If you asked me to recommend a good “starter” Mary Pickford film, one that captures her at her most Pickfordian (that can be a word, yes?), I would have to think it over. There’s so many classics to choose from…her Biograph shorts, features like Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)…it’s a little like trying to decide which decadent cheesecake is the best. Every cheesecake is decadent.
If I had to stick to short films, my choice would be The New York Hat (1912). But if I had to decide between her features, I might settle on the charming, funny Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917).It’s based on Kate Douglas Wiggin’s 1903 novel, although screenwriter Frances Marion takes a few liberties. Plucky young Rebecca is one of seven children on the impoverished family farm, which is run by her widowed mother. Having so many mouths to feed, her mother decides that Rebecca must live with her stern aunts Miranda and Jane Sawyer in the village of Riverboro, in hopes of giving her a better future.
While Miranda and Jane are often cold toward Rebecca, she quickly takes to village life, both startling and amusing her fellow citizens with her prankish schemes. She also tries to help an unmarried couple with several children who she innocently believes are simply too poor to afford a wedding ring. (Their last name is Simpson, and yes, the references to “the Simpsons” are endlessly amusing in 1910s title card format.) Her aunts begin to warm toward Rebecca and decide that she should attend a fine boarding school. When she returns, she’s an accomplished young woman.
Sound a bit strung together and episodic? Episodic, perhaps. Strung together? Heavens, no. It’s a breezy series of vignettes, often humorous, and reminiscent of those delightful old children’s novels that center around simply having adventures (always my favorites as a kid). It’s more a comedy than a drama, with gags spaced to satisfy Charlie Chaplin’s own standards. And like many 1910s films, it has plenty of period charm for anyone who likes peeking into early 20th century village life: quaint hats, horse-drawn buggies, sunny lawns and white picket fences that are still sturdy.
It’s Pickford’s vivid performance that the film revolves around. In every scene her face is like an open book of emotions, from the moments of sincere pathos to all those comic scenes. Rebecca’s interactions with the Riverboro golk give Pickford plenty of opportunities to have fun with the character, especially in Rebecca’s undying feud with bratty Minnie Smellie (her cheeky insults toward Smellie become a running joke). She gets to do slapstick, too, especially in the scene where the village children put on a circus and Rebecca suspends from a wire so she can do some funny “bareback riding”–and ends up whirling in circles like an out-of-control Peter Pan. (The harness apparently made her ribs sore for days.)
Sunny Rebecca shares some similarities with the well-known Pollyanna character (who Pickford would play a few years later in 1920). Rebecca is equally innocent, but less saccharine. A classic scene shows her trying to sneak a forbidden piece of pie. At the last moment her eyes fall on a decorative sign proclaiming “Thou Shalt Not Steal,” and she quickly puts it down. But when she spots another sign–“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”–she gratefully takes its advice.
In general she is one of Pickford’s pluckiest and most well-rounded characters, a courageous little go-getter who can stand up for herself without a qualm. Pickford seems in her element, rather like a musician playing their favorite piece of music.
People today can find the idea of an adult woman playing a child grotesque. But in Pickford’s case, it works. I think this is for three reasons: A) She physically looked the part, being only five feet tall and, to be honest, having a large head–much like children do. B) Her characters often had a lot of depth–they weren’t just shallow impersonations. C) She wasn’t simply throwing on some kid clothes and acting immature–she actually studied children’s behavior and expressions and incorporated them into her performances as authentically as possible. In an article for the December 1917 issue of Vanity Fair she described her artistry:
There are many things to remember in impersonating a child role. For instance, the facial muscles of the grown-ups are controlled, while those of a child spontaneously reflect passing moods. A child pouts when it is displeased. When children are awed, or surprised, or frightened, their eyes open wide and their mouths droop, but their foreheads remain unwrinkled–and just there is another difficulty, for when we older people are under the influence of similar emotions, our brows have a tendency to become lined. Then there are the muscles about the mouth; those of the child’s, unlike the grown-up’s, are relaxed. Another technical problem that is difficult to solve is that of carriage. You see, the child moves about freely, its arms swinging carelessly, its shoulders droop very slightly, the knee joints are loose, and the toes point inward. An actress can’t be too careful in noting and copying such movements as these in the case of a child. It all takes time and study–more than my audiences have imagined.
Pickford’s director was Marshall “Mickey” Neilan. The two collaborated remarkably well, resulting in some of Pickford’s best films: The Little Princess (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) and more. The heroines of these films all have certain things in common: being lively and mischievous, being sweet and virtuous without being cloying, and appealing to audience sympathies without making them feel manipulated.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is America’s Sweetheart inhabiting the quintessential role that 1910s audiences enjoyed the best. It’s a delight, and much of it remains fresh. I’d say it can be equally enjoyed by silent film fanatics as well as kids–who will hopefully become Pickford’s newest generation of fans.
This film is available in various places–bargain basement Alpha Video has a cheap (and cheaply produced) copy, and it’s also included on The Actors: Rare Films of Mary Pickford Collection Vol. 2. You can watch a YouTube copy below (the quality isn’t ideal, but Mary still shines through!).
P.s. Little Annie Rooney wishes all ya mugs a Happy St. Paddy’s Day!