Archive for Mary Pickford

Hiatus

Posted in eBay with tags , , on July 31, 2009 by leclisse

Things have been slowing down here at l’eclisse, mainly due to some disruptions in my personal life. I just moved this past Monday, so between unpacking, rearranging, cleaning, and working full time I have not been able to enjoy much time to watch movies. Alas.

So that is how things stand as of right now. This weekend looks to be rather full as well, but hopefully I’ll be able to devote some quality time to my DVD collection. I found a seller on eBay who specializes in rare and out-of-print titles from such silent favorites as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, as well as some schlock offerings from Sal Mineo, Carol Lynley, Christine Jorgensen, and many others.  I bought the Gish and Pickford sets, so I’ll have enough in my silent film library to keep me busy for quite some time.

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Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Sparrows (1926)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by leclisse

Mary Pickford (center) as Molly, with brood in tow Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film.  The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness.  For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom.  There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.”  Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.

Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film.  Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s  Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927).  Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world.  The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind.  The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup.  Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.

Mary Pickford as "Mama" MollyMary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp.  The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog).  Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself.  Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible. 

The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies.  The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms.  This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology.  The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture.  He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms.  Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened.  In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap.  Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.

The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date.  Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators.  The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.

A lighter moment: Molly ramming Ambrose GrimesIt can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery.  Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell).  In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene.  The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects.  Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness.  Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926.  It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on July 11, 2009 by leclisse

Insert poster for Daddy Long Legs (1919) Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) is a delight from start to finish.  The film came at a propitious moment in Mary Pickford’s career; tired of the bullying tactics resorted to by the studios through block booking, Mary, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would soon break away from this control and engineer the creation of United Artists in 1920.  Although Daddy-Long-Legs was released through First National, it was the first picture on which Mary acted completely independently as producer.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of an orphaned baby, Jerusha “Judy” Abbott (Pickford), who is found in a trashcan swaddled in newspaper.  She is brought to a spartan orphanage that is run by Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport), a shrewish woman with sadist tendencies that are reminiscent of Valeska Gert’s matron in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).  In one scene, she reprimands the mischevious Judy for an infraction by scorching her finger on a hot stove.  She admonishes Judy with “God will punish little girls who steal; He will send them into a burning hot hell….”  All this seriousness is outweighed by Pickford’s comic antics.  Judy joins forces with a fellow orphan and declares the “Great Prune Strike.”  Mrs. Lippett is not amused.  Ordered outside with no supper, the two are fed by some sacks of food and a jug of hard cider that is thrown over the wall by someone outside.  This scene reaches slapstick proportions when both Judy and her co-conspirator, clearly intoxicated, stumble back inside the orphanage, leaving the remaining contents of the jug overturned.  An unsuspecting dog feeds his curiosity, and in the next shot we see it walking on two legs, trying to maintain its balance against the wall of the orphanage.  These comic vignettes are balanced by some very poignant scenes, especially when Judy is shown tending to some of the children who are too ill to join the others.  One little girl even dies in her arms; the tragedy inherent in scenes such as this serve to showcase the brilliant range of Pickford as an actress, as well as lending her adolescent characters a very adult capacity for sorrow.

Mary PickfordThe film follows Judy through the rest of her childhood and moves into her young adult life.  She is given a college education, financed by a mystery benefactor, whom Judy calls her “Daddy Long Legs.”  She has no idea who the man is, but faithfully writes him of her progress throughout the ensuing four years.  Director Marshall Neilan makes an appearance as the amorous Jimmie McBride, who competes with the much older Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) for Judy’s affections.  Neilan was said to have been Pickford’s favorite director, and his skill in bringing out the best in her work is evident in every inch of this film.  Mary’s ability to move from childhood to maturity not only displays her comedic brilliance, but also shows her to stunning physical advantage.  Her famous curls are abundantly displayed, framing her face in a lustrous halo.

At the time of its release, Daddy-Long-Legs was a smash hit at the box office.  Mary knew she could not go wrong with such material; the public clamored for her in these well-loved roles from children’s literature, and her uncanny ability to play children has hardly been matched by any actress since.  Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end.  This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.

Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 24, 2009 by leclisse

I’ve decided to get a little more thematic during the summer months since I have a break from school work.  To kickstart this project is what I’ve called “Summer Silents,” where I focus on a particular personality in silent film that I don’t know much about.  Along with viewing several of that star’s films, I’ll also be reading a biography in order to get a better understanding of the film (and star’s) evolution within the context of general film history.

The first in this series is Lillian Gish.  I had already seen several of her films (Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1927), Night of the Hunter (1955)), but this really did not cover her profound partnership with D. W. Griffith.  Lillian (along with sister Dorothy) was introduced to Griffith at Biograph Studios in 1912 by actress Mary Pickford.  The sisters were hesitant to enter the immoral world of the “flickers,” as they had been performing on the “legitimate stage” for ten years by then.  Financial concerns won the girls and their mother over, however, and the Gish-Griffith partnership began.

Theatrical poster for The Birth of a Nation (1915)The Birth of a Nation  (1915) is perhaps the most controversial and discussed film in United States history.  Its reputation as a testament to the deep-seated racism of white America in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction is remembered first and foremost; it is rarely if ever popularly spoken of as a revolutionary piece of filmmaking produced while film was yet struggling to expand beyond the strictures of a few reels.  The story for Birth came to Griffith from Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both literary bestsellers that portray the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of Southern whites.  Griffith was an appreciative audience for such characterizations.  As the son of one of the Confederacy’s decorated calvary, Jacob Griffith, the young D. W. was reared in the spirit of the Confederate South, which still simmered with resentment against their defeat.  Financing for such a technically unprecedented venture proved to be shaky.  Griffith even had to sell some personal stock in order to bring the films budget up to $110,000 — a remarkable sum for a film at that time.  Because Griffith was constantly short of much-needed funds, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother Mary Gish even invested some savings in exchange for a return of the profits.

Lillian GishLillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman in Birth rarely gives her chance to stretch her talents as an actress or a tragedienne.  Rather, her presence seems to inhabit a largely decorative purpose.  Elsie is the daughter of congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a northern abolitionist.  She is a doting daughter and a patriotic sister who sees her brothers off to war.  Inspired by the cause, she becomes a hospital nurse.  There is even one scene where, she passes by a young sentry who longingly sighs (twice) after watching her walk by.  Her grip on the audience does not clench until the latter part of the film, when one of her father’s underlings — the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Seimann) —  asks for Elsie’s hand in marriage.  Elsie, clearly disgusted at the prospect, refuses and tries to leave his lascivious presence.  Lynch grabs her, shaking her long, touseled blonde hair with his anger.  At the last minute, Elsie is saved by the fortuitous arrival of the Klan.  She even leads the victory parade that caps the film when, triumphant, the Klan march through town to the cheers of whites crowding both sides of the street.

Title cardGriffith rather famously excluded black actors from his cast because, apparently, he did not think they were talented enough to play the film’s black characters.  White actors in blackface substituted for them instead, bringing out the worst beliefs of white racism.  They are shown as buffoons, drunks, sexual predators, simpleminded lackeys, and every other conceiveable stereotype under the sun.  Charles Affron notes in Lillian Gish: Her Life, Her Legend, that a 1916 article in Photoplay magazine rather candidly reveals that Griffith also did not want black-blooded actors to touch one of his white actresses.

Birth is credited with revolutionizing several cinematic techniques, including the use of night photography, the camera “iris” effect, the extensive use of color tinting to convey psychological moods of the characters, and many others (see Filmsite‘s exhaustive list here).  This is not to say that this was the first time these techniques were employed — Griffith used at least some of them in his prevous Biograph works, and the international film scene (specifically in Italy) had already produced some impressive historical epics.  Technical achievements aside, I tried to appreciate this film from (at least) its irrevocable place in film history.  It is hard to really understand how audiences received the film in 1915, since we are so far removed from that time.  President Woodrow Wilson famously claimed that it was his favorite movie.  The primitive state of technology is evident, but what Griffith does with it is beyond much of the output of film generated at this time.  I can’t say I would want to watch Birth again, because it struck me more than anything as an artifact of its time.