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Mary Pickford was arguably the first superstar movie actress, and with the exception of Charlie Chaplin the most popular performer in Hollywood. Beginning with D.W. Griffith at American Biograph, she attracted a huge fan base even when actors weren't credited on screen. Initially known only as "The Girl with the Golden Curls", Pickford's meteoric rise to fame helped shape the Hollywood star system. By 1916 she was one of the best-known women on the planet.
Although Pickford played many types of roles, the ones she's most remembered for are juvenile parts in sentimental family pictures. Always sporting a head of flowing curls -- considered a sign of virtue and innocence -- Pickford's small stature and engagingly childlike mime convinced audiences that she was only ten or twelve years old. Milestone's new Blu-ray Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection gathers three of the actress's more famous juvenile performances. The well-preserved pictures demonstrate Pickford's commitment to quality, as they sport fine direction and high production values.
We're told that Pickford shot to top star status (a category she helped invent) with 1914's Tess of the Storm Country. The first film in Milestone's selection is 1917's The Poor Little Rich Girl, bankrolled by Adolf Zukor's Paramount and produced by Pickford herself. Adapted from a popular novel by frequent collaborator Frances Marion (honored in the documentary Without Lying Down), The Poor Little Rich Girl tells the story of 11 year-old Gwendolyn, a daughter of the rich whose busy parents find no time for her. Her father attends financial meetings while her mother "has a social bee in her bonnet". Gwendolyn is mistreated by an army of disapproving servants that arrange her life for their convenience, and make sure that she has no contact with the rabble on the streets. Gwendolyn so badly wants to have fun that she organizes a party with the plumber and an organ grinder, until the servants intervene. The drama reaches its climax when an inattentive minder gives Gwendolyn an overdose of sleeping medicine. She drifts through a drug-induced dream fantasy inhabited by her absent parents and other phantoms. As her sleep becomes deeper, a Death figure reaches out to her...
A winning combination of comedy and drama, The Poor Little Rich Girl allows Pickford to perform cutesy scenes that seem far more natural than the kiddie hi-jinks later invented for real child stars such as Shirley Temple. Her personality is irresistible. A nice touch shows Gwendolyn miserable as she takes dance lessons. But when she dances for the organ grinder, with the plumber using a copper tube for a horn, the girl makes the same steps look joyful. The 25 year-old actress has mastered Gwendolyn's curiosity and unguarded emotions. It's possible that slightly oversized furniture might be helping the illusion, along with surrounding Pickford with tall actors to emphasize her 5'½" height.
Pickford's director Maurice Tourneur was one of the most artistic craftsmen of the silent era. Tourneur's camera frequently takes Gwendolyn's subjective point of view as she peers from windows, and even simple cutaways to action in the street are interestingly composed. Tourneur did not take kindly to Pickford's on-the-set improvisations but her spirited performance transcends the simple story. Tourneur's expressive, visually sophisticated dream sequence is undiminished by time. His fluid direction looks more modern than work by D.W. Griffith.
In 1919 Pickford founded United Artists Pictures, along with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and her husband-to-be, Douglas Fairbanks. Pickford starred as young women and romantic leads, but 1919's The Hoodlum (actually for First National) returns her once again to a pre-teen age. It's essentially a 'prince and the pauper' variation of the little rich girl story. Little 5th Avenue princess Amy Burke (Pickford) is a selfish brat all too aware of her entitlements. Her Grandfather Guthrie (Ralph Lewis), a cruel businessman, feels no remorse after protecting his fortune by framing an employee for embezzlement. The man served an unjust jail term. When Guthrie announces his intention to take Amy on a European trip, she petulantly backs out at the last moment because she wants to be with her father (Dwight Crittenden), a studious academic intent on finishing his book, a sociological treatise. Amy is shocked to find that her father lives in a shabby apartment on the Lower East Side, the subject of his studies. She is at first traumatized by the poverty and her sudden fall in status, but soon adapts by becoming a street-wise kid, gambling in the dirt and standing up to bullies. Amy develops a crush on John Graham (Kenneth Harlan), an artist in the next tenement. She helps make peace between two warring neighbors, an Irishman and a Jew. Touched by the plight of a fatherless, starving family, Amy talks an older, apparently wealthy bearded gentleman living in her building into supporting them. But John Graham finally reveals that he is the man sent to prison by Amy's father. What can she do about it? And who exactly is this bearded gentleman who keeps a watch over her?
With its more convoluted plot, The Hoodlum is an efficient melodrama that offers Mary Pickford the opportunity to contrast her sheltered rich kid persona with a street ragamuffin, slinging slang and taking part in the rough & tumble of the alleyways. She helps her pals steal food from the immigrant merchants, and puts on an impromptu dance to entertain a crowd. It's a role tailored to extend Pickford's range - her golden curls are gone and she wears an improvised get-up suitable for Martin Scorsese's The Gangs of New York.
Director Sidney Franklin would later helm such prestige MGM pictures as The Good Earth and Private Lives. What he offers to The Hoodlum is a frank depiction of slum conditions, one that would later be whitewashed by the Production Code. Amy Burke finds the streets and stairways packed with hungry, dirty and sick children, often accompanied by adults unwilling or unable to care for them. Her peers on the street get enough to eat through petty theft. While her father remains locked away writing, Amy is the one to develop a social conscience. Her embrace of one unfortunate family is hardly a solution to the social problem but her conversion from selfish ignorance to concerned humanism is quite convincing. Julie Mathilde Lippmann's screenplay manages an audience-pleasing resolution motivated by a Dickens-like hidden identity. And we're not quite sure exactly how old Amy is supposed to be: in the final scenes she's offered a proposition of marriage.
Sparrows was filmed near the end of the silent period, when filming techniques had become more sophisticated. At 33 years of age, it was the last time that Pickford would play a child. Yet we are soon accepting her as Molly, the unofficial mother to nine younger moppets jeopardized in an even more unsavory situation than the one shown in Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. Sparrows was released in 1926, just a year before the birth of the Academy Awards. With its high level of artistic accomplishment, it would almost certainly have been a Best Picture candidate.
Deep in the swamp country, the evil Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz) has imprisoned ten children that he works hard and sorely mistreats. Some of them have relatives, but he destroys their letters and gifts and takes the money. In charge of these helpless 'sparrows' is Molly (Pickford), a slightly older child, who gives special care to a sickly baby. Grimes won't even provide milk and the baby eventually dies. This brutal "baby farm" runs smoothly until two criminals talk Grimes into minding little Doris Wayne (Mary Louise Miller), a pre-toddler they have kidnapped and are holding for ransom. Fearing that Doris's father and the law may trace her back to his farm, Grimes decides to throw the baby into one of the swamp's many deadly sinkholes. Before he can, Molly gathers her flock and sets out to do the impossible: cross the swamp at night, with little Doris tied to her back. Can these children avoid the quicksand and alligators?
Director William Beaudine's career stretched from 1915 all the way to TV work in the 1960s. It's likely that star-producer Pickford called the shots in this movie, which exhibits expressive visuals to rival her husband Douglas Fairbanks' swashbuckling epics. The key to Sparrows' excitingly stylized images is Pickford's choice of artistic cameramen. Hal Mohr was one of Hollywood's finest craftsmen, and Charles Rosher and Karl Struss would film Murnau's acclaimed Sunrise the very next year. The swamp is a convincing back-lot set enhanced with mattes, lens filters and other special effects to place Pickford and her group of tots in what seems a very dangerous location. Karl Struss in particular was noted for fantastic screen illusions for films such as Island of Lost Souls and The Fly. Several scenes showing the children and a score of hungry alligators in the same shot look uncomfortably real. By the middle 1920s film stocks had improved so that color tinting was no longer used to denote nighttime scenes. Creative lighting makes the midnight flight through the swamp a sequence of eerie beauty.
The story begins on a grim note, with Grimes tossing a baby doll into a sinkhole and watching it disappear. Yet Pickford's spirit manages to keep things reasonably light-hearted. Although the children are threatened at every turn, the presence of "America's Sweetheart" assures viewers that all will turn out well. The action is both exciting and reasonably realistic, and "Mama" Molly's optimism is the resource that saves the day. Once again, a simplistic story is engineered to energize audiences with laughter and excitement.
Pickford, Beaudine and the cameramen pull off one of the best bits of religious filmmaking ever in Sparrows. Dramatizing the death of a baby is a risky proposition at best, but a masterstroke of design and special effects turns the tragedy into a miracle. As Molly realizes that the baby has expired, the wall of the barn becomes a gateway to a Biblical scene straight from a child's prayer book. Held in a long shot, an immaculately robed Jesus walks from the pastoral scene into the barn, accepts the baby from Molly, and returns to the Holy Light. The simple and inspired Sunday School image guaranteed to evoke a strong emotional response.
Milestone Video's Blu-ray of the Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection contains all three features on separate Blu-ray discs. The transfers are all quite good, with the older The Poor Little Rich Girl looking a bit softer than the later titles. Beautifully recorded new music tracks are performed by the Flower City Society (Poor) and the Rouse Philharmonic (Hoodlum and Sparrows).
Biographer Scott Eyeman provides a commentary for The Poor Little Rich Girl, which also contains a selection of Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks home movies featuring Charlie Chaplin and filmed at their Hollywood home Picfair. The Hoodlum is accompanied by one of Pickford's oldest surviving films, a one-reel version of the period romantic tragedy Ramona, directed by D.W. Griffith. Sparrows has an original trailer and a full commentary by authors Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta. Also present is a curious set of original outtakes for an alternate special effects scene, which replaces the Christ figure with a non-denominational angel of death.
Less successful are newly filmed color introductions and afterwards to all three features, a worthy attempt to introduce the Pickford films to younger audiences. A kindly teacher shows a small group of upscale children the films in an attic, demonstrating old items such as a Zoetrope. He also explains what film is, which prompts a somewhat disturbing image of the kids unspooling an unidentified 16mm reel onto the floor. Although the intention is good, the overall tone is condescending. The kids exhibit mildly obnoxious, blasé attitudes. At age twelve, hip kids like this are probably already editing their own movies on their laptops.
The introductions are completely optional. The Mary Pickford Rags & Riches Collection reaches back almost a full century to demonstrate the power and appeal of quality silent films - which were just as commercially appealing as anything made today.
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T'was Ever Thus.