Did Mary Pickford say putting sound into film “was like putting rouge on the Venus de Milo?”

Mary Pickford in her silent heyday. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

When sound was introduced to American cinema, the celebrated actor and film producer Mary Pickford was reported by the Los Angeles Times as saying it was like “putting rouge on the Venus de Milo.”[1] The quote appears to be a strong condemnation of new technology, and it has been linked to Pickford ever since. However, it seems unlikely that she ever said such a thing. Pickford was the most celebrated actor of the silent period and was commonly called “America’s sweetheart.” She was also a powerful force in Hollywood and her comments carried some weight.

If she did say it, Pickford was repeating word for word what director Albert Parker said in 1926 in an entirely different context. Parker was the director of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle, The Black Pirate (1926). In a publicity interview for The New York Times Parker declared: “that to some persons the making of pictures in natural colors was like putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo.”[2] Parker was against such sentiments, pointing out that Fairbanks had immersed himself in the study of Technicolor processes. The article details the lengths that Fairbanks went to in ensuring that the color process worked and improved the film.

He spoke about the care taken with the new technology. “The color must never dominate the narrative. We have tried to get a sort of satin gloss on the scenes and have consistently avoided striving for prismatic effects. There is nothing violent. We realize that color is violent and for that reason we restrained it.”

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were married at the time of the interview, and it seems more than likely Pickford was fully aware of the comment. Her own quote in 1934 is confusing. Lipstick is usually a bright color, and it makes little sense to apply the allusion to sound. Mary Pickford was quoted while speaking as a guest of honor at the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents. A separate account that appeared in The New York Times did not record the quote. It has also not been possible to find another account from any of the journalists that attended.

Even so, Pickford did not fully endorse talking pictures. She said that she would be “bitterly disappointed if Charlie Chaplin speaks in his next picture.” As it happened, Chaplin did not speak Modern Times (1936). Pickford and Chaplin were part owners of United Artists, which distributed the film.

Pickford would not return to silent cinema. She did declare there would be a minimum of dialogue in her next film. She talked about the story underpinning the film. She believed that the story was the most important element. “I have never seen good acting save a poor story, but I have seen a good story save poor acting.” Overall, she believed that talking pictures were “tiring and provincial.” These pressures were “losing the world’s market.”

She may have reflected that sound meant that English language films were more problematic on the European continent. Audiences may have enjoyed seeing films in their own language. The European film industry had also recovered from the First World War by 1934. It wasn’t sound. It was simply a more competitive environment.

The reality was Pickford had embraced sound film for more than four years in 1934. Always the innovator, Pickford arranged for a sound stage to be built at her Pickfair studios. Her film Coquette (1929) was advertised as 100 percent talking. It was a box office success, and Pickford would win the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress for her performance.

One distinct possibility is that she quoted Albert Parker’s original comments in some part of her speech, perhaps when discussing the broader issue of change in the industry. The Associated Press reporter may have ascribed Parker’s words to Pickford in error. The short article was syndicated across America in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Daily Herald. Without access to her speech, it is impossible to say for certain, but it may have never been said.

The comment may have been originally made in connection to the Black Pirate (1926), about the use of technicolor. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

[1] “Mary Pickford Sees Talkies as Lipstick on Milo,” Los Angeles Times March 18 1934.

[2] “Director Tells of Making Fairbanks’s New Prismatic Pirate Production,” The New York Times, March 7 1927.

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