Mary Pickford’s Abandoned Project: January 16-31, 1923

Mary Pickford

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley got to visit one of her favorite stars, Mary Pickford, at her studio and reported on the progress she was making on her latest project, Faust. Kingsley began her article by pointing out what a departure it would be for her:

If you expect to see the childhood of Marguerite, with Mary doing tricks with soapsuds on the front porch or kicking the mean old man who comes to collect the rent, why, you are going to be disappointed. Marguerite is beloved of the world and of the ages. Mary Pickford is beloved of the world, and is going to be beloved of the ages, or at least as many ages as her films will last…It was hard to imagine her, just for the moment, the broken-hearted Marguerite. However, I remembered what she did to us all in Stella Maris, and knew she was quite equal to the big artistic task before her.

People knew she could act, but could she be accepted as a grown-up? (Stella Maris, 1918)

Kingsley was pointing out the problem Pickford would have in transitioning to adult roles. Marguerite was to be in her first feature in which she played only an adult (not a dual part like when she played Little Lord Fauntleroy and his mother) and she’d hired a German director known for his sophistication, Ernst Lubitsch. During her visit, Kingsley saw him and the scenario writer, Edward Knoblock, by the gate, “walking along, consulting and gesticulating.” Pickford told her:

They always do that when they come to a knotty point in the story. You see I’m not really in the story yet. I’m to come in for consultation when it’s all over. He has been dreaming Faust all his life, and I can see nobody else making the picture. He seems a little perturbed over the fact that I have had so much to do with my own direction. ‘Will she get mad from me?’ he asked Doug the other day.

Ernst Lubitsch

Of course, that was precisely one of the reasons things eventually didn’t work out, but at this point, she was working harmoniously with Lubitsch. Before giving Kingsley her quite definite ideas about the character, she said it was all up to her director’s judgement. Nevertheless:

“I think of Marguerite as just a sweet, innocent young girl of about 17 or 18. But I’m going to play her absolutely without any ‘cutes.’”

“Well, I hope you won’t forget to be Mary Pickford,” I exclaimed.

“Oh, I mean to forget everything I have done and learned,” said Mary quickly. “And oh, what an opportunity for emotional acting! I have never quite trusted myself in this sort of work, because though I am emotional inwardly, I am not so outwardly. As a child I played many emotional scenes. I loved to make people cry. I used to open one eye to see people cry when I died. I was rather a morbid child.”

Pedro Américo, Faust and Gretchen (1875-80)

That wasn’t quite how the Faust story was usually told. There had been countless adaptations of the German legend in novels, plays, paintings, poems, operas, and films. Faust was a necromancer who sold his soul to the devil (Mephistopheles) in exchange for knowledge and power. In the early versions, he was always damned for his ambition. Tales about him were first collected in Faustbuch (1587). The most famous version was a play by Goethe published in two parts in 1808 and 1832.  He was the first to introduce the character of Margarete, nicknamed Gretchen, a pious young woman who is seduced by Faust, gets pregnant without benefit of clergy and kills the newborn baby. She is convicted of murder and is executed. Penitent, she’s forgiven, and she’s admitted to Heaven where she successfully seeks Faust’s salvation.

Pickford and her director were in agreement that their version would end the same way. She said: “Another problem is the matter of the ending of the story. Mr. Lubitsch desires the more or less ‘happy’ ending, in which Marguerite at last saves Faust’s soul.”

They hadn’t yet cast Faust (Conrad Nagle had been mentioned) or Mephistopheles, though her husband Douglas Fairbanks was rumored to want to play him. Pickford thought that would be a bad idea, because he’d make to role too attractive. Kingsley closed her article by saying, “a million dollars probably will be spent on Faust.”

They did spend quite a bit on developing the project, but it was never completed. The collaboration between Pickford and Lubitsch was first reported in the November 17th Film Daily, which said he was in negotiations with her to direct Dorothy Vernon, a story about love and political intrigue set in the Elizabethan era, even though he was under contract with Famous Players-Lasky. They also opined, “The working combination of Pickford and Lubitsch should result in a really great picture.”

The L.A. Times added more details on November 29th when they spoke to Pickford and Fairbanks when their train arrived in Los Angeles. They said that Lubitsch was going to direct one film each for Fairbanks and Pickford. The Fairbanks film was to be “a swashbuckling romance of pirate days, the theme of which he himself is not positive,” and Pickford still planned to make Dorothy Vernon.

When Lubitsch and his wife, Leni Krause Lubitsch, arrived at the same station in late December, the Times article was called “Film Colony Prestige Increased.” When he got off the train, he told the reporter “I have come to America to learn American ways and to become American, not only in motion pictures, but in everything.” About his work, he only said it was “very possible and probable” that he was to be loaned by Famous Players-Lasky to Pickford for her next picture. A week later, Fairbanks clarified matters for the Times, saying that Lubitsch wasn’t under contract with Pickford, he was being borrowed and they still planned to make Dorothy Vernon. The article mentioned there had been rumors of opposition to Lubitsch among war veterans, but when the reporter interviewed ex-servicemen, including the national commander of the American Legion, he or she couldn’t find anybody opposing it.

She did make it later, without Lubitsch

In early January, Pickford announced a change of plans. She was deferring Dorothy Vernon until later that year and would make Faust. She said,

“I have cherished the idea of playing the role of Marguerite for many years but I have never had the courage to consider doing it until the present. It so happens that now Faust turns out to also be a life-long dream of Ernst Lubitsch, that he has been studying the various legends for many years with a view of someday directing the picture and that he never has had the opportunity to do so. That was what decided me to undertake the picture now.”

That’s how things stood when Kingsley made her visit to the studio.* But only a few weeks later, on February 4th, the Times reported that “intimate friends of the star” told them that “in spite of the fact that immense sums of money have already been spent on preparatory work” Pickford had decided not to make the film. The reason given was “difficulties in the preparation of the script have been met, and it was found that Marguerite could not be made the star of the production without doing violence to the plot.” (that was a good point—both Faust and Mephistopheles were much more interesting and complex characters.) The Times writer speculated that Dorothy Vernon would be next, but it wasn’t certain, and Lubitsch would probably leave Pickford and go direct a film for Famous Players-Lasky, but nothing official had been announced.

Later that month, Pickford did an interview with an occasional Times film contributor, Hallett Abend,** and she gave a different reason for the cancellation. She said, “I’m not an actress. I’m just a personality—a sort of an institution. That’s all the public will let me be.”

The Faust script, as Mr. Lubitsch and Edward Knoblock worked it out, was “wonderful, simple, and moving and strong,” she said with a wistful look in her face. “But Marguerite is too different from the kind of parts I’ve been doing for so long. The break from the girlish roles must come gradually just as Douglas has broken away from his old lighter, modern roles, only by degrees.” Abend also mentioned the speculation that was circulating at the time: “gossip has been to the effect that Lubitsch, with his decisive ways and his habit of making stars rather than meeting halfway the wishes of stars already renowned, had found Mary Pickford too unyielding, or had himself not been yielding enough to suit her wishes.” She denied that, quashing the rumors that Lubitsch was leaving.

The story got picked up by the trades, naturally, and they had slightly different versions of why Faust wouldn’t be her next movie. On February 21th, Film Daily said, “It is understood that a number of protests were registered from exhibitors and that these bore some weight in the final decision.” Exhibitors’ Trade Review said on March 17th that it was just delayed. They blamed the distributors for the wait, and quoted Pickford: “As a matter of fact, I have decided to merely postpone Faust. Each star, as you know, has her own special following and it seems best after careful analysis based on correspondence from those who are interested in my photoplays, as well as upon a survey made through our various exchange offices, not to step suddenly out of the type of story the public has been accustomed to associating me with into anything quite so dramatic as Faust.” By then, they were able to report that her next project would be Rosita, with Lubitsch directing, followed by Dorothy Vernon, with another director so Lubitsch could finish postproduction work.

Charlotte and Mary Pickford

Years later, Mary Pickford told Kevin Brownlow why she abandoned Faust. It was that she was told she couldn’t change her persona so quickly, but it wasn’t the public, the exhibitors, or the distributors that stopped her:  it was her mother, Charlotte Pickford. Mary Pickford said:

We were going to do Faust with Lubitsch supervising. But Mother didn’t know the story of Faust, so Lubitsch told her. “Ja,” he said, “she has a baby, and she’s not married, so she strangles the baby.” Mother said, “What? What was that?” “Well, Marguerite is not married, she has a baby, so she strangles the baby…”
“Not my daughter!” said my mother, “no sir!”

So I didn’t make Faust.

And that was that. Decades later, Kino Lorber released the test footage they shot. Called Marguerite and Faust: the lost 1923 footage, it’s part of their DVD of another version of Faust that did get made in 1926 in Germany by F.W. Murnau. His version wasn’t a financial success at the time, but it’s gotten more critical acclaim over the years. It was his last German film before he came to the United States and made Sunrise.

Lubitsch directing Pickford on Rosita

Pickford and Lubitsch did make her next film together, Rosita, a story about a poor singer in Seville who catches the eye of the king. You can find more about their sometimes acrimonious work together on the Pickford Foundation’s site. Mary Mallory has also written a detailed article about the film’s production and reception.

Back to playing girls

Pickford didn’t quite abandon the idea of making Faust; after she finished filming Rosita and Dorothy Vernon, she talked about her next project with Kingsley and said she was divided between making Romeo and Juliet and Faust. However, she admitted it was likely it would be neither, saying, “I was much interested in Faust, but Marguerite is by no means the central character, indeed she comes third in interest.” She was right: her next film wasn’t either, it was Little Annie Rooney (1925). She went back to playing girls, because her two ‘adult’ films didn’t make as much money as her movies usually did. Little Annie Rooney was one of the highest-grossing films of 1925. She was correct when she told Hallett Abend that the public only wanted to see her as a girl.

Of course, things turned out just fine for Ernst Lubitsch in Hollywood. After the one film he made with Pickford, he only returned to Germany for visits. Film fans can’t be mad that she invited him here so he could go on to make The Marriage Circle (1924), and Trouble in Paradise (1932). Thank you, Mary Pickford!

This month, Kingsley also reported on Pickford’s husband’s proposed next project. Douglas Fairbanks planned to make a movie set in ancient Greece:

Whether you feel, at first blush, that you can imagine Doug Fairbanks as a classic Greek or not, the fact remains that you are going to see him that way. We are going back further and further for our costume play themes. The latest announcement is that Fairbanks is to do a story, written by himself and Edward Knoblock, set in the times of Pericles. “The ancient Greek days offer a wonderful background for a picture,” declared Fairbanks, “and I am tremendously interested in appearing in a story of that period. Mr. Knoblock and I have outlined a story which I feel will be of interest to the public.”

Iraq, not Greece

However, they didn’t get very far in working out this idea. His next film, which was co-written by Knoblock, was The Thief of Bagdad (1924). This was another example of Fairbanks chatting with a journalist much too soon about his plans.

What they saw at the Orpheum

Fairbanks and Pickford were such big stars at the time that Kingsley straight-up spied on them when she was supposed to be reviewing the vaudeville show at the Orpheum this month. Her article began:

 The best part of the Orpheum show yesterday wasn’t on the bill. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Edward Knoblock, Mrs. Charlotte Pickford and Ted Reed formed a party down in the third row at whom everyone was looking. Mary was a good little scout and applauded everything on sight, and Doug grinned all the time to show there was no hard feeling. Doug did pan once in a while though, making a noise like a regular critic, and Mary would turn right in and be what George Ade used to call a coffin-trimmer: “Well, I don’t care, Doug, she has a nice voice and pretty arms!

So that’s what an evening out with Hollywood royalty was like in 1923.

“Abandons Faust,” Film Daily, February 21, 1923, p.1.

Hallett Abend, “Mary Pickford in Rosita,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1923.

Hallett Abend, “Won’t Permit Mary to Act,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1923.

Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968, p. 134.

“Film Colony Prestige Increased,” Los Angeles Times, December 24, 1922.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Trip in Sight Again,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 1923.

“Lubitsch-Pickford,” Film Daily, November 17, 1922, pp.1-2

“Lubitsch to Direct Doug,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1922.

“Mary Pickford Not to Produce Faust,” Motion Picture News, March 10, 1923, p. 1158.

“Mary Pickford Ready for New Work,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, March 17, 1923, p. 791.

“Mary Pickford to Grow Up,” Los Angeles Times, January 5, 1923.

“Mary Pickford to Begin New Picture,” Moving Picture World, March 17, 1923, p. 358.

“Mary to Begin Work on Faust,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, January 27, 1923, p. 443.

“Pickford’s Faust a Challenge,” Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1923.

Frederick James Smith, “Want Hamlet on the Screen,” Los Angeles Times, November 26, 1922.

“Wonders If Earle Uses Any Actors,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1923.

Ferdinand Pinney Earle 

*Yet another version of Faust was in the planning stages in early 1923 by Ferdinand Earle, who was mostly known as an art director who in 1920 had directed one film that didn’t get released until 1925, A Lover’s Oath. He and Pickford had a little fight in the press about their respective versions.  He said, “Mary Pickford’s challenge will afford the public opportunity to compare the best in old and new screen art. No more interesting experiment possible.”

Pickford responded in the L.A. Times: “Ferdinand Pinney Earle says, that in making Faust he ‘represents the new art’ while I ‘represent the old art,” said Mary indignantly. “How does he figure that out? I have Svend Gard, who put Johannes Kreisler on in New York, and who is an international reputation as an artist, and I have Irvin Martin to superintend the art end of the production. You know,” Mary smiled, just a wee bit sarcastically,” “I should think Mr. Earle would need actors as well as art in the making of Faust! I think Mr. Earle is a fine artist, and I admire his work, but I don’t understand his attitude. There is nothing either new or old in art.”

Earle never did make Faust either, and he went back to being an art director. He worked on Ben Hur (1925).

**Abend went on the become the Times city editor, and later the New York Times Far East correspondent. He was most famous for his books on China. In his early career he wrote film titles and read scenarios in Hollywood.

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