Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (Cinema Libre Studio, NR)

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pickford sqShe was the first actor to have her name appear next to the title on a movie marquee.

 

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If you know anything at all about motion-picture history, you’ve probably heard the name of Mary Pickford, one of the first movie stars and a founder, with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin, of the United Artists studio. Unless you’re a real early film buff, however, you may never have seen any of her films, because much of her best work was done in silent melodramas and comedies whose style is not in line contemporary tastes. That’s a shame, because a lot of art and skill went into those early movies, and they deserve a closer look.

Nicholas Eliopoulos’ Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies accomplishes two things: It presents a straightforward and somewhat hagiographical biography of Pickford’s early life and film career, and it includes a lot of clips from her films, thus whetting the viewer’s appetite for more. The former is notable for the way it interweaves the early history of the film business with that of Pickford’s career (she was born in 1892, one year after Thomas Edison began installing kinetoscopes in penny arcades) and for its skillful use of archival materials. The latter is notable because, once you see what those early directors, cinematographers, and actors could do with the technology available to them, you’re sure to want to see more of their work. In fact, even after seeing these brief clips, you may have renewed appreciation for the fictional silent film star Norma Desmond’s declarations (in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard): “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces,” and (of course) “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

One point driven home by Mary Pickford is how different the early movie business was from the industry we’re used to today. To take an obvious point, in the early years, directors tried to prevent actors from becoming movie stars, for fear that public recognition would allow them to command higher salaries. Pickford recognized her own value early, however, and demanded a raise from D.W. Griffith on the grounds that people on the streetcar recognized her. She was also the first actor to have her name appear next to the title on a movie marquee. Pickford was not motivated merely by a hunger for fame, however—she had been supporting her mother and siblings since childhood, and was always concerned with earning enough to take care of them should she fall out of public favor.pickfordposter

Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies is an extraordinarily well put-together film, narrated by Michael York and skillfully incorporating a real treasure trove of archival materials, including many audio interviews with Pickford. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the movies, and I nourish a fond hope that Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies will do for Pickford’s films what Hugo did for the work of Georges Méliès, i.e., bring them to the attention of a larger audience. Many of Mary Pickford’s movies are available on the internet, on the Internet Archive and elsewhere. They’re definitely worth your time.

The sound and picture quality on Mary Pickford are quite both good, particularly considering that the large quantity and variety of archival materials included. Extras on the DVD include two interviews with Eliopoulos (one audio-only), text biographies of “the cast” (Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, etc.), and a still photo gallery. | Sarah Boslaugh

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