Thursday, August 17, 2006

As The Sparrow Flies

Sparrows (1926)
Monday August 21, 7:00pm The Paramount, Seattle
Mary Pickford with her cameraman Charles Rosher and director William Beaudine during the production of Sparrows.
This photo is from The Mary Pickford Institute's collection available for viewing at

Marshall Neilan, Mary Pickford's favorite director, wrote an essay called "Acting For The Screen: Six Great Essentials" (available in the sadly out-of-print book, Richard Koszarski's Hollywood Directors 1914-1940). In it he opines that there are six essential qualities for great screen acting and not a single actress will possess all six. Instead the great silver screen divas possess one of those qualities to the nth degree.

The six qualities are beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style and the ability to wear clothes. (If you think the last one is trite, I have two words for you, Marlene Dietrich.) He then went on to cite an actress who exemplified each quality. For personality he chose Mary Pickford. "You just need to recall one of her radiant smiles, one of her delightful impersonations, or one of her raggedy roles in which her natural personal charm was almost obscured in the intensity of her characterization, to realize that you love Mary Pickford, first, last and always, because she is Mary Pickford. She has something irrespective of looks or age or anything else, will live on. She has personality.
I think the reason why a Mary Pickford film (as with a Bogart film) still plays well with a modern audience, is precisely because of her personality. (Further buttressed by her use of a subtle naturalistic style of acting she developed, when she realized that the screen magnified every gesture, and, so, the traditional broader style of acting that belonged to the theater didn't belong on the screen.) She convincingly plays likeable working class women, or girls or even boys, who challenge authority with courage, wit and determination. She is so convincing in those roles because that is who she was off camera too.
Mary was born into an impoverished Canadian family. After her father died when she was seven, she took over the role as the family breadwinner by becoming a stage actress. She started her film career in 1909 as a stopgap measure between Broadway shows. She worked as an actress and writer for the great D. W. Griffith, but did return to the theater. Eventually, however, she decided to dedicate her efforts to the film medium and became the most powerful woman ever to grace Hollywood. Not only was she the first movie star, she also demanded and received a salary and autonomy that rivals modern film stars. She also co-founded United Artists, with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, to produce and distribute all four artist's films.
Like a character in one of her films, Mary went from rags to riches. She began as the impoverished daughter of an alcoholic father and self-sacrificing mother, and became one of the richest, most famous and beloved women of her time, married to her equally glamorous and successful actor husband, Douglas Fairbanks. A film would end there, but real life goes on and so did Mary's. She retired from acting after the advent of sound, due to artistic frustration (her audiences wanted her to keep playing the scrappy child-heroine) and personal heartbreak, the loss of her beloved mother, brother and sister as well as the heart rending break up of her marriage to Doug. Tragically, Mary succumbed to the family curse, a proclivity towards alcoholism and became a recluse doted on by her second husband, Buddy Rogers.
If you are interested in reading more on Mary Pickford I highly recommend Eileen Whitfield's Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood
For more information on Pickford's acting style, a review of Sparrows and more information on the beautiful print being screened at The Paramount read David Jeffers' article at

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