Friday, Dec. 21, 2012

Queen of the Movies

A New Look at Mary Pickford

By David Luhrssen
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Mary Pickford was the first film star and the most powerful woman in Hollywood by 1920, yet by 1930 her reputation was already fading from changing fashion and the coming of sound. Afterward, Pickford was under appreciated by film historians and mocked as a golden-curled melodrama queen by critics who never saw her movies--a problem she helped cause by withdrawing her surviving films from circulation. A reassessment in recent decades has restored her reputation, at least among film scholars. 

 The handsome coffee table book Mary Pickford Queen of the Movies (University Press of Kentucky) is another chapter in her renewal. Along with many black-and-white stills and photographs and color reproductions of movie posters are a set of essays that explore the meaning of her remarkable career.

Pickford’s professional life began on stage at age six in shabby touring troups; she found her way to supporting roles on Broadway but sensed the potential of the flickering, primitive medium of film. In 1909 she auditioned for D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Studio in New York and went to work making several short movies each month.

America, and soon the whole world, fell in love with her face. Mobs of fans turned up wherever she appeared; her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks attracted the attention Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt enjoy nowadays. And she wasn’t just a pretty face. From early on, Pickford developed definite ideas about her movies and was more alert to the possibilities of the new medium than some of her directors. She signed production deals, gained approval over her pictures and in 1919 co-founded United Artists to distribute films by independent producers. Pickford was a commanding force onscreen and behind the camera. And then, as critic Molly Haskell writes in her introduction, “The Victorian ideal of child-like innocence an can-do spirit that Pickford brought to luminous perfection crashed on the shoals of a more cynical age.”

But while “child-like innocence" describes her image, even a cursory examination of her filmography reveals considerably more scope than she credited with by earlier film historians. She played American Indian, Mexican, Filipino and Japanese roles. “In appearance alone, she ranges from the winsomely beautiful to the almost unrecognizably, even grotesquely, plain,” Haskell adds. She played adults, teenagers, children—even a boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy. Although largely deprived of childhood, Pickford was able to enter the body and consciousness of children with remarkable insight.

Edited by Christel Schmidt, the essays in Queen of the Movies examine Pickford from many angles, including her drive to success, her characteristic fountain of curly hair and her status a century ago as “America’s Sweetheart.” Audiences found her radiant and magnetic, an embodiment of the era’s feminine ideals. When those ideas changed, she retired in 1933 rather than linger on as a hasbeen. She was only 40.

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