“Take business -– that’s supposed to be a man’s province. Yet I can name you the most outstanding success in the business life of the movies and that person is a woman: Mary Pickford. You can’t match her. She’s supreme in every department.”
— Carole Lombard, quoted in “Carole Lombard tells: ‘How I Live By A Man’s Code’,” by Hart Seymore, Photoplay, June 1937
Lombard knew firsthand of what she spoke. That’s her above with Buddy Rogers in a scene from the 1927 Pickford film “My Best Girl”; Carol had an unbilled role in this late silent, a fact relatively few are aware of (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/33953.html).
Chances are Lombard didn’t spend that much time on the set, a day or two at most, as she only appeared in one scene, playing a “flirty salesgirl.” Nevertheless, working on a Pickford film was a feather in her cap, as she had been watching her films from childhood. During the 1930s, Carole may have visited Mary’s fabled home, Pickfair, for a few social functions — and later in the decade, Rogers (who also worked with Lombard in her 1930 Paramount debut, “Safety In Numbers”) would marry Pickford, and they’d be together through her death in 1979.
On this, the day of the Academy Awards, when it appears a (largely) silent film will capture its share of honors, it seems to be an appropriate day to examine the career of Mary Pickford, someone horribly misconstrued by current movie fans if they’ve merely heard or her, but never actually seen her. As Jeanine Basinger wrote in her splendid book, “Silent Stars,” people today “have no real grasp of who she was, how important and beloved she was, or how she pioneered stardom and the concept of the career woman. Isn’t it ironic that the biggest female star in history ends up being the most misunderstood?”
As we’ve stated before, one reason for this is that silent film gradually withered out of public consciousness as talking pictures further and further developed. The “language” of silent cinema, once second nature to movie audiences, became, pardon the pun, a lost tongue. In 2012, not many are around who saw honest-to-goodness silent films premiere, save for Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” and those few who do were invariably no more than children. Our knowledge of that era is thus incomplete, at best. So this is normally how we perceive Pickford:
As Basinger wrote, she is thought of “as a bargain-basement Shirley Temple — that she was an older actress who masqueraded as a child, dimpling around, cheering everyone up while her characters lived a Dickensian existence with nothing but a bowl of gruel and a brave smile between them and disaster.” Replying with the phrase, “Utter nonsense,” would be an understatement.
Pickford, barely over five feet tall, could play a young girl (not a child!) as a result of her diminutive stature, but during the teens and ’20s she played women as often as girls, if not more so. And she had an inner toughness, a resiliency, that resonated with audiences of her time. “She was sometimes sentimental as befit her times, but there’s a difference between sweet and cloying,” Basinger wrote, “and Mary Pickford was never cloying.”
Pickford could do drama and comedy with aplomb, quickly developing a grasp for how acting for film differed from stage work. And as stated by Lombard, she was a remarkable businesswoman, often producing her own films. She was as much a partner in the founding of United Artists as husband Douglas Fairbanks or cohort Charlie Chaplin.
What’s the best way to explain Mary Pickford? See her in action — and thanks to YouTube, which has loads of Pickford performances available, we can do just that. (For many years, her films were largely unavailable, and late in her life she considered having them destroyed upon her death. Thankfully, Rogers and Lillian Gish talked her out of such a move; otherwise, she might even be more misunderstood than she is today.) Here are four examples of Mary Pickford at work.
First, “Ramona,” a 16-minute film adaptation of the Helen Hunt Jackson novel from May 1910, directed by D.W. Griffith. Mary plays the title character, with Henry B. Walthall as the native American who falls for her. One of the first big hit movies of the early teens, this was also one of the initial films to be shot in southern California. This is in excellent condition for a movie more than a century old, and I think you’ll be impressed by the naturalism Pickford, still in her teens, is already showing on screen:
Released later in 1910 — after Griffith and crew had returned east — here’s a much less ambitious (and more typical) film, the 12-minute “An Arcadian Maid,” again directed by Griffith, with Mack Sennett acting as the villain. This has some special interest to me, as much of it was filmed in Westfield, N.J., where I resided from 1995 to 2004. In fact, I lived across the street from the train station, and quite a few scenes were shot near the rail tracks. A few years before Pickford’s death, Westfield officials were able to procure a few films made in town from her office and held a festival in her honor:
Now let’s move up to 1912 and back to California for Griffith directing Pickford in the 14-minute “A Beast At Bay.” This antecedent of “The French Connection” and “The Fast And The Furious” features one of movies’ first car-train chase scenes, with Mary driving at a scary 54 miles per hour (without a freeway). The emphasis here is more on action than acting:
Finally, back east (specifically to Fort Lee, N.J.) for some top-of-the-line filmmaking from late 1912, the 16-minute “The New York Hat.” With Pickford (whose acting here is marvelously subtle) are Lionel Barrymore as a pastor, Lillian Gish as a shop customer, and uncredited work from her sister Dorothy, Mary’s brother Jack and Sennett. Moreover, Anita Loos wrote the script, with help from Frances Marion.
Several of Pickford’s features are available via YouTube as well, some in their entirety, others in segments. They include “Tess Of The Storm Country,” “Suds,” “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Stella Maris.”
Pickford’s popularity soared as years went on, but professionally it often was stifling. In many instances, her characters underwent reverse growth, as public tastes often locked Mary into youthful roles well into the mid-1920s. “My Best Girl,” her final silent, showed that Pickford could do well on the modern comedy turf of Colleen Moore and Clara Bow. A few years later, Mary — who helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — would win an Academy Award for “Coquette,” hardly her best work but already a de facto lifetime achievement award from Oscar. She would retire after “Secrets” in 1933, but it wasn’t for lack of looks, as this 1935 portrait from George Hurrell makes clear:
Despite her towering achievements as both an actress and businesswoman (she helped bring Ernst Lubitsch to America, even though their lone collaboration, “Rosita,” was not one of her favorite films), Pickford was a mere 24th on the American Film Institute’s list of 25 greatest actresses some years ago — one spot behind Lombard. I have no doubt Carole would be aghast over that ranking…not regarding herself, but Mary.
Late in life, Pickford said that it would have made more sense (artistically, rather than technically) if silent film had developed from talking pictures, instead of the other way around. Tonight, “The Artist” — part of which was filmed in a house where Mary resided in the late 1910s — could prove her right.