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Laramie Movie Scope:
Mary Pickford: A Life on Film

A study of the greatest star in the history of cinema

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 22, 2000 -- I had always heard of Mary Pickford, that noted star of silent films, but I didn't know just how big a star she was until I saw "Mary Pickford: A Life on Film." She remains the biggest star in the history of film. Not only that, she was the first and only woman to own a major studio and she was the first woman to have creative control of her own films. She created the modern star system in Hollywood.

This Timeline film, made with the aid of the Mary Pickford Foundation, is narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. It traces Pickford's life from her impoverished childhood in Toronto to her success on Broadway to international super stardom in motion pictures. I haven't seen the earlier notable documentary on the same subject "America's Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story," made in 1978 and narrated by the great Henry Fonda, so I don't know how the two compare.

The film includes early playbills from Pickford's early vaudeville days and some very early footage of some of her earliest films. Most of the film clips in the movie are in excellent condition. One thing that is apparent is that Pickford learned early on how to act for the camera. Her style is simple and natural, while so many actors around her seemed to be acting in a forced and artificial manner.

Pickford's great natural beauty and her acting talent weren't all she had going for her. She also had an enormous drive to succeed. She was a perfectionist and she had a very shrewd business sense. She was both an artist and an entrepreneur, two traits that seldom coexist at such a high level in one person. What is really astounding, however, is the sheer magnitude of her star power. She was a star all over the world, even in Russia, huge crowds swarmed to catch a glimpse of her. The scenes of these huge, swarming crowds are astonishing. We have stars today, but nothing like what Mary Pickford was.

Pickford's establishment of United Artists in 1919 with Charlie Chaplain, D.W. Griffith and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, was a Hollywood milestone. Pickford became the first Hollywood female star to earn $1 million per year. Her top films were grossing over $1 million each, a huge sum of money in the early 1900s. Her demise as a film star and Hollywood power came as fast as her rise, however.

Although Pickford's fall came about at the same time that sound came into movies, the documentary makes the argument that Pickford's acting style, and her voice, were very compatible with the era of sound. The only movie she and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, ever did together Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," was a sound movie. It wasn't that Mary couldn't handle speaking roles, she came from a background in theater after all, it was that she had been typecast as a child star. Audiences were slow to accept her as an adult actress. It just happened that Mary was trying to make the transition to adult roles during the beginning of the sound era. Mary and Chaplain sold United Artists in 1935.

Although these transitional roles to adult parts were critical successes, the movies were not money-makers. In Hollywood, box office numbers rule. The artists were out, the bean-counters were in charge. She tried to make comebacks from time to time, but never landed the key roles. The documentary asks the tantalizing question of what Pickford would have done in "Sunset Boulevard" had she landed the juicy role that went to Gloria Swanson. Chances are, it would have revived her career and won her another Oscar.

Even when Pickford was at the top of her game in her professional life, her personal life, like that of many other stars, was a shambles. Ironically, her last marriage to Charles "Buddy" Rogers, the one her friends thought would never last, endured for more than 40 years. Footage from interviews with Rogers is one of those included in the documentary, along with Janet Leigh, the late Roddy McDowall, film critic Leonard Maltin and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Leigh tells a poignant tale of the tiny Pickford alone, dwarfed by the monstrous estate known as Pickfair (a combination of Pickford and Fairbanks).

There is a price that is exacted from all who seek, and find, fame and fortune. The price was very high for Mary Pickford. Depression and alcoholism stalked her and her family for decades. Pickford made millions off of her beauty and talent, but she also became a slave to her own celebrity. Unhappy in love, she wanted to become a mother, but was out of touch with the times by the time it came to raise her own adopted children. She found out she couldn't have it all. She became reclusive and isolated. When she finally died in 1979, sadly, many people were surprised to learn she hadn't died years before. This film rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2000 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)