Though many film fans would be hard pressed to name one of
her movies today, there was a time when Mary Pickford was the highest
actress in the world, as well as one of the most beloved screen
personalities. An outstanding actress
and an equally astute businesswoman, she's the focus of Nicholas
documentary Mary Pickford: The Muse of
the Movies. Tracing her career from the
earliest days of film to the absolute pinnacle of stardom and beyond,
documentary is a great crash course in what Mary did both in front of
behind the camera.
Born Gladys Marie Smith in 1892, the
future star took to the stage out of necessity to help feed her two
(Jack and Lottie, also actors) and mother.
She achieved some success treading the boards, and even appeared
Broadway, but a summer lull forced her to seek employment in the
Movies were still a new medium, mainly frequented by immigrants and the
classes, and people who appeared in them were definitely looked down
those on the 'legitimate stage.' At the
age of 15 Mary applied for a job at Biograph Studios and was flat-out
rejected. On her way out she bumped into
a tall man and let loose with her rage at being rejected by an
she considered beneath her. She complained
about the poor quality of the movies being released.
He replied that the medium was just in its
infancy, and just as live theater was once disreputable, film would
grow. That man
was director D. W. Griffith and he
sold her on the idea of a film career.
He hired her at $5 a day.
Soon she was known as the "Biograph
Girl." Actors weren't given credits in
those days, the producers were afraid of creating a star system where
popular actors would charge exorbitant fees to appear in movies. (If they could only see what stars are
getting today!) Even without knowing her
name Mary was a star and was frequently stopped on the street. Eventually her name was put in the credits,
and she went from bigger to bigger roles.
It wasn't too long before she traveled to the orange groves of
California and the small town of Hollywood to continue her career.
By the teens Mary's popularity had
soared. She was the first actress to get
her name in lights on a marquee and the first to earn a million dollars
year. She was the biggest actress in the
world when she married one of the biggest actors, Douglas Fairbanks,
to their castle: Pickfair a one-time
hunting lodge that they expanded. There
the pair held court and entertained the crème de la crème of society
Hollywood's elite to politicians and other notables such as Amelia
Albert Einstein. There has never been a
star who totally captured the country's and the world's imagination
Pickford, and it's likely that there never will be one again.
There were a couple of things I liked
about this documentary. They didn't just
concentrate on her acting, which would have been easy to do, but also
time on the business side of her life.
She was an astute businesswoman and that's often forgotten. She was one of the first women to become an
independent producer of movies, one of the highest paid people in the
for years, as well as creating United Artist along with Fairbanks,
Griffith. And she did all when she
This documentary also relies heavily on
primary sources, that is Mary herself and people who actually knew her. The director had access to Kevin Brownlow's
taped interviews with Mary Pickford that he conducted when he was
seminal book, The Parade's Gone By,
as well as other interviews she's done over the years.
In addition he had access to her last
husband, Buddy Rogers as well as a wealth of interviews with her
as Lillian Gish. This direct information is wonderful and it's great to
the people who knew and loved the star talk about her.
That's not to say the movie is
perfect. It does gloss over her early
years, which I've always felt was formidable in shaping the woman she
became. She was the bread-winner for her
family since she was a little girl, and that pressure and feeling of
responsibility helped make her into the astute businesswoman that she
became. She was always worried about
providing for her mother and siblings and she wanted to make sure that
the money to do that, even if her career tanked.
The film doesn't talk much about her
later years, or the relationship (or lack thereof) that she had with
adopted children (though her daughter, Roxanne, is featured in some
clips). While I wasn't hoping for a
hatchet job, a fair coverage of some of the star faults would have made
documentary more complete.
This 101-minute documentary comes on a single DVD in a
The stereo soundtrack is fine, and fits the subject
matter. There really isn't any need for
multi-channel sound since much of the film is made up of recordings
video) of Mary Pickford and her friends discussing her life. The vintage tapes have been cleaned up and
sound nice, though fidelity is naturally limited by the source
The full frame image is what you'd expect from a documentary
on a silent film star. The vintage clips
of Pickford's films are generally very good, but are showing their age,
some of the stills and the more recent interviews are clean and clear.
The disc offers some nice bonus material. There
are short text biographies of the
people who played a large part in Mary's life as well as a short reel
photos. In addition there are two
interviews with director Nicholas Eliopoulos; one from the Toronto Film
Festival and the other, audio only, from an NPR interview.
Both run about 15 minutes.
The one thing I really wish they had included was a Pickford
short. They're in the public domain now
and it would have been great for people who aren't familiar with her
see her in her element, acting before the camera.
This is a very nice overview of one of the brightest stars
from the early days of cinema. She
literally grew up with the movies, starting out at the age of 15 when
one-reelers were still the norm and growing with the medium until she
after sound came onto the scene. With
interviews from Mary and people who knew her, this is a good place to
someone who wants to learn more about this important actress,
filmmaker, and businesswoman. It gets a