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Golden Age on the Printed Page: Mary Pickford – Queen of the Movies

Golden Age on the Printed Page will be taking a hiatus due to the Leading Lady Tournament (although spontaneous reviews might pop-up).  With that, I think that this week’s book is the perfect one to enter hiatus with!  Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies is the definitive text about Pickford, her work, and the minutiae of her life.  Written as a compendium of essays, there’s a leisure quality that allows you to read what interests you.  Thankfully, the writers that editor Christable Schmidt assembles don’t just detail the common things about Pickford’s life.  Instead, there’s in-depth analysis of her works, her star persona, even a chapter on her hair!  If you’re a Pickford fan, interested in learning more about her, or love gorgeous books filled with large photos, than pick up a copy.

I’ve received quite a few coffee table books, and this one is another knockout.  The construction of the book itself makes it quite heavy, but that allows for the pictures within to be put into their proper size.  The details of Pickford’s face, hair, and clothes are enlarged for the reader to see and take in despite being in black and white.  The color photos and various ephemera photograph just as beautifully.  The opening introduction attacks today’s misplaced belief that Pickford only played innocent children, and the 288 pages all show that Pickford was more than just a perpetual child.  I’m by no means an expert on the actress, and I was one of those fans who assumed her greatest work was when she played children.  Queen of the Movies disproves that by highlight Pickford’s film roles playing wives and household maids.  Pickford, herself, is quoted as saying “it was silly for a grown-up woman to play a little girl” (36). She was highly controlling of her image, and created a symbol of freedom, determination, and yes, innocence.  The essays present this picture of Pickford and how the different roles in her career defined her as an icon of the silent screen, and what that image meant to her fans.  I’ll be reviewing a few of the written works below.

 Eileen Whitfield, whose biography on Pickford is an equally worthy book to read, shows the diverse list of experts assembled.  Whitfield’s essay does rehash a few points I’ve read in the aforementioned biography, but there wasn’t enough to make me skip the section outright.  Whitfield’s essays do blend biography with analysis of her work.  The predominant feature of her first essay is discussing how Pickford’s acting style came to define silent acting.  It wasn’t interested in histrionics, but emotion.  By the time Pickford was 24 she was producing her own work, and running her own company (makes me feel like a bum), so she must have been doing something right. Throughout the essay you understand that Pickford was forward-thinking, and she always knew what she wanted.  A picture of her standing behind director William Beaudine with a massive megaphone illustrates who was truly in-charge.  Whitford also discusses how Pickford was able to play a child, convincingly, for so long.  The pictures also demonstrate this, such as having Pickford (who was barely five feet) working with actors taller than her. Movie magic!

Schmidt’s own essays explore Pickford from a sociological perspective that I found to be utterly fascinating.  Her first analysis actually includes rare photos of Pickford’s family, including her father and siblings, that I’d never seen before.  Pickford had an almost Dickensian upbringing.  She lived in fear of being poor, and that her mother would abandon her.  Schmidt actually includes a goal of Pickford’s that highlights her practicality.  Pickford declared that if she didn’t make it on the stage she would open a dress shop.  “Mother always says I should aim high or not at all” (52).  I did feel Schmidt ended her first thesis on an abrupt shift into Pickford’s feminism.  It’s an intriguing topic, but it comes right at the conclusion, and there’s no build-up.  One can still see a relevance to our times, as magazines of the 1930s blamed Pickford’s waning Hollywood success on her disinterest in giving up her career for her husband.

Alison Trope explores Pickford’s philanthropy, and connects it back to current celebrities.  The basis of Queen of the Movies is not only to explore Pickford the actress, but why Pickford should still inspire and be relevant today.  The article does spotlight the good works of the star, as a product of her poor upbringing, but she also utilized philanthropy to define her image.  Her relationship with Douglas Fairbanks was scandalous, due to both of them being married, and Pickford’s war bonds trip helped defuse the situation.  Pickford is also responsible for establishing the Motion Picture Relief Fund and Country Home to help downtrodden actors.  I’ve been fascinated with the Country Home for a while.  It’s a forgotten icon in the establishment of Hollywood that’s helped a lot of stars in their fading days.  I recommend reading up on it!

My favorite essay of the bunch has to be Beth Werling’s discussion of Pickford’s costumes.  Yes, I’m a girl who appreciates Old Hollywood fashion!  There’s not quite the level of text as in the other articles, but for me it’s about the pictures!  The photos of Pickford’s costumes are EXQUISITE.  Can I make that any clearer?  This, and the Memorabilia section that discusses movie posters and other consumer products with Pickford’s image, define what the style of the period is.  The level of glamour has never been recreated, in my eyes.  The photos of the costumes also spotlight how petite Pickford was; helping out short  girls everywhere!  Pickford’s gown from the film Rosita has to be the most gorgeous dress I’ve seen, with the gown from Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall being a close second.  It is sad to hear that Pickford recycled and loaned out her costumes, so many that survive have been heavily altered.  I recommend reading this chapter before anything else.

Elizabeth Binggeli’s chapter is a professorial assessment of the role of race in Pickford’s films.  The role of whiteness in her works is something I never thought of, and it’s obvious Binggeli knows her stuff.  The final chapters are brief pieces about where all of Pickford’s stuff is currently on display.

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies talks about everything!  Did I mention there’s an entire chapter on her curls (with a photo of the curls on display at the L.A. County Museum of Natural History)?  I think a chapter discussing the role of an actresses hair says a lot about what Mary Pickford stood for.  Her, and her work, demonstrated what femininity, glamour, and youth symbolized.  Pickford achieved so much, and came to inspire a legion of actresses.  There’s a reason she’s called the Queen of the Movies: because she was the first!

Interested in purchasing today’s book?  If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site!  Thanks! 

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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