Currently playing in theaters across the country is the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!, in which George Clooney plays a 1950s Hollywood leading man who gets kidnapped. Though the thought of a superstar being snatched seems a bit far-fetched, in the spring of 1925 this was a very real fear when Los Angeles detectives learned of a plot to kidnap one of the biggest stars of all: “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford.
Detectives became aware of the plot after the care-taker of oil magnate E.L. Doheny’s estate called them to report suspicious characters loitering around the premises. A detective was dispatched to tail the crew, who, after a few days, started hanging around the Pickford-Fairbanks studio and began following Pickford home each evening after she finished work on her film, Little Annie Rooney. During one of the stake out sessions detectives recognized one of the men as an ex-con who served time for murder. He was immediately picked up and questioned. Not wanting to go back to prison, he told the cops that the gang was planning on kidnapping Pickford and, in exchange for clemency, agreed to set up his confederates.
Pickford and then-husband Douglas Fairbanks were notified about the proposed snatching and armed escorts were assigned to the couple. A car full of guards followed them to the studio in the morning and home each night. In hopes of catching the kidnappers in action, one of Mary’s stunt doubles was hired to drive her Rolls Royce to and from the studio each day, but after a week, no moves were made by the kidnappers and she was dismissed.
The gang couldn’t come up with a cohesive plan but they kept showing up at the studio to spy on Mary. Each time they showed up, Fairbanks received a call at the studio and he would venture out to the gates to nonchalantly take a look at them. The weeks went by and the stress of the situation began to wear on Hollywood’s top couple. The situation came to a head one evening as the duo left the studio. Inside their car was a sawed off shotgun and pistol. Pulling out of the studio, Doug and Mary noticed that no car of detectives was following them. Worse, there was a convertible in front of them with men peering at them from the rear. Convinced that the convertible belonged to the kidnappers, Fairbanks sped up and, cutting off both the convertible and a Ford that was driving in front of it, came to a screeching halt in the parking lot of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The convertible rolled up just as Fairbanks jumped out of his car with the sawed off shotgun demanding that the men throw up their hands. Fortunately they were able to convince the actor that they were in fact the detectives and that the Ford he cut off was the kidnappers. At this point Fairbanks insisted that the police arrest the kidnappers.
Though they were unable to catch the men in action, detectives were able to record some of their meetings and this was enough evidence to send two of the three plotters to prison for six years.
Patrick Downey writes about Prohibition-era and Depression-era crime. His latest book is Hollywood on the Spot: Crimes Against the Early Movie Stars.