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Mary Pickford in 1929, recipient of one of the earliest Oscars for Coquette. (Aberdeen collection). 

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The Big Bad Wolf Has Been Muzzled

by Mary Pickford, 1934

Below is an excerpt of an article by Mary Pickford in which she offers her thoughts on the future of television in 1934. The article is also notable in that Pickford discusses the then-recent crusade of the Legion of Decency. She explains a commonly held view of members of the film community then, as well as film historians today, that the pressure of the Legion of Decency and the strengthening of the Production Code in effect preserved the American movie industry from government censorship.

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 Producers in general and exhibitors in particular regarded the radio until recently as the Big Bad Wolf of the entertainment world. They all uttered raucous cries to the effect that it was hurting business.

Behold now a great change. The motion picture producer uses the radio to exploit his wares, even lending his stars for exploitation and sometimes for profit. One of our largest film companies, in fact, is financially involved in a bigamous marriage to a radio-chain — a scandalous situation evidently overlooked by our astute keyhole-peepers.

Fear has gone out of the producer's heart, common sense has come back to the exhibitor and calm is being restored to the ether waves that were in so tumultuous a high tide of competition.

Opposition to progress is forever futile. And he who maketh use of his enemy is indeed wise.

In my opinion, the box-office value of every star who appears to advantage on the air is greatly enhanced, and, potentially speaking, so is the stock of the company to which he or she is under contract.

So far as competition to pictures is concerned, that I view as a boon. Competition always has been, always will be, the great incentive to better effort. And I consider radio, television or any other competitive agent a benefit, not a menace. It stimulates enterprise, prevents stagnation. Of course, if we are merely going to sit with folded hands and do nothing, we will be — and should be — eliminated, all in accordance with the law of survival of the fittest.

But motion pictures have not done that. Films, on the whole, have kept pace with progress. We have been constantly setting our goal ahead, pushing up the hill in the face of competition, reaching the top of one ridge only to continue on to the summit of the next, never quite achieving our aims for the simple reason that these aims have had about them enough of the will o' the wisp quality to make them our salvation.

In other words, we have never realized our dreams and then suffered the devastating reaction of complete collapse which inevitably follows. We still find them alluring, intriguing, irresistibly brilliant, and their ephemeral, elusive quality is an incentive which gives us courage and strength to travel tricky detours and climb over obstacles which are placed in the road, not so much to discourage us as to prove our mettle, to develop our stamina and stride.

Successful though the radio has become, it is doubtful in my opinion if it can ever monopolize the entertainment field to the same extent that motion pictures do. Naturally, none can deny that it is the most economical form of amusement, especially since the price range of instruments has adjusted itself to all pocketbooks.

The great disadvantage of the radio, however, is that it does not gratify the individual's gregarious urge. No one likes to sit constantly at home, reading, talking, sewing, playing bridge or listening to the radio. The essence of entertainment is variety. And what variety is there for the housewife who has been at home all day in sitting down amid the same surroundings to listen even to the most divine symphony or the most romantic love story ever told? She wants to hear that story, of course, but not in surroundings whose charm has been dulled through constant association.

It should always be borne in mind, too, that the radio is a form of casual entertainment. One of its greatest advantages lies in the fact that it can be enjoyed to the fullest while other obligations are being discharged. The woman who is doing her dusting, for instance, can enjoy ecstatically the finest opera ever broadcast and, at the same time, continue her household task— which, by the way, is a great advantage to the cinema, for obvious reasons.

When television arrives, the same, too, will be true of that medium of entertainment. For the artist, it will be a boon, of course, for the simple reason that it will broaden his field of endeavor. But in my opinion even the novelty -of television will not greatly curtail theatre y business, providing the standard of film entertainment does not slip into a rut. Time will be required to eliminate the imperfections of television after it becomes a fact, no matter how skillfully it may be launched, and this in itself is very apt to minimize its novelty.

So far as motion pictures go, there is only one answer to the question of maintaining their supremacy. It is not a new answer: it is one oftimes expressed, although not always achieved.

If the supremacy of the screen is to be , maintained, it must be done through quality alone. Continued improvement will assure unchallenged leadership. This and no other panacea will suffice.

Every picture of merit made since the depression engulfed us has met with financial success in spite of trying economic conditions and drastic criticism aimed at the industry from many quarters.

Much of this criticism of course was warranted. In fact constructive criticism is a marvelous tonic. It is medicine, often bitter, and usually a pill that we hate to swallow. Still, had it not been for the church drive for decency, it is difficult to predict how drastic our disaster might have been. We had become so addicted to questionable wisecracks, so proud of insidious lines with double meanings, so lop-sided with sophistication, and so befuddled by the vulgar viewpoint of that miasmic minority known as the "intelligentsia" that we completely lost sight of the fact that the majority audience of America is decent-minded. Dirt and filth under the guise of humor will never be tolerated by a nation as young as ours. We are too naive nationally, still too wholesome in our point of view, to be swayed by that Continental cynicism which the sophisticate points to as the ne plus ultra of humor.

This does not mean, however, that every play produced should be dripping sweet or saccharine enough to be innocuous as an amusement vehicle. Films properly premised can still deal with the facts of life. Virility and vitality will always be essential, but vulgarity, if or when required, can never be candy-coated and excused. Simpering or mawkish sentimentality can likewise be a cardinal offense.

The affliction of self-sufficiency is bound to pay the penalty of fallen arches at the box-office. None of us is really so important. Primarily we are part of the scheme of things, and when inflation of the ego becomes epidemic, when self-estimate reaches ability, we soon discover that the barometer of popularity recedes.

Perhaps the greatest thing about motion pictures is that no one can ever have a monopoly on ideas. Masterpieces cannot be made to order. Artistic supremacy hovers for a season over one studio, then producers bang away with their inspirational guns and chase it to another, where it perches precariously, a harried quarry soon to wing its way elsewhere, ceaselessly pursued by these diligent huntsmen.

Quite evidently we are still a Cinderella-minded nation. We love the triumph of virtue, the supremacy of success, especially when achieved at the end of an obstacle race. We are still childlike enough and healthy enough to enjoy laughter. The stonemasons of our industry are the producers, the directors, the writers, the stars. The keystone of the arch upon which they toil, however, is the story. And no arch will ever be stronger than the keystone which supports it. A faulty story will cause the collapse of any arch, the downfall of the most adroit mason.

Perhaps we are fortunate this year in that we have been given explicit directions as to how to quarry our stone. The outstanding popularity of Will Rogers, Janet Gaynor and little Shirley Temple indicates that the world wants simple, human screen fare, fundamental in emotion and wholesome in motivation. But the world does not want — and will not accept — a standard pattern.

 


SOURCES:

Hollywood Raporter.December 1934. See The Hollywood Raporter: The Golden Years, p. 234-236.

See Bibliography.

 

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