July 7, 1997
Under the Curls, a Determined Mind
By Stephanie Elizondo Griest
NEW YORK -- A common perception of Mary Pickford may be that when she died at 87 she was still America's sweetheart, the girl with a headful of curls in dozens of silent films. But to a new biographer, Eileen Whitfield, that is about as true to life as the image of Charlie Chaplin in a silk top hat eating caviar and seducing negligee-clad women.
"Mary Pickford's style was more, 'You be straight with me or I'll kick you,"' said Ms. Whitfield, whose biography, "Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood," is to be published by the University Press of Kentucky in September. "She knew what she was worth, and she didn't hesitate to ask for it. She was a woman in complete control."
Starting Monday night, Pickford, the first woman to become a movie mogul and one of the founders of United Artists, is returning to the screen in a retrospective, "Mary Pickford: Superstar," sponsored by Milestone Film and the Mary Pickford Foundation. Two of her movies will be shown each week at the Film Forum through Aug. 25, beginning with "My Best Girl" and "Sparrows," before the retrospective embarks on a two-year worldwide tour.
In addition, Milestone plans to release at least five of Pickford's films on video this year, and the foundation just finished a two-hour documentary about her life, with Whoopi Goldberg as narrator. There is also another biography under way.
Though Pickford remained a recognizable Hollywood name throughout her life, her work -- some 52 feature films and 141 shorts, all but four of them silents -- did not. Even today many of her films are accessible only to scholars and have not been shown in theaters since their premieres 70 or more years ago.
Pickford, named Gladys Smith at her birth in 1892, took to the stage when her father died and at age 5 had already become the primary breadwinner of her struggling family. She starred on Broadway at 14, and by 16 had informed the filmmaker D.W. Griffith that she was an actress and would accept no less than $25 a week plus overtime. She always demanded that her salary match Chaplin's, and at her peak she made $350,000 a picture.
On camera, she played everything from Cockney slaves to paralyzed rich girls and sometimes, as in the case of her 1918 classic, "Stella Maris," she played them simultaneously. But her audience preferred her innocent little-girl persona, and films like "Pollyanna," "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and "A Little Princess" were favorites.
"People wanted her to stick with an image she was trying to get away from: that of a young girl," said Elana Archer, the manager of the Mary Pickford Library in Beverly Hills, Calif., who maintains a continuing search throughout the world for long-lost reels. "When they saw her get old, they lost interest. She was afraid of becoming a giant anachronism, so she chose to bow out."
Although in 1929 Pickford won the first of two Academy Awards, for her performance in the talkie "Coquette," her transition from the silents was arduous. She retired from films in 1933, moving on to radio performances and writing several books. She was married three times, each time to a movie actor, including Douglas Fairbanks. She eventually took up philanthropy, and over the years her foundation has raised more than $10 million for various charities and institutions like the Motion Picture Relief Fund.
"She represents the birth of superstardom and the female executive," said Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "She addressed the hardships that women face and she lived the liberated life."
Still, Mary Pickford was her own harshest critic. "She believed people had forgotten how to watch silent film, and they would find it laughable," Ms. Whitfield said. "She went to her grave feeling that her work would not stand the test of time. But she really is a 1997 woman."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood
Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (VHS)
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (DVD)
Daddy Long-Legs (VHS)
Daddy Long-Legs (DVD)
My Best Girl (VHS)
My Best Girl (DVD)
Stella Maris (VHS)
Tess of the Storm Country (1922) (VHS)
Tess of the Storm Country (1922) (DVD)
Mary Pickford: My Own Story
"Mary Pickford Returns"
A good essay on her films, her life, and her achievements, from The World & I magazine.
Elaina B. Archer on Mary Pickford - The Lybarger Links Interview. An interview with the restorer of 6 of Mary's films for video.
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