Mary Pickford The Leading Lady of Silent Film
Kelly Robinson curates the Birds Eye View silent film programmes. Here she celebrates the current surge of interest in silent film with the success of The Artist, and reflects on the phenomenal impact of women like Mary Pickford on the history of cinema:
So it’s black and white, the screen size has been reduced to something fitting for the 1930s and it is oh so quiet (at least as far as dialogue is concerned). And yet Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist has swept the BAFTAs and is likely to take the Oscars by storm next month. Let’s hope that the buzz around this film will encourage newcomers to silent film to seek out silents from the past; and not to presume that The Artist is enjoyable because it was made in the present. For what makes the Artist so magnificent is how like old silent films it is; how it uses film as a visually expressive medium equally beautifully.
Over several years now, Birds Eye View have been screening some of the best of these original silent films and in doing so have been successfully expanding audiences for this sublime art form. Our Sound & Silents strand now reaches audiences in London and across the UK, each year demonstrating that silent film is no longer the preserve of a privileged few.
In the context of a festival that seeks to champion films made by women, for me as a film programmer, the most exhilarating factor when putting together BEV’s silent programme has been the volume of films to choose from where women have played a significant role; not just as performers but as writers, producers and directors. The festival has really helped highlight the important contribution women made to filmmaking during the silent era. Women like Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, who feature in this years programme, did much to help shape the industry, and were key creative and financial players in a business not yet dominated by men.
Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks were treated like royalty across the world in the 1920s. Jean Dujardin’s performance as George Valentin in The Artist has echoes of Fairbanks screen persona in his unwavering energy and optimism – his smile certainly compares to the famous Fairbanks grin!
Pickford’s hair was a preoccupation of her fans and the media, spectacularly so when she cut it off in 1929 and made the front page of the New York Times. This act had complex motivations, certainly an act of deviance; a wish to shake off an image she at times felt encumbered with.
Until fairly recently, Pickford the movie mogul was a side of her seldom explored, in part because of her iconic look and a handful of films where she famously played child roles. Indeed it was this girlish beauty that people like Charles Chaplin found difficult to equate with her acute business sense.
Like Chaplin, Pickford’s legacy is indisputable. She made an impact on the quality of American cinema (including aesthetics and acting styles) and the formation of the star system, In addition, she managed to preserve some independence in an industry which soon became tightly regulated by the studio system. She may have been small in demeanour but ‘America’s Sweetheart’ was a force to be reckoned with.
Birds Eye View’s Sound & Silents: Mary Pickford Revived, curated by Kelly Robinson, is part of BEV Springs 2012. March 9th at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre (part of WOW Festival) and Sunday March 11th at Hackney Picture House. BEV Springs programme details here.