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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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 ...
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Kathryn Fuller-Seeley ...
Herself - Film Historian
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Himself (archive footage)
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Entertaining and informative.
7 April 2005 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

This entertaining and informative documentary about silent-film star Mary Pickford was produced for the PBS television series 'American Experience'. Some appetising film clips (and one radio interview) of Pickford have been expertly compiled with sound bites from film scholars.

I'm very impressed with how documentarian Sue Williams co-ordinated the time-lines of Pickford's life and career. I'd known that Pickford was deeply attached to her mother, but -- until I saw this documentary -- I hadn't realised that her mother's death was the incident that prompted Pickford to stop playing little-girl roles. Also, this documentary includes the first photo I've ever seen of Pickford's father, who died when she was very young.

But we get the usual shenanigans for documentaries of this sort: modern actors, with their faces concealed, re-enact events in the lives of Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. A vintage photograph of a New York City street is jiggled in front of a rostrum camera while little white dots are superimposed, to counterfeit silent-film footage of a snowfall. More impressive here is a sequence during the period when Pickford was a touring stage actress: we see old movie footage from the subjective viewpoint of a speeding railway train, inter-cut with a rostrum camera panning across early 20th-century maps of U.S. cities.

There are delightful clips from several Pickford films, in superb condition, but the clips are uncaptioned, and only a few are identified in Laura Linney's narration. And there are some peculiar omissions. We are told quite a bit about Pickford's siblings Lottie and Jack, yet this documentary never mentions that they both had screen careers of their own. (Admittedly, neither became a star, and their film careers were purely dependent on Mary's: still, this should have been mentioned.) The makers of this documentary tracked down a copy of the playbill for Mary Pickford's Broadway debut ... yet, oddly, the narration never identifies the play, and the rostrum camera pans obliquely across the playbill so that we can't see the entire title. (It's 'The Warrens of Virginia', but I knew that from other sources. You won't learn it from this documentary.) Future director Cecil B. DeMille was in the cast of this play, written by his brother William: how odd that the documentary doesn't mention this.

Another thing I hadn't known (until this documentary told me) was that Pickford had a recurring nightmare in which she performed on the stage of a theatre with no audience. We see that re-enacted here: I would have preferred to see some sourcing for this information. Did Pickford ever confide her nightmare to anyone? Also, we're told that the phrase 'by the clock' was an intimate code message between Pickford and Fairbanks: again, what's the source for information that Pickford was unlikely to confide to anyone? An odd oversight here: the transition to talking films is discussed with no mention of the fact that Pickford's last silent film was 'My Best Girl', in which her leading man was Charles 'Buddy' Rogers (whom I met once). Later, after Pickford's divorce from Fairbanks in the talkie period, the narration retroactively mentions 'My Best Girl' and Rogers for the first time, while informing us that Rogers became Pickford's final husband.

In this documentary's favour, the talking heads are (for once) actual authorities on their subject rather than merely people with opinions. One commentator is Eileen Whitfield, author of an excellent biography of Pickford. Ms Whitfield -- a Goldie Hawn lookalike with a distinctive hairstyle -- is apparently an actress wanna-be: she oddly *acts out* several of Pickford's conversations, rather than just telling us about them.

Some of the talking heads make portentous statements that are inaccurate. We're told that Mary Pickford 'invented film acting'. This would come as a surprise to Lillian Gish. We're also told that Pickford 'lost everything'. Wrong again: she kept her mansion and her vast real-estate holdings, retaining the devotion of fans while she faded from public view ... and she remained in a loving and stable marriage with Rogers until her death. Very few silent-era film stars had as much fulfilment (and wealth) in their post-career lives as Mary Pickford had in hers.

Late in this documentary, there's a brief sequence that made me cringe but which was probably a necessary inclusion: the notorious film clip of Pickford from the 1975 Academy Awards broadcast. At this point she was a deluded recluse, isolated in her mansion. In hindsight, the Academy realised it was a mistake to show this frail old woman on television, but -- since the footage exists -- this documentary was probably justified in including it.

I wish this documentary had mentioned a bizarre fact: when Billy Wilder was casting the role of deluded has-been silent-film star Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard', he visited Mary Pickford at Pickfair to offer her the part ... then he made the eerie realisation that Pickford had very largely *become* that person herself.

I also wish that this documentary had quoted film historian David Shipman's observation: if popularity is the measure of stardom, then Mary Pickford remains the single greatest movie star who ever lived. Despite its flaws, I'll rate this excellent documentary 10 out of 10.


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