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Mary Pickford: Silence’s golden girl

Mary Pickford was first actress earn $1 milliyear first grace movie theater marquee with her name but she faded from

Mary Pickford was the first actress to earn $1 million in a year and the first to grace a movie theater marquee with her name, but she faded from sight after her last film, in 1933.

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Christel Schmidt will introduce Mary Pickford films and sign her book, “Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies,” at screenings of two Mary Pickford films this week:

◆ “Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall,” 7:30 p.m. April 3 at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee.

◆ “Sparrows,” noon April 6 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport.


“Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall” (1924, 120 min.) ★★½ Mary Pickford stars as a high-born, headstrong 16th-century lass fighting an arranged marriage and palace intrigue. Director Marshall Neilan, who started out as D.W. Griffith’s chauffeur, stages dandy action scenes in this adaptation of Charles Major’s 1902 novel. (A tinted 35mm print from Cinematheque Royale de Belgique, with live organ accompaniment by Jay Warren, is presented by the Northwest Chicago Film Society and the Silent Film Society of Chicago.)

“Sparrows” (1926, 84 min.) ★★★ Director William Beaudine, whose career ended with “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” (1966), directs Mary Pickford as the valiant savior of orphans at a “baby farm” surrounded by alligators and quicksand. The sets are outstanding, the outdated sentiments nonetheless grab you. Check out Mary improvising Scripture for her poor “sparrows.” (A restored 35mm Library of Congress print is presented by the Second Saturday Silent Cinema Series.)

Bill Stamets

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Panegyrics mark the career of silent screen star Mary Pickford: “The Most Popular Girl in the World” proclaimed The Ladies World in 1915; “The Most Beloved Face in the World” touted a 1919 Chicago Tribune caption. Photoplay magazine voted her the “Number One Actress of the Year” 15 times.

First to get her name on a movie theater marquee, Pickford also was the first actress to make $1 mllion in one year. “She invented acting for film,” claims film historian Tino Balio. “Mary Pickford was the first modern celebrity, the first celebrity to be created through moving images,” explains biographer Eileen Whitfield.

Appearing in such films as “Pollyanna” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” Pickford was an international phenomenon. “The best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman in all history,” rhapsodized reporter Adela Rogers St. John. Cecil B. DeMille, who directed her in “The Little American” (1917), wrote: “She is loved because in her screen career she typified, more than anyone else in motion pictures ever typified, the kind of person we all want to love.”

Even her “marriage of the century” to swashbuckling star Douglas Fairbanks — credited with popularizing the expression “gee whiz” — was symbolic: “They were living proof of America’s chronic belief in happy endings,” philosophized Alistair Cooke in 1940, after the couple split. One of her champions, the poet and critic Vachel Lindsay, deployed patriotic rhetoric in his 1917 review titled “Queen of My People”: “To reject this girl in haste is high treason to the national heart.”

Once called “Little Mary,” “Our Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford faded from sight after making “Secrets,” her last film, in 1933.

“People know so little about her; she should be better remembered,” remarks Pickford researcher Christel Schmidt in a phone interview. “It’s kind of baffling she’s not.”

Schmidt is on a five-month tour to promote her book “Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies” (Library of Congress and University of Kentucky Press, $45.) The editor of the profusely illustrated book, Schmidt contributes six of its 17 essays, besides a chronology and filmography.

“It’s really fun to introduce people to her,” adds Schmidt, who talks at Pickford screenings on each of her 29 stops. “People think silent films are foreign experiences. They were surprised how affected they were.”

Schmidt watched old movies with her grandmother in Columbus, Ohio. She sold shoes in the Marshall Field’s store there and majored in women’s studies at Ohio State University. For a paper in a silent film course, she contrasted the images of two stars: the “Victorian and regressive” Pickford in “Sparrows” (1926) and the “liberated flapper” Clara Bow played in “The It Girl” (1927).

Who did Schmidt admire as a kid? Lindsay Wagner, star of the 1970s ABC TV series “The Bionic Woman” — and “Queen of Disco,” singer Donna Summer. “I wanted to grow up to be the bionic Donna Summer,” she laughs. Who is most like Pickford today? No one, in Schmidt’s opinion, unless it’s Oprah plus Madonna.

Pickford’s personal hero was her mother, who died in 1928. Three months later, the 35-year-old Pickford cut her trademark golden locks. “I wanted to be free of the shackles of playing little girls with curls,” she recalled 30 years later. In her 1929 talkie “Coquette,” Mary wore a contemporary bob hairstyle. She won a best actress Oscar in this grown-up role, and in 1976 received another one for lifetime achievement.

The Library of Congress, where Schmidt works as an archival consultant, has 156 of the estimated 210 films Pickford appeared in. Yet in 1931, Pickford wanted to preserve none of her screen work. “I pleased my own generation. That is all that matters,” she told the press at the time. “I don’t want posterity to laugh at me.”

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and film reviewer.

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