“What Happened to Mary” courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Distinct and beautiful advertising often sells products better than the actual item, its story or its usefulness. Early film, music and book publishing companies quickly realized the value of beautiful hand-drawn illustrations to attract consumer interest and purchase. Colorful lithographic posters, handbills, trade paper and sheet music enticed the public to attend mass entertainment, patronize restaurants or buy music. Finding ways to combine two or more industries in one medium would exponentially grow business as well.
In publicizing their new 1912 serialized film series, “What Happened to Mary,” the Edison Film Company introduced the idea of combining forces with other media or business companies to more efficiently and cheaply grow audiences for their products. This radical idea led the way to what is now an everyday practice for selling tent-pole films, major television series, blockbuster books, mega music albums or popular Broadway shows to American consumers.
Growing out of Thomas Edison’s early film experiments in the 1890s, the Edison Manufacturing Company ranked as one of the major moviemaking concerns in the late 1900s-early 1910s. Such stars as Charles Ogle, Marc McDermott, Viola Dana and Mary Fuller regularly appeared in their moving pictures.
Mary Fuller as Mary in “What Happened to Mary,” via Archive.org.
In 1912, they bought the film rights to a serialized story called “What Happened to Mary” from a magazine directed at working-class women called “The Ladies’ World.” This series presented the tales of a young woman facing trials and tribulations in the big city, with Mary Fuller playing the role of Mary. Charles Ogle, Marc McDermott, Ben Wilson, William Wadsworth, and others filled out the cast.
Edison would release a one-reel film each month in conjunction with the release of the magazine’s monthly edition, with each medium hopefully growing the audience for each other. This became the first attempt of a film company to cross-promote one of its motion pictures with another medium. Edison hoped the pictorialization would bring more women into film theaters, and the magazine hoped to increase readership. The series appealed to independent women supporting themselves in the city, as it emphasized action over romance.
While not a true serial, in that each episode was self-contained and resolved, the series ranks as the predecessor to “The Adventures of Kathlyn,” “The Perils of Pauline,” and all action serials to come.
The company hired writer Bannister Merwin to adapt the series for the screen, and later, create his own stories. The film began with the baby Mary found on a doorstep of a small town storekeeper with a note attached. It stated that he would receive $1,000 for raising her to adulthood and marrying her to a local boy along with $500 included in the basket. Flash-forwarding eighteen years, Mary Fuller anxiously attempts to leave her boring little town and move to the big city. Her adopted father continuously attempts to marry her off, which she keeps refusing. While searching through a chest, Mary stumbles on the original note, describing what her adopted father should do. Mary makes her mind up to immediately leave for the bright lights of the big city.
J. Searle Dawley directed most of the self-contained episodes, which featured Mary undergoing some crisis or adventure, which were resolved by the end of the story. An August 1912 issue of Moving Picture World called it a big hit and popular with all types of audiences. “The second of the “What Happened to Mary” series comes Aug. 27. Mary Fuller is going to make her big hit in this series and the stories are done with uncommon care. If you’ve not had the first get it and run it if you can before the second is due. Each is a story complete in itself and can be run alone, but if you miss any you’re cheating yourself. We caught the first reel the other night down on Chatham Square with a mixed audience of Chinese, Italians, Greeks and Syrians and the hit it made with a polyglot crowd was surprising.”
Plot and action moved right along, keeping audiences enthralled in the picture. Moving Picture World remarked how the episode was “cut short at an intensely interesting part,” and left audiences wanting more. Motography, on the other hand, claimed the serial owed its success to Mary Fuller’s personal charms. They stated she was “it, too,” in their Oct. 21, 1912, issue.
The company obtained the rights to the magazine cover created by leading illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, inventor of the Gibson Girl, and employed it on sheet music promoting the film. They also hired rising songwriter and future theatre impresario Earl Carroll to pen lyrics to composer Lee Orean Smith’s music.
The July 1912 Moving Picture World called it, “The first attempt of the screen and the magazine page to join forces resulted certainly not to the disadvantage of the former. Edison’s production of “What Happened to Mary” in conjunction with a serial running in the Ladies’ World seemed certainly to be a more interesting piece of work than the dead page. Mary Fuller has the leading role, and she adds to her laurels. The cover of the magazine has a picture of Mary drawn by C.D. Gibson. Far be it from a humble picture scribe to attempt to criticize the work or the judgment of a master artist, but he is willing to wager a good smoke that many a full-grown man who looks on the pictured representation of the flesh-and-blood Mary — wholesome, normal, everyday womanhood — and then on the pictured ideal of the ethereal, goose-necked, ultra-aristocratic, over-bred, clossy creation of the artist will instinctively cast his ballot for Mary Fuller.”
Patter describes Mary as shy but seeming to flirt with men, with many seeming to follow wherever she would go. The chorus states: “Mm, What happened to Mary? Mm, What happened to Mary?” Mary had a dainty little fad, Of making boys feel very kindly t’ward her, Ruby lips, That Cupid created, Baby eyes, But so educated, Mary was a very wary fairy, So nothing ever happened to her.”
As attendance and readership jumped for both Edison and the magazine, the production company sought new revenue streams to bring in more profits. Edison devised the first consumer products tying in with a film, manufacturing a Mary hat, jigsaw puzzle, and game along with the sheet music. The publisher, McClure Publishing Co., sold the theatrical rights to Leigh Morrison, who introduced a successful play in February 1913 starring Olive Wyndham. By the late summer, two companies barnstormed around the country performing the hit show.
The successful stunt increased middle class readership of the magazine, and Edison and exhibitors saw a jump in profits from increased female attendance. Selig recognized the great potential of this stunt when it released “The Adventures of Kathlyn” in 1913, creating exciting, cliffhanging stories involving wild animals that also drew men to film screens. They introduced the cliffhanger serial, and further developed the potential consumer profits to be made from successful films.
To further increase audience awareness and attendance, the company established a contest asking readers what should happen to Mary, with the winner awarded $100. The first month drew 2500 entries, and over 100,000 after five. A few were adapted as the plot of future episodes.
Edison bought advertising in Motion Picture Story magazine in February 1913, hoping to impress readers to “Get acquainted with Mary” and see the fascinating film, noting that the character of Mary was the first to attract legions of fans to film screens. “The appearance of a song, a puzzle, a game and a play, all bearing the familiar name “What Happened to Mary,” is strong evidence of the tremendous impression which “Mary” has made upon the public—it is “Mary” mad!” No such interest has ever been aroused by any photoplay or any character upon the screen as that which “Mary” has attracted.” This advertisement helped promote what could be the first attempts at reviving films, as exhibitors repeated the first series in 1913 before the release of the second series of stories featuring the Mary character.
Unfortunately, the entire “What Happened to Mary” series is considered lost, leaving only synopses of the monthly episodes.
Sadly, but ironically, within years, fans would actually ask what happened to the actress, Mary Fuller, as she disappeared from movie screens. Her success with the series and other Edison shorts led Universal to sign her up in June 1914, and she graduated to longer and more advanced films. She made one feature with Famous Players in 1917 before disappearing from the screen. Billy Doyle states in “The Ultimate Directory of Silent Screen Performers” that she suffered a crushing breakup in 1917 with her married Metropolitan Opera singer lover when his wife refused to give him a divorce, causing a nervous breakdown. Mary returned home to Washington, D. C., to live with her mother, living reclusively on the second floor of the house, playing the piano and painting. As her money began running out, Fuller attempted a screen comeback in 1926, which failed. She returned to seclusion at home. After her mother died in 1940, Fuller suffered another breakdown, and after slowly deteriorating over six years, her sister placed her in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1947. For the next several decades, she heard and talked to voices before dying in December 1973. When the hospital could find no relatives, it buried her in an unmarked grave.