The mischievous Little Tramp, the all-American daredevil, the Girl with the Curls–in the late 1910s they were three of the most famous faces in the world. And back in that smaller, more laid-back Hollywood, they just happened to be close in real life, too. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s marriage made them the cinema’s version of royalty. Doug and Charlie Chaplin basically had a bromance. The trio clowned for publicity cameras, travelled together, gave advice on each other’s films. To fans they must’ve seemed like the veritable Three Musketeers of the movie business.
And in a way, they were…up to a point. Charlie and Doug were practically inseparable, and Doug and Mary were arguably the loves of each other’s lives. But Charlie and Mary? Well…
Mary remembered seeing Charlie for the first time in the mid-1910s while she and her mother Charlotte were at a restaurant. According to one story he was scribbling something down and she thought, rather whimsically, that this sensitive-looking young man might be writing a poem (not out of the norm for an Edwardian to do). Then she heard Charlie mention to his dinner guest–supposedly it was only Mack Sennett, King of Comedy–that he had just figured out that he would be earning $350,000 in the coming year.
Chaplin did make something like that meager amount during his time at Mutual in 1916 and 1917. Mary had already been an established star for several years, working practically around the clock on feature after feature. She may have felt a touch of professional jealousy that a slapstick comedian–the coarsest kind of performer–was suddenly skyrocketing to fame and fortune. Plus, when she was formally introduced to Chaplin at a ball she was not amused to find him sans shoes and impersonating actor J. Warren Kerrigan. An instant rapport, they had not.
Still, they were destined to become inseparable for one major reason: Doug.
If they had one thing in common, it was their mutual adoration of Doug. The beaming, irrepressible extrovert was a perfect pal to introvert Charlie, and the perfect husband to the driven, detail-oriented Pickford. Chaplin wasn’t enthused about his pal’s marriage at first–he unromantically insisted that the couple just live together to “get it out of their system,” much to Mary’s ire–but that was soon water under the bridge. The three visited each other’s sets, went to parties together, posed for countless gag photos that just about shine with joy and fun.
Mary said the two men “were always acting like a couple of kids out of Mark Twain.” They would ad-lib silly routines at parties and carefully map out the perfect pranks. She would recall:
Whatever the stunt, whatever the prank or practical joke, so long as Charlie was responsible for it, Douglas thought it was great…And the two of them would romp all over Pickfair like ten-year-olds. I couldn’t count the number of times I stayed behind to entertain one or another of Charlie’s wives, while they would go wandering up and down the surrounding hills…Once they climbed up on the water tower and almost fell in.
Still, while Charlie and Mary were friendly they could still get on each other’s nerves. Mary was more conservative, while Charlie veered left. Mary liked to be dignified, while Charlie liked to make fun of her proper speech. And much to Mary’s chagrin, Charlie loved to deliver long, impassioned lectures on whatever subject fascinated him at the moment…like the downsides of the British monetary system. They endured their mutual suffering quietly, all for the love of Doug.
Pretty soon they were professionally inseparable, too. During WWI they travelled the country selling war bonds, raising millions for the cause (Mary even auctioned off one of her curls). Adoring crowds nearly threatened to drown them wherever they went.
With the picture business officially being considered Big Business, performers began wanting pieces of the pie. In 1919 Mary, Doug, Charlie, William S. Hart, and D.W. Griffith, the most powerful people in Hollywood at the time, banded together to create United Artists. This gave them control over making and distributing their films. It was a gutsy move, one that was right up Doug and Mary’s alley–maybe not so much Charlie’s, but Doug was said to have talked him into it. Footage shows the trio and Griffith signing papers and then interacting in front of the cameras outside, giddy from this big step up in their careers (Hart had dropped out by this point. Charlie apparently changed into his Tramp costume after the signing).
Chaplin was in awe of Mary’s business sense. In his autobiography he wrote: “She understood all the articles of incorporation, the legal discrepancy on page 7, paragraph A, article 27, and coolly referred to the overlap and contradiction in paragraph D, article 24.” And while Mary couldn’t say the same for the famed comedian (“poor Charlie was no businessman at all,”) she had a genuine respect for his talent and spoke warmly of it whenever she could. She was also profoundly moved by the stories of poverty and hardship in his childhood, and in later years would defend him against naysayers. “…I’ve always maintained that if people knew something about Charlie’s childhood, they would be more tolerant of his singular temperament,” she once said. “…Wealthy as he is, I believe the specter of poverty still haunts him.”
When Doug passed away from a heart attack in 1939, it was a tragedy for them both. Mary remembering speaking to Charlie on the phone after the sad news had broken, an exchange that touched her deeply:
“I’ve lost the inspiration to make pictures, Mary,” he said.
“You mustn’t say that, Charlie; Douglas would be furious with you.”
“You know how much I depended on his enthusiasm. You remember how I always showed my pictures first to Douglas.”
“Yes, Charlie, I can still hear Douglas laughing so heartily he couldn’t look at the screen. Remember those coughing fits he’d get at that moment?”
“More than anything else I remember this, Mary: whenever I made a particular scene I would always anticipate the pleasure it would give Douglas.”
It all came back to me how Douglas used to treat Charlie like a younger brother, listening patiently and intently, hours on end to his repetitious stories which frankly bored me to extinction. Charlie had a way of developing his scenarios by repeating them over and over again to his most intimate friends–testing them privately to people he had faith in. Only then would he put them on film….I heard a catch in Charlie’s voice.
“I couldn’t bear to see them put that heavy stone over Douglas.”
With Doug’s energy and affection gone, the two began to drift apart, perhaps inevitably. But they still had to work together to run United Artists, being the last two founding Artists standing. This turned into a nightmare for Mary. For whatever reason, Charlie grew more and more mulish about accepting any of her ideas. “…Somehow, particularly after Douglas’ death, I rubbed him the wrong way. It finally came to this: no matter what I proposed, or how I proposed it, Charlie would automatically, without giving the matter any consideration, flatly turn it down.” She later admitted, “Profoundly as I respect [his] talents and much as I valued his early friendship, nothing in the world would induce me to live over the agonizing years I experienced with Charlie as a business partner.”
And it was the downfall of United Artists that also ended their long, ups-and-downs relationship. The two disagreed on when to sell the company, how to sell the company, and what price would suit them both. One day in 1951 they finally signed it over to new owners. It was an end of an era, one that had started with the freedom of hands-on work in a fresh, exciting new medium and ended in board meetings and financial wranglings.
And in looking back on that day in 1951, Mary wrote in her thoughtful, candid way, “That was the last time I saw that obstinate, suspicious, egocentric, maddening, and lovable genius of a problem child, Charlie Chaplin.”
Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: Harry N. Adams, Incorporated, 1999.
Goessel, Tracey. The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.
Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1985. Pages 111-2.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007