sitting looking out there at the Pacific – only one house, the Danzinger house that is now the Bel-Air Hotel. And there were no roads to the beach. You know, Sunset didn’t exist in those days. And Douglas bought it I think in 1919, and then he had, you see this wide hall here?
MP: This was… the door back there that leads into the service quarters, that was the front door.
MP: And then he built on this rest of the house, the living room and the bedroom, that section upstairs. And then in 1932 before the Olympics, he built the guest house.
TT: Well, how many rooms do you have in Pickfair now?
MP: I think about thirty-eight.
TT: That must take rather a large staff to maintain.
MP: Nobody can afford it anymore. (Laughing) We used to have sixteen, I think we have about eight now.
TT: How about the grounds? How many acres?
MP: We used to have thirteen, but when they wouldn’t allow us to keep cows and horses anymore we subdivided the lower part. I think we have about four acres.
TT: They are beautifully kept. You were mentioning some while ago that you might turn Pickfair into a museum.
MP: That’s what I hope.
TT: Is there a strong possibility of doing that?
MP: Well if I may. You know, Beverly Hills is very strict. Maybe the neighbors wouldn’t like it.
TT: Well, if you ever do it’ll be the most sumptuous museum I’ve ever come across because it’s so beautifully designed, and you have such a wealth of lovely things.
MP: Well, that’s nice.
TT: Books and paintings and china ware… These paintings on the wall of this room, these are Rodin originals, are they?
MP: They are, yes.
TT: Where did you acquire those?
MP: I got those in New York. It was a student of Rodin and he had, I think originally he had something like forty, and I was able to get about twenty-eight of them.
TT: What other treasures do you have that are outstanding?
MP: Well, you can see the cabinet there.
MP: Rose quartz, jade, Peking glass, and ivory, and then I have some very rare books, and of course, the furniture. I have in the dining room original Adam chairs. I shouldn’t own them because they’re so delicate, and when I see some of my guests teetering on them, I nearly faint.
TT: (Laughing) The thing that interested me most about your house is the room downstairs, the Western room. Now, someone was telling me that the bar is from the real Wild West, is that true?
MP: Well, it came around the horn in 19… let’s see, in 1849.
MP: Mmm-hmm, the Gold Rush, and it’s one solid piece of mahogany. And the story goes that when it was in Placer, California, the judge, if he got thirsty, they’d go down and continue the trial at the bar.
TT: (Laughing) Do you ever use that room for anything other than a showpiece?
MP: Oh yes, we start parties off there, you know and people, if they come in and they’re feeling very, you know, sort of dressed up, in ten minutes, you know, everybody’s having a happy time. You know, it’s a playroom.
TT: Yes, it has relics from the Wild West. I was wondering if Mr. Fairbanks’ things were down there, a gun belt and a hat and chaps and a whip and things?
MP: Yes, those are his. And the Remingtons.
TT: The original Remington paintings. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. They’re beautiful.
MP: They were originally, they were illustrating I think it was Cosmopolitan stories and I… of course, those are going to a museum too if I don’t turn… if I’m not able to turn this into a museum. And you know I want the proceeds to go to the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
TT: Well, I think we should let you go now because we’ve taken up so much of your time.
MP: No, I’m so happy, you know, to meet Canadians and I hope that you will convey to the Torontonians my fond memories, my affection for them. I’m very, very proud of being a Canadian, and when I’ve been asked “Which country do you prefer?” I say, “Well, I don’t know,” I say. “England is my grandmother, Toronto, Canada is my mother, and the United States is my husband.” So give them my love.
TT: I will do that, and we’re very proud of you.