Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’

Mary Pickford with camera
‘You didn’t really direct Mary. She was a very sure person in her own category’ – Howard Hawks

This is a guest post for Silent London to mark International Women’s Day by Kelly Robinson, curator of the Birds Eye View Sound and Silents programme. 

Birds Eye View’s Mary Pickford Revived event is part of WOW – Women of the World Festival 2012 at the Southbank Centre. Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley with The New York Hat and Female of the Species screen at the Southbank Centre on 9 March at 8pm (find out more). Sparrows screens at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March at 4pm (find out more).

My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear” – Mary Pickford

In any serious study of early cinema, prominent men such as the “Father of Film” DW Griffith and silent clown Charles Chaplin are always first to feature. Happily though, recent literature has sought to readdress this critical gender imbalance by also highlighting the contribution of similarly extraordinary pioneers – including Mary Pickford.

Pickford was certainly a creative force on a par with Chaplin, and the two had a lot in common. Like Chaplin, she also performed in the theatre from a young age to support her family. At 13, a precocious Pickford harangued theatre impresario David Belasco to hire her, apparently telling him: “I’m the father of my family.” Like many other theatre actors, she was initially disdainful of cinema but was drawn in by the financial rewards. She enquired at the bustling Biograph studios for work, and it was here that she met Griffith, the director of two of the beautiful shorts that feature as part of the Southbank programme.

The films in this programme span a period of just seven years but this was a time of rapid change. Indeed, in the months that separate Griffith’s The New York Hat and Female of the Species we can see striking developments in film form and style. The volume of films Biograph churned out was phenomenal and between 1909 and 1910 Pickford appeared in 80 films for Griffith.

Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart
Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart (Courtesy Birds Eye View)

Pickford said: “I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.” Indeed she quickly became a favourite with audiences, although they didn’t yet know her name; she was referred to as the ‘”girl with the curls”. Once she had established the extent of her fame, she asked for a rise from Griffith and her name on the screen.

Pickford resumed her stage career with Belasco in 1913, but quickly became restless. Adolph Zukor saw her on stage and asked her to join Famous Players (which eventually became Paramount). With Tess of the Storm Country in 1914 she became a household name. Zukor and Pickford cultivated her star image as a little girl. In public, Pickford was constantly chaperoned by her mother and rarely seen with her first husband, who was the actor Owen Moore.

But Pickford’s public image was at odds with the private reality. She was in fact firmly in control of her own destiny and behind the scenes was making increasing demands to produce her own work and even have final cut. Amarilly is a product of this new found autonomy.

In BEV Springs’ Mary Pickford Revived, watch as she stands lurking in the background, beady eyed, sly and manipulative in Female of the Species; innocent and childlike, her expression imbued with longing as she gazes at herself in the mirror in The New York Hat and spontaneous and coquettish in Amarilly. Pickford not only played a crucial role in establishing the star system in the US she also helped lay the foundation for the art of screen acting.

Many of Pickford’s films during the late teens and early 1920s were based on books by women writers who were social, cultural and educational reformers. These texts were then adapted by female scriptwriters who often accentuated these progressive concerns. Pickford said: “I am a woman’s woman. My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear.”

Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

Pickford achieved international celebrity by appearing as a child or young adult in screen adaptations of classic children’s novels including Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Eleanor H. Porter’s Pollyanna. Much of her appeal was built around the idea that she was ‘Little Mary’. Pickford often said in press interviews that she never really experienced a childhood and that she lived it through her films. However, as ‘Mary Pickford Revived’ shows, she moved between genres including melodrama, comedies and flapper romances.

Aged 34, she played teenager Mama Mollie in the United Artists-produced Sparrows, but this film is hardly light-hearted fare; it has a rather Dickensian feel and its style is expressionistic. Indeed it had a somewhat mixed reception, with contemporary reviewers objecting to dark tones in a film starring “America’s Sweetheart”. However, for some time Pickford had been in a position to make what she liked how she liked it.

Encouraged by the rumours that producers ruling the industry were to clamp down on actors’ wages she had formed United Artists in 1919 with other talented filmmakers including DW Griffith and Charles Chaplin. United Artists is often considered to have been Pickford’s brainchild and she apparently dominated meetings.

Now that she had complete control over her films she insisted on the finest in production values. “I would like to concentrate on acting alone,” she said, “but I realise I can’t. I must be responsible for the entire production. So many things can ruin fine work. You must supervise even the editing and the developing.”

Mary Pickford in Sparrows
Mary Pickford in Sparrows (Courtesy Birds Eye View)

Sparrows is a good example of the superb levels of technical craftsmanship in her films. Pickford and her second husband Douglas Fairbanks had visited Berlin in 1925 and this had an impact on the way they both made films. Cameraman Charles Rosher had also visited Germany as a consultant on FW Muranu’s Faust and he and his German colleagues on the production were encouraged to experiment. The film has wonderfully expressive lighting and enormous and realistic sets painstakingly created at the back lot of the Pickford-Fairbanks studios.

Pickford was an indomitable figure – so much so that she had to coax Sparrows director William Beaudine into taking charge. She said: “Now look. I am the star, I am the producer, and I am the owner of this picture. You don’t want me to be the director, too, do you? If I didn’t think you could do this picture, I wouldn’t have hired you. Now come on, let’s get to work.” Director Howard Hawks confirms this impression of Pickford’s authority on set: “You didn’t really direct Mary. She was a very sure person in her own category.”

Sparrows was Pickford’s penultimate silent production and shows her at the height of her powers. Like The Artist’s George Valentin, Pickford would now face new challenges with audiences’ demands shifting and the arrival of sound film. As she got older it would become difficult to carry off the young roles associated with her persona. Times were changing also and Pickford’s look was very different to younger sassy, sexy actors such as Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. In 1928, when she cut off her curls she said: “I am sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover. I created a certain type of character and now I think it’s practically finished.”

Mary Pickford's bob
‘Sick of Cinderella’ – Mary Pickford before and after she bobbed her hair (Courtesy Birds Eye View)

Joe Schenck, a partner in United Artists, had declared that the company would not make talkies. Pickford, however, was determined to experiment with the new technology. In her first sound film Coquette she played against type as a flapper. She was a vamp with bobbed hair, a southern accent and skirt above the knee. Coquette was successful and she won the second ever Best Actress Academy Award, but the films that followed were received less well and Pickford decided to quit starring in films whilst she was still reasonably on top. She maintained an interest in United Artists and continued to produce films, still working hard but now only behind the camera.

The success of The Artist and the abundance of silent film screenings across the country at this moment show what a great time this is for silent film. In light of the disappointingly low number of women working in the film industry today, it is worth highlighting once more the vital contribution women made to the silent era. Let’s have a revival of silent film in conjunction with a revival of women’s participation in film-making of all kinds.

Kelly Robinson

A version of this post previously appeared on the Birds Eye View Festival website.

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