Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 11 November 2016

Remembering "Mary's Six Hundred" - Mary Pickford Helps the War Effort

The oldest movie magazine I own is a copy of Motion Picture Classic dated December 1917 and the other day I decided to give it a read (whilst marvelling that the magazine and its contents were almost a hundred years old - how did that happen?) . In amongst stories about long forgotten stars (such as Virginia Pearson, Ethel Clayton and the charming June Caprice) and reviews of films that I can guarantee have tragically crumbled to dust or burst into flames many years ago, there were quite a few interesting titbits of information about life in Hollywood in that far flung year of 1917.

The one that really caught my eye was a brief story about Mary Pickford and her continuing efforts to raise funds and morale for the war drive. I thought that it would be interesting to share it on this, Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice to end the First World War in 1918.

From the "Via Camera, Wire and Telephone" news column: -

"Mary's Six Hundred" is the name they have proudly adopted. We refer to the six hundred stalwart boys in khaki composing of the Second Battalion if the First Regiment of California Field Artillery. These boys hail from Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. When they go "somewhere over there," each man in "Mary's Six Hundred" will wear a locket round his neck containing a miniature of his little protector. It was characteristic of Mary Pickford to adopt every mother's son of these "motherless sons." "I have taken each one of my six hundred  under my wing," the little mother stoutly declares, "and I'm going to see to it that my boys receive plenty of tobacco and candy."
That sounded rather intriguing, and I must admit, through modern eyes smelt somewhat of a publicity stunt. In reality the story behind "Mary's Six Hundred" was anything but, and is a fascinating episode in the life of Miss Pickford and one which highlights the strong relationships the silent stars had with their audiences. I think it's actually a fairly well known tale but I feel it bears repeating  on this day more than most, as it illustrates the level of commitment Mary gave to her war work and her community.

When America entered the First World War in 1917, Hollywood stepped up to the plate and rallied the troops. For the first time the world realised the true power of the movies and movie stars not only for wartime propaganda but for raising funds, home front education and the recruiting of new soldiers. Mary Pickford, alongside Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and many others travelled coast to coast promoting Liberty Bonds to immense success and the role of the humble picture player was never the same again. However, before that happened, Mary as "America's Sweetheart" had already been declared the Navy's "Little Sister", and not to be outdone the Army went one further and formally adopted her.

The regiment in question was the 143rd Field Artillery of California, based at the time at Camp Arcadia. By 1918 the regiment had named her an honorary Colonel and she visited the camp and accompanied them on long hikes throughout the local hills and trails, all of which she approached with her usual tireless enthusiasm. She took her new adoption seriously and became a vocal and outspoken supporter of the troops and the victory drive, and rallied other stars to follow suit.  Pickford came through on her promise to keep the soldiers supplied with smokes (no mention of the candy though) and she spent much of her spare time pestering her fellow movie stars to donate their money or cigarettes to the cause. Incidentally, she wasn't the only one, as seen in an advert in the Motion Picture Classic for "The Francis X. Bushman Tobacco Fund" which asks "Do you know that our boys abroad are actually suffering for want of a smoke?".

The regiment continued their association with honorary Colonel Pickford when they were featured heavily in Mary's 1918 army comedy Johanna Enlists. In the final moments of the film a title card informs the audience that the 143rd are now "over there", mentioning that Mary Pickford is their godmother and ending "God bless them and send them safely back to us". We then see a shot of a uniformed Mary on horseback leading some soldiers then ends with Colonels Faneuf (their commanding officer) and Pickford proudly saluting the camera.

As a trivia note, serving in the 143rd at that time was future western star Fred Thomson. Thomson met Pickford after he broke his leg playing football while in the army and she visited him in hospital. Through his friendship with her, Thomson would gain an entry into the movie world and even meet his wife, the screenwriter Frances Marion. Thomson was a big star, mostly in western pictures from 1921 until his untimely and tragic death in 1928.

The regiment were sent "over there" to France in August 1918 and their story next is picked up in the Los Angeles Herald dated November 27th 1918 in a column stating that "a Christmas present of 70,000 cigarettes and 250 cigars was today started on it's way" to her now 1400 "godsons" stationed in Bordeaux, France. It continues, "The shipment, made through the Salvation Army (who) agreed to present to Col. R. J. Faneuf, commanding officer, on or before Christmas". The article doesn't say whether he planned to keep them to himself or give them to the boys, but we'll just have to hope he was both an officer and a gentleman! The article ends with the disappointing fact that though the regiment was designated for early return to the United States, "Ajdt.Gen. Harris informed Miss Pickford however, that the boys will not come home before Christmas". However, it seems like all went well for the 143rd Field Artillery and their 70,000 cigarettes, as the war ended before they saw any action.

On November 11th 1918, the war was over and soon the tired soldiers would be returning home to civilian life. They had done their job, and so had Mary. Mary Pickford's relationship with the 143rd Field Artillery highlighted the real and honest commitment she had to the troops, and more importantly with the ordinary young men who served their country. For Mary it was the start of a life of charity and philanthropy in both war and peace time. Even to these cynical, modern eyes it plain to see how much Mary threw herself into her work and how much it meant to her. On this Remembrance Day as I think about all the soldiers who fought for our freedom in wars since 1918, I salute the gallant 143rd Field Artillery, and I salute "America's Sweetheart", Miss Mary Pickford!

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