Originally published June 1st, 2012
I know a fair bit about Mary Pickford. My first semester of college I took a film class and Eileen Whitfield‘s book Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood was required reading. I loved the book and was fascinated by one of the most important women in film history! Unfortunately we didn’t see her films so I was beyond excited when KC decided to devote this weekend to giving Mary Pickford some love and showcasing her talents to a fading audience. Even sadder…the film I’d originally wanted to do The Little Princess (1917) is only available as a DVD extra on a very expensive DVD so I was forced to change. Thankfully, everything worked out because I was still able to capture the spirit of The Little Princess by discussing Mary’s take on an even more iconic figure…Cinderella. The story is time-tested but there’s a spirit about Mary that livens up this film and, dare I say it, a very moral message that I didn’t have as big a problem with.
Need I tell you the story? Cinderella (Mary Pickford) is a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters. When her family is invited to a ball given by Prince Charming (Owen Moore), Cinderella fears she won’t be able to go. With the kind help of her Fairy Godmother (Inez Marcel), Cinderella is transformed and goes to the ball…the rest you HAVE to know by now!
To start, the availability for this film is one of two ways. It’s available via Amazon on a foreign French import so to watch it you must have a region free player or be happy to play it on computer. The other way is to do it how I did and watch it via YouTube. The complete short is presented to you here:
Sadly, in watch the 52 minutes presented above one can see how Mary’s films are pretty neglected. The scenes in the forest where Cinderella is gathering wood and first meets the Prince are completely washed out. At times I had to squint and keep the screen small to make out characters. The rest of the short, being on a pixellated computer screen, looks grainy and it’s hard to truly see character expressions. I’m not sure if the DVD is any better, I doubt it, but it’s just sad watching a sweet short like this and seeing how time has ravaged it to pieces. Sadly, Mary’s films are being allowed to languish and deteriorate. Hopefully, this short will be around for a while!
In terms of the short itself, it’s presents well-worn territory although it does take a few liberties that I didn’t expect. The Fairy Godmother is first introduced as an old beggar woman, testing the worth of the stepmother and stepsisters. They of course rebuff her and when she meets Cinderella, the girl is kind to her. This proves to the Fairy Godmother she’s worth protecting. The film has a straightforward message that’s reiterated at throughout the film, complete with title cards like the one above, that good things happen to good people.
The Fairy Godmother is played by Inez Marcel but there’s the element of a village of godmothers, ranging from women to children, that show up like sprites to help Cinderella throughout the film, well before the ball. In fact it’s through this group that Cinderella and Prince Charming meet in the forest in the first place, a “fated” meeting in many ways. The dissolve effects on the godmothers is pretty good for 1914. It always astounds me what these silent film directors were able to accomplish with such limited means (kind of wish some directors today did that).
Mary herself is so bright and lively in this film. She was 22 when this film was released playing a young girl and she excels at this (as she would throughout the majority of her film career). She’s shy and reserved in front of the prince, played by secret husband Owen Moore who she has sweet chemistry with, which leads to all sorts of comedy like her facial expressions when she discovers her leg is exposed. Obviously her acting prowess is in her facial expressions and there’s such humor that is conveyed in her face. She’s a young girl who dreams out loud yet is forced to hide it, like how she coyly hides her smile when the prince kisses her hand. Mary also makes her Cinderella clever and resourceful. There’s a scene where the stepmother tries to beat her yet Cinderella deflects her by pointing out a mouse. In the scenes where Mary is on her own is when the true longing and fairy tale sensibility is shown. She becomes pious and devout, praying in one scene, lovingly making her paltry bed made of straw. She’s never bogged down and her smile is infectious.
If there’s one thing I enjoyed more in this than in any Cinderella story it’s that Mary doesn’t play the character as sickeningly sweet or stupid, just go back and look at the face she makes at the Godmother when she’s asking for mice. She looks at her like she’s crazy. Even though there’s no dialogue she has this light about her, an inner strength that can’t be quenched. It’s not the role of a child but a young woman, even though when she’s transformed for the ball she’s in her trademark ringlets of a little girl. The ball scene is a solid mix of romance and comedy. There’s a wealth of emotions that crosses Mary’s face when she’s transformed and the best scene has to be her poking and tickling the footman (who once was a rat). She actually delays her entrance into the ball to tickle him as he becomes visibly annoyed and swats her away. Pickford has such great comedic timing and that scene is so genuine because if rats were turned into people in front of you wouldn’t you test out how real they were?
The stepmother/stepsisters are deliciously over-the-top for this time period. It’s obvious they’re heavily made up, complete with fake noses on the sisters. There’s a scene where the group goes to a fortune-teller that seems directly ripped out of Macbeth complete with a cauldron and the fortune-teller in a witches hat. Even the witch’s prophecy is like Macbeth in that she tells them “a member of your family will be the prince’s wife” and of course there’s a double meaning in that! The film also boast an interesting animated or stop-motion dream sequence that is surreal in many ways.
Mary takes a tired story and tries to liven it up with an infectious performance that I adored. I’d be interested in seeing more of Mary’s work, hopefully stuff that’s easier to find and better restored. Either way, watch Cinderella and be captivated by the little girl with a big heart!
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.