A long-silent legacy shines anew

In her day, she was as famous as Charlie Chaplin, and now, with the release of six restored films, modern audiences can see why


August 22, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

She's America's Forgotten Sweetheart, a neglected figure from the early days of cinema whose movies are rarely seen, whose artistry is often dismissed as sheer popularity, whose reputation has been eclipsed by two men once viewed as her equals.

It's about time Mary Pickford emerged from the shadows -- even if those shadows were largely of her own making. In her later years, Pickford didn't seem to give a lick what happened to her films, among the most loved movies of their time.

Fortunately, the hole Pickford dug for her legacy is beginning to disappear. Making this year's American Film Institute list of Hollywood legends has, at least, re-introduced her to the filmgoing public. And earlier this summer, Milestone Film & Video released restored video versions of six Pickford films, including what may be her two best: 1918's "Stella Maris" and 1919's "Daddy-Long-Legs."

All six videos feature the best available prints, often struck from original 35mm negatives. They look great, largely missing the dust, scratches and blotches that plague surviving silent films. They're also run at the proper speed (silent films were shot at a slower speed than their talking descendants), meaning the on-screen characters don't move about in herky-jerky fashion.

All this means that moments like the Chaplin-inspired shrug that helps define Mary's optimistic character in 1918's "Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley" and the slyly sexy closing scene of 1919's "Daddy-Long-Legs" are back in the public eye where they belong.

Canadian-born Gladys Louise Smith was only 6 when she made her stage debut in a Toronto playhouse in 1898, delivering a single line and getting paid eight dollars a week. At 14, she impressed Broadway impresario David Belasco and was hired for his play, "The Warrens of Virginia."

Steady theater work brought in enough money to support her mother and two younger siblings, and the newly christened Mary Pickford (after her maternal great-grandmother) might have remained onstage save for two factors. For one, she needed something to do during the summer, when work was scarce. And her mother, Charlotte, was intrigued by these "flickers" that people seemed willing to spend good money to see.

So Pickford found her way to the New York studios of Biograph pictures where, under the tutelage of not-yet-legendary director D.W. Griffith, she embarked on her screen career.

In those days, actors in films were rarely identified, but it wasn't long before audiences were clamoring for the "girl with the curls." By the early teens, Pickford's name was known everywhere, and it was enough to ensure a film's success.

Good-hearted gamine

Because she was so small, Pickford was able to believably play a young girl until she was well into her 30s. Good thing, because that's how audiences adored her: as the downtrodden, good-hearted gamine who had spunk enough to wiggle way out of any situation. Some of her most famous and popular roles, including "Tess of the Storm Country" (which she filmed twice), "Pollyanna" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," were in hopelessly sentimental melodramas. Unfortunately, these are the films that have become most identified with her.

But Pickford was more than that, as the six films released by Milestone show. In "Stella Maris," she's perfectly believable as both the title character, a beautiful, high-society invalid, and Unity Blake, a misshapen, mistreated orphan who ends up sacrificing her life for the man both girls love. In "Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley," she's a street urchin who undergoes a "Pygmalion"-like transformation. And in "Sparrows" (1926), she brings a surprisingly tough edge to her role as Mama Mollie, the oldest child and resident mother figure at a swamp-infested orphan "baby farm."

In the delightful "Daddy-Long-Legs," Pickford's Jerusha "Judy" Abbott grows from girl to young woman. Pickford's captivating performance, combined with the puckish direction of her frequent collaborator, Marshall Nielan, make this one of her most enjoyable films. As her character struggles to protect her fellow orphans (she was often parentless on screen) and, later, to discover the identity of the mysterious benefactor paying for her college education, Pickford manages the difficult trick of being cute without being cloying.

But while Pickford was a wonderful actress, with an ease and naturalness that shines through even 80-year-old celluloid, she was her legacy's own worst enemy. Among her contemporaries, only Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin were considered her equal (she married the former and formed a business partnership with the latter). Both men ensured that their films were never out of the public eye for long. Chaplin retained possession of most of his movies, keeping them in pristine condition and seeing to it that they were re-released on occasion, while Fairbanks donated his films to New York's Museum of Modern Art before his death in 1939.

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