If Mary Pickford is known today outside of film fan circles, it is merely as “The girl with the golden curls” or “America’s Sweetheart”. Behind her delicate beauty, Pickford was a woman with razor sharp business acumen who rose to become one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. She wrote, produced and starred in her own films wielding complete creative control over every aspect of production. She also co-founded United Artists along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and husband Douglas Fairbanks. Her life, career and legacy are explored in the new documentary “Mary Pickford: Muse of the Movies” by Nicholas Eliopoulos which is now out on DVD from Cinema Libre.
The film discusses Pickford’s meteoric rise, her box office drawing power and how she helped to shape acting in film as we know it today. This is made all the more effective by the use of rare archival interviews in Pickford’s own words. Her life seems in many ways to be defined by ambition. While the public loved her in the “little girl” roles, she sought to stretch herself as an artist by tackling new challenges. In the film “Stella Maris” she played a doomed orphan. She transformed herself so completely for the role to that she was rendered unrecognizable. Pickford brought director Ernst Lubitsch from Germany after WWI to direct her 1922 film “Rosita.” They clashed during production and never worked together again. Even so, Pickford was not one to shy away from taking chances.
She eventually began to feel confined by the “little girl” roles and felt they were artistically suffocating her. After her mother’s death in 1928, she had her curls chopped off which made the front page of the New York Times. This transition came along with the arrival of sound. Pickford’s “talkie” debut was the film “Coquette” which won her an Academy Award. Unfortunately fans were confused seeing her play a flirty socialite with bobbed hair. It was not the Mary Pickford they were used to. Her career began to fade along with her celebrated marriage to fellow Hollywood titan Douglas Fairbanks. They would only make a handful of talking pictures each (including a clunky adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” together) before retiring from the screen.
Pickford continued to produce and remained involved with charity work until the end of her life. She blazed countless trails for women in Hollywood and left an indelible mark on film history.