Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks
Just as fleets of buses wait in lots around Hollywood to take mobs of Hawaiian-shirted retirees and camera-toting tourists on guided tours of the homes of the stars, I invite you to join me now, on a trip to the time when all that began. The first ultra-luxurious home of Beverly Hills motion picture actors was named by combining the names of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the first and greatest film star couple. Before there was “Brangelina”, before there was “Maniston”, there was the mansion, remodeled in 1920, with its view of the Pacific; complete with tennis courts and swimming pools, the house the press called “Pickfair”.
I should warn you, before you board the tour bus, that the Hollywood I am about to show you, the Hollywood of “Little Mary”, “America’s Sweetheart” and “The King of Hollywood” may be dramatically different from the one you are used to.
Different how, you ask? Let me count the ways:
1. In those days (before Douglas and Mary,that is) film actors, rather than being celebrities, were considered low class, undesirable people. The first screen performers were cast-offs from the stage, a world thought to be peopled, in those prudish, bigoted, Victorian days, by painted floozies and drunkard drifters. Signs on California boarding houses read: “No Jews, Dogs or Picture People”.
Mary, at six, was forced from childhood into the theater to provide for her destitute mother and two siblings. Douglas, a vain, gregarious show-off bursting with energy (though stigmatized by what was then thought of as mixed heritage) lit up Broadway by virtue of his physical dynamism and raw talent.
Mary and Douglas had a great deal in common: both possessed unique styles of acting which translated well from stage to screen. Both had lost their fathers at age five. Both were also profoundly attached to their mothers, and both yearned for emotional approval at all times. Also, when they met, both were already married.
Mrs. Beth Fairbanks was a wealthy heiress with a penchant for the theater, when Douglas tried his hand at the exciting new craft of cinema. Even when thousands weren’t watching, Doug was constantly in motion, constantly performing for attention: monkeying up trees, doing handstands on tables and up steps, bouncing over people’s heads. Mary, whose charm, angelic beauty, petite frame and glorious golden curls were irresistible, was schooled by stage producer David Belasco in the hyper-realistic method of acting known as naturalism, which Mary found suited the cinema better than the overstated gestures of traditional stage acting; in which close-ups were, of course, impossible. Driven to the fledgling film studios during a lull in stage work, she married the first man she kissed. The man was actor Owen Moore, and the kiss was for a rehearsal for the film The Violin Maker of Cremona. The camera loved Mary’s subtle, emotive and beguiling mannerisms. Soon, she was queen of the nickelodeons.