The Mary Pickford Foundation recently accessed some pages from a 99-year-old scrapbook apparently kept by a resident of Marblehead, Massachusetts. The black-and-white snapshots pasted to the crumbling pages are small and fading to silver, but they capture an important event in local history: the moment when the movies came to town.
In October of 1916, the sleepy fishing village of Marblehead was shocked out of its slumber when the world’s biggest movie star, Mary Pickford, invaded its shores to shoot her new picture The Pride of the Clan. Pickford and her crew, including her then brother-in-law Matt Moore and director Maurice Tourneur, sought a stretch of New England coast that could double as Scotland and they found it in Marblehead, 15 miles north of Boston. The thatched-roof stone cottages and picturesque beaches made an ideal backdrop to the drama of seafaring Scots. Mary played Marget MacTavish, a strong-willed young woman who becomes chieftain of her clan when her father is drowned at sea.
The first few weeks of filming went smoothly enough. The townsfolk, who had never seen a movie star or a movie camera, perched themselves in the hills each day to watch the spectacle; some were even recruited to be extras in the film. Resident Lizzette Woodfin became one of the first movie stand-ins in recorded history as she was reportedly hired to step in for Pickford while the scenes were lit.
But soon, news of America’s Sweetheart on location began to spread to Boston and beyond, sending flocks of fans journeying to see their screen idol in person. According to The Moving Picture World, “the entire surrounding country” made a mass pilgrimage to Marblehead, congesting the roads leading to the village. They also noted that a special police force had to be hired to keep the crowds at bay because spectators had “spoiled many feet of good raw stock by getting within the camera lines.”
When it came time to shoot the big shipwreck scene on November 12th, onlookers were the least of the production’s problems. As the New York Times reported that day, “Mary Pickford’s new picture was staged in Marblehead Harbor this afternoon in a manner so realistic that the ‘Queen of the Movies’ might have lost her life.”
Mary and crew set out to sea in the Eddie Miner, an old schooner that sprung a leak about a quarter-mile off shore. As Mary herself recalled in her syndicated column Daily Talks by Mary Pickford, “We were very busy taking a scene when the hulk suddenly listed and then settled in the water, a wave breaking over the stern. A few seconds later, before we could even call for help, the boat had listed again, another wave had drenched us and we were left standing in the water up to our ankles.”
When another wave came and swept Pickford underwater, she “clung on for dear life” while Tourneur and the crew shouted for help. The swarms of onlookers, believing the drama to be staged for the film, did nothing until a local fisherman realized Mary’s cries were genuine and sent a boat into the icy water to rescue her. The “thousands of spectators” then went wild, reported The Moving Picture World, and policemen “found it impossible to handle the eager crowd.”
While waiting for the rescue boat, cameraman Lucien Adriot held the precious camera over his head as the waves reached his ears. Just before the boat arrived, he and the camera went under. Fortunately the only casualty was the film in the camera. The reel was ruined and the party would have to return once more to Marblehead in December to retake the shipwreck scene – this time with a motor boat and life preservers waiting just out of camera range.
Though the 1916 scrapbook is incomplete, the few remaining snapshots of anonymous Marblehead residents paint a quaint picture of early 20th century life, when women strolled along the beach in hats and long dresses and motion pictures were exciting and new.
The photos of Mary Pickford, taken by local photographer F.B. Litchman, show an empowered 24-year-old who had recently formed her own production company and just been voted the #1 most popular movie actor by the readers of Motion Picture magazine. The famous shot of Mary smiling with the movie camera is accompanied by a lesser known shot of her gazing fondly at the machine, as if knowing she has mastered control of it and of the industry it generated.
Sources include pages from an untitled 1916 scrapbook (courtesy of Bison Archives), The Moving Picture World from December 2, 1916 and December 16, 1916 (accessed via the Media History Digital Library), the New York Times from November 13, 1916, The Day from December 4, 1916 (accessed via Google) and “The Movies and Marblehead” on wickedlocal.com.