Husband and wife acting duo Mary Pickford and Owen Moore share the screen in this short film about marriage, infidelity and tastes of one’s own medicine. This trifle is a rare example of Pickford’s work during her stint at IMP, a feisty independent studio that would become part of Universal a year after The Dream was made.
Told you so…
Little Gladys Smith is remembered for the collection of films (under the name Mary Pickford) in which she played a child. This is not surprising since, as a young performer and her family’s breadwinner at an age when most kids were learning not to eat dirt, she had never really been a child herself. The experience must have been cathartic.
While many people hear the name Mary Pickford and think golden curls, I think of a fierce and feisty woman with an enviable head for business and the guts to go for what she wanted. In the process, she helped change the way stars were paid, studios were formed and awards were given. She is, arguably, the most important woman in the history of early Hollywood.
Not bad for a broke little kid from Toronto.
By 1911, Mary Pickford had been on the screen for two years and had spent her entire time with the Biograph company, mostly under the direction of D.W. Griffith. This was the year when Mary Pickford would make the momentous decision to leave Biograph and Griffith and join Carl Laemmle’s upstart IMP studio. She was promised more money and billing. Biograph, you may recall, had a policy of not naming its stars in order to keep salaries down and the power away from the performers.
Let me clear up one misconception. Do not think for one moment that the stars actually remained anonymous. In fact, motion picture magazines at the time regularly featured columns tracking down and naming the stars of various productions. A new actor or actress added to the Biograph family regularly brought in floods of inquiries as to their identity.
When Mary Pickford signed on with Laemmle, she negotiated a few extras. First of all, the studio was to hire her husband, Owen Moore. Born in Ireland, Moore had been a popular enough leading man at Biograph but his fame never came close to what his wife would accomplish. It became a rather sore point in their marriage. Pickford would continue to secure Moore work for much of their union.
Pickford’s business deals often included her younger siblings, Jack and Lottie, as well. You’ve heard of block booking, where a studio will only sell you the blockbuster if you also buy all their other films? Well, the Pickfords were the acting equivalent. To get Mary, you needed to hire Jack, Lottie and Owen as well. Lottie made some films but her career petered out by the twenties.
Jack was considered a talented actor (note I wrote “considered”) but he was all but unemployable by the end of the silent era, when Mary’s power was on the wane. There is a small but vocal movement seeking to restore Jack Pickford’s reputation. Considering the man’s utter lack of screen charisma, it is a losing battle. A lot of it is tied to Olive Thomas’s popularity (she was Jack’s wife) but let’s not get real life mixed up with the quality of acting. I neither know nor care about Jack and Olive’s personal life, I just know that the kid is a brick on the screen. And, frankly, Owen was almost as bad.
Owen Moore and Pickford would continue to act together (notably as the main couple in Cinderella) until 1915 but his career never really launched into the stratosphere. The Dream was the second film that Pickford made for IMP. (Their First Misunderstanding, which also co-starred Moore, was the first one. Thought lost for almost a century, it was recovered from an old barn in 2006.)
Before we start, I should note that the story (written by Pickford) makes a lot more sense if you are aware of one important fact: Owen Moore, it is generally agreed, drank heavily and was emotionally abusive, possibly physically abusive. He did not get on with Mary’s family and he resented her success. (You can read more about it in Eileen Whitfield’s Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood.)
The story opens with a young husband (Moore) out drinking with a woman who is not his wife. (The “other woman” is played by Pickford’s sister, Lottie.) He comes back home to his loyal wife (Pickford) and proceeds to treat her like dirt before falling asleep in a drunken stupor.
His dream is not pleasant, at least for him. His wife emerges in a gaudy dress. She drinks and smokes before his eyes (horror!), throws a cushion at him, drop kicks a plate and then bits him adieu. She is off with her sporty lover. The husband cannot believe his eyes. He follows his wife to the very same restaurant where he had enjoyed dinner and watches her romance her lover. The shame and horror being too much, he returns home and shoots himself.
But look! It was all a dream and his wife is just as sweet as ever. The couple have a happy reunion.
It’s easy to see that this film can be taken as both entertainment (which it accomplishes very well) and a pointed warning to Moore. How would he like his wife to treat him the way he treats her? Real life did not live up to the idealized movie ending. You see, the warning did not stick and, after many failed attempts at reconciliation, Moore and Pickford finally divorced.
I am not sure if Pickford was aware of it, but The Dream is not just a plea for a better marriage. There is a definite menace to the message: “Don’t make me miserable because I can do far worse to you.” Considering the power she already wielded, this was no idle boast.
As stated before, Moore resented his wife’s success but when seeing this film, it is immediately clear that she is the greater talent. Moore overacts outrageously, mugging and flailing. Pickford, on the other hand, knows she is acting to a camera and not to the back row of the theater. She is subtle and sweet as the real wife but she really comes alive as the dream wife.
Pickford is sassy, wild and (dare I say it?) sexy as the woman who is giving her husband a taste of his own medicine. It’s the sort of performance (usually sans the sexy) that would make her one of the most popular actors on the planet. Pickford was fiery in real life and her performances flourished when some of that fire showed on the screen.
This film represented a new path for Pickford’s career. She would continue to hop from studio to studio, always looking for more creative control and better pay. From IMP to Majestic, back to Biograph and then Paramount and First National before co-founding United Artists. All the while, she made films of unparalleled charm and creativity. I dare you to find an actress who accomplished more in one career.
Mary Pickford may have been known as America’s Sweetheart but she never stopped thinking of herself as a Canadian. (According to Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey, Pickford immediately ran up the new maple leaf flag over Pickfair when it was introduced in 1965.) The fact was, though, Mary Pickford belonged to the world and they were glad to have her.
In the end, little Gladys Smith of Toronto remains the symbol of silent stardom. Proof that a woman with golden curls could, with a little determination and a lot of talent and business acumen, beat the boys at their own game.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The Dream was released on DVD as an accompaniment to Pickford’s feature, Amarilly of the Clothesline.