My primary introduction to silent films has come through Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks and I thought it was about time I learned more about some silent female stars. Mary Pickford was not only a star, but possibly the first movie star. She is best remembered for playing child roles, but she more often played adolescents and adults – often spunky, sweet, mischievous, intrepid, intense, fun-loving, sincere – she was called America’s Sweetheart.
The only book that I could find at the library, however, was Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend, which is not a biography. It does, however, cover a bit about her life, as well as her legacy and discusses nearly every film she made (though it summarizes her work at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios). It also contains some gorgeous pictures. Most of them were taken using still photography, a hugely laborious process that yielded stunning pictures that often employed lighting creatively.
Pickford started making movies in 1909 and retired in 1933 and the difference between a one reel, twelve minute short made with Griffith and her feature length films in the late twenties is extraordinary. Because she later produced her own films (she was a canny businesswoman) and hired her own people, she had a great deal of control over her films and they tended to be technologically at the forefront of the movie industry. She made several films where she played dual roles, which if the pictures are anything to go by, look as seamless as anything made today.
Brownlow is a big fan of Pickford and it was fun to get a sense of the breadth of her career. She certainly played more than children and the book made me extremely eager to see her films. I’ve often read that Daddy Long Legs (1919) is considered one of her best and has the advantage of showcasing Pickford as both a child and adult, so I took a chance and bought the DVD (it also had the advantage of being cheaper than some of her other films – quality silent films, alas, are rarely economical…several of her DVDs are going for over $100 and others have sold out).
I’d read the book by Jean Webster before and seen Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in the 1955 musical, so I was already familiar with the story. Jerusha (Judy) Abbott is found as a baby in a trash can and sent to an orphanage that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens’ novel. But when she grows up, a sympathetic trustee of the orphanage persuades a nameless benefactor to send Judy to college. Her benefactor’s conditions are that she remain unaware of his identity and write him once a month to update him on her progress. Seeing his shadow on the wall, Judy calls him her Daddy Long Legs.
At college, Judy proves remarkably popular, as the brother of one of her roommates and the uncle of the other both fall in love with her. Jimmie McBride (Marshall Neilan – who is also the director of the film) is an irresponsible young man who seems to get into a lot of trouble with his car. Jervis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) is nearly twice her age, very wealthy and for the first time in his life, deeply in love.
Of course, as it turns out, he is also her Daddy Long Legs, which could potentially be creepy, especially since he is able to use his authority as her benefactor to ensure that she does not go to Europe with Jimmie’s family, but spends the summer at a farm where he is able to drop by.
But Mahlon Hamilton does not play Jervis as an aggressive purser. He’s very sweet and highly conscious of the difference in their ages, which makes him respectful and non-pushy. It also helps that he only tries it once, is reminded of the age difference, and backs off.
Judy ends by becoming a successful author, as well as finding love. Thus Mary Pickford ages from irrepressible twelve year old to a responsible, but still young woman helping at the orphanage to a college girl just becoming aware of love, to a successful author…but her irrepressibility remains, despite growing more womanly before our eyes.
I have to admit to reservations about the idea of a 26 year old woman playing a child of twelve, but somehow she makes you believe the character. She comes across as largely unaffected and sincere and imbues the child with real feeling, doing it better than most child actors.
The film is somewhat disjointed. The first half could come straight out of Dickens, with a combination of humor and tragedy, evil orphanage matrons, kind trustees, sweet children dying, the ironic contrast of wealth and poverty, the enduring and even soaring human spirit in the midst of poverty. The second half of the film is an out-and-out romance, with a dash of the coming of age story, without a hint of irony (well, there are hints). And once again, somehow it all works. Perhaps it’s the presence of Mary Pickford.
The music is lovely, written by Maria Newman, chamber music that prominently features the violin and brought to mind Anne of Green Gables…though 1919 is a decade later than the original story by Lucy Maud Montgomery story, written in 1908. But that is partially what fascinated me about the film. It is actually reasonably close to the time period of novels like Anne of Green Gables, Betsy-Tacy, Christy, A Little Princess, and it’s quite simply interesting to see what the world looked like, not as it was imagined in later films, but as contemporaries saw it.