The Many Faces of Mary Pickford

The Many Faces of Mary Pickford

Kelly Robinson, our silent film program curator,  waxes lyrical on Mary Pickford’s ability to provide both quantity and quality of cinema and gives us a bit of insight into her film selections for Mary Pickford Revived.

In any serious study of early cinema, prominent male figures such as the ‘Father of Film’ D.W. Griffith and silent clown Charles Chaplin are always first to feature. Happily though, recent literature has sought to readdress this critical gender imbalance by also highlighting the contribution of similarly extraordinary pioneers like Mary Pickford.

Pickford was certainly a creative force en par with Chaplin, with whom she also shared several biographical resemblances. Like Chaplin, she also performed in the theatre from a young age to support her family. At thirteen, a precocious Pickford harangued theatre impresario David Belasco to hire her, apparently telling him: “I’m the Father of my family”. Like other theatre actors she was initially disdainful of cinema but was drawn in by the financial rewards. She enquired at the bustling Biograph studios for work, and it was here that she met D.W. Griffith, the director of two of the beautiful shorts that feature as part of the Southbank programme.

The films in this programme span a period of just seven years but this was a time of rapid change. Indeed in the months that separate Griffith’s The New York Hat and Female of the Species we can see striking developments in film form and style. The volume of films Biograph churned out was phenomenal and between 1909 and 1910 Pickford appeared in eighty films for Griffith.

Pickford said: ‘I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.’ Indeed she quickly became a favourite with audiences, although they didn’t yet know her name; she was referred to as the ‘girl with the curls’. Once she had established the extent of her fame she asked for a rise from Griffith and her name on the screen.

Pickford resumed her stage career with Belasco in 1913 but quickly became restless. Adolph Zukor saw her on stage and asked her to join Famous Players (which eventually became Paramount).

With Tess of the Storm Country in 1914 she became a household name. Zukor and Pickford cultivated her star image as a little girl, one which she eventually felt encumbered with. In public Pickford was constantly chaperoned by her mother and rarely seen with her first husband the actor Owen Moore.

Pickford’s public image was at odds with the private reality. Pickford was in fact firmly in control of her own destiny and behind the scenes was making increasing demands to produce her own work and even have final cut. Amarilly is a product of this new found autonomy.

In BEV Springs’ Mary Pickford Revived, watch as she stands lurking in the background, beady eyed, sly and manipulative in Female of the Species; innocent and childlike, her expression imbued with longing as she gazes at herself in the mirror in The New York Hat and spontaneous and coquettish in Amarilly. Pickford not only played a crucial role in establishing the star system in the US she also helped lay the foundation for the art of screen acting.

Birds Eye View’s Sound & Silents: Mary Pickford Revived is part of BEV Springs 2012. March 9th at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre (part of WOW Festival) and Sunday March 11th at Hackney Picture House. BEV Springs programme details here.


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