Updated: Dec 21, 2020
by Shannon Wray
Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon
Mary Pickford, known as Little Mary “America's Sweetheart,” came to Mill Creek Canyon to make a movie in 1919 at a pivotal time in her life.
Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada in 1892, she first acted on stage then took a chance on films. Starting as a contract player for the Biograph Company for $10 a day in 1909, she parlayed her decade of screen acting into a 3-picture deal with First National Exhibitors in December 1918 for $675,000, plus half of the profits. Miss Pickford had her own production company and claimed the right to choose her projects, writers, and directors. Behind the scenes, she was becoming a potent force in Hollywood, and she was only 26 years old. However, onscreen she was still stranded in the little girl roles that her public demanded.
Left: Mary Pickford, 1918
Mary’s personal life was in flux, too. On January 7, 1911, when she was 19, she had secretly married fellow actor Owen Moore. Sadly, Mary's naivete had steered her wrong in her choice of a husband. Moore, an alcoholic with an eye for the ladies, was spiraling downward as Miss Pickford's star was on the rise. In 1915, she met Douglas Fairbanks, who was also married, and by 1917 they were engaged in a passionate affair.
Left: Owen Moore, 1914
Below: Douglas Fairbanks, 1919
Pickford and Fairbanks' mutual friend, Charlie Chaplin, frequently covered for the couple when they met in secret. Like Mary, Chaplin was producing his own films for First National Exhibitors, but he was unhappy with the budgets they gave him. Fairbanks was under contract with Famous Players-Lasky, but his contract would soon be up. The three actors wanted more control, bigger budgets, and a larger share in the profits. Rumor had it that the studios were making a move to consolidate their power through mergers and acquisitions. Powerful companies controlling all three arms of movie-making - production, distribution, and exhibition - could put a stranglehold on the actors’ ambitions. On February 5, 1919, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith formed United Artists, an independent studio.
Left to Right: D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin (seated), Douglas Fairbanks. Lawyers Albert Banzhaf and Dennis F. O'Brien stand in the background.
Mary Pickford’s extraordinary determination and stamina come into sharp focus through this period in her life. As 1919 began, her company was in production on Captain Kidd, Jr., the last of her films for Famous Players-Lasky. She was developing, producing, and starring in Daddy Long Legs, her first film for National Exhibitors, with two more films in the pipeline, and participating with her new partners in the complex start-up of United Artists.
Fairbanks, who was by then divorced, was putting extreme pressure on Mary to leave Owen Moore, but she was deeply concerned about her public, fearing that the scandal of divorce would destroy her hard-won career.
By May, Daddy Long Legs, and The Hoodlum, the second of the three pictures for First National, were in the can. Mary had only one more film to deliver, and it was Heart O’ the Hills. The screenplay was an adaptation of the novel by John Fox, Jr., an author who had enormous success with his book, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.
Right: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, 1920s
The Heart O’ the Hills
Mary Pickford plays 12-year-old Mavis Hawn, a plucky mountain girl in Kentucky who has vowed to avenge her father’s mysterious shooting death. While neighbor Steve Honeycutt comes to pay a courting call on Martha, her widowed mother, Mavis goes fishing with his son, Jason Honeycutt. The kids reveal to one another that their parents are beating them, and Mavis shows Jason the welts on her back. They swear they will marry and run away together. Jason also reveals to Mavis that his father is only courting her mother to get control of her land.
Meanwhile, Colonel Pendleton, a southern planter, is in cahoots with a northern capitalist named Morton Sanders to exploit the coal in the mountains. On their trip into the hills, Gray Pendleton, the colonel's son, and Marjorie Lee, his ward, join in the exploration. Mavis's "grandpap” puts on a hoedown for the city people where Gray Pendleton and Jason Honeycutt have a hootenanny dance contest over Mavis.
Complications, of course, ensue. Jason Honeycutt and Mavis discover that they are too young to marry, Martha, Mavis's mother, marries Steve Honeycutt and abandons twelve-year-old Mavis to live alone in their shanty. The mountain folks discover Morton Sanders's plot to take their land for coal exploitation, and they ride to his cabin at night dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia with Mavis in the lead. Sanders is fatally shot and falsely accused Mavis stands trial for murder. At the hearing, the courtroom is shocked by a surprising turn of events, and Mavis is set free.
Six years pass, and Colonel Pendleton has adopted Mavis to atone for his erstwhile partner taking her family land. His son, Gray, proclaims his love for Mavis, but her mother calls her home to the mountains.
When Mavis returns, she finds that her stepfather, Steve Honeycutt, is brutalizing her mother, and a shocking secret comes to light. Jason Honeycutt arrives just in time to prevent his father from killing Mavis’s mother.
Mavis and Jason return to their fishing hole, where they had once sworn to marry. Jason reminds Mavis that they are now old enough to become husband and wife, and Jason hightails it to get a marriage license while Mavis dances a jig in Mill Creek.
As the producer of Heart O’ the Hills, Mary Pickford assembled some of the most sought-after professionals working in the industry to make her film.
Cinematographer – Charles Rosher
Art Director - Max Parker
Film Editor – Edward M. McDermott
Mary Pickford as Mavis Hawn
Harold Goodwin as Young Jason Honeycutt
Allan Sears as adult Jason Honeycutt
Fred Huntley as Mavis Hawn’s Grandpap
Claire McDowell as Martha Hawn, Mavis’s mother
Sam De Grasse as Steve Honeycutt the manipulative neighbor and stepfather
W.H. Bainbridge as Colonel Pendleton (not pictured)
Jack Gilbert as Gray Pendleton
Betty Bouton as Marjorie Lee
Henry Hebert as capitalist Morton Sanders
Fred Warren as John Burnham
The crowning complication in Mary Pickford’s life at that time was that she was the most famous actress in the world. On June 18, 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported, "A Finn has traveled all the way from his native land to Los Angeles to marry Mary Pickford. If the statement isn't press agent talk, there are several reasons why Mary cannot accept. In the first place she is married, and besides she is too young. There are other reasons not necessary to give." For Mary, going out in public was frequently a mob scene. Moreover, her schedule was punishing. Just as Miss Pickford was starting pre-production for Heart O’ the Hills, artist Matteo Sandona was commissioned to paint her portrait for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. She was so busy that they had to advertise for a body double with the same size feet – 2AA! – to sit for the portrait because she had no time for the two-hour sessions. She went to Santa Monica with her director and writers incognito to do the final work on the title cards in relative peace.
On June 29, 1919, The San Bernardino County Sun reported under the headline, Don’t Crowd – Mary Pickford is at Forest Home, that "Mary Pickford and a company of thirty people are at Forest Home making pictures. Some of the company went up to the resort Friday and Mary herself motored up from Los Angeles yesterday and will be there several days." The Los Angeles Evening Express in July offered more insight into the production of Heart O’ the Hills. "Certain scenes in this production demanded birch and alder trees beside a running stream. Sidney A. Franklin, Miss Pickford's director, after a most exhaustive search, discovered that Forest Home was the only spot in all Southern California where birch and alder trees existed, and so to truly express the sentiments of the story, took the entire company to this resort by motor car. The trip was made in less than four hours, and the company went right to work upon arrival.”
Forest Home Resort, established in 1896, had come into its own by 1919 under the management of Frank Culver, Jr. and was called the Forest Home Outing Company. The resort drew thousands of vacationers in the summer and was gaining a reputation as the place to go for the upper crust of California society. The Culvers had upgraded the slightly rough camping resort, adding a better class of cabin accommodations in addition to its signature tent houses.
The new luxuries included indoor plumbing with hot baths and showers, a dining room, dance pavilion, service station, expanded store, trout preserve and ponds, and swimming pools. During the day, excursions by burro to Old Grayback (Mount San Gorgonio) were on offer, and in the evening, an orchestra played for dances in the pavilion. This rustic but newly luxe resort is where The Mary Pickford Company set up for the filming of The Heart O’ the Hills.
As the company was well into production on July 9th, they received word that John Fox, Jr., the author whose work they were recreating on film had died of pneumonia. Mary sent his family a telegram, and Fox's sudden death was said to have given the cast a more profound desire to honor the work with their performances over the remaining week of their time in the canyon.
On July 17, the Los Angeles Evening Express announced, “Mary Pickford and her company have just returned from Forest Home, in the San Bernardino Mountains. In this vicinity many scenes were made for Miss Pickford’s new picture, The Heart of the Hills, by the famous Kentucky author, John Fox, Jr. whose recent death proved such a shock to the country.”
Although the cast and crew had returned to Los Angeles, they didn’t take much time to rest.
The company left again on July 20, this time to film additional exterior scenes in Big Bear. The Los Angeles Times noted in announcing their departure that Miss Pickford was looking upon the time at Big Bear Lake as a working vacation after months of continuous and exhausting work. She planned to spend time rowing, horseback riding, and fishing while there. The company would live in cabins, and they were taking 20 horses to use in various scenes. "The picture bids fair to be a tremendous success under the direction of Sid Franklin, who, Miss Pickford reports, is working in the best sort of harmony with her." The scenery around Big Bear is readily recognizable, albeit standing in for the mountains of Kentucky.
Unquestionably, the scenes of Jason Honeycutt and Mavis Hawn fishing, which bookend the story, were filmed on Mill Creek. Other backgrounds in the forest are more challenging to identify, given 101 years of change to the landscape. Charles Rosher’s cinematography offers some stunning moments in the film, both in Mill Creek Canyon and at Big Bear Lake, and Max Parker's art direction evokes Old Kentucky in the sets, props, and costuming. Some of the performances are actually reasonably nuanced for a silent film, especially by seasoned actors, Sam De Grasse (director Joseph's brother), and Claire McDowell. Perhaps most intriguing is the performance by a young actor named Jack Gilbert, who would soon become screen heartthrob John Gilbert. Many film aficionados believe that it was The Heart O’ the Hills that catapulted Gilbert to stardom, though he had already made more than forty films by that point in his career.
Mary Pickford took a risk with The Heart O’ the Hills. She allowed herself to age onscreen from her usual pre-pubescence to adulthood. The themes of the film were also darker and more complex than her usual fare. After the movie’s release on November 30, 1919, reviewers who had publicly begun to wonder when Little Mary was finally going to grow up took notice. A New York Times reviewer commented, "Apparently Mary Pickford is facing the realization that she cannot go on forever as the sweet, cute, and kittenish little darling of the screen." Further, the reviewer noted that The Heart O’ the Hills "shows her in more serious moods and with more mature manners than her previous productions." Many critics across the country characterized the film as her greatest role to date. Assuredly, it was a watershed moment in her career.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks married on March 28, 1920. Far from destroying her career, as she’d feared, the public embraced the union as a fairytale romance. The couple lived a seemingly enchanted life entertaining dignitaries, celebrities, and royals at their Pickfair estate in Beverly Hills. Both were founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, and Mary was one of only three women among the 36 founders.
Sidney Franklin went on to a very distinguished career under the tutelage of MGM’s Irving Thalberg. As a director, Mr. Franklin specialized in film adaptations of novels, as he had on The Heart O’ the Hills, most notably The Good Earth, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck and on plays, such as Noel Coward’s Private Lives. At the end of the 1930s, he switched to producing and helmed the film Mrs. Miniver, in which he also acted. It swept the Oscars in 1943, winning 6, including for best picture. Sidney Franklin was awarded the prestigious Irving Thalberg Memorial Award for exceptional achievements in filmmaking at the Oscar ceremony that same year.
Cinematographer Charles Rosher also distinguished himself in the film industry. With Karl Strauss, he won the first-ever best cinematography Oscar™ in 1929 for Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and in 1947 he won again for The Yearling. He also earned Academy Award™ nominations for best cinematography for The Affairs of Cellini (1935), Kismet (1945) Annie Get Your Gun (1951), and Show Boat (1952). His work is considered foundational in the cinematic arts. He remained close to Mary Pickford for the rest of their lives.
Art Director Max Parker was just beginning his career on The Heart O’ the Hills and he earned a long list of credits. Best known for his art direction on Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), starring Cary Grant, and The Big Sleep (1946) starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, his work still receives praise and study for its achievements in art direction.
Most of the cast of actors in The Heart O’ the Hills had long careers, making dozens of films, but aside from Mary Pickford, none attained the fame of John Gilbert.
Above: John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, 1926
By 1925, Gilbert was the most popular leading man in Hollywood. When co-starring with Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil, passionate sparks flew onscreen and off and earned him the moniker, "The Great Lover." Sadly, Gilbert had difficulty making the transition to sound pictures, and when Greta Garbo jilted him, he went into an alcoholic spiral and died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 38.
Below right: Mary Pickford and co-stars in Coquette, 1929
Mary Pickford went on to make 19 more feature films, seamlessly transitioning to sound pictures, and she won an Academy Award™ for her first “talkie,” titled Coquette, in 1929. She made her last movie in 1933 but continued to focus her talents on producing. Miss Pickford’s marriage to Douglas Fairbanks ended in 1933, and she married actor Buddy Rogers four years later. She, too, descended into alcoholism and became a virtual recluse at Pickfair before a fatal stroke on May 29, 1979. Ironically, “America’s Sweetheart” never became an American citizen and remained Canadian throughout her life.
The silent film made in Mill Creek Canyon and Big Bear more than 100 years ago wasn’t in Miss Pickford’s top ten films at the box office, but it wasn’t far behind, ranking at #17. Even so, the story of The Heart O the Hills has a happy ending; it still exists and is available to view free online.
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.