The Girls in the Picture

Written by Melanie Benjamin
Review by Valerie Adolph

In 1914 the word “movies” was new, and “movie studios” were just a collection of barns. But already one person was showing exceptional talent in this new medium. Mary Pickford had a growing following (not yet called “fans”) who loved her movies.

She was born Gladys Smith, the oldest of three siblings who travelled with their mother while acting in small theatres, sleeping squashed into one bed. She was the breadwinner and had no normal childhood. As Mary Pickford she found her ideal childhood, frolicking like a child with golden ringlets throughout her twenties and into her thirties, in movies written for her and often directed by her lifelong friend, Frances Marion.

Benjamin succeeds in presenting the strong, abiding friendship between the two women as well as giving the reader a vivid and revealing glimpse into the earliest days of Hollywood movies. She clearly displays the chauvinism of the male executives and how it affected both the confidence and the careers of early female actors. She reveals the frenetic glamor of that early movie age, with Mary raising vast amounts of money from her followers for the war effort. Frances, meanwhile, visits Europe to discover the truths of WWI. She puts her soul into a movie about women in wartime, a movie no-one wants to watch. Men are the heroes of war.

The strength of this book lies in a story well told but also in its revelation of the truths behind the glamor of Hollywood. We see Mary, apparently the childlike innocent, but who always knew how much each of her movies made every week. We see Pickfair, the fabulous mansion built by Mary and her husband Douglas Fairbanks—and the heartbreak within it.

The Girls in the Picture is a powerful read, especially for movie lovers.