“The Biograph Girl”! The title once belonged to Florence Lawrence, the first film actor to be recognized by name. But when Lawrence left the Biograph fold in 1909, the title passed on to a new ingenue: young former theater actress Mary Pickford.
Pickford’s Biographs can get overlooked, but they are wildly important to her career. Not only did D.W. Griffith’s tutelage help her learn the ropes of film acting very quickly–so quickly that the strong-willed actress soon began to insist on her own ideas for interesting performances–but during her time at 11 East 14th Street she fell in love with the movies. Griffith once said of her, “She will do anything for the camera. I could tell her to get up on a burning building an jump and she would.” And Pickford had to admit: “There is something to me so sacred about that camera.”
At Biograph Pickford would play fishermen’s daughters, invalids, mountain girls, American Indians, orphans, school teachers, señoritas, and more. She was always grateful for what she learned from Griffith, although she cheerfully admitted that they often butted heads. (It’s thought that Griffith began promoting the inexperienced although talented Mae Marsh to bigger roles mainly to show Mary who was boss.) In only three years she appeared in over 100 films, not counting a few dozen she made for other studios.
So here’s a carefully curated selection of some of Mary’s Biographs (fyi, most don’t have soundtracks, and sometimes the available copies are going to be fuzzy–can’t help that!):
5. The Violin Maker of Cremona (1909)
All the apprentice violin makers in the Italian village of Cremona compete in an annual contest for the best violin. This time, the prize is both a gold chain and the hand of the violin maker’s daughter Giannina in marriage (quite the life-changing contest, that). Giannina wants to marry apprentice Sandro (Pickford’s future husband, Owen Moore) but the gentle, crippled Fillipo (David Miles) is the most likely to win. Fillipo, seeing Giannina’s love for Sandro, must decide if he wants to sacrifice his guaranteed prize.
This is said to be Pickford’s very first credited film (differing from being a background player). It’s meant to be a light comedy with a dash of “storybook” Europe, and while it’s not Biograph at its strongest Pickford does a confident job as flirty Giannina. It’s worth viewing to get a good look at her “fresh off the stage” acting, being closest to what you might’ve seen as a theater goer back in the 1900s. She uses some of those familiar theatrical gestures, but her capacity for subtle acting is obvious even this early on.
3. Friends (1912)
This mildly-titled short stars Pickford and two of the finest actors at Biograph–Henry B. Walthall (the future Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation) and Lionel Barrymore (the future Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life). Pickford is a “little orphan,” whose “eager eyes and bright smile make Placer Gulch Haven an earthly paradise for the rough miners of Golden Creek.” Sure–her character is really, ahem, a lady of the evening. (But the film makes sure to show the male characters carefully leaving the door open when they talk to her in her room.) She’s in love with Walthall’s Dandy Jack, but he rejects her and leaves the mining town. She sadly turns to Barrymore’s Grizzley Fallon, who is already smitten. But their relationship is strained when Dandy Jack returns to Golden Creek. And all of those Western names are awesome, by the way.
There are two closeups of Pickford bookending this quiet, character-driven piece. While certainly not the first closeups ever, as a few have claimed (at the super late date of 1912? Haw), they’re the first of Pickford, which is notable. She makes a charming–ahem–saloon girl, and her two costars complement her well. Walthall, especially, could not pull off a top hat-wearing gentleman with any more finesse if he tried. I appreciate you, Wally.
3. The Female of the Species (1912)
I’ve written about this remarkable short once before, and it’s definitely worth mentioning again. (And again. And…yes, just watch it!) A man and wife, the wife’s sister, and another young woman are survivors of an abandoned mining camp. They decide to leave and take their chances out in the pitiless desert. The husband dies suddenly, and the wife and sister begin to nurse a deep grudge against the young woman, who they suspect had been trying to seduce the husband (she is actually innocent). The wife’s suspicion grows into a murderous mania, encouraged by the sister (played by Pickford).
The intense drama between the characters, played against the wild, windswept landscape of the California desert, is something remarkable even for Biograph, and make this short a can’t-miss mini masterpiece. Pickford gets a chance to show off her range, being surprisingly chilling as the scheming sister.
2. Willful Peggy (1910)
Consider regarding this film by its alternate title, created by me: Pickford Unleashed. The story goes that Willful Mary was unhappy with how meek her heroine was supposed to be, so Griffith let her put her own spin on the character. The result is one of the fieriest, spunkiest heroines I’ve seen in a Biograph film–she probably paved the way for characters like Lillian Gish’s in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)!
The setting is 18th century Ireland. An aristocrat becomes smitten with a spirited tavern girl, who refuses to serve him until he shows the proper politeness. He later spies her giving a sound thrashing to a young man who had the audacity to try and kiss her, and falls for her all the more. He proposes, and the fiery lass must try and adjust to fashionable society. The film is a delight and a sign of Pickford heroines to come.
- The New York Hat (1912)
Pickford’s last Biograph film was an inspired send off for this now film-savvy young lady. She plays Mollie, whose father is a miser, and whose mother is dying. The mother writes a letter to the local pastor explaining that she had managed to save some money in spite of her tight-fisted husband, and that she wants him to buy Mollie the bits of “finery” she had always desired. When the mother passes away the pastor carries out her wish by buying Mollie a fancy new hat that she had been longing for. Local gossips see him buying the hat, come to some scandalous conclusions, and Mollie finds herself a pariah.
The film is a classic. It also seems like an early prototype of Pickford’s later films. Her Mollie is a sympathetic, lower-class girl, much like many of her own heroines, and Pickford’s acting is beautifully subtle but still full of vivid emotion. You really feel for her when she first sees that astonishing new hat–and is so overcome with amazement that she has to sit down!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these glimpses at early Mary, and try to seek out more. They not only promised the many good things to come, but they were often great films in their own right–little gems from that rapidly-evolving era of film.