The Ladies' Home Journal, September 1923

  As I have been so largely identified with stories of child life, I have played with many of the children of the screen. While I have never seen a child badly treated in the film studios, it does not seem right to me that a family which can afford to give their children home and childhood should put them into the pictures. It is not fair to the child to keep it on a dark stage on sunny days or in the cold on a location. And it riles me up a good deal to see a strong man bring his child to its work.

Mary's niece's name was actually Gwynne Pickford. My little niece, Mary Pickford, is a beautiful child, looks well on the screen, and is crazy to work in pictures, but I feel she should have her childhood. She has played some very small parts, but I am certain that an important part would be too much of a strain for her.

The studio children get their four hours of schooling daily and there is a teacher for every four or five children. They are not permitted to work over eight hours, and when at work on my pictures I have seen to it that this was not only interrupted by their luncheon, but that they have had warm milk twice a day besides. But all this is not enough to make up for what they are losing.

When we were doing Through the Back Door, a little girl who played my part as an extreme youngster went to the director and asked him, when she had a crying scene to do, to slap her so that she might cry. He refused and told her a story. She was in a cellar alone and there was a big black bear, and so on. After she had played the scene beautifully, for she was a born actress, she was weak. I was, too, from watching her.

This story is from Mary's autobiography. I had to give up my own childhood, but it was necessary in my case. I either had to work or be separated from my mother. I had, however, my chance, and I made my own choice. A wealthy doctor wanted to adopt me. My mother at first refused, but an aunt of mine told mother that she was not fair to me – that I should be allowed to choose for myself. It seems that when my aunt was a child some rich people had wanted to adopt her and she always felt that it would have been the best thing for her, that it would have made a great difference in her life. Mother at last agreed and took me over to the doctor's house. It was a beautiful place. I was seven years old at the time, but I remember distinctly the stained-glass window in the hall where we sat and waited.

Mother Above Riches

Then the doctor and his wife came in and took me all over the house. They brought me to a room with white furniture and chintz. There was a child's bed and there were toys scattered about. The doctor said: "This will be your room when you come to live with us." And I asked: "But where will mother sleep?"

I felt that something was wrong, for mother had been very sad for days. The doctor and mother talked for a while, and then she took me away.

When we got outside she asked me what I wanted to do. Thinking to express the offer in terms that would impress me, she told me: "You can have roast chicken," of which I was very fond, "and ice cream every day."

"I'd rather have bread and tea with you," I told her, and mother was so happy that the tears streamed down her face right there in the street.

I have had as many as forty letters in one day from parents wishing to put their children in the pictures. Of course this is due to the advertising and publicity that have been give to one or two exceptional children of the screen. To most of the parents who write me Jackie Coogan is their particular standard for comparison. A child is always as good or better than Jackie. A woman wrote me that when her little boy, who is seven, saw Jackie he said: "Mamma, I can do better cart wheels than that with my left hand." Then "the thought flashed" through the mother's mind that the little boy must go into pictures.

Little Eve, who is three, has "her mind set on going into the pictures," and her proud parent who writes me says that "she must not stand in the way of the child's ambitions." She has wonderful talent "if exercised" and "her baby eyes speak for themselves."

The mother of two boys, six and eight, does not want them to leave home, but their teacher thinks that they ought to go on the stage or into the movies. The mother, though reluctant, is willing to give them their chance in the world. The time has come when she must think of their welfare.

A competent miss of ten writes me that she is willing "to start at the bottom." "I can play," she goes on, "the part of a wealthy hateful person, a poor happy child, and orphan, a comedian and many other parts." To be sure, all this is quite understandable, and the result of the pride of the mothers who write me. I often feel the same way when I see my niece, Mary, who is named for me, looking exceptionally pretty. I want the whole world to see her, and I feel then that perhaps I am wrong in keeping her from the screens.

Most of the people who write about going into the pictures have the idea that experience is unnecessary. Perhaps it is not indispensable to begin, but the persons who hold this view usually wish to start in important parts. A young woman and her mother came to see me with a letter of introduction. The mother did the talking. She wanted her daughter to play Lady Marian in Douglas' picture Robin Hood. I told her that the part was filled, but that I thought I could arrange to have her play in some of the scenes.

"Surely you don't mean that my daughter play an extra part?"

I told them as patiently as I could that it would be unwise and unkind, no matter how clever the daughter was, to expect her to be able to take a leading part without experience.

But it did no good, for the next request was that I intercede with Mr. Chaplin so that her daughter might become his leading lady. I explained that Miss Purviance had been with Mr. Chaplin for nine years and that it would be best to start with a bit in a picture.

The mother interrupted me: "The jealousy in this business is simply dreadful. The public wants new faces; why don't some of these actresses who have been hanging on so long get out and give someone else a chance? The public is sick of seeing them, anyway."

I took this with a smile.

Not true, of course -- as a child actress Mary had quite a few bit parts. I had never done any extra work myself in the theater, but I was very glad to play bits when I got into pictures. You really do not know yourself till you have seen your image on the screen. Mirrors are too kind. When I first myself on a bit of film, I was amazed. I had no idea I was so stocky. I can remember that at the old Biograph studio I saw with Lionel Barrymore his first screen work. Though he came from an acting family and had considerable stage experience before he went into the pictures, he had his breath taken away by his appearance. He had no idea he was such a giant.

In those days the scenes were cut so quickly that we did not have time to act. We could never really get into an emotion; revenge, great joy, grief had to be shown in about ten feet.

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3

[Home] [News & Notes] [The Features Page] [The Store] [At the Movies]
[The Calendar] [Silent Era Facts] [Silent Star of the Month]