Pickford's Patriotism
"America's Sweetheart on the Homefront"

by Tim Lussier

"Since Uncle Sam started measuring his sons for uniforms and set in motion his gigantic fighting machine, various persons prominent in the public eye have devoted much of their own time to help brighten up the lives of the boys in khaki who have set about the job of 'kanning the Kaiser.' Conspicuous among those whose activities have attracted considerable attention is none other than our own Mary Pickford, known throughout the land as 'America's Sweetheart.'" (Photo Play Journal, December, 1917)

Yes, Mary was the epitome of "The Little American" during World War I, and, because of her sensational popularity at the time, she was the perfect proponent for the war effort.

When the war in Europe began in 1914, Mary held forth the same pacifist sentiment as most of the country at that time ­ remain neutral! She verbalized her stance in a newspaper column, which Frances Marion "ghost wrote" for her, entitled "Daily Talks." Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president in 1916 on a promise to keep the nation out of the war in Europe, and Hollywood followed suit with pacifist films such as Thomas Ince's 'Civilization," Alla Nazimova's "War Brides," and even D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance."

However, with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, public sentiment began to slowly swing in the other direction. "Preparedness" was the catchword. Vitagraph's "The Battle Cry of Peace" in 1915 was unashamed in its pro-war sentiments and showed Americans being invaded by "Hun-like" armies. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and began making a flurry of pro-war films. Columnist Louella Parsons commented, ". . . these film plays have been raising the temperature of the Allies' patriotism to blood heat." Actually, Hollywood was prohibited, in a roundabout way, from making pacifist films with the passing of the Espionage Act of 1917 which banned "disloyal acts."

Mary had actually performed for soldiers for the first time as a child on the stage during the Boer War. She thrilled at the sight of the young men in uniform, and early on in the war effort began to offer her services as a morale booster whenever possible.

In Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood (The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), author Eileen Whitfield says, "She seemed to be everywhere at once ­ speaking through megaphones, posing for posters, collecting cigarettes to send to the doughboys, leading a marine band through San Francisco, and sending her photograph to decorate the trenches." At one point Mary, with the help of Douglas Fairbanks, was collecting toys from all the Hollywood stars to send to the children in Belgium.

Whitfield went on to say, "She was christened the Navy's 'Little Sister' and kissed the American flag for cameras. She became the patron of the Red Cross unit (if you gave, your receipt was signed by Pickford). The143rd California Field Artillery wore her photograph in lockets; they made her their honorary colonel."

The formal adoption of this Battalion took place at Camp Arcadia in 1917. In a speech, she said, "I shall take each of my 600 sons under my wing, and I intend to see to it that they receive the little luxuries which they cannot otherwise obtain, including plenty of tobacco and candy." Mary was referred to as these soldiers' "godmother," and they were known as "Mary Pickford's Fighting Six Hundred." True to her word, she saw to it that they had a steady supply of tobacco, chewing gum and candy. When they shipped out to France, it was noted, ". . . each man in 'Mary's Six Hundred' will wear a locket about his neck containing a miniature of his petite protector."

A 1918 issue of Photoplay shows a full page-height photo of Mary in her doughboy uniform complete with knee boots, riding breeches and hat with an accompanying article entitled, "Colonel Mary of the 143rd Field Artillery, U.S.A." The article says, "Recently Colonel Pickford's regiment took a long hike form its encampment and training quarters in San Diego County to Los Angeles. It was three days enroute, and the ranchers' wives, along the dusty way, fed it and bedded it and coddled it to the point of almost making it a pageant instead of a march. At the edge of Los Angeles, a score or so of newspapermen, Eastern correspondents, and cameramen from the news weeklies. But Colonel Pickford was not one of these. She had gone far out into the ranch country, and did not meet her boys, but arrived with them. Previously, she had paid them a visit or so at their official home, Camp Kearney."

One story relates how Mary saw posters appealing for "smokees" for the soldiers being posted and was moved to do something personally about this need. First of all, she obtained copies of the poster and had them displayed all about the studio. Then she made personal visits to everyone in the studio requesting cigarettes. From those who didn't have cigarettes, she got money to buy some. This developed into a routine where Mary made the rounds of the studio each week soliciting the cigarettes, and each week she had a case of tobacco sent off to the boys at the front. (The photo at right shows her collecting cigarettes from Theordore Roberts, Mickey Neilan and Norman Kerry.)

The other luminaries of the screen found it impossible to turn Mary down when she came asking for their help, too. When she decided to have a Christmas party in September, complete with decorated tree and all, she asked her fellow stars to bring gifts to put under the tree. The following day, Christmas presents were on their way to the boys overseas.

A group of soldiers, only identified as "the boys of Battery 'A'," stopped by the studio for a visit. Mary welcomed them with open arms. Upon learning that they were on a recruiting mission, she asked if they would like her help. Soon, she was in the streets of Los Angeles with the soldiers, and, in a short time, they had met their quota for new recruits.

The Lasky Home Guard was formed in Hollywood which was made up of Famous Players-Lasky studio employees. Heading up this "regiment" was none other than Cecil B. De Mille, who was appointed their "captain." His brother, William, and movie idol Wallace Reid were also in the Lasky Guard. The "regiment" could often be seen marching down Hollywood Boulevard and spent their Sunday afternoons drilling with prop rifles and uniforms.

In 1918, the governor of California reviewed the Lasky Guard and Mary had the opportunity to present them with their colors, a silk flag with hand-embroidered stars that she had had made.

According to Colleen Moore, Pickford organized a benefit performance at the Grand Opera House which raised $40,000 to buy ambulances as gifts from the motion picture stars. However, the war ended before all of the money was spent leaving $27,000 in the treasury. Through Mary's efforts, this became the seed money for the realization of a dream she had ­ the Motion Picture Home, that famous memorial to Hollywood's willingness to care for its own.

Two of Mary's features during this period deal with the war, one of which is a blatant piece of propaganda which made the most of the pervasive sentiment of he time that all Germans were barbarians who raped and pillaged wherever they went. "The Little American," which, by the way, was directed by the Lasky Guard's captain, Cecil B.De Mille, was released July 2, 1917. It casts Mary as Angela Moore whose German-born sweetheart, Karl Von Austreim (played by Jack Holt) must return to his homeland at the outbreak of the war. Angela is called to France to care for her dying aunt, and is caught up in the fighting. She is captured by the Germans, very nearly raped and almost killed by a firing squad. The film also gives a graphic depiction of the sinking of a ship called the Veritania, a very obvious recreation of the sinking of the Lusitania. Almost as a throwback to America's original desire to stay out of the war, one of the titles has Mary proclaiming, ". . . I stopped being neutral and became a human being."

Her lover, who is now in the German army, is influenced by the war (some say the movie implies his change is due to genetics) and becomes one of these barbarous soldiers. When his unit commandeers the home where Mary is, he threatens to rape her until he realizes who she is. Suddenly it dawns upon him what a "beast" he has become, and he is immediately redeemed. Of course, they survive the war and live happily ever after.

In Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart (Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1990), author Scott Eyman says, ". . . "The Little American" is a film of little distinction, filled with the rape fantasies that were de rigeur for these sort of films. . . . De Mille achieves a lurid, if unlikely, melodramatic splendor when he has his beastly Huns say things like 'Where are the pretty girls, Fritz?' Worse, the Germans force Mary to undergo the second-worst degradation: taking the muddy boots off a German general sporting a Kaiser Wilhelm mustache."

Although "The Little American" may have been "a film of little dinstinction," it showed very respectable profits of somewhere between $130,000 and $150,000 giving a clear indication of the public's war fervor at the time.

"Johanna Enlists" was released Sept. 29, 1918, and, although war related, this was a comedy-drama about a regiment of soldiers locating on her father's farm which, subsequently, more than fulfilled Johanna's dream of having a beau. Two of the soldiers fall in love with her, one ending up in a court martial because of their "fighting" over her. However, she ends up marrying a third soldier whom she meets at the court martial.

In spite of being a comedy-drama, this film, too, had its moment to preach. Within the film is newsreel footage of Mary's troops and "Colonel Mary Pickford" in uniform charging, "Don't come back 'til you've taken the germ out of Germany!"

Mary was also in a couple of patriotic shorts during the war. One was entitled "100% American." In this film she is a poor girl named Mayme who walks two miles instead of taking the streetcar so she can use her nickel to buy bonds. Mary also headed a cast of stars who appeared in the 1917 propaganda short "War Relief."

Of course, most attention is given to Mary's work in the Liberty Loan drives in 1918, possibly due to the fact that she and Douglas Fairbanks were courting secretly during this time. Although the romance had started well before she, Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler commenced the tour, this afforded her and Fairbanks their first opportunity to be "alone" with one another.

They began in Washington and moved on to New York. This first opportunity for the crowds to see the biggest names on the movie screen proved to be the perfect formula for raising money for the war effort. However, it wasn't just "appearing" alone that did it. Little Mary was very adept at arousing the passions of the masses and proved to be an extremely capable speech maker proclaiming "We are at war with beasts," "Every bond you buy is a nail in the Kaiser's coffin," and "This is not a time for 50-50 citizenship!"

After New York, the foursome split and went in different directions as they continued selling bonds. Mary went to the Midwest, and, when all was said and done, she had outsold each of the other three. She participated in other bonds tours that year and could be found near the end of the war making personal appearances in theatres telling of her experiences as she visited wounded soldiers in the hospitals and relating with emotion about their physical infirmities as a result of the war.

Although there is no doubt that Mary's patriotism and sincerity in these war efforts was genuine, it also provided a great boost to her career. The Loan Drives alone were a public relations dream come true. As Whitfield noted, "By November (1918), when the armistice was reached, Little Mary had also reached apotheosis."

She had endeared herself to her public, not only as she had been doing for years on the screen, but in real life, exuding qualities that were respected and admired. As Photo Play Journal noted, "And thus, although unable to herself shoulder a gun in the cause of democracy, Our Mary is doing everything possible to help those to whom this duty is entrusted. Many a son of Uncle Sam 'over there' will silently thank America's motion picture queen whose heart is as big as her popularity and wish her greater success as a reward for her attention to their welfare."


copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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