All the Books About Doug and Mary
A few weeks ago I'm sitting at my desk and I'm lacking a little inspiration, and my eyes wander to the bookshelf right next to me, and I suddenly realize I've been slowly amassing a little collection of film books over the last 20 years, which reminds me that I'm old enough to have been collecting something for 20 years. The pride of my little collection, which I'm sure is dwarfed by fans and scholars more obsessed than I, is my little selection of Doug and Mary books. That's Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, of course. Nearly 100 years ago, all you had to say was "Doug and Mary" and everyone knew who you were talking about.
My first exposure to Douglas Fairbanks was The Thief of Bagdad in the 1980s, and my obsession with both legends was cemented in January 1998 when the old Film Center at the School of the Art Institute (before the current Siskel Film Center was built) screened a Mary Pickford Festival. Part of a nationwide tour of mostly-restored films from the Mary Pickford Foundation and distributed at the time by Milestone Film & Video, the series was an absolute revelation. Pickford herself practically disowned her films in later years, and only Sparrows, her gothic masterpiece from 1926, was readily available on home video. So, my exposure to Pickford was extremely limited until this series. I watched My Best Girl, Sparrows, Little Annie Rooney, Rosita, Tess of the Storm Country, The Poor Little Rich Girl...here was PRESENCE. I was besotted. Here for all these decades the myth that persisted about Mary was that she was this cloying, sentimental, old-fashioned 19th-century figure, and nothing could have been further from the truth. Here was charm and presence and the birth of film acting. There were no histrionics here. Mary KNEW how to act for the camera, and she achieved the pinnacle of the art of pantomime, and when I'm talking about pantomime I'm not talking about "mimes," I'm talking about the ability to convey drama without speaking. She was an expert at it.
I was hooked forever and began a quest to gobble up every piece of work I could find about Mary, as well as Doug. My collection of books isn't ENORMOUS, but it means a great deal to me. If you're ever interested in Pickford, you should pick up two fine biographies about her. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield and Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart by Scott Eyman are both excellent chronicles of the legend, although I give a slight edge to Whitfield.
My sentimental favorite is Mary Pickford Rediscovered because it's a beautifully-made coffee table book from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it was published in 1999 when I was at the peak of my Pickford fever, and it's authored by the great Kevin Brownlow, my bigtime film preservation hero. It is a film-by-film guide to all of her features, with beautiful still photographs throughout. Below is my ALL TIME favorite Mary photo from the book.
I'll show off a few more of my favorite photos from the book here as well. I believe it's out of print but there seem to be plenty of used copies on Amazon. And no, you cannot borrow my copy. More photos follow.
Up until a few years ago, there weren't very many quality books dealing solely with Doug. Perhaps it was because he had created his own mythology to such an extent that biographers were somehow intimidated? It wasn't until Jeffrey Vance's very fine book titled simply Douglas Fairbanks that I believe a volume was published that did justice to Doug's legacy. That book was followed by The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, a quite comprehensive biography that was the first time that mythology was really examined and questioned with a great deal of depth. It is also the first book to really show how truly sad Douglas Fairbanks, the man, really was.
Despite this, I don't think my estimation of Doug as a performer has dimmed one whit. He was the most kinetic performer that ever appeared on the screen. His was created for motion pictures, somersaulting, leaping, and buckling swashes across the ages in the early days of Hollywood.
I own a whole bunch of other books about Doug and Mary, many of them older, used editions of books written by authors who were frankly lesser than the ones represented by the volumes I've mentioned here already. Certainly readable, they don't possess the scholarship or readability of these books. Among these are Doug & Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford by Gary Carey, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks by Booton Herndon and the nadir of them all, His Picture in the Papers by Richard Schickel, which is rife with inaccuracies. I distinctly recall the self-righteous rage I felt reading that book when Schickel referred to Mary Pickford's Coquette as her final silent film. (It was not. It was her first talking picture. Duh.)
Looking at these book on my shelf, I can't help but think, "Oh my God. I'm old enough to have accumulated all these books about just two people." What has captured my imagination about these two, however, isn't necessarily JUST that they're two people, but that they helped BUILD something. There's nothing that makes me feel better than building something out of nothing, and that's probably why I've wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, because every word I type is something out of nothing and really, I have to make it up as I go along. I have to imagine Doug and Mary and their contemporaries felt a similar kind of pride as they stumbled their ways through creating one of the largest industries the world has ever known.
More book covers!