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Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (DVD Review)

9 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Cinema Libre
$19.95 DVD
Not rated
Narrated by Michael York.

Perpetual groundbreaker Mary Pickford was the first industry-created star to get her name on a movie marquee, and (even though it came for one of her weakest performances) the second actress to win an Oscar and the first for a talkie: the almost congenitally creaky Coquette. And despite her screen pioneer status, Pickford managed to make it with at least temporary splash into the TV era by presenting Cecil B. DeMille with the 1952 Academy Award for best picture, an Oscarcast that is actually available for purchase from multiple sources (none official) on the Internet.

Still, this is an actress who did retire in 1933 following director Frank Borzage’s Secrets — a Western much in the tradition of Cimarron, a groaner that had somehow won the Oscar itself in a year when Chaplin’s eternal City Lights wasn’t even nominated. As a result, Pickford is mostly a vague concept today though ought to be more than that because her “America’s Sweetheart” nickname was no lie. She was not saccharine but, in fact, an adventuress both on and off the screen. Her characters almost always had pluck — in 1926’s Sparrows, she braved a swamp of alligators — and in real life, the actress was enough of a shrewd businesswoman to become a key founder of the original United Artists. (So the next time you watch, say, Raging Bull, think of Mary Pickford.)

The bountiful audio-track interviews of Pickford partly make up for this documentary’s “authorized” aura and rah-rah narration professionally read by Michael York that leans toward the “Here Was a Woman” school. But despite the fact that Pickford at one time actually entertained the unthinkable thought of buying all the rights to her old pictures so that she could destroy them, this portrait is jammed with so many illustrative clips because, in fact, she did have this trove available for Muse director Nicholas Eliopoulos.

Because Pickford’s second husband was Douglas Fairbanks (making her a beloved stepmom to Doug Jr.), there’s added star power here — which also includes wattage from show-ups by Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish (and in one amazing talking clip, a visit to the couple’s Pickfair mansion by Amelia Earhart and husband). There’s also remarkable 1965 footage of a reminiscing back-and-forth between Pickford and mentor Adolph Zukor when the Paramount founder was 92 — still in his relative youth because Zukor lived to be 103. (This brings to mind the story I once heard about Zukor being wheeled onto the lot in his dotage where studio roost-ruler Jerry Lewis screeched, with either a baseball or football in his hand, “Hey, Adolph — go out for a long one.”)

There are at least two other Pickford documentaries: the unseen-by-me Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (which Milestone distributes, so it likely has to be good) and an excellent 2005 "American Experience" presentation — which, unlike Muse, gets into the darker side. After the Fairbanks divorce, Pickford married the much junior Charles “Buddy” Rogers (one of the two male leads in Wings and Pickford’s former co-star in 1927’s My Best Girl — the film that historian Danny Peary, in his provocative book Alternate Oscars, asserts should have won Pickford the first Oscar for best actress). Rogers was devoted, but by this time Pickford had descended into serious alcoholism — making her, in addition to the movies’ first star, also the first one at least partially destroyed by them. Muse definitely sugarcoats this, and in this DVD’s bonus section, there’s footage from a festival Q&A in which director Eliopoulos (being either disingenuous or a diplomat) claims he couldn’t find any first-hand accounts to legitimize including this part of the story. What’s amusing here is that in the Q&A, it’s the very first question from the audience — BAM! It brings to mind the time former Reagan press secretary James Brady (the one who suffered severe brain damage in 1981’s presidential assassination attempt) got an unusually tough press conference question right out of the bat and replied, “Whatever happened to foreplay?”

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