Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Mary Pickford: Beyond the Girl with the Golden Curls

My Best Girl (1927)
Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin on grand piano
Saturday, February 16, 2013, 7:00 PM
San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event
Castro Theatre, San Francisco   

Poster for My Best Girl  (1927)

The utterly charming romantic comedy, My Best Girl (1927) occupies a significant place in the life and work of actress Mary Pickford. While most of her previous films allow her some moments of comedy and romance, this film brings to the forefront Pickford’s remarkable comedic abilities as well as an adult romantic sexuality only glimpsed in those prior roles. There is also a strong element of life imitating art, as Pickford and her costar Buddy Rogers ended up marrying years later, after first meeting during the production and experiencing a mutual, but unexplored, attraction.

The film’s story concerns Maggie Jones (Pickford) a scrappy five-and-ten-cent store clerk who’s asked to train new hire Joe Grant (Rogers). Romantic sparks fly; however, there are complications: unbeknownst to Maggie, Joe’s real last name is Merrill, and his family owns the chain of stores that Maggie works for. Joe is working incognito to prove himself to his father before taking over the business. Maggie, on the other hand, is strictly working-class, doing her best to take care of her put upon postman father, her self-dramatizing mother—whose hobbies include attending the funerals of strangers and sniffing smelling salts, and a temperamental jazz-baby sister with a shady boyfriend who drags her into trouble. In addition to their class and family differences, Joe’s mother already has a society girl picked out for Joe to marry. The young lovers’ star-crossed romance and the film itself take a series of delightful twists and turns on the path to resolution.

Lunch for two. Buddy Rogers and Mary Pickford in My Bet Girl (1927).

Pickford and Rogers display remarkable sexual chemistry in their scenes together. Pickford has her longest, and most intense, onscreen love scene with him. While on break, Maggie and Joe lunch in a packing crate that they’ve turned into a little cafĂ© for two. After inadvertently putting his arm around Maggie while trying to free his sleeve from a nail, Joe kisses Maggie for the first time. While the scene plays sweet and funny on the surface, there’s also an intense eroticism underlying their interplay, undoubtedly fueled by Rogers’ off-screen crush on his co-star.

Rogers remained smitten with his Pickford long after shooting ended, telling friends that he couldn’t marry because the girl he wanted was already married. He pursued Pickford diligently for four years after her 1933 divorce from Douglas Fairbanks.  For her part, Pickford states in her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow (1955) that when she met Rogers, “I had no more idea that he would one day become my husband than I had of marrying the King of Siam.” She does admit, however, that she realized at their first meeting that Rogers resembled the husband she had pictured for herself at age fourteen. 

Buddy finally gets his girl.

In addition to showing a more modern, nuanced, and sexual side of Pickford, the film allowed her to play a character who is a modern (albeit good) girl, a break from the more traditional heroines she’d been portraying.  And significantly the character is a fully adult woman, after Pickford solidified her career by playing a remarkably large number of archetypal child roles. Maggie was the type usually played at the time by younger actresses like Coleen Moore or Clara Bow. Although Pickford lacks their modern-for-1920s bobbed hair, she captures perfectly the spirit of the times. The public responded warmly to her departure from her established image, and the film was a box office success.  Director Sam Taylor, who previously collaborated on a number of films with Harold Lloyd, aided Pickford’s efforts towards updating her image and instills both deft comic touches and a dreamy romanticism to the picture. He would go on to direct her remaining films.

Notably, Girl was the last time that Pickford’s trademark long curls were seen on film, before she cut them off in the hopes of modernizing her image. This was a significant step, as the movie going public adored her hair to the extent that, two decades later in her autobiography, Pickford still questioned whether she had had “the right” to cut it.  In her next project, and first talkie, Coquette (1929) Pickford further built upon her new image: She sported her newly bobbed hair as well as a Southern accent to play a flirtatious belle who commits a romantic transgression with tragic results. That film earned over a million dollars and an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Pickford.

Mary Pickford before and after bobbing her hair.

On the surface, it seemed she had smoothly made the transition to sound and a modern image with Coquette and was set to successfully continue her acting career. However, she only made three more films, and then essentially became a recluse. Her withdrawal from public life was prompted not only by a series of box office failures, but also a series of personal tragedies which worsened her increasing dependence on alcohol. Pickford had never really recovered from her mother’s death in 1928. In addition, her siblings died prematurely: Brother Jack in 1933 at age 37 followed by their sister Lottie in 1936 at age 41. Compounding her grief over the family deaths was the trauma of her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks in 1933.  Neither Pickford nor Fairbanks every truly recovered from it, despite marrying others. Losing Fairbanks undoubtedly further Mary’s alcohol problem, doubly so since he disapproved of drinking, which probably helped her limit her drinking during their marriage, or at least hide it better. 

The Pickfords as children: Mary, Lottie and Jack.

While it is a shame that Pickford’s career ended prematurely, she left behind a remarkable body of work which, due to her naturalistic acting style and considerable charisma, remains enjoyable to modern audiences. In addition to the pleasure of seeing a well-made romantic comedy, My Best Girl also gives the audience the opportunity to see Pickford’s remarkable acting ability in a different light.

For screening and ticket information for My Best Girl as well as the full line-up for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event, please visit the SFSFF’s website.