The American Experience: Season 17, Episode 6

Mary Pickford (4 Apr. 2005)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
7.2
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Title: Mary Pickford (04 Apr 2005)

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Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Tino Balio ...
Himself - Film Historian
Jeanine Basinger ...
Herself - Film Historian
David Belasco ...
Himself (archive footage)
Malcolm Boyd ...
Himself - Friend of Mary Pickford
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Herself (archive footage)
Kevin Brownlow ...
Himself - Film Historian
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Himself (archive footage)
Robert Cushman ...
Himself - Film Historian
Amelia Earhart ...
Herself (archive footage)
Scott Eyman ...
Himself - Biographer
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Himself (archive footage)
Victoria Flexner ...
Actress
Kathryn Fuller-Seeley ...
Herself - Film Historian
...
Himself (archive footage)
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Small-town Cinema Queen
2 January 2015 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

When Mary Pickford invited the German film director Ernst Lubitsch over to America, it was a shrewd move - for Lubitsch. He would go on to film many hits, but not with Mary. Their one feature, also her first talkie, was acclaimed by critics and by big-city audiences. Yet it flopped in the mass of small-town cinemas which were her true domain, as she was the first to notice, being a businesswoman as much as an actress, eternally scrutinising and cultivating the market.

This seems a significant clue to her limitations as a performer. The talkie revolution would spell the end of the glory days, both for her career and her high-profile second marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. And perhaps, in any case, it was unseemly for her to go on into middle age, still trying to portray the little curly-haired girl character with which she had effectively launched the world's first full-length films as a teenager, although she said this gave her the childhood she had never had.

That's another clue to Pickford. Not only having to act on the stage from the age of seven, but effectively carrying the rest of her (fatherless) family, when it turned out that it was Mary's looks and talent alone that would earn their keep. Sure enough, the money started to roll in, but with the usual cost to a child star - total lack of schooling and a superficial sense of maturity that boded ill for later. For when the phone eventually stopped ringing, she lamented truthfully enough "Work has been my life. I don't know how to fill the void." She made a third marriage to the cheerful young bandleader Buddy Rogers, which lasted 42 years, but Fairbanks' shadow hung heavy over the relationship, and it wasn't enough. She got religion for a while, and wrote a book called 'Why not try God?' But in the end, as with all her family before her, she reached for the bottle, staying increasingly reclusive at the splendid Pickfair mansion, with no sightings for years on end. I suppose it was asking too much for them not to show the tragic last clip of her receiving an Honorary Academy Award at home at eighty-four, but it was a saddening spectacle indeed.

There's one irony about her marital life. At nineteen, she makes strong rapport with her handsome Irish co-star Owen Moore, whom her mother dislikes and won't have in the house. Mary says that if they'd been allowed to get to know him, they would probably have detected his vices and cooled off the idea of marriage. As it was, she ran off with him, only to discover that he was a drunken wife-beater, jealous of her success, who made her miserable for years.

That was one instance of trouble in paradise. But in case Pickford's movies ever mislead you into viewing that whole era as an age of innocence, you are brought down to earth here by some of the less wholesome methods by which her boss Adolph Zukor out-manoeuvred the competition. One trick was the physical wrecking of the other guy's cinemas in order to buy them up cheap. It was for that sort of reason that Pickford helped to form United Artists, a production and distribution company that was independent of the big studios, causing someone to coin the phrase "the lunatics have taken over the asylum."

Barring any startling revelations, there could never be a great documentary about Pickford, only a good one, with the usual sequence of old clips and new commentary. This one more-or-less measures up, though there are some omissions. We are left unsure at what point she left New York for Hollywood. And it is worth knowing that her younger brother and sister, whom she brought with her, were both believed to be quite talented, but were hopelessly overshadowed by her fame. Also it might have been explained that a botched operation had left her sterile for life, and that her adoption of two children was not a success.

Perhaps the subject of this film would be bound to encourage some of the banal comments and clichés that we mainly hear, though her biographer Scott Eyman compensates for this with some good terse dialogue, well thought-through.


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