Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mary Pickford & John Barrymore

Mary Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart” of the silent film era and arguably cinemas first real movie star. She was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto, Canada. Her legendary career in show business began on stage at the age of five. In 1909, she appeared in her first motion picture at D.W. Griffith’s film studio. Pickford’s storied movie career was a relatively short twenty-four years (1909-1933). In film, she became the symbol of feminine virtue and her long curly locks were a trademark. During her prolific film career, Pickford appeared in over two hundred and forty feature films, which most notably include; The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Daddy Long Legs (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Rosita (1923), and My Best Girl (1927). Pickford was a bankable film star of the silent era and was also a shrewd businesswoman. In 1920, Pickford along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and her future husband, Douglas Fairbanks, established the United Artists production company. She was also one the original thirty-six founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

She won her first and only best actress Academy Award in 1930 for her role as Norma Besant in Coquette (1929). She survived damning reviews thanks to the multitudes of fans that had flocked to theaters to hear Pickford speak on film for the first time. She had appeared to have proven the critics wrong by successfully transitioning from silent films to talkies. Controversy followed the award ceremony, when it became evident that Pickford had won her award by openly campaigning for the Oscar. She had shamelessly plied voting members with lavish dinners and gifts. This prompted the academy to make changes to voting procedures, disallowing open campaigning for awards and allowing only one vote per member. Pickford greatly underestimated the value of talking pictures, and the public failed to respond to her “talking” picture screen roles. America’s love affair with Mary Pickford was at an end. She would appear in only four more films following her Oscar win in Coquette. In 1934, she retired from on-screen performing but continued to be a force behind the camera as a producer. In 1976, she was awarded an honorary Academy Award for life time achievement but was unable to attend the ceremony in person and instead sent a videotaped message of thanks.

On May 25, 1979, while at her home (Pick-Fair), she became disoriented and was rushed to Santa Monica Hospital. Her condition quickly deteriorated and she slipped into a coma. Mary Pickford died on Tuesday, May 29, 1979. There was no autopsy performed but the cause of death was noted as a cerebral hemorrhage. Her simple funeral service was held at the Wee Kirk O’ the Heather Chapel at Forest Lawn Glendale. In attendance were long time friend and fellow actress Lillian Gish, step son Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and many other entertainment dignitaries but few of her contemporaries were still alive to mourn her passing. In his eulogy, film producer John Mantley (Mary’s cousin) stated “I don’t know what to say of a legend, it has all been said before...she was a real live vibrant human being whom the world loved…she was the essence of everything that was good and fine in the human spirit.” Pickford’s cremated remains are interred in the family plot at Forest Lawn Glendale. The plot is found in the Garden of Memory, the large white marble memorial is hard to miss and is topped with ornate sculpture, her epitaph reads; “Mary Pickford Rogers, America’s Sweetheart.”

On May 29, 1942, actor John Barrymore died. He was born John Sidney Blyth on February 15, 1882 in Philadelphia. His parents were Maurice Barrymore and Georgie Drew Barrymore. His maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew (aka Mrs Drew), a prominent and well-respected 19th-century actress and theater manager, who instilled in him and his siblings the ways of acting and theatre life. His uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew. Barrymore studied to be an artist and worked on New York newspapers before deciding to go into the family business as an actor.

He first gained fame as a handsome stage actor in light comedies, then drama which culminated in groundbreaking portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in various genres in both the silent and sound eras. Barrymore's personal life has been the subject of much writing before and since his passing. Today, John Barrymore is mostly known for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and Don Juan (1926), the first ever movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.

A member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, and was the paternal grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore. Barrymore delivered some of the most critically acclaimed performances in theatre and film history and was widely regarded as the screen's greatest performer during a movie career spanning 25 years and more than 60 films. In 1929, Barrymore collapsed on his boat the Mariner, off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores, requiring doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from consumption of illegal alcohol.

In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines and from then on, he insisted on reading dialogue from cue cards. He gave one last great performance in MGM's 1936 Romeo and Juliet. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and RKO's 1939 feature The Great Man Votes. After that, his screen roles were caricatures of himself.

On May 29, 1942, Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and later died.
Allegedly, his dying words were "Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him." Gene Fowler attributes different dying words to Barrymore in his biography Good Night, Sweet Prince. According to Fowler, Barrymore roused as if to say something to his brother Lionel; who asked him to repeat himself, and he simply replied, "You heard me, Mike."

According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's body before burial, and left his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from a night of revelry. However, Barrymore's friend Gene Fowler denied the story, stating that he and his son held vigil over the body at the mortuary until the funeral and burial. Barrymore was first buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles but years later, his son John had the body reinterred at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery., author of "Fade to Black: Graveside Memories of Hollywood Greats, 1927-1950"

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