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Rags and Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection (Milestone, NR)

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pickford sqIn fact, she proves to be a regular Katniss Everdeen when it comes to fighting against oppression and protecting her loved ones.

 

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Mary Pickford was the first movie star, and perhaps the first celebrity in the modern sense of the world. She began her career as a stage actress, but quickly prospered in film because she realized that a more natural style of acting was required for the screen. As a child, she was confident enough to correct David Belasco, who asked if she wanted to be an actress, answering that she already was an actress. She convinced D.W. Griffith to pay her twice the going rate, and in 1918, Adolf Zukor paid her a record-breaking $500 per week (comparable to over $7,500 today). Perhaps most importantly, in 1919, Pickford formed the independent film company United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith.

So, if you know anything about film history, you probably have heard the name Mary Pickford. Whether you’ve seen any of her acting is another issue, because she worked primarily in silent films, retiring in 1933, and her work has somewhat fallen by the wayside. Fortunately, you can catch up with three of her films in a new release by Milestone, Rags and Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection. All three use restored prints, have period-appropriate soundtracks, and include lots of extras, so they’re a great way to enjoy some of Pickford’s best work. What I was most impressed by while watching these DVDs was the variety of visual devices the directors used to tell their stories, and how much the musical accompaniment adds to each film. Silent films weren’t really silent after all—they were intended to be seen with musical accompaniment, and that makes all the difference.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) has Pickford playing a child who has the proverbial everything but parental love. It was directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques) and was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Pickford excels in every kind of scene, from slapstick to tragedy. Poor Little Rich Girl was selected for preservation by the National Film Board, so that should tell you something about the general critical opinion on this film.

In The Hoodlum (1919), directed by Sidney Franklin, Pickford plays a rich adolescent, Amy Burke, who is determined to live with her professor father rather than her wealthy grandfather. Then, as now, professors didn’t get paid all that much, and she encounters a whole new way of life once she’s left the mansion. The sociological critique is all on the surface (if you think the gap between the 1% and the rest of us is sharp today, imagine what it was like in 1919), even though the main story concerns the changes in Amy’s character as she adapts to her new circumstances. This is the least well known of the three films, but it’s well worth your while, in particular for the way it showcases Pickford’s talents as a comedian.

Sparrows (1926) has Pickford playing the leader of a band of orphans living on a dreadful “baby farm” where they are starved and abused—in fact, it’s so bad there that Jesus himself pays a visit (and you know what it means when Jesus comes for someone). Pickford’s character is basically acting as a combination of foremen and den mother for the other kids (think Wendy and the Lost Boys), which should be very convenient for the owner (Gustav von Seyffertitz), he sees her as a threat. In fact, she proves to be a regular Katniss Everdeen when it comes to fighting against oppression and protecting her loved ones. Ernst Lubitsch was a big fan of this film, calling it “one of the eight wonders of the world,” and with a recommendation like that, how can you pass it up?

Rags and Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection comes with an excellent array of extras, offering a strong argument for purchasing this particular set of DVDs. The most interesting are the intros and outros to each film, in the form of skits in which a modern-day group of kids are introduced to, and come to appreciate, the particular qualities of silent films. Each film also has an additional soundtrack in which the intertitles are spoken. Film historians Scott Eyman (Poor Little Rich Girl) and Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta (Sparrows) provide commentary tracks for two of the films. Other extras include Ramona, a 1917 Pickford short, a home movie starring Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, an outtake from Sparrows, and the original trailer for Sparrows. | Sarah Boslaugh

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