Saturday, May 2, 2009

Best Actress Of 1927-28: Mary Pickford (My Best Girl)

Mary Pickford was the most popular actress of the Silent Era, earning the nickname "America's Sweetheart" with a series of winning performances as the plucky girl who overcomes long odds in such movies as Stella Maris, Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm and Tess Of The Storm Country. Film historian Scott Eyman has called her the "perfect incarnation" of the sweet but strong-willed girl and audiences flocked to her movies in record numbers, making her at her peak the highest paid performer in Hollywood.

My Best Girl was Pickford's last silent performance and arguably her best.

The story was a typical one for Pickford. "Maggie" is a working class shopgirl who meets and falls in love with Joe (played by Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who was quickly cast in the part after his success in the blockbuster war picture Wings), not realizing he is the son of the store's owner.

It's a fairly conventional set-up, but it's what Pickford does with it that makes it worth watching. In the opening scene, she carries an armful of pots and pans through a crowded department store, gets a pot stuck on her foot and in trying to shake it loose, ends up losing her bloomers instead. As Pickford scrambles to free her hands, another woman steps into Pickford's undies, assumes to her horror that they are her own, and winds up hiking them up under her own skirt.

That Pickford then meets the boy of her dreams while she feels a cool breeze blowing up her skirt is implied rather than explicitly stated, but you have to wonder what Charles Rogers was thinking when he knelt at Pickford's feet in the scene pictured here—the two fell in love and married after Pickford's divorce from Douglas Fairbanks.

Naturally, the course of true love never runs smooth, at least not in the movies. Joe has a wealthy fiancee and an overbearing father, and Maggie has family problems of her own: her mother is a slovenly depressive who attends the funerals of strangers—"I haven't had such a good cry since our wedding"—her sister is a flapper dating a gangster, and her father is an ineffectual milquetoast who sits in his wingback chair, chews on his moustache and frets as his family comes unglued.

Just bringing a man home for dinner requires more courage and finesse than most of us can muster in our greatest moment of crisis.

If you played this stuff seriously, you'd have Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams; if you played it half way, you'd have Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. My Best Girl is played strictly for laughs and what you wind up with is a nifty little comedy, albeit one only as good as the actress playing the title role. Pickford straps this potentially creaky vehicle to her back and carries it the whole way, making it feel fresh and light and funny while steering effortlessly clear of the pathos that would have brought it crashing down.

As film critic Steve Vineberg says, the performance is "an extraordinary combination of spunk and delicacy."

It's also at times unusually physical. I hadn't thought about it before until I saw Pickford doing physical comedy here—pratfalls and slapstick—that Hollywood has tended to shy away from asking women to do the sort of physical comedy Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Curly Howard and even Cary Grant did routinely. Lucille Ball had a gift for it, at least on her television shows, and occasionally an actress in a screwball comedy, Carole Lombard, say, would do some bit of business that required a little slapstick. But not often. Mary Pickford showed a flair for it throughout her career and is near the top of a pretty short list.

My Best Girl was released just three weeks after The Jazz Singer and was Pickford's last silent movie.

Pickford wasn't thrilled with the introduction of sound—"Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo"—but she was perceptive enough to realize that it added an extra degree of realism to the movies that made the prospect of a thirty-five year old actress playing nineteen year olds untenable. She was tired of that kind of role anyway. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts," she said, "of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover."

The next year, she bobbed her hair—a controversial act because of her iconic status as the perfect representative of traditional womanhood—and took on a more sophisticated role for her first sound picture, Coquette. She won an Oscar for the effort, but critics panned the performance and to be honest, the award had more to do with Pickford's skills as a party hostess—she's credited with being the first person in history to lobby for an Oscar—than with the quality of anything she did onscreen.

The public rejected her attempts to play more adult roles and, being too old to any longer play feisty shopgirls and teenage ingenues, Pickford retired from acting in 1933.

According to TCM's Robert Osborne, she attempted to make a comeback in 1947, testing for the movie Life With Father, but when that role went to Irene Dunne instead, Pickford made her retirement permanent.

During her career, Pickford appeared in 249 movies, produced 34 more (including one as late as 1949) and authored twelve. Along with Charlie Chaplin and then-husband Douglas Fairbanks, she founded United Artists. Despite her screen image as a sweet, innocent working class girl, she was actually a tough, smart businesswoman who remained an active owner at the head of the studio she founded.

As her biographer Eileen Whitfield wrote, "She knew what she was worth, and she didn't hesitate to ask for it. She was a woman in complete control."

In 1976 the Academy which she herself had co-founded awarded her an Oscar for lifetime achievement. She died at the age of 87.


VP81955 said...

Funny you mention Carole Lombard in this entry -- because she's in "My Best Girl." She plays a "flirty blonde salesgirl" who's spurned by Buddy Rogers.

At the time this was made, Lombard was age 18, coming off the 1926 automobile accident that caused some minor facial injury and derailed her budding career as a Fox starlet. This was made either before she signed with Mack Sennett or very early in her tenure there; not many people (even most Lombard biographers) are aware of this because she was unbilled.

For more about this -- including some stills from the film -- go to an entry I wrote at

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks for the heads-up! I'll go back and take a look.

I'll definitely be writing about Carole Lombard in the future (assuming I live long enough) -- at a minimum in connection with Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, To Be Or Not To Be and also about her relationship with Clark Gable. And no doubt more. Nothing Sacred, for example.

She was beautiful, talented and from the anecdotes I've read, a load of fun, too.