America’s Sweetheart gets a retrospective at the 33rd SFIFF.
By Miguel Pendás
She’s been called the biggest movie star that ever was. Bigger than Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor. She was the hottest thing in Hollywood in 1917—Mary Pickford. Some held her to be the most popular woman in the world.
According to one story, her ubiquitous nickname, America’s Sweetheart, was coined right here in San Francisco by an exhibitor who thought up the phrase one day and just put it on the marquee of his theater. And the San Francisco International Film Festival was proud to honor her decades after her films had become démodé.
Behind the Pollyanna façade, Pickford was known as an astute businesswoman and tough salary negotiator. She was earning over $1,000,000 a year in 1918, more than anyone else in Hollywood. In 1919, at the height of her popularity, she, along with husband Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Chaplin, formed United Artists, the first movie studio run by filmmakers. Thus Pickford gained creative control of her subsequent films.
It was D.W. Griffith that discovered her. Pickford was born in 1893 into modest circumstances, and her father died when she was four, which left the family in dire straits. But like one of her plucky heroines, Mary saved the day by finding work as a child actor on the stage. In 1909 she showed up at the Biograph studios where Griffith interviewed her and saw some potential. He told her to get into makeup and put her in front of the camera, offering her $5 a day; she demanded $10 and got it. Pickford made dozens of films as part of Griffith’s repertory company, which was turning out a two-reeler every few days. There were no credits in films then, but when she began appearing in Griffith’s films, all that changed. The first movie star, at first known to the public only as Little Mary, was born.
History has been unkind to Pickford, saddling her with an undeserved reputation for saccharine portrayals. To the contrary, what Pickford really represented in 1909 was a far-reaching departure from the artificial film acting of the time with its stylized, pantomimed emotions, a relic of the Victorian stage. An actress ahead of her time, Pickford brought a naturalism and restraint that was a perfect companion to Griffith’s evolving cinematic concepts. In fact, she was ahead of Griffith. In her early shorts, she was already a great screen actor, whereas Griffith had not yet come to see beyond the film frame as having a one-to-one correspondence to the proscenium arch of 19th century theater. No closeups, no medium shots, nearly every scene seen full length. He recognized her greatness however, and let the camera linger. The early Griffith films predated the "sweetheart" curse, and here Pickford’s characters were often earthy and virginal at the same time.
"My heart rebelled when they kept me in curls and little girl roles," she said later.
The Festival counted on her participation in 1960 when she served as the "official hostess," greeting international guests from Denmark, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, France and Mexico for their screenings (back then, every feature was a U.S. premiere).
In 1979, a series of events led the Festival to put together a retrospective to honor the actress. She was said to have a great collection of prints of all her films, but as program director Albert Johnson noted at the time, "No one bothered to tell her that they were nitrate and had to be cared for, so many of them disintegrated." Then, in May as the preparations were being made, she passed away. However, cooperation from everyone involved, including husband and costar Buddy Rogers and the Museum of Modern Art, assured that the event would go on. The series included Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Poor Little Rich Girl, Pollyanna, Suds, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Little Annie Rooney, Sparrows, My Best Girl and The Taming of the Shrew.
Despite her enormous impact on film history, few people today have ever seen a Pickford film. Maybe another retrospective would be in order for this cinematic giant, Little Mary.