For more than a month, film historian and writer Christel Schmidt has been touring the country promoting her new book, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. This exceptional new volume brings together a distinguished group of contributors, including renowned critic Molly Haskell and Academy Award honoree Kevin Brownlow, who together shed new light on the life and legacy of a cinema icon.
Schmidt’s nationwide tour comes to the Bay Area on January 31 with a talk and screening at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. That event will be followed by appearances at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. (Details about each event are noted below.)
Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies was published in late 2012 to mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of the silent era’s most accomplished, most popular and most beloved stars. Pickford was first female movie mogul. And, as pictures from the time show, crowds mobbed her wherever she went.
As one of the cinema’s most influential personalities, Schmidt notes, Pickford is a watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity, the rise of Hollywood, and the development of both film acting and movie production. Notably, she was a co-founder of a major studio, United Artists, and was one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Pickford was also a pioneer, and her many achievements as both an actress and producer helped pave the way for women in film. Remarkably, Pickford became her own producer within three years of her start in feature films. She oversaw nearly every aspect of the making of her films from hiring talent to overseeing the scripting, shooting, editing, and final release and promotion of each project. All told, her career lasted nearly three decades and encompassed 236 films. Pickford won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Coquette (1929), and in 1976, was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.
Recently, Schmidt answered some questions about her new book and the importance of Mary Pickford.
Thomas Gladysz: Mary Pickford has been called a “watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity, the rise of Hollywood, and the development of both film acting and movie production.” What makes her so special?
Christel Schmidt: Pickford was the first actor to inspire the intensely intimate connection that film can create between the audience and star. She was probably idealized more highly than any actor in history; her image was angelic, with the weight of real royalty. And unlike performers today, she could not anticipate how widespread and fervid movie fame would be. In response, she carefully managed and shaped her image on a scale that no performer had ever imagined. In terms of acting, Pickford’s seems light years ahead of many of the actors who appeared in early cinema’s one-reelers. She had an abundance of charm and the camera loved her, but the actress also gave, for the most part, remarkably understated performances that have stood the test of time. Pickford, as it has been said, did become a focal point for the film industry. Her extraordinary fame and talent brought attention, money and prestige to a film industry seeking to uplift its image from cheap entertainment to respectable art form. Pickford was a key figure in that transformation.
Thomas Gladysz: Despite her fame then, is it true that Pickford is now a somewhat neglected figure?
Christel Schmidt: It is certainly much better for Pickford than it used to be. For decades her accomplishments in the film industry were overlooked and her work misunderstood, but she is closer than ever to being restored to her proper place in cultural and film history. Much of that is due to two books published in the late 1990s, Eileen Whitfield’s biography Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky, 1997) and Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered (Abrams, 1999). These publications, and the nearly simultaneous release of some of her films on DVD, did wonders in raising Pickford’s public profile. And, in the past few years, the internet and social media have played an important role in reestablishing her in our collective cultural memory.
Thomas Gladysz: You’ve noted that Pickford has been wrongly seen as a “woman who made a career (and a fortune) playing regressive characters in an era of female progress.” Could you explain?
Christel Schmidt: Most of Pickford’s remarkable career took place during the 1910s and 1920s, a period when woman gained power and influence in the public sphere and won social freedoms. Off-screen, this star was the era’s most famous and arguably influential woman. She was a savvy power player who, by 1918, had accumulated an impressive amount of wealth and had complete creative control over her work. Yet onscreen, as many people wrongly believe, she chose to portray naïve young girls, instead of strong, empowered women. I think some people, who didn’t actually watch her movies or only a small selection of them, believed this was a disservice–even a betrayal–to the great strides her gender had fought for. In fact, Pickford’s signature character was a feisty, rebellious young working-class woman who cared for the weak and took up battle in defense of the underdog. She was a true heroine and a positive role model. And her immense female fan base, who was well aware of her real life success, adored her.
Thomas Gladysz: You’re giving three presentations in the Bay Area. What can we look forward to?
Christel Schmidt: Each of the three Bay Area venues will have their own unique programs. The films come from different points in Pickford’s career, and my presentation will cover specific aspects of her life and work in relation to these movies. We begin at the end, so to speak, with the screening of the star’s penultimate silent feature Sparrows (1926), at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center on January 31 at 7:00 pm. This Dickensian tale of children living on a baby farm boasts a visual landscape influenced by German Expressionist cinema.
Then, on February 1 at 7:15 pm, the Roxie Theater presents Pickford in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). This lavishly produced Elizabethan costume picture was one of several attempts the actress made in the 1920s to update her onscreen image. A delightful mix of comedy and drama, the film is a perfect showcase for Pickford, who also served as the movie’s producer.
Finally, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will screen a selection of one-reel shorts featuring Pickford on February 2nd at 7:30 pm. The program, which covers her early film career from 1909-1912, includes titles from D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company and from her short stint with the Independent Moving Picture Company.
Thomas Gladysz: Does Pickford have any San Francisco connections? Were any of her films made in the Bay Area?
Christel Schmidt: Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), which will be screened at the Roxie Theater, was partially filmed on location in Golden Gate Park. A number of key scenes in this Elizabethan costume picture were shot there, including one that Pickford directed herself. The movie, which is not available on DVD, is rarely screened in the United States because the only good print is in Europe. The Library of Congress borrowed this material, a 35mm restoration from the Cinematheque Royale in Brussels, for the Pickford tour. The Belgian archive’s material will be shown at just a half dozen venues across the country. The screening at the Roxie shouldn’t be missed, as it is probably the film’s first public showcase in San Francisco since the 1920s. I am not sure when this opportunity will come again.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts and entertainment writer and early film buff, as well as the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced Brooks’ films around the world.