Mary Pickford Blogathon: Secrets (1933)

This is the SBBN entry for the Mary Pickford Blogathon, hosted by KC at Classic Movies. I highly recommend checking out Classic Movies, not just for the other participants, but for KC’s own contributions, such as today’s really fun Q&A with Peggy Dymond Leavey, Pickford biographer.

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Mary Pickford had considered silent star Norma Talmadge her rival, especially for the few years in the 1920s when Talmadge’s career, briefly, eclipsed Pickford’s. With this competition still relatively fresh in Hollywood minds, people took notice when, in 1930, Mary Pickford began filming a talkie remake of Talmadge’s 1924 hit film Secrets. Slated to be titled Forever Yours, Pickford’s version was in the midst of production when she abruptly shut the whole thing down. Director Marshall Neilan had been one of Mary’s favorite directors in the past and she had asked for him specifically on Forever Yours, but now his alcoholism proved too catastrophic to overcome.

Rumors persisted for years that Mary had burned the negatives of this aborted production, though in truth, she had donated all the material from the unfinished film to the Library of Congress in 1946. In fact, Pickford had sent the LoC almost all of her enormous film collection in 1946; unfortunately, Forever Yours was immediately mislabeled, then abandoned when the LoC’s motion picture department was shut down in 1947. The LoC kept the contributions at the time but eventually decided to rid themselves of the dangerous nitrate films left in their care, meaning Pickford’s donations were transferred to safety stock in 1956 and the nitrates destroyed. However, the surviving footage of Forever Yours was not transferred at all, as it was considered “unsuitable” as far as its preservation status was concerned. In those nine years between her donation and the transfer of her films to safety stock, many of her movies had irrevocably deteriorated. It is assumed some of the Forever Yours footage was destroyed at that time, along with the rest of the unsalvageable material from her collection.

However, not all of the footage was lost. At least six reels of Forever Yours were returned to Pickford in the 1950s, though whether they were reels of nitrate or on safety stock is unclear. Also, one reel of stock shots from the film was accidentally returned to LoC in the 1980s when it was misidentified yet again, this time as footage from Kiki (1931). That accidental reel survives, though no one is sure what happened to those six reels of Forever Yours returned to Pickford, though it’s possible they made it to back to the LoC once again, when the films Pickford had in her private archives were re-donated after her death.

One reason that footage from Forever Yours was confused with footage from Kiki during this preservation debacle is because both films were Mary Pickford talkie remakes of hit Norma Talmadge films. The Pickford version of Kiki was produced by Art Cinema, the production company owned by Joseph Schenck, who was, perhaps coincidentally, Norma Talmadge’s husband. Schenck had been brought in as president of United Artists in 1924, and with him came his wife Norma, her sister Constance, and Constance’s husband Buster Keaton. Art Cinema was created specifically to distribute films through United Artists, but Pickford’s Kiki did poorly, nearly bankrupting Art Cinema in the process. Art Cinema produced only a few films after Kiki flopped, completely shutting down production in 1933.

It seems 1933 was a tough year for film studios. Paramount went bankrupt, RKO fell into receivership, and Fox had to be reorganized, eventually ending up as part of 20th Century Pictures, the venture Schenck moved to after Art Cinema failed. Pickford’s own United Artists was struggling, too. Major stockholder Gloria Swanson was financially destroyed and had to sell her stock, and partner D.W. Griffith was flat broke, his new films crashing harder at the box office than Pickford’s were. Partner Charlie Chaplin’s films were big hits, but so rare UA could not rely on them for financial support.

Mary being presented with her official invitation as Grand Marshall for the 1933 Tournament of Roses Parade while on the set of Secrets. She was the first female Marshall of the parade.

 

And 1933 was a hard year for Mary, too. In January her brother Jack, ill with alcoholism and neuritis for quite some time, finally succumbed. Her stepson Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was being divorced by Joan Crawford in a scandalous affair where Joan, rightly or not, was accused of using Junior to further her career and unceremoniously dumping him when his usefulness diminished. Mary’s husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was in the midst of what we nowadays would probably call a mid-life crisis, sleeping around while traveling the globe alone, finally landing in a serious relationship with Sylvia, Lady Ashley. Mary was already seeing actor Buddy Rogers by that time, though Fairbanks allegedly did not take her affair seriously. Early in 1933, Douglas begged Mary to come to Italy with him in what she presumed was a reconciliation.

Mary waves to reporters as she leaves for Italy in February, 1933.

 

Unfortunately, Fairbanks hadn’t planned on reconciliation at all, at least not if it involved discussing his affairs. Mary came back to the States quickly, Doug following her but soon sailing back to Europe without her. Mary threw herself into her work, which was to complete a new version of that abandoned 1930 Forever Yours. This time the film would be called, as the original 1924 film had been, Secrets.

Frances Marion, who had also penned the 1924 script, wrote this version and noted, at least in her opinion, Mary’s ulterior motive for returning to a film she had abandoned once already: “Mary saw herself in those costumes. She saw herself in a great frantic role, making an impact on Doug as well as on her public. She would be faithful to one man on the screen, through three generations.” Mary was so intent on having the public perceive her performance as an extension of her real persona that she retained the character’s name from the original; Mary would play Mary.

The model set used for exterior tracking shots of Mary’s family home in Secrets.

 

Her plan didn’t work. Secrets was released in March of 1933, and by July of that year, Doug had sent Mary a wire stating he would never return. News of this hit the gossip columns quickly, though just how it happened depended on who you talked to. Louella Parsons always claimed Mary Pickford had demanded she print the news in her column to get everything over with quickly. Pickford, however, stated Frances Marion had surprised her by bringing Louella to lunch one day, though at that lunch Pickford admits to showing Louella Doug’s telegram, but expected her to keep quiet about it, which was obviously absurd. The press hounded Mary — Doug again refused to return to the United States, partying in Europe in what friends called “compromising” ways and leaving Mary to deal with the media alone. By the end of 1933, New York newspapers were noting that Pickford was “tight-lipped with resignation” and no longer famous.

And if anything illustrated that Mary Pickford was indeed no longer famous, it was Secrets. Playing a young New England belle named Mary in the 1880s, Pickford looks far too old for the role, as does love interest Leslie Howard. The young Mary is promised to a man she does not love when she meets a worker from her father’s business and falls in love. C. Aubrey Smith bombasts his way through the early third of the film as Mary’s stubborn, blustery father who insists she marry the guy he has picked for her. She runs off with John (Leslie Howard) to marry, go West and live a hard life in a segment that borrows more than a little from 1931’s Cimarron. After surviving the harsh Western life, John ends up running for governor of California in 1902. But complications arise from his affair with a dark-haired, fiery señora who wants him to divorce Mary and marry her. He won’t divorce his wife though admits to a series of affairs over the years, and Mary nobly forgives him. After an illustrious senatorial career, it’s now 1933 — modern day — and they are elderly. You can tell because they’re under about eight pounds of ridiculous makeup, giving unasked-for life summaries as their dialogue, Howard using a hilarious Looney Tunes kind of old man voice while complaining about whippersnappers.

The film bombed at the box office. And that, as they say, is that.

Doris Lloyd as Mary’s aunt gives the only modern performance in the film, though Ned Sparks was cast specifically to add some modern comic relief, and there is even a tame attempt to get a little pre-Code zing in with an undressing scene where Howard ends up buried in several layers of petticoats.

Slightly naughty: Leslie Howard peeking out under a pile of petticoats.

 

None of this does the film any good, however; the creakiness is practically built into the play. Adrian’s gowns, some of which can be seen here at a display from last December, are lovely but boring, which is a very strange thing to say about Adrian gowns. Secrets contains about a half-dozen montages that move the years forward though do nothing for the plot, which supposes that there was a plot to this film, something that’s entirely under question.

Pickford’s performance is mannered and deliberate, lacking any spontaneity. She simply has no significant screen presence in this film, though the pedestrian direction, cinematography and editing do her no favors. Frank Borzage may not have had the confidence of his craft in talkies as he did in silents, but he was more than capable of breathing life into even the most banal programmers, such as the Kay Francis vehicles Living on Velvet and Stranded, two films that showcase his ability to single out small points of interest that add layers to an otherwise railroad plot. But in Secrets, he simply is not up to the task; that he also directed the original 1924 Talmadge version may not be incidental.

Frank Borzage and wife Rena Rogers take a cruise after filming of Secrets is completed.

 

The camera is strangely afraid to move, pan, or get in any closer than a medium waist-up shot. It’s not that cinematographer Ray June was trying to avoid showing Mary’s or Leslie’s age, as everyone in the film is shot in this manner, which creates an odd, stagey effect that distances and bores the audience. June was a competent cinematographer but rarely adventurous. The man loved his medium shots, and his particular brand of cinematic blandness can be seen over the course of decades in films such as The Locked Door (1929), Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) and The Seventh Sin (1957). Dull cinematography only compounded the problems Secrets was already having.

Mary’s silent films had been well received for years, including her last silent My Best Girl (1927). When she returned to films two years later, she was older, had snipped her virginal curls, and was now appearing in talkies as saucy women. The image change did not suit her and she simply could not weather the cultural changes. Like so many other silent film stars, her career ground to a halt by the early 1930s. She was able to weather the change better than most other silent film stars sent out to pasture, mainly because of her fortune; sky-high stacks can make any misery more bearable.

That’s not to say she should have just retired. Whatever you feel about her acting, especially at the end of her career, Pickford was still an artist who still wanted to work in her chosen craft. After Secrets she pushed hard for a Walt Disney project based on Alice in Wonderland, with animated characters and Mary as the one live-action character: Alice, of course. Disney didn’t want to do it, and dithered long enough for Paramount to film an all-star live action version. Coincidentally, when the Paramount film was premiered in 1933, Mary performed as a curtain-raiser in a short play before it began.

As 1933 continued, things kept falling apart for Mary. She had some noticeable plastic surgery that was much commented-upon. Lawsuits plagued her, as did bad publicity. But she never wanted to stop acting. In 1936, she declared she would no longer appear in movies, though still entertained scripts well into the 1940s.

Secrets, however, was destined to be Mary Pickford’s final film, save a brief appearance in the 1934 short Star Night at the Cocoanut Grove (pictured, left). She and Doug divorced and she married Buddy Rogers, adopted a couple of children who were almost immediately ignored and who, according to two biographies, left Mary’s home as teens without being noticed and were never spoken of again. Mary then fell into alcoholism and a Charles Foster Kane kind of reclusive existence, quoted occasionally in the news for praising Mussolini and Hitler, criticizing FDR, and alternating between supporting Charlie Chaplain and complaining about his supposed “Communism.” It’s a rather ignominious end to a fine silent cinematic career, though it seems no one can reach the heights of influence and fame that Mary Pickford did without suffering an equally great fall.

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Sources:
Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield
Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey
Illustrated Guide to Film Directors by David Quinlan
Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia by Philip C Dimare
Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart by Scott Eyman
Lloyd Hamilton: Poor Boy Comedian of Silent Cinema by Anthony Balducci
Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic by Herve Dumont

7 Comments

  1. Chris Hewson says:

    Great review! Very informative!

    Have you ever seen a Swedish silent film, The Phantom Carriage? I read about it a few weeks ago-it has a scene that inspired the ‘here’s Johnny’ scene in The Shining! The whole thing’s on youtube, and I plan to watch and review it before the day is out!

  2. KC says:

    I wish “Secrets” would have been better, so Pickford could leave her career with a success. I wonder if she would have retired if it had been a smash? The thing that unsettles me about this and her other talkies, is that she seems almost entirely different from the silent Pickford. My Best Girl feels like decades away from Kiki. I don’t know the woman in these talkies, and she feels almost unknowable, like I can’t get as close to her essence as I did with the silents. It’s as if she’s already shutting herself off from the public. I think she would have been great in screwball comedies. Her voice would have been perfect for eccentric matron roles. I think she was too tired for that though. Thanks for taking the time to write such a well-researched and beautifully written post!

  3. King of Jazz says:

    It’s a somewhat well known anecdote, but I’ll toss it in here–Mary held a reunion of silent stars at Pickfair in 1956. Buster Keaton attended. Afterwards he said he was dismayed that he was the only one there who knew about Elvis Presley!

  4. Judy says:

    Stacia, really enjoyed this well-researched article, and you have also found some great illustrations. I’m a fan of the pre-Code period and also of Borzage, so am disappointed to hear that this film wasn’t a better end for Mary Pickford’s amazing career, but I’d still be interested to see it.

  5. Stacia says:

    Thanks Chris! I have seen The Phantom Carriage, back when it was on TCM a year or so ago. For the life of me I can’t remember the “here’s Johnny” segment, though I liked the movie a lot.

    Thanks again, KC! I also wish Secrets was better, simply because it feels like the material should have better suited Pickford than previous scripts. It feels a bit like everyone on the project was resigned to the fact that this film wasn’t going anywhere, and I suspect they all knew Mary was never going to be able to get away from the image that had defined her for a decade. You’re so right about the talkies seeming to be so much later than the silents. It’s as though everything changed, not just Mary and her looks but the film quality, direction, props, absolutely everything.

  6. Stacia says:

    Wow, King, I actually hadn’t heard that and it’s… well, it’s probably too much to hope that the reunion was very very early in 1956 before Elvis appeared on television, right? That’s amazing. Buster seemed to consider his work to be art and part of the cultural landscape while a lot of others in the silent film biz really didn’t, for whatever reason. It makes a lot of sense for Buster to have paid attention to other arts and the culture as it changed while others didn’t bother. Sunset Blvd didn’t come out of nowhere, there must have been a lot of Norma Desmonds out there.

    Thanks Judy! Secrets isn’t what I would call a flat-out bad film, it’s definitely not a turkey. Its main flaw is that it’s bland. But one blogger’s bland is another blogger’s best movie ever, so definitely check it out.

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