Today is Mary Pickford's birthday. One of the greatest stars of the silent era, and pound-for-pound the most powerful woman in Hollywood history, Mary Pickford's work is indispensable for the film fanatic. If you've never seen a Mary Pickford movie and don't know where to begin, here are five films to get you started.
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
An unprecedented blend of comedy and melodrama that worried the studio but delighted its star, the story of a girl whose wealthy parents neglect her while others prey on her could easily have become sentimental claptrap. Instead, Pickford's Gwendolyn is, by turns, impetuous, flighty and sullen, but also curious, kind and fun—in other words, a real girl. The film was one of the biggest hits of 1917 and is a National Film Registry selection.
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
A cross between Charles Dickens and Louisa May Alcott, this story of a poor girl sent to live with a pair of maiden aunts is the most typical example of a Mary Pickford movie. Boasting plenty of comedy with a soupçon of pathos in the final act, Rebecca was Pickford's biggest hit yet.
Stella Maris (1918)
Based on a novel by William J. Locke, Stella Maris is a Victorian melodrama of the first water, the riveting story of two girls, one a rich shut-in sheltered from life's realities, the other, an ugly duckling orphan—both played by Pickford—whose paths intersect with tragic results. Variety called the performance "a revelation," the Los Angeles Times deemed it "brilliant, powerful and poignant" and studio chief Adolph Zukor later called it "the most remarkable thing which Mary Pickford has ever done for the screen." And they were right.
The other contender for Pickford's best movie, Sparrows is the harrowing tale of a group of backwoods orphans menaced by white slavers. In a sort of teenage take on Lillian Gish's gun-toting granny in 1955's The Night of the Hunter, Pickford attempts to lead her wards to safety while danger lurks at every turn—including the very real alligators director William Beaudine brought onto the set.
My Best Girl (1927)
In a rare adult role, Pickford plays a shop girl who falls in love with the owner's son. Played strictly for laughs, the result is a nifty little comedy, as fresh and light and funny as the actress who carries it on her back. As film critic Steve Vineberg says, the performance is "an extraordinary combination of spunk and delicacy." And as an added bonus, look for a brief, pre-stardom appearance by Carole Lombard as one of the shop girls.
Named for Katie-Bar-The-Door, the Katies are "alternate Oscars"—who should have been nominated, who should have won—but really they're just an excuse to write a history of the movies from the Silent Era to the present day.
To see a list of nominees and winners by decade, as well as links to my essays about them, click the highlighted links:
Look at me—Joe College, with a touch of arthritis. Are my eyes really brown? Uh, no, they're green. Would we have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save a person from drowning? That's a key question. I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it. Say, haven't you anything better to do than to keep popping in here early every morning and asking a lot of fool questions?