Entertainment :: Books

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

by Phil Hall
Contributor
Tuesday Jan 1, 2013
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Unless you are a serious film scholar, there is an excellent chance that you only know Mary Pickford by name. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, Pickford’s popularity as a film actress made her the most famous and beloved woman in the world. Today, however, the vast majority of her 236 films are not easily accessible, and the details of her extraordinary off-screen life are mostly unknown to our current celebrity-obsessed society.

This magnificent book - which is co-produced by the Library of Congress - helps to introduce Pickford to 21st century audiences. Born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto in 1892, Pickford was a child performer in North American theaters before making her first film in 1909 under the direction of then-unknown D.W. Griffith. Her beauty and talent made her stand out on screen, and by her twentieth birthday she appeared in more than 100 films while earning an unprecedented $10,000 annual salary.

As her career progressed, Pickford successfully fought for greater artistic control of her films. In 1919, she co-founded United Artists with Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks - her marriage to Fairbanks created Hollywood’s first power couple. Although she had no vocal problems in the transition from silent movies to talkies - she won an Academy Award for "Coquette," her first sound film - Pickford retired from screen acting in 1933. However, she remained a highly visible presence for years in her work as a radio actress, a writer, a producer and a philanthropist.

While many people only know Pickford’s reputation for playing pre-teens and teens, she was an extremely versatile performer who boldly took on a variety of roles - including many parts that significantly downplayed her natural beauty or required her to step into different racial and ethnic settings. The book recalls her influence on fashion, particularly her trademark curled hair, and it also details how the media of Pickford’s day celebrated her star power.

The book also goes to great lengths to present Pickford as a serious woman who embraced the cause of film preservation and worked tirelessly in raising funds on behalf of charitable institutions and government savings bonds programs. A wealth of rare photographs and original essays by A-list writers, including Oscar-winning film preservationist Kevin Brownlow and critic Molly Haskell, helps to elevate the book beyond the level of mere film biography. Indeed, it is no small exaggeration to say this is one of the most invigorating nonfiction books of 2012.

"Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies"
Edited by Christel Schmidt
University Press of Kentucky
$45.00

Phil Hall is the author of "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time

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