Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Silent Films and Frilly Dresses

9 Apr

America’s sweetheart, The girl with the curls, Little Mary – these are some of the nicknames for Mary Pickford, a silent film actress who recently captivated me.

1920s Mary Pickford 8

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Before I started writing this post, I gave myself a task of watching a documentary about her called Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies (2012), which is really interesting and you can watch it on YouTube. It’s a good quality documentary; amusing with plenty of information, and the narrator has a pleasant voice. I liked that the focus was not only on Mary Pickford’s personality and different stages of her career, but on the development of Hollywood as we know it today, film industry and ‘flickers’, as the early films were known back then.

I utterly recommend you to watch the documentary as it is a great introduction into the glamorous world of Hollywood – a topic which has, as I mentioned in one of my previous posts, captivated me recently. Like majority of people, I like watching films, but I’ve never been a massive ‘Old Hollywood’ fan like my mum, for example. Films of the 1930s and 1940s somehow never captured my attention, and I always wondered, with a slight dose of envy, what my mum saw in them. Then, a few weeks ago, out of nowhere, I’m ill with a disease called ‘Old Hollywood glamour’, and the only cure is to watch as many films as you can!

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1920s Mary Pickford 7***

As you might have guessed by the title, a Hollywood phase I became fixated on is the Silent era and its main star, actress Mary Pickford. Her eyes are her most charming feature; two bright stars surrounded by long eyelashes, with the ability to express every emotion; from sadness and resignation to gratitude and rapture. Then her gorgeous curls, her famous curls, which she cut off in 1928 much to the dismay of her fans. Bobbing her hair happened as a sort of ritual of transition: her mother had just died, and she found herself incapable of playing little girls now that she wasn’t anyone’s ‘little girl’. Her phase of playing child-parts was over.

That’s a personality trait I liked about Mary Pickford – she knew how to end things while they were still good. She was a woman who achieved everything she set her mind to. A remarkable person, not just a great actress. Her ‘rags to riches’ life story continues to captivate people’s imagination. ‘America’s Sweetheart’ was born as Gladys Smith in Canada, on 8th April 1892, in a poor family with an alcoholic father. Not the best starting point for someone who’d later be the first Hollywood actress to earn a million dollars.

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1917. Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

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‘When Mary smiled, you could hear the angels sing’, said Lillian Gish, a fellow silent film actress and Mary’s lifelong friend.

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1916. Mary Pickford 1916 advertisementAdvertisement in ‘Moving Picture World’, September 1916

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Mary Pickford’s life story is interwoven with the life story of another silent film actress – Lillian Gish. In 1905, the Smith family shared quarters with the Gish family. Namely, Lillian Gish (14 Oct 1893-1993) had a younger sister Dorothy (11 March 1898-1968) who was also an actress. Similarly, Mary Pickford was the eldest sibling, her sister Charlotte ‘Lottie’ and brother Jack were actors as well, though both had succumbed to alcohol and died fairly young. Both families led bohemian lives which are as rich as they are hard to endure. Mary and Lillian became lifelong friends.

Starting in theatre, both girls quickly transferred to films or ‘flickers’. Early films were sensationalistic (does anyone sense a revival these days?), and often close to being pornographic. Targeted audience was the working class. After a long day’s work at the factory or a construction site, they could go and a watch a film, which was cheap as chips, travel in their imagination and escape the greyness of their lives.

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1920s Mary Pickford being paintedMary Pickford being painted, c. early 1920s

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Even though both were great actresses, Mary Pickford’s name stayed synonymous with the era of silent films. Early cinematography produced a great deal of actresses and icons such as Louise Brooks, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Pola Negri – all of which played very seductive and flirtatious roles. Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford had a different quality about them – they played more virtuous, innocent and girlish characters. They looked like dolls with their large expressive eyes and lush curls.

Lillian said herself: “I played so many frail, downtrodden little virgins in the films of my youth that I sometimes think I invented that stereotype of a role.” (source)

Lillian Gish plays a ‘frail, downtrodden little virgin’ Lucy Burrows in the filmBroken Blossoms (1919). Brilliantness of the film comes from the combination of Lillian’s poignant portrayal of a ‘fragile waif’, gloomy and decaying Limehouse district of London as the setting, and the opium-laced mood and Eastern flair brought by Cheng Huan – a Chinese lad who came to London with a dream ‘to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.’ Lillian’s performance was remarkable, and the ending truly brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not someone who cries easily at films. Somehow, when watching a silent film, you focus all your attention at the face expressions, gestures, eye movements; everything is intensified. Some quotes from the title cards, Cheng Huan’s thoughts about Lucy.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 1

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Blue and yellow silk caressing white skin – her beauty so long hidden shines out like a poem. (at 50.50 min)

Breathing in an amber flute to this alabaster cockney girl her love name – White Blossom. (at 55.18)

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 3 1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 4

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I reckon Lillian has a naturally melancholic face, perhaps it is because her eyes are large and her lips really small, I dunno, but most of the photos of her have a slightly morbid appeal, at least for me. She’s a true Ophelia.

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1919. Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) 11

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Mary Pickford played a variety of roles, and often performed the stunts herself as a matter of fact, but her most memorable films are those where she plays a role of a little girl, something she successfully did up until the age of thirty-something. Up to now, I’ve watched four of such films, in this order: Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) where she stars as Gwendolyn, Pollyanna (1920) as Pollyana Whittier, The Little Princess (1917) as Sara Crewe, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) as Rebecca Randall. There’s more films where she plays child roles, but the next thing I want to watch is ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ (1929) – it’s a ‘talkie’ she performed with her then-husband Douglas Fairbanks. That should be smashing!

There’s something so appealing about Mary Pickford’s roles in these particular films; a mixture of naivety and innocence, enhanced by her costumes and curls, and a courage and generosity. Goodness always wins in the end: in Poor Little Rich Girl she unites her previously money-and-success-distracted parents, in The Little Princess she finds a wealthy foster parent and brings her friend along, in Pollyanna she brings optimism to everyone she encounters. If audiences of the time saw a hope for the better world in those films, I fully understand them.

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The Taming of the Shrew (1929)Mary Pickford in The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

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Isn’t it strange, back then, a twenty-five year old actress could play a little girl, while today fourteen year old girls are encouraged by the media to look much older and ”attractive”.

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1920s Mary Pickford 6

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Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish’s expressive eyes reminded me a great deal of Anna Karina, just because I watched her films first. I noticed a certain ‘silent film’ quality about Anna Karina’s acting. Others did too: With her expressive, luminous eyes and radiant presence she had the looks of a silent movie star while simultaneously embodying the self-confident spirit of the 60s generation.” (source) This correlation is especially prominent in Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie (1963) where Anna Karina ironically plays – an aspiring actress. Really, even if you excluded the speaking parts, her eyes would reveal everything.

Another thing I wanted to discuss was the costumes. Mary Pickford has a marvellous wardrobe in her child-roles: straw hats or flowers in her lush curly hair, knee-long white dresses with lace and frills, worn with white tights, then her cute polka-dot dress with several petticoats and a parasol as an accessory in the role Rebecca, her cute one piece pyjama in ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’. Even in others pictures I’ve shown here, she looks elegant like a spring day – in frilly white dresses, wide hats, string of pearls, empire waist for a girlish appeal, lots of lace. Is it a charming 1910s revival of Rococo and Marie Antoinette countryside style, or a prelude to modern Japanese Lolita style?

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Gaylen Studlar - Precocious Charms

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2 Responses to “Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Silent Films and Frilly Dresses”

  1. Maria Christin 7th February 2017 at 9:25 am #

    Do you know the famous artist Cindy Sherman ? Do you think she wants to represent Mary Pickford in this picture?

    I think there are some similarities, but I am not sure,

    Like

    • Byron's Muse 7th February 2017 at 6:44 pm #

      I think it’s possible that she’s trying to represent Mary Pickford, I also see the similarity, and wow, what make up!

      Like

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