Sunday, August 27, 2023

Fairbanks and Pickford, Hollywood’s First ‘Power Couple,’ Recalled in Fort Lee Exhibit

Try to imagine, if you can, what the motion picture industry was like a century ago. Color film was decades away, and even talkies hadn’t arrived yet.

But the studio system had come into being, and, most important of all, the star system. Two stars in particular, married to each other, burned especially brightly, not only headlining their own movies but producing their own projects. And film fans couldn’t get enough of their love story.

The pair I’m talking about, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, are the subject of an exhibit running through December at the Barrymore Film Center in Fort Lee, NJ.

Readers of this blog know that I’ve made it a point to catch several vintage movies in the theater at this relatively recent addition to the Bergen County cultural scene. But the museum space is also a must for movie aficionados.

Although the museum’s first exhibit, on John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore, featured a family with Bergen County connections, this current exhibit, “Power Couple: Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in Hollywood," is remarkable in its own way.

Unlike the Barrymores, Fairbanks and Pickford never lived in Fort Lee. But they worked in the borough during the early days of the silent film industry.

A forerunner of Errol Flynn, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tom Cruise, Fairbanks was Hollywood’s first great swashbuckling action hero, an actor who endowed costume dramas like The Thief of Baghdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro with his enormous charisma and athletic ability, even performing his own stunts, in independent films he produced.

Pickford was, like Fairbanks, a producer in her own right—in fact, as the first woman to own her own movie company, as well as theaters themselves and a studio lot, the most powerful female in Hollywood.

That clout derived from her box-office success as “America’s Sweetheart,” with audiences flocking to see this actress in her twenties playing innocent, virginal, but spunky girls (an illusion enhanced by her 5-foot-tall frame, bashful glance, and blond curls).

The two stars met not long after Fairbanks came out to Hollywood in 1915. At first, because they had other spouses at the time, they tried to conceal their attraction from each other and, more important, the public.

But, while spearheading the drive for Liberty Bonds during WWI, the two not only found a way to cement Hollywood’s relationship to Washington decision-makers for the next century, but their own liaison. Married at last in 1920, they lived and threw parties in one of the most lavish estates in Beverly Hills, “Pickfair.”

Together with friends Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, Fairbanks and Pickford formed their own film studio in 1919, United Artists—a venture meant to ensure that the creative talent—directors and stars—rather than moguls or banks, would control the distribution network of films.

Although their popularity as the king and queen of Hollywood lasted for more than a decade, they became two of the casualties of the transition from silents to sound pictures. Both Fairbanks and Pickford chafed at the restrictions placed by limited microphone mobility on camera movements in the new era.

Additionally, they had trouble adjusting their old personas for audiences. Years of chain smoking left Fairbanks unable to exhibit the daredevil stunt work that had been his stock in trade. The aging Pickford found the ingenue roles that had made her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood to be golden handcuffs as she tried to transition to more adult roles. (Her decision to cut her trademark hair was not only front-page news but inspired an outpouring of protests from fans.)

The two would make only one film together—a 1929 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, the first time that the talkies had put Shakespeare onscreen—but it did little to recalibrate audience expectations of their onetime idols. With each facing disappointment, they became less active onscreen, with Pickford even retiring from screen acting (though not producing) in the early 1930s.

Inevitably the marriage crumbled, with the two divorcing and remarrying to different partners in the mid-1930s. Fairbanks died of a heart attack in 1939.

Pickford, though living four decades longer than her ex-husband, was not necessarily luckier in her passage into history. In 1976, millions of Oscar watchers (including me) were aghast when the producers of the shot presented the ailing, 83-year-old Pickford with a lifetime achievement award at Pickford.

The sight of the venerable star, outfitted with wig of blonde curls, false eyelashes, and gaudy lipstick, was shocking enough that columnist Mike Royko wrote, “"Mary Pickford, the one-time screen darling of America, has managed to offend people. She did it by growing old.”

I could not close this post without considering the two stars in their heyday—what they meant to each other and to the overall Hollywood dream factory. More than 200 items in the Fort Lee museum exhibit help in this regard.

They trace the evolution of the Fairbanks-Pickford relationship, including stills, posters, window cards, set and costume designs, boots and practice swords used by Fairbanks in career highlights like Robin Hood, and Pickford’s hairbrush set.

Most poignantly, there is a small sample of the many love letters that Fairbanks sent Pickford throughout their relationship—which, despite their eventual divorce, she kept in a box in Pickfair until the day she died.

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