FREE FILM SCHOOL #13: Mary Pickford, Mary Pickford

Welcome back, casual film fans and frothing would-be cinema snobs, to another edition of CraveOnline's Free Film School, where I, your humble professor-like author, will take your hand, and lead you gently through the wondrous garden of movie history and technical details, and impart whatever wisdom I have managed to accumulate through an obsessive life of joyous cinema devotion. This week's lesson is about film acting, and where it came from.

This week, I saw a film called Inside Out which starred an actor out of the WWE stable, Paul “Triple H” Levasque. I also had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Levasque, and he commented on how easy acting really was. No Stanislavsky method for him, he preferred to simply play, and ask himself where he would be, were he in his character's shoes. As a result, his performance is very natural and very easygoing. The same could be said of any wrestler or pop star who makes a transition from one medium of entertainment to another. I was once an acting student (way back in my college days), and I spent hours upon hours poring over the ancient books devoted to the seriousness of the acting craft, so I actually found it a little frustrating listening to, say, Mark Wahlberg, once a pop star himself, talk about how dirt easy acting is. He would claim that you don't need to think about anything, but just choose two spots in the room, and shift your eyes back ad forth between them. It will look like you're deep in thought. As someone who wrote papers on the importance of thought in your acting, this was maddening.


Of course, Wahlberg is a screen actor, and I was studying to be a stage actor. The disciplines are incredibly different. A stage actor must act from the bottoms of their feet, through their bodies, and all the way to the back of an enormous room. And they have to do an entire play at once, sometimes remaining on stage for hours at a time, reciting, going through the emotions, and completing the story with every performance. A screen actor, by contrast, only as to act to a camera, and, thanks to the magic of editing (and the limited time that a camera can record; for instance, cameras in the 1960s used to only hold about 18 minutes of film stock), only has to enact one scene at a time. What's more, films are rarely shot in chronological order, often taking advantage of a single location for as long as they can. As a result, the mechanics of acting has changed dramatically. When a camera can float inches from your face, essentially putting the audience right next to the actor, you barely have to twitch an eye to show emotions.

I feel that the best actors are the ones that can do both stage and screen with equal skill (there are plenty of Royal Shakespeare Company veterans who have made the transition to the screen), but the subtle and naturalistic form of screen acting should not be dismissed, as it allows for a quieter and more ecstatically true form of performing.


When did the shift occur? Did it grow naturally with the invention of the film camera? Not quite. The revolution in screen acting is often credited to a single actress of the silent era, one Mary Pickford, one of the most influential figures in film history, and someone you ought to be familiar with.

Mary Pickford was born in Canada in 1892 as Gladys Smith, and started acting at age 7. She was instantly a popular Broadway baby, and eventually landed a role in a play written by William deMille, the brother of famous film tycoon Cecil B. DeMille. Cecil, always looking for new talents for his nascent nickelodeon business, took her to his New York film studio, now under the name of Mary Pickford, where she was featured in several nickelodeon shorts. A nickelodeon, perhaps I should mention, was a coin-operated, hand-cranked viewing kiosk, where you would peer into an eyepiece, and watch short films, usually in public arcades.


Perhaps she was just raised at the right moment, right when film was talking off, but the young Pickford was bringing something to the screen that was not the same as what most professional actors had; naturalism. If you've ever seen any early silent films (even classics like Metropolis or Nosferatu), you may notice how over-the-top and affected the performances are. Actors at the time, you see, were often hired directly from the stage, where they had long and varied careers playing to large rooms (without microphones, mind you), sometimes even singing grand operas, and, necessarily, had no experience acting on a small, hot soundstage in front of a camera. Many younger audiences have been slow to start watching silent movies because of this affected form of acting. Teenagers today have been raised on naturalistic film acting, so they can't really jibe with the theatrical bombast of the actors' gesticulations. To them I say, seek out Daddy Long Legs (1919), or the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, and keep a close eye on Ms. Pickford. You'll find that acting was in the midst of a sea change.

Mary Pickford soon caught the eye of D.W. Griffith (considered the hitmaker of his day; comparable, I guess, to Steven Spielberg today), and grew up under the camera, making literally hundreds of movies in just a few years' time. She worked for the era’s most prolific studios, and worked under such famous film luminaries as Carl Laemmle and Harry Aiken. Her career was thriving, and, as films grew in popularity, so did she. She was mostly known from what were called “one-reelers,” that is, films that fit onto one reel, and were only about 10-15 minutes in length. Sadly, due to the fragility of film stock from a hundred years ago, most of these films have been lost.


But more than a pretty face and a good actress, Pickford was also a forward-thinking businesswoman, and by 1919, Pickford had established enough connection ion the biz to be one of the co-founders of United Artists, a film company that would be devoted to the artistic potential of the new cinematic art. She founded the company with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. The United Artists was perhaps one of the most powerful artistic forces in all of Hollywood. Even Dreamworks can't really match what UA originally had. From 1920-1927, The United Artists produced hundreds of long, high profile silent films, dozens of which featured Mary Pickford. Pickford was constantly trying to shake off a little-girl image that had unfortunately accumulated around her during the years, and finally succeeded during this period. She started to be seen as a passionate but virtuous girl-next-door type in her roles. She would often be the prize for swashbuckling heroes (as in 1920's The Mark of Zorro), but lent more personality to the gentle ingénue than many of her contemporaries were capable of.


In 1929, however, sound had been introduced to film (the first feature length sound film is, famously, Alan Crosland's 1927 musical The Jazz Singer) and many other performers of the silent era were no longer comfortable using their voices. Chaplin, for instance, famously fought tooth and nail to keep silent films in theaters. The famous “It-girl Clara Bow was   on record as hating recording her voice. Pickford had no similar complaints, however. She saw the incorporation of sound as a savvy business move, and the next inevitable step in film's evolution. It was in 1929 that she starred in Coquette, her first talkie and a film she produced herself, wherein she played a sassy flapper-type who was destroyed by gossip and misfortune. Again, her acting was not a bombastic powerhouse, but a subtle and heartbreaking depiction of real-life emotions. Pickford, even with the newfangled microphones turned on, could still keep audience rapt. She won an Academy Award for Coquette. Thanks to its success, prints of the film have survived in complete forms to this day, and you can watch it on home video.


A rarity that is worth seeking out is Pickford's appearance in a 1929 talkie of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, where she played Kate opposite Douglas Fairbanks' Petruchio. Her energy and defiance or gorgeous to behold.

By the 1930s, Pickford began receding from the screen, choosing instead to focus on producing. Her last film was  a film called Secrets (1933), which I have not seen. She continued to produce through 1950, but by then was happy to remain retired. In 1976, she received an honorary Academy Award for her life's work. She died in 1979. She is buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California.

This article, of course, is only a brief biography: I've left out her several notorious marriages, the troubles she had with her family, and the push-and-pull regarding her Canadian citizenship. If I've piqued your interest, go to the library. Or at least visit the Wikipedia.

But next time you sit to watch a new film, and you see an extreme close-up of an actor's face, and they're emoting quietly to themselves, knowing that their face doesn't need to be read for any further than a few inches, know that you are watching Mary Pickford's influence at work. The next time you see someone like Justin Timberlake talk about how natural acting comes, you're seeing Mary Pickford's words coming out of his charming ragamuffin mouth. It took a bold, forward-thinking and talented young ingénue-turned-mogul to make the acting world change. And change it she did.


HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Track down some Mary Pickford films. Many of the shorter ones are, surprisingly enough, available online through Netflix. If you can watch Coquette and Ben-Hur, two of her more famous, the better. Watch any film made in the early 1920s, and note how the actors emote. Are they large or are they subtle? Then watch a film from the last few weeks. How does the acting compare? If you live in L.A., go to Grauman's Chinese theater on Hollywood blvd and walk up to the entrance. Look down. You'll see the handprints of the United Artists in the cement. Put your hands in Mary Pickford's and appreciate her legend.