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Short (5' ½"), pretty but sexually remote, her long curly braids outlining an ageless face (born in 1893, she was playing child parts throughout the 1920’s), Mary Pickford’s identity was shaped by such things as The Little Princess
and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
(both for director Marshall Neilan in 1917). Food for nineteenth century moralists, fodder for a largely illiterate public holding dear to fairy tales and myths passed down by elders.
When sound came to the cinema, and the Victorian age gone and buried, she retired—but not before winning the Best Actress Oscar for her adult role in Coquette
(1929), a reward that seems less for that particular film than the vast body of work preceding it. “I left the screen because I didn’t want what happened to Chaplin to happen to me,” she said. “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.”
Chaplin’s Little Tramp rapidly evolved into an icon, a small yet towering figure that transcended all the tricks and intentions of Hollywood. While Mary, playing in safer, more varied (and immensely popular) roles, may be the greatest movie star we’ve ever had. Pessimists mistakenly lump her in with the saccharine stickiness of Shirley Temple, pre-WWII Deanna Durbin, Julie Andrews and Disney-era Hayley Mills—decent actresses stalled by myopic management—just as her moniker of “America’s Sweetheart” never endeared her to cynics. But so much of the career reveals an innate awareness of character and viewer identification, that Pickford’s deft understatement and comic timing have generally gone unnoticed and under-appreciated.
Along with their already impressive library of Pickford titles, Milestone Films has now released Heart o’ the Hills
(1920), and Through the Back Door
(1921) on DVD. They’re each credited to different directors, but the brand is unmistakable. Hollywood’s first actor-mogul-auteur, she retained a great deal of control over her work, and, with canny assist from cinematographer Charles Rosher (who prefers her in medium shots rather than close-ups), Mary fed the machine of an ever-growing fan base. It eventually led to the formation of United Artists, which she co-founded in 1920 with Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks (her husband) as an effective detour from studio interference.
Because it includes the lovely Cinderella
(1914) among its bonus features, the disc for Through the Back Door
is a cursory summation of the most obvious contrivances found throughout her work. The stereotype of the outcast child discovering a purpose in life through pluck, blind determination and good fortune after a series of harrowing ordeals. When they broach pathos, however, the drama deliberately avoids the mawkish self-pity of Chaplin. Pickford opted for the very evenness and buoyancy that Charlie evaded, and imbued situations with a calculatedly delicate optimism. (For example, note how seamlessly her gruff and illiterate characters drop their pretenses to mingle with the refined and educated upper crust once they’ve hit pay dirt.)
This is not to imply that the films are superficial or shallow, or that she fails to generate sympathy. Quite the contrary: Mary is one of the few auteurs to comprehend balance, and recognized the riches to be mined in those gray areas distancing happiness from sorrow. Made around the same time as Little Lord Fauntleroy
, by that film’s directing team of Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother), Through the Back Door
is a similar rags-to-riches yarn that touches on the thorny issues of delinquent parenting, bourgeois high-mindedness, adoption, war, displacement, and class conflicts under the pretexts of comedy and adventure. Without making a sickly plea for compassion, Mary persuades viewer identification through modesty, and expertly channels weighty topics through a character too bland to despise yet too endearing to dismiss.
The leitmotif of champagne wishes and caviar dreams may threaten to undermine the pitch for humility, but Suds
lampoons it entirely. In a spin on Cinderella, now a haggard laundry scrubber waiting for Prince Charming (a local dandy who dropped off a shirt to be cleaned), Pickford is nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup as the film satirizes the plight of a lowly romantic making due in a world of sadists and callous souls. Set in and around London’s working class, Rosher shot the urban scenes with diffused lighting to enhance the Dickensian aura.
Footloose and frothy, the picture veers dangerously close to Chaplin’s paranoid image of the resourceful innocent battling a world of bullies. But Pickford deliberately overplays her part to distance our association, an objectivity that runs contrary to the rest of her oeuvre. The screenplay by Waldemar Young is chock-a-block with atypical, outré digressions that brought W.C. Fields to mind.
Set in the mountains of Kentucky, Heart o’ the Hills
provides a rare vision of primitive rural life despite it’s California filming locations. Rosher takes advantage of the majestic pines and firs, while log cabins and shanty shacks are void of Hollywood design—you can almost see the termites and gnats—and capture the feel of a lost culture. That extinction is at the center of the story, as it follows Pickford’s mountaineer from young backwoods tomboy to her encounters with thieving land developers.
A modest classic aching to expand into an epic, the film broaches a variety of themes, from revenge, young love, community living, commercial exploitation, even the KKK. That director Sidney Franklin so expertly packs it all into seventy-eight minutes is an indication of what Pickford believed her audience wanted (or would tolerate). Milestone includes M’Liss
(1918) among the bonus features for an Ozark double bill. But the earlier picture, uniformly directed by Marshall Neilan and entertaining on its own, feels trite and simplistic in comparison. Heart o’ the Hills
is the best in this trio of DVDs, and one of the star’s finest achievements, a film that shouldn’t be missed. (Kudos also to Maria Newman, for her evocative appalachian musical score.)
Disinterred for the bonus features accompanying Suds
, The Birth of a Legend
(1966) at first seems like hasty and innocuous filler, the kind used to pad for time between television programs. Produced and directed by Matty Kemp, and written by Leslie Gargan for the Mary Pickford Corp, it’s a twenty-six minute profile of her career, employing film clips, private home movies and the ubiquitous voice of Paul Frees. As silent pictures played worldwide without language barriers, and Mary chose universally appealing material, she crossed borders and boundaries that were (and remain) off limits to Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Julia Roberts, and virtually every male other than Chaplin. Frees informs us that Mary and her silent characters were never banal, and that her fan base in Russia and Europe was just as remarkable as it was in Hollywood. Hers was an unparalleled success, whose relevance to film and twentieth-century culture should never be ignored.
The Mary Pickford Institute
Jack and Mary Pickford with William S. Hart
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra