Today marks the anniversary of the birth of one John Charles Smith better known to the world as Mr. Jack Pickford. If this news suddenly fills you with the mad desire to run out and wildly celebrate till the wee hours of the morning please feel free to do so. Jack would love that. He was, after all, quite the fun-loving guy himself and any excuse to party was just aces with him. Fun and frivolity seemed to be the very core of Jack’s being. It was as if he knew he was not long for this earth and he wanted to fill every second with all the living he could. And he filled a lot.
Poor Jack has not been treated kindly or, as it would seem, fairly by history. Once world-famous he has over time been demoted to footnote status. An asterisk. If anyone even bothers to remember him at all it is little more than as being Mary Pickford’s naughty little brother, a hopeless party boy who couldn’t keep his pants zipped or his wallet closed, causing his devoted sister no end of embarrassment and heartache. A worthless no talent sex crazed drunk, even a drug addict and possibly even a murderer, who owed everything he had, including his own pathetic little film career, if you could call it that, to his blindly worshipful sister. This is the image of Jack you’ll get from most modern-day references in both print and on the Internet (Don’t believe me? Check out his so called “biography” on IMDB. It’s on the Internet so it’s a FACT, folks!) For one well-known Pickford biographer, trashing Jack’s lifestyle and talent wasn’t enough. He went after him physically, stating Jack “bore a strong resemblance to Will Hays, the rat-faced Republican Postmaster General during the Harding Administration…” adding, “Given Jack’s features, weasely heavies were a better idea than heroes.” Below are a comparison of the two and I’ll let you decide for yourself the veracity of that statement. SPOILER ALERT, Jack’s the rat-faced one on the right.
And again, just so we’re sure.
What this shows, at least to me, is that even a reputable author (and someone I like personally) can fall into the trap of accepting without challenge the presently preordained conclusions about Jack as a talentless wastrel so much so that any facts to the contrary (even obviously visual ones), don’t seem to register. He’s been cast as a spoiled little jerk. That makes a good story so let’s keep it. Facts be damned! Like so many parrots who mimic what they hear from others, so goes the story of Jack Pickford, at least from those who have written about him in recent years. I find this particularly strange because most older sources, written by people who actually knew him, paint a much different picture. As the famous quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Well, the legend has become fact. Jack’s fate is sealed and there’s no going back on it. Well, that does not seem fair to me for the simple reason that it’s just not true. I’ve read and seen enough myself to be convinced there is a far different, far more nuanced and far more heartbreaking story than is so commonly accepted about Jack Pickford. Nobody else is standing up for him. It might as well be me.
To begin with, Jack was no saint and there’s no reason to pretend he was. He was certainly his own worst enemy much of the time, but I’ll leave it to you to decide if he was a good little devil or a bad little angel. Imagine if you will being Jack Pickford for a moment. Raised in an all female household (His alcoholic father for whom he was named died when the boy was still just an infant), Jack’s formative years were spent almost entirely on the road, undertaking a grueling schedule of mostly one night stands with his sisters throughout Canada and then the U.S. with constant travel, poor food and even poorer accommodations. Not much of a childhood to be sure. As it was, Jack was to know no other life than performing and was on stage practically before he could walk. His education was spotty at best and came mostly from what he learned backstage. A born charmer and pleaser, little Jack was invariably adopted as a pet by the theatrical companies the family performed with and it was the stage hands and fellow actors who initiated the fatherless child into the wonders of drinking and sex, taking the then fourteen year-old boy to his first whorehouse after glueing a merkin on him to hide his extreme youth. The ruse fooled no one, but it amused the ladies so much they made sure Jack got extra special attention. From then on sex and alcohol would drive Jack’s train for the rest of his short and eventful life.
Among the most heinous charges leveled against Jack by his present-day accusers is the crime of laziness – coasting on his reflected glory from one good time to the next. To this charge there is some truth. Neither Jack nor his sister Lottie ever seemed to show the kind of dedication to their work their sister Mary did. But how could they? Mary Pickford was one of the most driven people ever to come out of the annals of Hollywood. Her steely backed ambition to succeed was the stuff of legends and succeed she did, wildly, reaching heights no other performer ever had – or ever has again – reached. She is, arguably, the greatest star the cinema has ever produced. Well, now how could Jack compete with that? How could anyone compete with that? Certainly not Jack or Lottie. After all, they knew as much from childhood. Charlotte loved all her children, but it was made abundantly clear from the start who the star of the family was and it was Mary. Always Mary on-screen and off. So, since they could never possibly compete with sister Mary, Jack and Lottie took the opposite tack. They decided to have fun. And what fun they had, keeping a lot of bootleggers very busy during Prohibition.
Amazingly, between all the sex and debauchery Jack was supposedly engaged in 24/7 he still somehow managed to appear in some eighty productions over a twenty year period, from shorts to full length features and rising from bit player to full-fledged star from Biograph to Famous Players-Lasky, Goldwyn and later MGM, earning thousands of dollars a week at a time when a dollar was a lot of money. Of course, again, his critics will say this was all because of Mary. Talentless, weasel-faced Jack would never have been allowed to stick one foot in front of a camera if not for Mary. I believe the opposite is true. Jack would have had a much better career in pictures if he did not have the albatross of being “Mary’s little brother” wrapped around his neck. And Louella Parsons thought so as well, “I have always felt that Jack might have become one of the screen’s great actors if he hadn’t been born Mary Pickford’s brother,” she declared. D.W. Griffith agreed, telling Harry Carr that Jack was “the best natural actor” he ever saw. As it was, he still didn’t do too badly. Yes, maybe the Pickford name got him into pictures, but it was his own talent that kept him there. Mary Pickford could not have held a gun to every movie patron’s head forcing them to see her baby brother’s movies or strong-arm every critic into penning the glowing reviews he received for many of his performances thusly making him a star by artificial means. And make no mistake about it, in the late teens Jack was a star, a big star with major productions designed around his All-American, Boy-Next-Door persona. And they made money.
The secret to Jack’s appeal was a combination of talent and something even more potent – charm. Even his detractors have had to admit that the boy was a real charmer. Anita Loos, a big fan of Jack’s, later declared, “You couldn’t help loving Jack.” He was, it would seem, the fun-loving little boy who never grew up. There was something so open and vulnerable about him, an ineffable appeal that came across up there on the screen. According to Raoul Walsh, Jack exuded “the brand of empathy that goes over with the public” and was, as film historian Kevin Brownlow noted, “such a sympathetic and charming actor.” This remains readily evident in viewing his pictures even today. At his peak in the late 1910’s, Jack was touted as the male equivalent of Mary’s “America’s Sweetheart” being “America’s Boyfriend.” During these halcyon years, Jack was a darling of both the screen and his hometown of Hollywood, a very popular figure with both men and the ladies, full of fun and laughter. A one man party palling around with fellow hard-drinking fun seekers like Marshall Neilan, Lew Cody, Norman Kerry and Jimmy Kirkwood. His antics were legendary: fast cars, impeccable clothes, luxury travel, silly pranks and the most beautiful women in Hollywood (i.e. the world). One thing was for certain. Jack sure knew how to have a good time.
Did he sometimes behave immaturely and irresponsibly? Shocking! Who would expect such a thing from a handsome and world-famous, fawned over 21 year-old with today’s equivalent of millions of dollars burning big holes in the pockets of his Saville Row suits. Jack, as his mother Charlotte so succinctly put it, “is a good boy but inclined to wildness sometimes.” And was Jack a drunk? No, he was an alcoholic and, yes, there is a distinction. Professional drinkers like W.C. Fields and John Barrymore abhorred drunks. Jack was not a drunk. As William Bakewell told Scott Eyman “Jack was always pleasant and always loaded.” Anita Loos concurred, saying, “He was the only lush I ever knew who was good company.”
But underneath all the frenetic frivolity ran a dark and deep undercurrent of sadness with Jack. Recent detractors like to paint Jack as someone who used his position as Mary’s brother to get away with thoughtless and bad behavior, blithely knowing his adoring sister would always clean up his messes for him. Jack comes off in these tellings as conscious-free. Well, this just doesn’t jibe with reality. While Jack loved his sister he absolutely hated being thought of as “Mary’s Little Brother.” It wounded him deeply and hurt his pride. Even his own well-meaning family contributed to it. Photoplay in 1917 wrote an amazingly frank piece that encapsulated the underlying dilemma with Jack. “when [Jack] went out he was picked on as Mary’s brother,” went the piece, “and when he came home Mary bossed him around and told him what was good for him in maternal fashion that was most exasperating.” Exasperating indeed and humiliating. “Being the brother of one of the world’s most famous women gave Jack an inferiority complex,” Louella Parsons later wrote. “He has always felt people were being nice to him because of the tremendous popularity of his sister.” No matter how talented he was or how successful his pictures were there was always comparisons to Mary, comparisons he was destined to lose. This weighed heavily on the young man’s psyche as it would even the strongest of people and no doubt contributed to his wild behavior and ultimately his downfall.
Don’t wander off too far. Part II of You Don’t Know Jack is coming to a blog near you!
And HAPPY BIRTHDAY JACK!!!
Don’t get into too much trouble…