Mary Pickford was the screen’s first legend in her own lifetime; throughout the 1910’s and ‘20s, the most popular and beloved star and woman on earth, “America’s Sweetheart” and, overseas, “The World’s Sweetheart.” Also, I believe, she was greatly responsible for getting women the vote in 1920 (in the U.S.; 1918 in Ireland; 1919 England): How could Mary Pickford (or Lillian Gish, for that matter, or Gloria Swanson) not have the right to vote? “Little Mary’s” favorite—-and best—-director was the star silent filmmaker-actor Marshall Neilan, who has haunted me for years. Howard Hawks, no less, first mentioned him to me in 1962 as a major influence on his work: “Marshall Neilan had this great sense of humor,” Hawks said, “and yet his pictures were not slapstick. He always had a good foundation for a story, but his method of treating it lightly crept in—-or of stopping in the middle of something very dramatic to get a laugh. That looked like a good idea to me.”
In 1966, picture-pioneer Allan Dwan described to me how he had discovered Marshall Neilan while shooting at La Mesa, California, around 1911. Dwan had bought a car, “And it was brought to me by a young fellow from the auto company who had to stay to teach me how to drive it,” Dwan explained. “And I got to like him. His name was Marshall—‘Mickey’–Neilan. I said to him, ‘Would you like to be an actor in the pictures?’ He said, ‘Sure. What’s it pay?’” And so Neilan acted in the next fifty two-reelers (20-minute movies) Dwan made. “He was a poetic kind of a guy,” Dwan concluded, “very romantic.”
Hawks told me a couple of years later that a new film of his (Red Line 7000), which had multiple leading characters, had been inspired by a Mickey Neilan feature, Bits of Life, from 1921. That sort of picture —-with what we currently call an ensemble cast-—Hawks thought was the hardest kind to make. This challenge excited me and was at least partially responsible for my doing a couple of my better movies (like The Last Picture Show or They All Laughed). All this before I ever actually saw a Marshall Neilan film.
In fact, I never did see one until late in the l990s when the enterprising and valuable Film Forum in downtown Manhattan showed Mary Pickford in Neilan’s hugely popular 1919 comedy-drama, Daddy-Long-Legs (available on DVD). It was a revelation. As Kevin Brownlow– the world’s greatest and most sensitive authority on silent pictures, winner of a 2011 Oscar for just that–wrote very succinctly in his spectacular text & picture book, Mary Pickford Rediscovered (Abrams, 1999): ”Daddy-Long-Legs was the archetypal Mary Pickford film. It had all the elements an audience could hope for: a baby rescued from an ashcan, an orphanage run like a penitentiary, hilarious and touching comedy, much pathos, and a lover waiting in the wings for Pickford’s character to grow up… The financial success of the picture was Mary’s biggest so far…Daddy-Long-Legs…became one of the best loved of all Pickford’s films.”
Neilan’s easy, casual grace, his daring, his ability to evoke extraordinarily simple yet complex reactions, his flair for human comedy, is apparent throughout. And for those who ever wondered if Mary Pickford was just a goody-two-shoes playing one childlike note, this single film—-of the scores of good ones she starred in between 1909 and 1933-–would blow that uninformed misconception away. She was brilliantly expressive, absolutely real, equally on the money at every second in comedy, drama and all points between. You want to see good modern movie acting, check out Mary Pickford in Daddy-Long-Legs. Neilan’s surprisingly rapid-cut dramatic and social satire (made the year before), Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (also available on DVD)–with Mary as gutsy working-class Amarilly–isn’t too shabby either. These now forgotten films, made at the end of World War I, are striking evidence to support Pickford’s memorable remark that, looking at the evolution of movies as an art form, “You would think the talkies had come first.”
That Mickey Neilan became an alcoholic and burned out by the end of the silent era (full sound took over in 1929) gives an air of poignancy to one of the most striking and hilarious sequences in Daddy-Long-Legs—-when Mary and a little orphan boy and a stray dog get accidentally tipsy on some apple cider. Yet Allan Dwan told me it was not simply the alcoholism that cut short Neilan’s amazing career, but the enmity he had engendered from certain of the moguls.
The story goes that one afternoon Neilan busted into MGM-boss L.B. Mayer’s office, brandishing a small black handgun. He is supposed to have told Mayer he was going to shoot him, that he should get down on his knees, which Mayer did, apparently quaking. Neilan then told Mayer to watch carefully and slowly put the barrel of the gun into his own mouth and-—bit off the front of it. The gun was made of licorice. Mayer was not amused. MGM just became one more place Mickey Neilan couldn’t get a job. He didn’t direct for the last twenty years of his life, which ended from cancer in 1958 at age 67; essentially his career was over before he reached fifty. An ironic footnote to the licorice-gun incident is that Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin wrote the exact scene into Adam’s Rib (1949; directed by George Cukor), with Spencer Tracy pulling the same gag on Katharine Hepburn; the film was an MGM release. I wonder if Mickey Neilan ever saw it, and what complicated thoughts he would have had.
In Brownlow’s book he quotes a 1919 Photoplay (the top movie magazine) review of Daddy-Long-Legs (in which Neilan also plays the role of “the other guy”): “There is no man working in the sunlight medium [sic!], who has a greater mastery of human touches—-whimsical, gay, tender or eye-filling—-than Marshall Neilan…Pathos and laughter are near allies, but it takes genius to interweave them as deftly and inextricably as they are interwoven here.” Ninety-two sunlit years later, that judgment still seems to me dead-on.