“Mary Pickford - The Muse of the Movies” is a documentary film that attempts to tell the story of one of the most powerful women in American film history. It opens with the song “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a reference to Paramount marketing Pickford as America’s sweetheart. Pickford was a tiger, however, when it came to negotiating her contracts. In 1916, she demanded 50% of the profits from her films. She also wanted to choose the actors and directors for her films, Paramount Studios agreed to her demands.
Mary Pickford, original name Gladys Smith, was born in Toronto, Canada in 1892. Pickford began acting at the age of six out of necessity. Her family had no income due to the death of her father and Pickford’s success on the stage led to her becoming the family breadwinner. She first appeared in films in 1909, eventually appearing in 140 short films in four years. She then starred in 54 features, producing over half of them herself. She was co-founder of the company United Artists, which distributed her films.
She was the only female founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Pickford was also instrumental in creating and financing the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The goal was to care for members of the film industry who were aging or unable to work. The organization is known today as the Motion Picture and Television Fund. It continues to provide healthcare and housing for its members.
The most enjoyable moments in the documentary are provided by Pickford herself. Her early silent films often featured her playing a feisty and fearless young woman who triumphs over obstacles. It is a treat to see many clips from these movies. There are also clips showing Pickford off screen. One of the best is footage of the Goodyear Blimp landing on the front lawn of Pickfair, the home Pickford shared with husband Douglas Fairbanks, delivering a set of new tires for Mary’s Ford. Another clip shows Amelia Earhart visiting Pickfair. This was after the introduction of sound, so we can hear Mary thanking Earhart for eliminating limitations placed upon women.
This film was written by Janelle Balnicke and directed by Nicholas Eliopoulos. They present all the highlights from Mary Pickford’s life but not the heartaches. Pickford titled her autobiography “Sunshine and Shadow.” She believed it was impossible to appreciate one without the other. Balnicke and Eliopoulos could have, perhaps, included some of the shadows.
Pickford was the first actress to earn a million dollars. She was also, for a time, the most famous woman in the world. The pressure this celebrity placed upon her was enormous. She stated in an interview “A career is a very exacting thing. In fact, it’s a monster. It possesses you body and soul.” She was ambivalent, though. In retirement, she also said “Let no one tell you that they don’t miss their career. I miss it terribly. It’s a constant ache.”
Pickford was extremely concerned about her legacy. While her acting style was naturalistic compared to other silent film stars, Pickford was worried that uninformed critics would attempt to humiliate her. Lillian Gish helped to dissuade Pickford from burning her films and the prints now reside at the Library of Congress. Pickford was one of the pioneers of American film and one of its most influential women. “Mary Pickford – The Muse of the Movies” reintroduces her to modern audiences.
DVD release 2012. I watched the film at my own expense. Review posted on 3/7/2015.