On a Monday night at the Old Alamo Theater in Bucksport, Maine, they showed Mary Pickford on the big screen. Off to the side, barely visible at the piano, was Philip Carli, lending a musical assist to a slient film classic.
Said Carli, "Pickford, you get to work with her, and it's good material, because she gives a lot of color and power to the acting, and she also is trying new things. She didn't stay in fixed roles any more than she could help."
A half dozen of her silent films are being restored and released as home videos, with her music by composers like Carli.
Also, a lavish new book, "Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend", features rare photographs from her astonishing career.
Says Robert Cushman, Motion Picture Academy archivist who selected the photographs for the book, "She was the most popular actress, probably even woman, in America for about 20 years, even in the world. By 1915, statisticians had come to the conclusion that she was seen globally by 12 and a half million people every 24 hours. And that's in 1915! Her popularity was just almost incomprehensible today."
Film historian Kevin Brownlow, author of the book, observes, "To say a star was born is underestimating it. I remember one review said that when Pickford's face first appeared on the screen, there was a sound around the theater as though...the air was being let out of 1,000 tires. Wonderful expression... She was earning $10,000 a week...during the first World War, when a steelworker, which is the highest paid job you can have as a worker, was getting $25."
To movie fans all over the world, Mary Pickford was known fondly as "America's Sweetheart." Off camera, she was something more: The most powerful and influential woman on the business. Ever. She was a studio owner, film distributor, and producer.
Says Cushman, "As a business person, she was unparalleled. She did things no woman in the industry had ever done, much to the disbelief of most of the moguls. (She was)...certainly the first woman to make the first percentage deal. But today, you hear about points. Her percentage was 50 percent. And that was in 1916."
Pickford started supporting her family after her father died was just 5 years old, first on stage and then in films, pushed all along by her stage mother.
It was an "on the job" education that taught the young actress the art and business of making films.
Says Brownlow, "They weren't primitive, these picturs. You do not feel that these films were made by people struggling towards something. They were made by people who knew exactly what they were doing. And is exciting about the Mary Pickford films is that they are technically the cream of the crop. She set the standard that everybody else followed."
She took chances no one else did, like playing opposite herself in the 1918 hit "Stella Maris." It was a technical feat that required rewinding the unexposed film back to the exact spot so Pickford could join her other self in the same scene.
Pickford herself once said: "I really did watch the rushes. And my name was 'retake Mary Pickford' because I was never pleased. And that's why I'm not today. I see a picture and I say, 'well, Mary, you're pretty good in that scene,' and I see others, and I think, 'Why, that's dreadful.' I never was satisfied."
It was dissatisfaction with working for someone else that led Pickford to producer her own films, and to form her own studio, United Artists, with Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
And she was tenacious. As silent movies gave way to sound, Pickford co-starred with her husband in "The Taming of the Shrew" and later stole the show in "Coquette," of which she said, "It's a tragic story. I have to weep a lot in it. I don't care whether my nose becomes big and fat from tears, from crying, and my face is blistered, and my eyes become small. I'm going to do it. I'm after the Oscar. I'm going to get the Oscar."
Pickford's career spanned 25 years and more than 200 films, most of which she hoped the public would never see again. After retiring in 1933 at the age of 40, "America's Sweetheart" was worried that Americans would find a silent film star laughable.
Says archivist Cushman, "Her films have not been available largely or totally due to Mary's control over them. She lived in a fear that her films would not be accepted by later generations. She didn't want to be laughed at and laughed at in the wrong way. But I've always thought that if it was good then, it's good now."
Back in Bucksport, Maine, the audience couldn't seem to get enough of Mary Pickford that special night. More than 60 years later, she still lights up a screen.
As Pickford once said, "Make them laugh, make them cry, and back to laughter. What do people go to the theatre for? When they see a picture, they want to be entertained."
For more information:
Mary Pickford home videos:
Milestone Film and Video: 1-800-603-1104
The book is "Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend" by Kevin Brownlow, published by Harry Abrams, Inc.
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