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A Tribute to Mary Pickford

Excerpt from The Parade's Gone By 

by Kevin Brownlow (1968)


Mary Pickford.

To those who have never seen her—and two generations have grown up since she left the screen—Mary Pickford epitomizes the tear-jerking stories for which the silent era is celebrated. She is seen as a tragic little orphan, lost in the cruel world, at the constant mercy of Fate. Her name is as well-remembered as Chaplin's; while he is the undisputed representative of silent-film comedy, she has come to represent silent-film tragedy.

Nothing could be more ludicrously inaccurate. Mary Pickford was essentially a comedienne, although that description cannot do justice to her rich talents as a dramatic actress.

Her films were almost always comedies, the light episodes being laced with genuine pathos and much excitement. They were sentimental, but seldom mawkish. The character of Mary Pickford was an endearing little spitfire. She was delightful; she projected warmth and charm, but she had the uncontrollable fire of the Irish. Whenever a situation got out of hand, she would not submit to self-pity. She would storm off and do something about it, often with hilariously disastrous results.

Her playing was completely naturalistic; neither her acting nor her later silent films have dated in any way. She seems as fresh and vital now as when she was America's Sweetheart. She had legions of imitators, but no rivals. The ideal American girl is still the Mary Pickford character: extremely attractive, warmhearted, generous, funny—but independent and fiery-tempered when the occasion demands. . . .

Mary Pickford (1913)- her memorable final film for Biograph The New York Hat - Directed by D. W. Griffith. Written by Anita Loos. (Aberdeen collection). 

To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

While Mary Pickford's portrayals as an actress have been misrepresented, her importance in the history of the cinema has been grossly underestimated.

It would be no exaggeration to state that Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, exerted more influence on American productions than anyone else in the industry, apart from D. W. Griffith. And by 1920, even Griffith's importance was on the decline. His films had made their indelible impression on methods and technique. Now his contemporaries were overtaking him, with highly polished, highly imaginative productions. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, thanks to their phenomenal commercial successes, became the new pace-setters.

The industry awaited a new film from their studios with the same eagerness that, some years earlier, they had awaited a new Griffith.

Pickford and Fairbanks were able to recognize talent, and they had business acumen enough to be able to employ it. Their choice was dictated as much by commercial considerations as by artistic merit, yet their films attained the highest possible standards in every department. Mary Pickford employed the finest cameraman, Charles Rosher. Douglas Fairbanks used brilliant men like Arthur Edeson and Henry Sharp. They both signed top directors—Sidney Franklin, Marshall Neilan, Raoul Walsh, Ernst Lubitsch, Maurice Tourneur—and they drew from lesser-known directors the best pictures of their careers.

Detail of a production still from Secrets (1933), Mary Pickford's final movie as an actor. (Aberdeen Collection). To purchase Aberdeen photos for reprint purposes click here.

Although Mary Pickford says she seldom exercised control over directors, her cameraman, Charles Rosher, declares that she did a lot of her own directing. "The director would often just direct the crowd. She knew everything there was to know about motion pictures."

With Chaplin, Griffith, and Fairbanks, she founded the aptly named United Artists in 1919, which gave her the independence she needed.

Her last film, Secrets, a talkie directed by Frank Borzage, was released in 1933. In it she played the wife of Leslie Howard, a pioneering homesteader, and proved once and for all that she was among the greatest actresses of motion pictures, both silent and sound. In this strong, dramatic role, she provided many fine moments, but one of them was particularly memorable—a familiar scene given new impact by her performance.

Gunmen are besieging the shack in which she and her husband are living. While Leslie Howard, firing from the window, holds them at bay, Mary goes into the back room to make sure that her baby is unharmed. She finds it dead. Cradling it in her arms, she sits, numbed by shock, in the middle of the room oblivious to the bullets whistling around her. There are no histrionics; she just sits there as the camera creeps forward. But in her face, in her eyes, is the most moving expression of despair. Mary Pickford lived her parts, and, as she said when I met her in London in September 1965, "That one really got me."

A postcard from the 1920s labeled "Mary Pickford: The World's Sweetheart."

In her early seventies, Miss Pickford retained the humor, energy, and vitality that established her as the most important woman in the picture business. She was still among the richest people in the world. Married for nearly thirty years to Charles "Buddy" Rogers, her leading man in My Best Girl (1927), she still lived in Pickfair, the home that became the focal point of Hollywood society. Her attitudes strongly reflected the period to which she will always belong, and while she seemed progressive then, she now appeared conservative. She was defiant and proud of her views, however, and strong in her condemnation of moral liberalism. She had grown to detest politics, and she withdrew her support from the Hollywood Museum project when it became a political issue. "If a politician comes to my house," she said, "I have to go. I'm finished."

An attitude that had always been foreign to her was cynicism. She was baffled and annoyed by it, and she was equally bewildered by sly innuendo. Thus her relationship with the great Ernst Lubitsch, whom she brought to America, was doomed from the start. His cynical wit and his delight in sly innuendo and double-entendre collided with a determinedly straightforward and utterly uncomplicated approach. . . .

She was a completely direct and straightforward person and she expected others to be the same. Fortunately most of her associates and employees worship her as much as the public. For she was one of the few great stars who was also a great producer—and a great person.

 


Mary Pickford cover of Motion Picture Magazine by Albert Vargas.

SOURCES:

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. Berkely: University of California Press, 1968, pp. 120, 123.

See Bibliography.

 

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