What does it mean to be on the A-list? In addition to being a box office draw, which is a must, those within that rareified air can often call the shots creatively on their own movies, command a high salary and even develop their own projects. But while she’s primarily remembered now as “America’s sweetheart” or “The girl with curls,” few actors then or now have had the popularity, power and influence of silent film star Mary Pickford. One of early cinema’s hugest box office draws, an innovator in film acting, a founder of a major studio and a pop culture icon whose image still resonates to this day, Nicholas Eliopoulos‘ “Mary Pickford: Muse Of The Movies” is a loving tribute and expansive look at Pickford’s life, loves and career.
The masterstroke of this documentary that sets it apart from your standard clip montage intercut with talking heads and voiceover narration, is that the arc of the film uses rare archival audio interviews with Pickford herself to help drive the film. Thus, with the assistance of the majestic voice of Michael York who helps steer the ship and fill in the gaps, ‘Muse Of The Movies’ is enhanced by Pickford’s own personal insight, which brings a depth to the structure that follows the usual path of tracking her rise from her early days as just another actress to the height of her career as a studio head, Oscar winner and bonafide legend.
Of the many contributions and accomplishments Pickford has to her name, the one aspect that is rarely discussed is her impact on the art of acting itself. At the the beginning, the movies weren’t regarded with the same seriousness as other artistic endeavors, with the stage considered the place to see great actors perform. And indeed, that’s where Pickford got her start, touring with her mother (and longtime manager) and siblings around the country, appearing in enough unsuccessful productions that she was ready to pack it in altogether. But a chance screen-test with D.W. Griffith led to the formation of one of cinema’s great filmmaking teams, and also provided Pickford with one of the first of many, many instances where she would wield her weight: she wouldn’t work for Griffith unless the studio standard fee of $5 per day was doubled to $10. Such was her talent — she refused to give in to the exagerrated gesticulation that passed for much of the acting at the time, in favor a more naturalistic approach, which won her many plaudits — that Griffth agreed to the raise. And good thing too as it was through Pickford that the director would later be introduced to Dorothy and Lillian Gish.
If there is one thing that consistently marked Pickford’s career, it was ambition. To say that she was popular would be an understatement; she was easily one of the biggest if not the biggest star on the planet with only her close friend Charlie Chaplin competing with her for the public’s heart. And while she was best known for the roles that played on her youthful looks, she often sought to challenge herself both as an actress and a professional. She played dual roles successfully in two different films: the hugely popular “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “Stella Maris,” the latter of which Pickford recounts that the she transformed so dramatically, the crew on the film initially didn’t recognize her in costume as an ugly orphan. And Pickford also was eager to work with emerging talents, such as hiring German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — which in the wake of WWI was a slightly controversial move — to direct “Rosita.” The pair wound up clashing on the movie, and a handful of movies they planned to make together were scuttled, but Pickford continued to take risks. As the talkies were ushered in, Pickford cut off the curls she was world renowned for, wore a contemporary bob and starred in “Coquette.” The result? Her first Oscar. But, that would be her last hurrah as an actress. “The Taming Of The Shrew” with then-husband Douglas Fairbanks was a disaster and after a few more films (including another dual turn in Frank Borzage‘s “Secrets“) she retired from acting.
Not that she faded from the spotlight. Her work with United Artists — the studio she founded with Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith; another major feather in her cap — continued and her famed home, dubbed Pickfair, became a Hollywood landmark, and invitations were coveted among the elite (among the many guests was Amelia Earhart, with some pretty rare and fantastic footage of that visit included in the documentary). But where ‘Muse Of The Movies’ stumbles is in balancing out Pickford’s accomplishments with some of the less savory aspects of her life. Her alcoholism in later years goes unmentioned, so too does the rocky relationship she had with her stepchildren, only one of whom appears ever so briefly in the documentary. And in general, the tone is so genial, you may find yourself wishing for some kind of conflict or grit to shake things up a little bit.
But really, it’s a minor complaint. ‘Muse Of The Movies’ is assembled with such thoroughness, respect and care you can’t help but be awed by Pickford’s remarkable achievements. Bursting with a plethora of clips from her films, gorgeous still photos, rare archival material (another highlight is a look at early test work she did for a version of “Alice In Wonderland” with Walt Disney that didn’t get made) and more, for cinema history buffs, ‘Muse Of The Movies’ more than fits the bill as a warm look back at one of early cinema’s biggest, brightest stars. [B]
“Mary Pickford: The Muse Of The Movies” is on DVD now.