Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924) Directed by Marshall Neilan and Mary Pickford.  Mary Pickford, Allan Forrest, Marc McDermott (120 min).

Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, a lavishly illustrated anthology on the legendary silent film actress, brought a touring film program to the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Dorothy Vernon showcases Pickford as a plucky Tudor era heiress, navigating love, laughs and thrilling action in a silent era super production.  Dorothy evades an arranged marriage, falls in love with a family enemy and mixes it up with both Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I. This restored, tinted print is from the Royal Belgian Film Archive, and was reconstructed from two nitrate prints, one Russian and one French. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences provided English intertitles.  After playing a select few dates in the US this print will return to Europe.  Live music by Ethan Uslan.

Mary Pickford was America’s Sweetheart, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, the beloved wife of another silent film superstar, Douglas Fairbanks, a superb actress, a hard-nosed business woman. She was an international celebrity starting in 1909, and with Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, at the vanguard of a passionate global fan interest in the lives of celebrities that had never before existed.

Her appeal was not just her delicate beauty, her superb comic abilities, her dramatic command of the silent screen, and her renowned marriage. She was loved for a particularly American reason, her democratic belief that to be poor was more ennobling than to be rich. Her boisterous heroines triumphed over adversity and in an era just emerging from one that believed a proper lady was to be worshiped on a pedestal, she was spunky, brave, determined and independent, qualities that also defined Pickford in real life. And, of course, the woman who showed the world and idealized childhood, never had a childhood she could call her own, other than that on the screen.

She was born Gladys Smith in Toronto in 1892. Her father died when she was six, leaving her mother with three small children to support. Gladys went on stage shortly afterwards (there were hundreds of barnstorming theater companies in North American, employing tens of thousands of actors) and became the sole support of her family, a position she would hold throughout her life. At 14, she strode into Broadway impresario David Belasco’s office demanding a role suited to her age and abilities, startled by her nerve and her talent, he complied. Two years later, faced with the summer closing of the New York theaters (there was no air conditioning, so no shows) she introduced herself similarly to pioneering director D. W. Griffith, only now demanding the princely salary ($10/day, $25/week minimum) a player of her status deserved.

While acting in hundreds of one and two reel Biograph films, she learned everything about the movies, not just acting, but lighting, acting and directing. After she left Griffith, she was in complete control, not just of her art, but of the business of the Mary Pickford Motion Picture Company. She was the first female star to create her own corporation (in 1915) and was the first star/producer. By 1919 with the founding of United Artists she became her own distributor, as well, a level of power unmatched by stars even in today’s media empires. She and her cofounders Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith could make the movies they wanted without interference. Iris Barry wrote “Mary made herself a star by her own unremitting efforts; she created a character for herself on the screen, she invented a brand of girlhood the public responded to, and she built up this character and stabilized this brand by every effort in her power” (Brownlow 18).

Her reputation endured as that of a demure, Victorian era child-woman with a halo of golden ringlets. Because she had complete creative control over her film archive access was limited. Mostly, there were still photographs, Little Lord Fauntleroy (MoMA had a print, and showed it at its pioneering museum film series) and the remake of her hit, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (starring a real little girl with golden curls, Shirley Temple) to preserve her legacy. It took a new generation of feminist film scholars to restore her to her rightful place in cinema history.

In 1924, Pickford continued to be at the height of her fame.  She planned to import German director Ernst Lubitsch to direct the period drama, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, as he had made a star of sultry Pola Negri decked out in fabulous costumes as the tempestuous heroines of Carmen, Madame DuBarry and Sumurun.  Pickford bid against other producers for the rights to film Charles Major’s popular novel. But when Lubitsch arrived, under the impression he was directing her in Faust, they clashed.  Mary envisioned plotting and swordfighting in the halls of a Robin Hood-y castle, but Lubitsch read the script with the complicated plot involving Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots and pronounced, “Der iss too many qveens and not enough qveens” meaning that the historical subplot overshadowed the heroine (Herndon 225).  Instead, they made Rosita, in which Mary plays a Spanish gypsy, and when it was done, Mary enlisted her old friend Marshall Neilan, who had made many hits for her in the past, to direct Dorothy Vernon.

Neilan was less than reliable, however.  A massive procession with hoards of extras was ready for an epic scene in Golden Gate Park, and Neilan went on a bender with Mary’s brother Jack and actor Norman Kerry.  So, Mary directed the scene, herself, with, as it turned out, Neilan among the spectators. “Say, you’re doing pretty well” he volunteered, as he skedaddled (Whitfield 240).  Another scene in the park almost turned into a disaster.  Mary, in her massive costume, was riding sidesaddle on a horse named Pearl, with the camera car keeping pace next to her.  The horse panicked and bolted, running towards a road with busy automobile traffic.  Mary cooed soothingly to the horse, trying to slow her down, gently pulling on the reins.  “Just as we reached the intersection, I gave the reins a quick jerk with both my hands, and Pearl reared, half-stumbled and landed in a culvert.  I am proud to say I did not lose my seat” (Brownlow 204).

The costumes were designed by Mitchell Leisen, who later became a director.  He began designing extravagant outfits for Cecil B. DeMille and designed Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad for Fairbanks.  He wanted the clothes to be as authentic as possible, and the press book claims, “each costume and gown…is a truthful design taken from the Elizabethan period” (Schmidt 121).  He used Tudor portraits and the plates in Max von Boehn’s landmark survey, History of Costume for inspiration. But, Leisen also pillaged other sources for details, like the folk inspired lace cap and cuffs on one gown, and the slashed trim, popular earlier in the century, on others.  He took the liberty of picking and choosing amongst all the fashions of Elizabeth I’s almost half century reign. Of course, Leisen had no access to genuine Renaissance era silks and brocades, and used whatever the 1920s had to offer (this dilemma never ceases to plague costume designers).  One gown was constructed in a completely inauthentic Art Deco patterned fabric to excellent effect. Pickford may not be wearing Tudor era corsetry, but her costumes do much less homage to the Jazz Age’s tubular silhouette than most period films of the day.  Her dresses have a natural waistline, and enough bodice structure to accentuate her natural curves.

Mary Pickford, with her sister Lottie as her maid.

I saw this costume from Dorothy Vernon in an exhibit at the Textile Museum in Lowell, MA in 2000. It is from the private collection of John LeBold, a friend of Pickford’s. She gave him this gown as a gift.

“Mary’s costumes were so heavy they were almost more than she could bear, but she insisted on them. I used to carry her onto the set in the morning, to conserve her strength, ” Leisen recalled. “The sheer weight of her costumes was so great that she lost a lot of weight by the end of the day.  She pulled on the bodice and complained that it was too loose and told me to take it in. I argued, but I had to do it, and the next morning, after she had eaten breakfast and had more water in her system, it was too tight and we had to let it out”  (Chierichetti 32).

“We really spent money on that one.  Mary Pickford found out that Blanche Sweet had just made a Renaissance era film that had a gown that supposedly cost $25,000, so Mary wanted one that cost more.  I gave her one that cost $32,000.  It was embroidered with real pearls” (ibid).  Claire Eames, who played Queen Elizabeth, had even more complicated outfits, which Leisen constructed with a stiff fronted corset, farthingales, ruffs and sleeves all tied on in an authentic manner, so that the queen would look like “the Spanish Armada in full sail” (ibid).

Time has done so much to eradicate film history, particularly silent film history.  There is no print of Dorothy Vernon in the US, but not because Pickford carried out her threat to destroy her films.  (In a 1931 issue of Photoplay magazine, Mary said, “I am adding a codicil to my will.  It says that when I go, my films go with me. They are to be destroyed.  I am buying all my old films for this purpose.  I would rather be a beautiful illusion in the minds of people than a horrible example on celluloid.  I pleased my own generation.  That is all that matters” (Basinger 46)). Like so many lost silent films, all the prints had simply disappeared.  Dorothy Vernon was not as popular on release as other Pickford films, but it was far from a failure. Some movie audiences must have wanted Pickford to remain the girl with the golden curls, and not the grown up woman, albeit one of eighteen, that she plays here. She ached to play a more sophisticated heroine, in part to please her husband, and certainly felt some box office rivalry with him as well.  His films were blockbusters, and she wanted to equal him.

She regretted the relative failure of the film, but wasn’t bitter about it.  “So many costume pictures just then…and most of them were better than mine.”  In her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, she said, “I was quite ready to surrender to public demand and become a child again” (Basinger 47).

Picture Play thought it magnificent, though.  It was “the best of all the costume pictures…When the first closeup of Mary Pickford appeared on the screen, the audience at the Criterion Theater in New York let out a noise something like a thousand tires all going off at once, the beauty of the picture and the beauty of Mary—the two are bound up together—are the chief things that will make you remember Dorothy Vernon…you have never seen such exquisite posing in your life” (Brownlow202).

The tinted print from the Royal Belgian Film Archive reveals a spirited film far better than its reputation.  The audience at the North Carolina Museum of Art responded enthusiastically to Mary’s spitfire heroine, who is not that different than the sort of resourceful character she played in many of her films.  They laughed at the comedy, gasped at the action, hissed the villain and gave Ethan Uslan a standing ovation for his excellent score.  Uslan said that the DVD he had ordered from a British website for practice was a much different film.  The reels were out of order, and the plot was impossible to follow, in fact, he worried that I had selected a terrible film to showcase at the museum.  Perhaps, this is the reason for the tepid reaction many film chroniclers have reported: either they never saw the film at all, or they saw a dupe of a disordered 16mm print that has been in limited circulation over the years. Or perhaps, it just takes a packed theater filled with an excited audience, a beautiful print and a superb score to make the film come alive.

The NCMA audience also loved Clare Eames as Queen Elizabeth I, who makes the most of her few scenes. Allan Forrest (the husband of Lottie Pickford, Mary’s sister, who plays her maid in the film) is rather a damp squib as the romantic lead, but actresses frequently prefer leading men who do not shine as brightly as they do.  Christel Schmidt pointed out that the first shot of the hero, his muscular back lit by firelight, belongs to Mary’s husband, Douglas Fairbanks.  They occasionally played such cameos in each other’s films.  Many film historians suspect that Fairbanks was also Forrest’s stunt double, or even Mary’s in a wig and dress. But, it does whet the appetite for the fabulous film that never was, the grand costume romantic adventure in which both Pickford and Fairbanks starred.

Far from being a disappointment, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is a major rediscovery.  Kevin Brownlow describes it as “a combination of high art and low slapstick, of history and hokum.  The final result is exceedingly impressive and entertaining picture, the closest to a Douglas Fairbanks production of any that Pickford made” (Brownlow 206). One can only hope that a beautiful DVD release is in the offing.

Here is Christel Schmidt’s Facebook page for the book and tour:

If there is a screening in your city, and you love silent film, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is a MUST.


Sources include: Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, edited by Christel Schmidt, especially the essay “Dressing the Part” by Beth Werling,  Dressed for the Part: Hollywood Costumes from the Silver Screen American Textile History Museum, Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti,  Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film organized by Edward Maeder, The Parade’s Gone By by Kevin Brownlow, Classics of the Silent Screen by Joe Franklin (ghosted by William K. Everson), Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield, Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, by Booton Herndon, Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman.