One hundred years ago this week, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had lunch with President Woodrow Wilson at the White House, and Charlie Murray (1) told Grace Kingsley all about it:
It was all very wonderful and very pleasant. The President asked Mary if she liked pictures and Mary said yes and did Mr. Wilson like being President. Then Douglas Fairbanks butted in and bet he could climb the side of the Capitol quicker than the President, and the President smiled and said yes, he guessed so…
Douglas declared he could leap the table quicker than the President and the President replied that he wasn’t doing much leaping—that he was standing solidly on his feet nowadays.(2)
Then the President told Mary he liked seeing her in pictures, and that she was a good little girl to buy so many Liberty Bonds.
At the time, was it rare for film actors to visit the White House but according to Wilson biographer A. Scott Berg, the President was a big fan of moving pictures. He’d hosted the first film screening at the White House, Birth of a Nation, in 1915, and private showings had become routine. (3) Movies and movie stars were becoming respectable.
However, less than a week later, a scandal involving Pickford and Fairbanks erupted in the papers that could have damaged that new respectability and ruined their careers. For reasons that their biographers could only speculate about, it didn’t. It began when Beth Fairbanks, angry because her husband called stories of their separation German propaganda designed to thwart his work for Liberty Bonds, went to the press and said she’d had enough. He needed to admit he was in love with another woman and that was what was causing their estrangement. The reporter said she named names, but the LA Times didn’t until the next day when Pickford’s husband Owen Moore made a statement from his new home at the Los Angeles Athletic Club: he’d been the last to hear the rumors and the last to believe them about Pickford and Fairbanks’ relationship, furthermore, in his opinion Fairbanks had been the aggressor and Pickford had been the victim.
After the initial flurry of articles, attention died down. Both actors returned to Los Angeles and went back to work, avoiding publicity for a bit. Fairbanks’ biographer Tracey Goessel theorized, “it is possible that Doug and Mary’s critical importance to the war’s fundraising activities resulted in subtle pressure on the part of the government to avoid the topic. That, or Charlotte Pickford’s abilities with a well-place bribe were underrated. Whatever the reason, the storm passed and Fairbanks was, evidently, as popular as ever.”
Pickford and Fairbanks arrive in England
Both stars got divorced, then married each other on March 28, 1920. Pickford’s biographer Eileen Whitfield said their fans high opinion saved them: “There was a rightness to Little Mary’s union with the magical Fairbanks.” Wherever they went, crowds gathered and cheered and they caused near-riots on their European honeymoon. They did a good job of managing the crisis.
Kingsley reviewed a notorious film this week, Men Who Have Made Love To Me:
Really now, isn’t it pathetic that a brilliant lady like Mary MacLane, who had always given us to understand that she was terribly intellectual and all that, should have stooped to so obvious an art as posing for a picture melodrama.
Based on a newspaper article MacLane had written a few years earlier, the film consisted of re-enactments of her six unhappy love affairs with all sorts of men, from a callow youth to a prize fighter (“the sort that almost any dame would have kept dark instead of putting in a picture”). Kingsley continued, “she says those love affairs were ‘damnably serious.’ To whom?” Between the stories MacLane smoked and chatted with her maid about the meaning of love. The film had been banned “in censor-ridden states like Ohio,” according to Kevin Brownlow. (8)
Unlike the censors, Kingsley didn’t care about Miss MacLane’s morals, she objected to her pretentiousness and self-centeredness – “the lady whose ‘I’s’ go by like telegraph poles in her essays.” The Women Film Pioneers Project has a biography of her; it opens with “Mary MacLane lived to shock her public.” It’s a lost film.
Kingsley offered an unusual suggestion in another review:
If you want to thoroughly enjoy what is in many respects the best picture the Rialto has had in many days, drop in about the beginning of the second reel and guess the first part. It will be easy to do so and you won’t be bored by some rather old and mawkish stuff.
Those Who Pay was the story of a love triangle, and Kingsley found it “very up-to-the-minute from a sociological standpoint,” because when the wife finds out what her husband had been up to, instead of getting into a fight, she meets with the young lady and they decide what to do. Unfortunately, they both don’t kick him to the curb — the wife keeps him. It’s a lost film.
(1) Charlie Murray was an actor working for Mack Sennett in 1918. He also did a lot of fundraising for Liberty Loans with Pickford and Fairbanks; that’s probably why he knew the story. A biography is on Silentology.
(2) This was eighteen months before Wilson’s massive stroke — Fairbanks wasn’t insulting a disabled man.
(3) A. Scott Berg, Wilson, NY: Putnam’s, 2013.
(4) “Not Fair, Says Mrs. Fairbanks,” Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1918.
(5) ”Owen Moore Say’s He’ll Act in his Own Protection,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1918.
(6) Tracey Goessel, The First King of Hollywood, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, p. 190.
(7) Eileen Whitfield, Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997, p. 200.
(8) Kevin Brownlow, Behind the Mask Of Innocence, NY: Knopf, 1990, p. 32.