The land of silent cinema is a place of dreams. It is a land of wide open spaces, the most human of beauties, and the fragile innocence of a new found frontier. Watching silent films is like watching children learn to walk and watching our artistic selves evolve into a powerhouse of emotional honesty-- in a medium that we had no idea how much we needed. The face of this bygone, almost mythic era most often belongs to Chaplin, but that clown of clowns and interpreter of heartbreak belongs in his own category. He represents all that cinema is or could be at its best. No, the true face of silent filmdom belongs to Mary Pickford, because more than any other performer or artist who made his or her claim on the rocky terrain of the flicker shows, she alone is the representative of that historical moment: cinema's birth, its infancy, its articulation, its soul, its hold on the public, and its limitless possibilities. It was little Mary who made the biggest impression with her gumption and charm; it was the girl with golden curls who enchanted America and warmed every citizen's heart. It is also little Mary whose always palpable sadness still haunts us; who makes us ponder, when brave enough, the loss of an intangible era that we can never get back. We have forgotten it; we have forgotten her.
during "Uncle Tom's Cabin," although the look in
her eyes already registers a startling maturity.
Eventually, the truth came out, Charlotte flew into hysterics, Lottie and Jack wept, and the Pickford-Moore wedding was consequently doomed. The union would putter on for nine more years, but it was basically a marriage in name only. The two spent little time together, and the times that they did were more tense than blissful. Mary's devotion remained with her kin and most specifically with her mother, who was essentially her business partner. In addition to the wedge of family between them, Owen also had to contend with Mary's growing popularity and public coronation as "America's Sweetheart." As her fame increased, so did his drinking. Mary's solution and safe ground was always her work. It was Flo Lawrence who was labeled the first movie star, but it was Mary who redefined the term. Once the name Mary Pickford was presented to the world, it seemed to be the only one worth knowing. Mary possessed a presence on the screen that people could trust. She portrayed young women who were chaste and virginal, pure of heart and darling, even if a little uncouth. She was diminutive, which rendered her non-threatening to the opposite sex, though there was a subtle sexuality underlying her performances. She was warm and vulnerable, which made her endearing to the older generation, who looked upon her as a lovable granddaughter. She too was an inspiration to women, who watched her fearlessly hold her own against various villains, hold the reins of her romantic relationships, and sometimes get mad as a hornet, kick, stomp, and even haul a shot-gun.
As shorts became features, Mary further cultivated her specific place in cinematic history by performing as the back-woods Tess of the Storm Country (in 1914 & 1922) to the less fitting Madame Butterfly. She played rich girls and poor girls, sweethearts and hillbillies, but the common denominator was always her spunk and her pathos. She had life and death. A gifted comedienne, she could bulge her eyes and purse her mouth like nobody's business, but it was more than mugging. Her acting, which certainly still bore the mark of the exaggerated, silent style of interpretation, was also ahead of its time. She was natural. Her emotions rang true. Her viewers could see the world in her eyes, whether they relayed softness, anger, or despair. She had charisma, something that even a modern viewer cannot ignore. She was a "star" before the world understood what that meant. Strangely, she is often portrayed by modern scholars as being backward or anti-feminist-- a representative of the male wish of passivity, youthful beauty, and complacence. Her legendary golden locks are sometimes viewed as chains and shackles, keeping women trapped under foot, rather than a lustrous extremity and symbol of feminine beauty. Such is not so. One cannot watch her use her intelligence to save her true love's life in Romance of the Redwoods nor witness her sludge a train of children through the swamp in Sparrows, among alligators no less, and not see a hero. When Mary stood, she stood alone. If a man happened to be nearby, good for him. Love was always secondary to her independence and spirit. She could and did consistently hold her own.
Even still, it would be nice if she could find a worthy man to go toe-to-toe with her one-woman-army...