On June 21, 1928, less than a year after the release of her final silent film, My Best Girl, Mary Pickford walked into Charles Bock’s salon in New York City for a haircut. The Girl with the Golden Curls needed a change. So, at her request, Bock clipped 12 long ringlets from perhaps the most famous head on Earth and gave her a wavy Jazz Age bob. Two days later, a front-page headline in the New York Times read, “Mary Pickford Secretly Has Her Curls Shorn; Forsakes Little-Girl Roles to Be Grown Up.”
This was not the first time Pickford had expressed a desire to leave behind her image as America’s Sweetheart and play more sophisticated roles. In 1923, she brought Ernst Lubitsch from Germany and planning began for Marguerite and Faust, a part that would require her trademark innocence and a dark side. When Pickford’s mother and business partner found out that Marguerite strangles her bastard child, she was horrified, telling Lubitsch: “Not my daughter! No sir!” According to Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield, the project was scrapped in favor of Rosita, about a saucy Spanish street singer who defies a king. The New York Times called it “exquisite” and Variety praised “a Mary Pickford different and greater than at any time in her screen career.”
Pickford, who initially liked it, later called Rosita not only the worst film she’d made but the worst she’d ever seen. Yet, she still wanted to pursue grown-up roles, telling the New York Tribune that she “felt strangled by my own curls,” and craved “something wicked.” Her next picture was a period drama about an Elizabethan noblewoman who marries against her father’s wishes. Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall pleased neither Pickford nor her fans. In her 1955 memoir Sunshine and Shadow, she recalled, “I was quite ready to surrender to public demand and become a child again.” And she did, drastically so, starring in 1925’s Little Annie Rooney about a 12-year-old street tough. She was 33 years old.
Pickford had won the hearts of movie audiences playing defiant urchins and orphans across her 24-year career. (The descriptive “little” appears in nine out of her more than 50 feature film titles). But she also displayed incredible range, playing tragic women (Madame Butterfly), plain women (Unity Blake in Stella Maris, in which she had a dual role), and women capable of defending themselves and others (the savior of orphans in Sparrows). Fans loved Pickford best when her character tempers pathos with whimsy, as in Through the Back Door when she straps a pair of scrub brushes to her feet and skates the floor clean.
When Pickford began in pictures, in 1909, it was strictly a make-ends-meet proposition for the teenage stage actress who looked down on the “flickers.” She soon found it was her métier. The medium was nascent, business was decentralized (though located primarily on the East Coast), and there were no stars, no name actors, actresses, directors. Producers wanted to keep salaries low, so their players remained anonymous, pliable, and poorly compensated. Pickford changed all that. In 1909 and 1910, she made 74 short films at Biograph Studios under D.W. Griffith, then defining the grammar of American narrative cinema. She supplanted Florence Lawrence as the new Biograph Girl and fans identified her as “Little Mary.” In 1912, a year before Pickford signed with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players and made her first feature, the press had dubbed her “Queen of the Movies.”
In 1914, she made the hit Tess of the Storm Country, the film she considered the real beginning of her career. She cultivated the rise of director Marshall Neilan and favored screenwriter Frances Marion. In 1917, she began a 19-film collaboration with cameraman Charles Rosher, who said he “kept hairpins by the camera” in case he need to rearrange Pickford’s curls. Shooting Poor Little Rich Girl that same year, Maurice Tourneur improvised the first “baby spot” so Pickford could more convincingly play the neglected Gwendolyn.
Aided by her indomitable mother at the negotiating table, she became the first actress to have her own production company. At 24 years old, she had the right to choose her writers and directors, had approval over advertising, and could pocket half the receipts. Most significantly, however, her films were to be released apart from the block-booking distribution practices of Paramount, which bundled good, mediocre, and bad films for exhibitors. Three years later, she had the prescience to align herself with three of Hollywood’s biggest names—Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith—and, through United Artists, controlled her career completely. Years afterward, Rosher summed up Pickford’s skills to historian Kevin Brownlow: “She knew everything there was to know about motion pictures.”
In My Best Girl, she displays her wide range as an actress, from the charming innocent trying to get by to the grown woman capable of deep emotion. While Pickford still possesses the long locks so intrinsic to her movie persona, they are pinned up the entire film. She takes advantage of her diminutive stature to comic effect, charming everyone as she’d done since her Biograph shorts, and performs her first extended love scene on film. The photography by Charles Rosher, particularly in the traffic scenes, reflect the work he had just completed for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. For Pickford’s close-ups, he used a lens he had developed in Germany, which gives what he called “a stereoscopic quality.”
My Best Girl opened on October 21, 1927, two weeks after The Jazz Singer made its premiere. As powerful a force as she had been in the invention of the Hollywood and movie culture itself, Pickford could not control the coming of sound. She waited more than a year to make her first talkie, and first film without her crowning glory. Coquette was released in the spring of 1929 and a grateful industry gave her an Academy Award. For her next talkie, she paired up with Fairbanks for an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Her final screen appearance was in Frank Borzage’s Secrets (1933), about a wife beset by a philandering husband, which, according to Pickford confidante Frances Marion, was a thinly veiled swipe at Fairbanks, then cavorting in Europe with his soon-to-be-third wife.
Pickford, all her characters finally grown-up, retired from the screen, later explaining, “When [Chaplin] discarded the Little Tramp, the Little Tramp turned around and killed him. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.” She remarried (to My Best Girl costar Buddy Rogers), did radio shows, wrote a novel and her memoirs. She produced her last film in 1950 and sold her shares in United Artists in 1956.
Pickford also became an accidental film collector. She spent many years hunting down and purchasing as many copies of her films as she could find—so they could be destroyed after her death. Luckily, her longtime friend, actress Lillian Gish, talked her out of it and Pickford, whose collection comprised one and a half million feet of film spanning the history of early narrative cinema, leaves behind a legacy that encompasses both the medium’s creation and its preservation.
Presented at Silent Winter 2013 with live music by Donald Sosin