Something about Mary Pickford
November 18, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the November 18-Novermber 22, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
Mary Pickford was more than a silent movie star. Known as Americas Sweetheart (she was actually a native of Toronto), she dominated the film industry in an era (from 1914 to 1929) when women were not expected to be breadwinners, much less tycoons. Pickford redefined screen acting and had a radar for talent in others. She discovered writer Frances Marion (who became Hollywoods highest-paid scribe for 20 years) and director Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner). She was also a shrewd entrepreneur and helped found a major studio, United Artists.
Sadly, Pickford is one of the more neglected film pioneers. Until recently, scholarship on her and her movies has been scant and often inaccurate. To make matters worse, at one point she almost destroyed her films. However, the American Film Institute recently selected her as one of the top 100 stars of the century (100 Years 100 Stars), and if Elaina B. Archer has her way, Pickford will return to the spotlight.
Archer serves as the manager of the Mary Pickford library, and she and producer Hugh Munro Neely through Timeline Films and Milestone Film & Video have recently restored six of Pickfords best-loved features for home video. Sweetheart: The Films of Mary Pickford includes Stella Maris (1918), Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), Tess of the Storm Country (1922), Sparrows (1926) and My Best Girl (1927). Some of these titles have not been available on video before, and the tapes include rare shorts that date back as far as 1910. All except Sparrows include newly recorded scores. Some of the tapes even feature home movie footage of Pickford with her husbands Douglas Fairbanks and Olathe, KS, native Buddy Rogers.
In a recent interview in Los Angeles, Archer describes her work as tough but satisfying. I love it when people discover Mary for the first time, she says. In the last 10 years, especially with Turner Classic Movies, there has been more of a resurgence of appreciation of these films. People are not only seeing them as enjoyable films to sit down and watch, but they are seeing them as pieces of art.
One of the most striking aspects of Pickfords body of work is how subtle her acting is. When most people think of silent movies, they imagine pasty-faced actors mugging and waving their arms as if they were having epileptic fits. Archer explains, In the early 1909 films, you see Mary kind of feeling her oats. By 1910, shes in charge. She did a lot of her own makeup in the beginning because she did not want to appear pasty or phony in any way. She said she was a mood actress. You could see that on the screen.
Pickford also had astonishing range. In Little Lord Fauntleroy, she plays both mother and son. Similarly, in Stella Maris, she plays the gorgeous Stella and the homely and disabled orphan girl Unity Blake. I like Unity Blake better to tell you the truth. Shes a much more interesting character. (Theres a) scene in the mirror when (Unity) looks at the picture of Stella and her love. (Pickford) doesnt rush the scene, either. She looks deep into her face and touches it. She just falls. She knows shes never going to be beautiful or walk without a limp, Archer states.
If her performances are groundbreaking, the content of Pickfords films is also surprisingly modern. She was only five-feet-tall and had dainty features, but neither she nor the characters she played were wimpy. For example, in Sparrows, Pickford head butts a villain in a manner that would make action star Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) proud.
She was very powerful, Archer says. She had such multiplicity in what she was doing. She could be vulnerable, sweet and charming. Yet, she is also a very independent spirit. She has an inner strength. Look at Tess of the Storm Country. Youve got this sweet loving girl, but dont mess with those (fishing) nets. She was like that in her real life. She was saving people all the time.
Pickford demonstrated that fearlessness in her dealings with studios. (Producer) Samuel Goldwyn once said it took longer to negotiate her contracts than to make her movies. Charlotte (Pickfords mother and business mentor) and Mary would charge the studios for the time they spent negotiating their own contracts, says Archer.
Like a lot of male silent stars (Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks for example), Pickford risked life and limb for some scenes, particularly in Sparrows. In that film, she leads a group of children across a branch over a river. Below the branch are some ravenous-looking alligators. Archer says, I have photographs from that. There was Mary on a tree, and there were alligators underneath. It was a nightmare for Mary. They wanted to use real alligators, and she wanted to use dummies for some of the shots. She got very angry at (director) William Beaudine. She didnt work with him again. She felt he put her and the children at risk during the swamp scenes. Doug (Fairbanks) got really angry at some of the shots they had to do, even though it was very effective.
Mary and her collaborators were also daring with the content of some of her films. The charming Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, the story of a working-class mother and daughter, also features a brothel scene that would have later been inconceivable under the Production Code of 1933. (William Scott, her leading man) doesnt go in. Hes the pure one, the one (Pickford) later marries. The Norman Kerry character (the rival) was probably somebody who visited a brothel very regularly, says Archer.
While the movies offered as part of the series indicate that Pickfords work has easily stood the test of time, one of her later business decisions damaged her reputation. Pickford sold the rights to some of the stories she had filmed to Shirley Temple. Archer explains, She always played roles of women who were younger than her actual age. After a while, you just cant do that. Shirley Temple remade a lot of Marys films. If a grown woman can pull off playing a little girl, its because shes such a talented actress. A little girl playing that role is just too darn cute and sickly sweet. I think Shirley Temple ruined Marys name because it pinpointed her then as the sickly sweet little girl. It was the worst business decision of her life.
Working to get Pickfords original films back on the market has been a challenge. We didnt have that much money, she says. A lot of the money had to go to the composers. It has been incredibly difficult. TCM still hasnt bought the Pickford films. We sent them the press packages with the tapes. We said, Youve got to show Mary. Theyve got a womens month in February or March. You cant do a month of womens films and not do Mary Pickford.
Despite the struggle, Archer says that the work on these tapes has enabled her and Timeline Films to do other projects on Mary and her fellow silent stars Louise Brooks and Clara Bow. Were hoping that lots of people buy them, she says. If they do and they love them, then we can do five more. Ive learned a lot from (Pickford). I dont think I would have been able to have the strength and ability to produce Louise and Claras documentaries without what Ive learned about Mary.
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