Remembering ‘America’s sweetheart’ Mary Pickford

By on May 29, 2014
TESS OF THE STORM COUNTY, Mary Pickford, 1922

Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country released in 1922

“WE big Irish all knew each other and we all stuck together,” is how Mary Pickford once recalled her days in the early decades of Hollywood.

She recounted this in an interview for American television given in 1965, part of a profile designed to remind the public of her many accomplishments in the world of film.

Speaking at the same time Aldolph Zukor, founder of Paramount Pictures and Pickford’s former boss, said: “For as long as people watch movies, the name of Mary Pickford will be remembered.”

Zukor’s prediction, alas, has not transpired. While it’s true that film scholars (particularly Irish film scholars) cannot study early cinema without observing her work, it’s also true that her fame within the realms of public acclaim has sharply diminished.

But to make this point clear, it’s necessary to recall what a presence Pickford once was in the film world’s collective psyche and what influence she had in shaping Hollywood and what we now know to be cinema history. She was celebrated as “America’s sweetheart”, although she was born in Canada.

Today is the anniversary of her birth in 1892, to an English Methodist father and an Irish Catholic mother. From her father’s family values she drew her sense of individual responsibility and clear-sighted business efficiency; from her maternal heritage she drew her moral code and her instincts as a storyteller.

Her mother’s family came from poverty in Co. Kerry and memories of those origins filtered through to Pickford.  Her screen roles during the 1910s and 20s show traces of this understanding, when she played innumerable “poor-but-honest” gals hoping to rise up in American life.

Film historian Gwenda Young lists some of the features Pickford made during the silent era that expressed the aspirations of Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans (especially females) — e.g. The Foundling (1915), Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley (1918), Little Annie Rooney (1925).

She also portrayed other immigrant types, like Italians in Poor Little Pepina (1916) and Scots in Pride of the Clan (1917). More richly pretty than classically beautiful, Pickford’s screen attraction held a girl-next-door quality melded with minx-like mischief and womenly wholesomeness.

She was often both delicate and durable, playing young women who struggled with difficult circumstances and complex emotions. Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Anniston are among her modern-day heirs.

Pickford created “Little Mary”, an icon for struggling times, who for a while outstripped the popularity of Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp. During the era just after World War One there was a movie theatre on every second corner in American cities and viewers watched films on average four times a week.

“There was no TV, no radio, only the movies,” Pickford later said of the first mass popular culture. Screen characters like Little Mary and Little Tramp gave audiences narrative depictions of their everyday emotional experiences and elevated film from an entertaining curiosity into a new aesthetic medium.

“I never liked one of my pictures in its entirety,” Pickford admitted. Nevertheless, she advanced the technique of screen acting and raised the standing of film actors immeasurably. She knew the power of the camera to expand the effect of expression and that screen performers could do so much by doing so little.

Her characters communicated feelings through subtle facial movements and body gestures, and she passed her wisdom on to Chaplin and Keaton. In 1909 the great DW Griffith had hired her for $10 per day (double what he paid his other actors) and soon into her career she was earning $2,000 per week.

In 1916 Aldolph Zukor signed her on a contract of $10,000 per week, plus a share of the ticket sales. By her mid-twenties she was Hollywood’s first millionaire performer.

It was Pickford’s reckoning that the big studio producers depended on their actors for their films to succeed. She conceived of the now familiar concept of the movie “star” and observed that popular audiences were drawn to movies by the names of their favourite actors but that moviegoers didn’t have “favourite producers”.

With Griffith, Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks (a silent-era hunk and later Pickford’s husband) she founded United Artists in 1919, an endeavour designed to challenge the moguls’ omnipotence over the creativity of actors and directors.

At the age of 27, a year before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, Pickford carved out her own space in a male-dominated industry and was deemed the most highly-paid woman in the world.

So it’s difficult to conclude why her image has slipped off the radar of popular renown. Perhaps it has something to do with cinema’s habit of overlooking the work of its female exponents. Perhaps it’s partly explained by her roles having voiced strong sensibilities for their contemporary day, but less to say to later times.

Yet we should remember the name of Mary Pickford. In 1927 she was among the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures (the Oscars), one of just three women in the founding group of 36 artists.

The great Ernst Lubitsch travelled from Europe especially to work with her in 1922. She was sometimes endearingly called “the girl with curls” but she had a wise head, smart mind and farsighted vision.

About Stephen Martin

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