The Poor Little Rich Girl: Mary Pickford and her wordsmith.

One of the most prolific partnerships to emerge in the silent film era was the one between movie star Mary Pickford and screenwriter Frances Marion. Director Clarence Brown once referred to their working relationship as “spontaneous combustion,” an apt description of the women’s uncanny ability to play off one another in developing new material. For more than two decades, Marion wrote scripts for some of Pickford’s most popular films, from 1912’s The New York Hat to Pickford’s final screen appearance in Secrets (1933). Their most prolific period of collaboration–spanning the years 1917 and 1918–produced eight of Pickford’s best-loved films, among them The Little Princess, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (both 1917), and Stella Maris (1918).

Their most important collaboration may have been the 1917 film The Poor Little Rich Girl, which Marion adapted from the same-named 1913 play by Eleanor Gates. The movie became the biggest hit of Pickford’s career up to that point, and with its release, Marion became the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, while Pickford further secured control of her own career in a way that few actors–male or female–had been able to do.

The Poor Little Rich Girl admittedly does not boast an overly complicated plot. Pickford is Gwendolyn, the child of a self-absorbed rich couple. Gwendolyn’s care is given over to the household’s servants, who find the lonely, sometimes mischievous child to be a bother. One evening, Gwendolyn’s nanny, Jane, essentially dopes the child so that the servants can slip away for an evening out. Gwendolyn has a bad reaction to the drug and teeters on the edge of death (reflected in a series of dreams marked by strange imagery), but her illness finally frightens her parents into realizing the error of their selfish ways.

Marion was hired to write the film at Pickford’s insistence, and the two of them conspired to add elements of comedy (a mud fight, playful antics in the girl’s bathroom) to lighten the relatively dark source material–much to the disgust of the film’s director, Maurice Tourneur. Tourneur had the reputation of being a gruff, sometimes combative director, and he clashed frequently with the seasoned star of the film. He wanted the film to adhere more closely to the original play; Pickford, supported by Marion, felt the play was too dreary and needed moments of laughter so as not to weigh down the final product. In the end, of course, Pickford won.

This was the first film in which Pickford portrayed a child for the entire length of the movie–a bit of a daunting task for the actress. At twenty-five years old, Pickford was playing an eleven-year-old girl, and though her waifish frame and famed golden curls helped her portrayal (as did Tourneur’s set design, which used larger-than-normal furniture to make the actress appear even smaller), Pickford was under no illusions about her age, and thus was intent on doing whatever she could to enhance her on-screen childish image. According to an anecdote related in Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998):

“As Mary was putting on her makeup early one morning, she noticed that when one of the mirrors caught the morning sunlight, its reflection on her face made her look much younger. When she told Tourneur about her accidental discovery, she assumed he would be as thrilled as she was, but he was not interested in experimenting.”

Despite the director’s reluctance, Mary insisted that Tourneur shoot the scene two ways–once with the traditional lighting, and again using her suggestion of shining a small spotlight, propped up on a box, directed at her face from below–to see which one was more effective. In the end, Mary’s ingenuous idea won out, and this “baby spotlight” became a signature device on all of her subsequent films.

When the film was complete, the executives at Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount (including studio heads Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky) disliked the final result so much that they considered not releasing the movie at all. Pickford and Marion were devastated by the news–Marion especially was worried that her involvement had somehow “ruined” Mary’s career. But when the film was finally screened in New York, it was an instant hit with audiences, and Marion was contracted (for a large salary) to write future films for Pickford. And because of the success of The Poor Little Rich Girl, the conceit of Pickford playing a child for the length of the film was repeated in their next two collaborations, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, released six months later, and The Little Princess, released a mere two months after that.

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion were quite the formidable team, even after their professional partnership came to an end. By 1940, Pickford had retired from the screen, and Marion wrote her final screenplay, for 1940’s Green Hell, though both would remain active in Hollywood in the ensuing years (Pickford as a producer, and Marion as a contract writer for MGM, playwright, and novelist). The two women remained friends all their lives, until Marion’s death in 1973 at the age of 84. Pickford passed away several years later, in 1979, at the age of 87. Their collaboration, built on creativity, talent, and mutual trust and admiration, remains one of the most successful to ever emerge from Hollywood, then or now.

This is our contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon, hosted by KC of A Classic Movie Blog. Head on over to check out the other entries about “the girl with the golden curls.”

9 thoughts on “The Poor Little Rich Girl: Mary Pickford and her wordsmith.

  1. It’s funny because the only films I recall of Frances Marion’s are her collaborations with Mary Pickford. Of course that isn’t a bad thing since I think they were both wonderful actresses.

    While PLRG isn’t my favorite of Mary’s films it’s still stood the test of time and it’s a must see for anyone who’s wanting to see her early work for the first time. You’ve written a great review as usual.

    And, I love all of the tricks the studios used to aid Mary in pulling off her ‘childlike appearance’ for so many years. Luckily it worked like a charm and audiences adored her, packed the theaters.

  2. I’ll bet it would have been fun to listen in on conversations between Marion and Pickford. They both seemed to take such pleasure in their work and they were such clever people. The triumph of their gags in this flick is one of my favorite stories from classic Hollywood. Those goofy moments, and the surreal dream sequences with the snake, bears and two-faced maid are what make this a special movie for me–aside from Pickford’s hilarious performance of course!.Thanks for contributing to the blogathon!

  3. Great article on the great Pickford! (Sometimes I wonder why we have such collective amnesia about the accomplishments of women before the ERA movement.)

  4. Pingback: The Frame » Blog Archive » The Roundup: June 15, 2012

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  6. Great article about two great artists…..and one fantastic movie. One of THE key Pickford films to see – not to mention Tourneur – one of THE great movies of the teens to see – and possibly the greatest introduction to her work. VERY easy to watch….H-I-L-A-R-I-O-U-S……and ingenius.

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