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Day in History - Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks

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The average human face has around 42 muscles. Some are for basic things like chewing, but most are for expressing feelings and emotions. A slight uplifted eyebrow can express much without a spoken word. In the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond is an aging silent movie star dreaming of a comeback. She is played by Gloria Swanson, herself a silent film star. She tells William Holden her disdain for the current films when she says “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces!”

Reportedly the first close-up in cinema came in 1912 at the end of a D. W. Griffith film, Friends. Prior to this film the camera took long shots or medium shots. The lenses had some difficulty focusing so close on a human face. This first close-up was of actress Mary Pickford. The close-up proved to be an effective tool to express the state of mind of an actor.

Prior to the close-up, movie actors were not stars. They were easily replaceable and couldn’t command high salaries. The close-up changed that. Once you saw a close-up of an actor who could use their 42 muscles effectively, you became familiar with them. You formed a connection. If you liked them, you wanted that connection to continue. Audiences began demanding to see more movies starring that un-billed actor they had seen in a previous film. As a result, the close-up created the Hollywood star system. Mary Pickford became famous, rich and powerful as a result. She became known as “America’s Sweetheart” and the “girl with the curls”. She went on to parlay her fame to write, direct and produce movies as well. She became one of the most powerful people in the film business. The role in Sunset Boulevard was loosely based on Pickford’s life and other actresses. She was considered for the role but when they pitched the idea to her, she was horrified.

Douglas Fairbanks dreamed of becoming an actor while growing up in Colorado. As soon as he was old enough, he took off to New York for Broadway. After a brief stint, it was off to California for the movies. He was good looking, athletic and certainly had good use of all his muscles, not just the 42 in his face. Like Pickford, he worked with D. W. Griffith. He met Mary Pickford, who was married, and Charlie Chaplin on a war bonds tour. From that stemmed a romance resulting in their marriage on this day in 1920. It was the height of their careers. The marriage was big news. Everyone was interested. It was beyond Beatlemania or current fascination with celebrity. She was the highest paid actor, he the third highest paid actor after Charlie Chaplin. They were the power couple. They went on to form United Artist Studio along with Chaplin and D. W. Griffith.

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