Faces from the Early, Early Show--Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, Buddy Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., True Boardman Jr.--yesterday played to the hilt their roles as the great old-timers of the movies.
"We're survivors," said Boardman.
"Sounds like a shipwreck," said Sweet.
They may seem smaller than life size, down from the screen, but when they begin to perform they seem super real.
At a symposium yesterday, the stars, now in their seventies and eighties, remembered what it was like to make movies when sound was only a threat and scripts were made up as they went along.
The Library of Congress celebrated a munificent gift--$500,000 from the Mary Pickford Foundation and 140 films from her own archives. For the first time, the public can sample free rare films from the Library's collection of 85,000 movie and television shows in regularly scheduled programs in the new Mary Pickford 64-seat theater in the Library's Madison Building. Hosts for the symposium were Erik Barnouw, former chief of the library's motion picture, broadcasting and recorded sound division, and Jay Leyda, a film historian from New York University.
At the symposium, Mary Pickford was the star.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. recalled his stepmother, whose marriage to his father ended in divorce. "She used to say that I thought she was my sister. But I don't really remember that."
Gish and Pickford knew each other before films when their families were stage actors. Rogers married Pickford in 1937 and lived at Pickfair until her death in 1979. Blanche Sweet, a great silent star in her own right, knew Pickford well--"She made more money than I did. But then she had a stage mother." And True Boardman, an actor turned screen writer, was in an early Pickford movie.
Lillian Gish, 86, wearing trousers, as did Sweet, had total recall of the early days, remembering scenes from real life as though they were roles.
She said she and her sister Dorothy went to the Biograph Studios to see "my friend Gladys Smith. Mother had said, 'What misfortunes must have befallen the Smiths, to have to work in the movies.' At the Biograph, no one knew Gladys. But we described her as having golden curls and they said, 'Oh, you mean little Mary.'
"D.W. Griffith asked us if we could act. And Dorothy pulled herself up to her full dignity and said, 'We, sir, are of the legitimate theater.'
"He gave us $5 each to take off our hats and be part of the audience in the film. He told us the plot and we reacted. That afternoon, he went around shooting off a revolver while we ran. We were afraid and told mother we wouldn't go again without her. Mother said, 'It can't be all bad, if a Barrymore (Lionel was in the film) is present.' "
Sweet, at 88, a diminutive woman with '20s clipped hair and a manner like a wire-haired terrier, had a good time contradicting most firm statements. When Gish told of the time she stepped into space without her flying harness when she was playing a fairy, Sweet piped up and said, "I'll bet the spotlight was on you."
Douglas Fairbanks Jr., at 74, still looks marvelously dapper, as though about to walk on stage in a Noel Coward play. He wore a pink flower in his buttonhole and his most courtly manners, especially to the feisty Blanche Sweet, who was determined to set many records straight.
To a remark by Gish that he and Mary Pickford spoke better than most actors, he said: "Well, I was educated in the classics in England. But after being with my wife's people in the South, I "you-all" with the best. In Washington, I sound very grand."
Buddy Rogers remembered being with a group of actors, including Gary Cooper and Jack Oakie, when word came that John Gilbert's "voice squeaked. We were told that only a few voices would be able to register in the new talkies. Right then, we . . . swore those of us who could make it in talkies would give 10 percent of our earnings to those who couldn't. I remember being on the lot when Wallace Beery had his test. A kid ran out and said, 'Beery has a voice. He can talk!' "
Rogers, in his late seventies, wore a white suit and walked as though he had electric charges in his shoes.
Unlike the other actors, whose parents all encouraged them to go into films, Fairbanks said his father tried to keep him out. But after Fairbanks Sr. left his wife to marry Mary Pickford, then the highest paid woman in the United States, "I had to go to work at 13 for economic reasons," Fairbanks said. "He disowned me. He wanted me to stay in school. But eventually, I got work. And when I was a success, my father and I were reconciled."
Fairbanks, whose neat mustache is familiar to all fans of his '30s swashbucklers, said that at 16 "I looked 19. But in 'Stella Dallas,' by the end of the picture, I needed to look old enough to marry. I couldn't manage to grow a mustache, so I had to wear a false one."
When he was offered one of his most famous roles, of Rupert in "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1937), Fairbanks said he almost turned it down. "But my father said: 'Take it. That role is actor proof. Lassie could play the part.' "