Do We Pre-Judge Mary Pickford?

Not too long ago I read some delightful Facebook comments by a teacher who was talking about how she occasionally showed silent films to her high school class (I think it was high school….maybe it was middle school…hmm…anyways.). She shared a funny story about the way her students reacted to a viewing of One Week (no one saw that last gag coming!) and mentioned a couple other silent stars her class had really liked.

But the one star she couldn’t quite talk them into watching? Mary Pickford. Apparently, they were a little leery to take that step.

Image result for mary pickford

Way too intimidating.

I thanked her for sharing her fun stories, and offered a wee bit of encouragement to show some Pickford films (couldn’t help myself!).

This exchange has gotten me thinking–do folks today have a tendency to pre-judge Mary Pickford? Perhaps a little more so than most silent film stars?

Image result for mary pickford

After all, at first glance her image seems to revolve entirely around delicate, old-fashioned sweetness. She was nicknamed “Little Mary.” She wore pretty dresses, had pale porcelain skin, and often posed holding puppies and kittens. And of course she had those famous, long Edwardian ringlets of golden hair. (Not gonna lie, all this was Awesome if you ask me.)

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But as I took an entire month to argue last year (March of 2016 was my Pickford theme month), to audiences in the early 20th century Mary Pickford’s angelic looks enhanced her versatile and much-admired talent. She could handle both comedy and drama with ease, and became adept at playing heroines half her real age. Viewers couldn’t get enough of those spunky, sometimes tomboyish “little girl” characters, which she’s identified with even today.

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Her films (which she supervised down to the teeniest deteail) are beautifully photographed. Their stories are uplifting, funny, and at times bittersweet–even today they can make you shed a tear. And behind the camera the 5’1″, twenty-something Pickford was one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood. Film history likely wouldn’t have been the same without her.

So you’d think the marvelous Mary would be a shoo-in to be considered a role model in this day and age (considering how the phrase “role model” is thrown around like confetti nowadays). But many people haven’t heard of her, and those who have don’t always think of watching her films.

Image result for mary pickford director

Why? Well, I don’t think it’s just her long, old-timey curls. I think it’s one thing in particular: her name.

“Mary Pickford” has that prim and proper ring to it, different from, say, “Louise Brooks” or “Colleen Moore.” Or “Gloria Swanson.” Even “Jetta Goudal” has a bit of an ageless flair. The Pickford name, however, sounds distinctly Edwardian–or even Victorian. While this may seem like a minor thing, first impressions are important.

I myself, when I’ve talked about silent film stars with people, have noticed a bit of amusement a couple times when I brought up Mary’s name. And my go-to films to introduce to newbies are always Keaton shorts, followed by Biograph dramas, with a sprinkling of artistic epics–and Mary saved for much later on in my touted Amazing Film History Education Process. Strange,  when I recall the fact that she’s one of the most likable and timeless stars.

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Well, I’m going to try and remedy that. The next time I get an amused look, I ju working in a casual reference to Mary being one of the most influential Hollywood pioneers who ever lived. And I might try out a couple of her films for newbies, too.

What do you think? Do you agree Mary’s name might sound old-fashioned to today’s ears, or would you ask me, “what’s in a name?”

22 thoughts on “Do We Pre-Judge Mary Pickford?

  1. Unfortunately for Mary, her name has been a punch line in our culture for a long time. I remember Adolph Green saying in a documentary about Louise Brooks that you wouldn’t mistake her for Mary Pickford. When anyone says “Mary Pickford,” an image comes to your mind of the girl with the curls in a little-girl dress. It’s not the sound of the name; it’s what it signifies. It took me a while to get into her films. It took seeing her in the Biographs for Griffith, and seeing her in Tom-boy roles like “M’Liss,” and dual roles like Stella Maris to make me see her as a serious actress. I also like “Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley” as a starting point to get someone interested in Pickford. What you need to do is tell your class we’re going to see the Griffith short “Female of the Species,” then tell your class, “Do you see that young woman up there; that’s Mary Pickford.” They’ll be dumbfounded.

    • Nice suggestion, especially since The Female of the Species just happens to be my favorite Biograph short.

      I agree that her name certainly signifies a specific image to classic movie fans–absolutely. It sure did for me, before I started watching her films. But when it comes to folks who might not watch classic movies, who don’t really know what she looks like, her name does have a pretty specific first impression.

      It’s so true that Mary’s been used as a “mild-mannered” contrast with the flapper-esque types like Louise Brooks. Always a clear sign that they don’t watch Mary’s films if you ask me.

  2. Mary Pickford is one of my heroes. She did have the sweet, girlish persona going on, but that was merely a very well crafted image designed for the public, like Chaplin’s Little Tramp. In reality she was an immensely innovative and creative woman. She was one of filmmaking’s early pioneers. I don’t think that Pickford gets half of the credit she deserves, and I would love to see more of her work spotlighted. Thank you for writing this article!

  3. I was surprised to find many of Mary’s early films had her playing an adult woman. The “child-woman” developed later and proved popular but Mary wisely realized that she couldn’t continue to play this rather abstract character as she got older. She switched adult roles in ROSITA and DOROTHY VERNON but apparently the public wanted Little Mary so back she went to LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY and SPARROWS. She decided to cut the cord with MY BEST GIRL in 1927 but was at a loss what to follow it up with. I think the death of her mother in 1928 had a huge impact on Mary’s career and in fact it was never the same thereafter. I don’t know why the Mary Pickford Foundation has kept ROSITA and VERNON out of circulation since I believe they would cause many people to totally revise their assumptions about Mary.

    • Heck, just watching ANY of her films might make people revise their assumptions about Mary! 😉 I agree that the death of her mother was very, very hard on her. There’s the anecdote about Doug Fairbanks’s face turning white upon seeing her grief. And, of course, she famously cut those long curls not long after.

  4. I think you might be on to something! I think it’s the combination of the look and the name that probably puts people off. I was so surprised to see that she often played such spitfire, rebellious characters. Not much sweetness and light in many of these roles! And behind the scenes, she was so creative and so powerful–and did such a good job of handling Hollywood men who underestimated her and tried to objectify her. Thanks for this post. I love Mary and I agree she’s long overdue for more appreciation.

    • Those guys certainly couldn’t underestimate Mary for long! And yes, appreciation is waaaay overdue, and would help call extra attention to the silent era, too (I’m always on the alert for this 😉 ). Just think, if one or two big-time celebrities would casually mention something about Mary Pickford it would go a long way to help get the word out about her work. Sigh, I can dream!

  5. When I first watched “The Poor Little Rich Girl” I was blown away by Mary Pickford’s performance. She was so convincing as a little girl that I had to look up her age when she played that role and she was 24 or 25. Amazing.

  6. One issue with Mary is that she kept playing little girl roles for far too long. For example, despite the quality of her performance, she’s not remotely convincing in SPARROWS, which is otherwise an excellent film. My go-to Pickford film for newbies is MY BEST GIRL, even though she’s almost too old for the shopgirl role; at least she’s playing an adult, and extremely well too. I also love AMARILLY OF CLOTHESLINE ALLEY and STELLA MARIS.

    Re: a Silent Film Intro Course, besides Buster (of course! and Charlie (naturally!), IT and WHY BE GOOD? are always surefire winners for me. Clara and Colleen really suck ’em in.

    • It’s so difficult to separate the name per se from the complex of images and assumptions that go with it. But I would mostly agree with Mitch’s comment that it’s what the name signifies that causes these reactions. And the “America’s Sweetheart” title may have worked against her being recognized as the versatile actress she certainly was.

    • Sparrows might be my favorite Pickford film–what an awesome example of American gothic. (I actually thought she was great as the “mother hen” looking after the younger kids, it was a nice “last hurrah” for her as far as the little girls characters go.) Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm and Amarilly are a couple other favorites.

      Funny you should mention Why Be Good?–that was,, in fact, the first silent I got to show to a couple of my good friends! Yup, it’s a surefire winner. 🙂

  7. I think it’s not her name per se, as much as it is the context in which later Audiences viewed it. At that time when many things like Fractured Flicker and Flicker Flashbacks came out they tended to use Silents for the parody, so the visage you got with the Pickford name was just what has been mentioned, the Chaste, Angelic child. So I think it has much more to do with the context later audiences recognized the name to mean. A very interested thread and topic. Well Done Lea!

  8. Where the heck was I when this article was written?!! Holy smokes?

    Better late than never, I guess. I agree with Lea: heck, just put ANY one on, and you’ll see. The effect is definitely cumulative though, it becomes undeniable, and I feel if you just take the 1917-1919 period, where she got control of her films and career, and would do child role (“poor little rich girl” or “daddy longlegs”, both hilarious classics) then an urban comedy, playing an adult/young woman (“amarilly of clothesline alley”, “the hoodlum”), then a rural comedy (“M’Liss”, “Heart Of The Hills”)….she was never JUST playing child roles. And in that 1917-1919 period, she also did “Stella Maris”, a heartbreaking drama where she plays two roles, and “Joahnna Enlists” ( a very funny World War I comedy where she kinda plays two roles, the homely Joanna who changes into “America’s Sweetheart” by the end). You can’t go wrong with any of those films, separate or definitely cumulatively.

  9. Mary’s name is very dignified, but I think she that once a person just watched one of her films, they would find themselves instantly dazzled by her. She was like a Disney princess before Disney! Tell those people to watch her 🙂 ! They won’t regret seeing her films!

  10. I don’t think it’s her name, it’s just the associations linked with her image. People assume her movies must have been saccharine as well as grotesque since she was a grown woman playing children. However, this is belied by the quality of the films: POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL and LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY are particularly entertaining gems with the least amount of diabetes-inducing sweetness. These people think of the frilly child-woman image and not the spunkiness and resilience that accompanied it.

    My own perception of Pickford’s career also changed when I watched her Biograph movies, like THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, WILLFUL PEGGY, or A BEAST AT BAY (the latter of which is among my favorite Biographs in general). There she plays young women and she’s fabulous. MY BEST GIRL also allows her to be plucky and sweet but as a grown woman. It’s a shame her legacy got hijacked by stereotypes of silent film in general (watching many of them, they dealt with dark subject matter that talkies made in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s usually would not touch). I think that is the true culprit, more than her name.

    • Your point is certainly true in many cases, if people are at least somewhat familiar with Pickford’s image. I guess in my experience, I’m usually around people who haven’t heard of her at all (and think JURASSIC PARK is an “old” movie), so her name can sound pretty old-fashioned when you brin git up. I’m also a fan of Mary’s Biographs, especially the magnificent THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES–one of my favorite short silents by far!

      WILFUL PEGGY is a fantastic film to show people who think women were only “allowed” to portray sweet, meek damsels (or something) back in in “olden days.” Her performance is definitely a surprise!

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