When Mary Pickford burst upon the nation's movie screens, almost a century ago, not just a star but stardom itself was born. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford can be said to have founded the cult of celebrity that reigns over our collective dream life to this day. Unlike today's stars, however, Pickford was equally powerful on and off the screen. On-screen, she was "America's Sweetheart," a golden-haired teenager who combined late-19th-century innocence and early-20th-century spunk. Off-screen, she was not only one of the richest women in the world ("the Bank of America's Sweetheart," as Chaplin used to call her), but an outright mogul, after forming United Artists with Chaplin, Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. You think Tom Cruise is big? Tom Cruise is a freckle on a flea's butt compared to Mary Pickford in her day. And yet she's all but forgotten in ours. What happened? Well, several things happened...or failed to happen. Like so many silent-era stars, Pickford had trouble making the transition to sound; she retired from the screen when she was 40, having made only four talkies. But even before that, she could be accused of having failed to grow old gracefully. As Richard Corliss points out in the most recent issue of Film Comment, Pickford played a 12-year-old when she was 24, an 18-year-old when she was 36, a 20-year-old when she was 40. Apparently, her fans were unable to give up the Little Mary they'd fallen in love with. And, with only a few exceptions, Pickford didn't ask them to--a wise career move, perhaps, but a fatal one as well. Today, Pickford's Peter Pan-like refusal to grow up and become a woman has attracted the notice of feminist film historians. In more ways than one, the Madison Cinematheque is offering us another look at this now-overlooked icon. Starting Friday evening, the UW's indefatigable film group is presenting a three-week, nine-feature series called Mary Pickford: The First Superstar. If you're reading this on Thursday or Friday, you can still make it to Friday evening's free screenings of My Best Girl and Sparrows (starting at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall). If not, there's Cecil B. DeMille's A Romance of the Redwoods on Saturday evening (also at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall), preceded by a pair of D.W. Griffith one-reelers. Newly restored by the Mary Pickford Foundation, all the prints but one are in 35 mm, and each will feature live musical accompaniment. To quote the brothers Gershwin, who could ask for anything more? Another way the series offers us a new look at Pickford is by demonstrating that she's not quite the actress we remember--that, in fact, she's a much better actress than we remember. If yesterday's audiences couldn't give up Little Mary, today's audiences aren't aware that Pickford did take on other parts, including challening double roles in Stella Maris and Little Lord Fauntleroy. And, if Pickford's characters never left sentiment and sentimentality too far behind, the series hopes to remind us that beneath that sentimentality was an iron will that bubbled up to the surface as an adventurous, even mischievous, charm. Like Chaplin, Pickford knew how to connect with the millions of immigrants who were flocking to the movies. Part Cinderella, part Tom Sawyer, she was quintessentially American. Take 1927's My Best Girl, a rags-to-riches comedy in which Pickford plays a five-and-ten stock girl who falls in love with the boss' son, leaping over a few socioeconomic classes to do so. Acting not her age but like an adult for a change, Pickford presents a female version of Chaplin's Little Tramp--a ragamuffin with a regal heart. The opening scene, in which she winds up wearing the pots and pans she's bringing up from the stock room, is pure Chaplin. So is the scene where she spins a dozen variations on dropping a handkerchief...off the back of a truck. But Pickford brings something else to the role, too--a transcendental plainness that must have endeared her to those she referred to as "The Great Unloved." Not for her the back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead theatrical style of acting. In fact, Pickford almost never makes a false move. Despite lukewarm reviews in The New York Times and Variety, My Best Girl was red-hot at the box office. That may have made up for the lukewarm reviews and lukewarm box office for Sparrows, which opened the year before. An uneasy mixture of comedy and pathos, Sparrows is like a "Spanky and Our Gang" episode written by Charles Dickens. It's set in a Southern swamp where the Dickensian Mr. Grimes runs something between an orphanage and a prison. And Pickford is Mama Mollie, the only thing standing between the other kids and a fate worse than--or at least equal to--death. Alas, we never know whether to laugh or cry; Pickford later regretted allowing the movie to pile on the drama. As for her own performance, it's almost as selfless as Mollie. At the time of Sparrows and My Best Friend, Pickford was still at the height of her popularity--an unprecedented peak from which, unfortunately, there was nowhere to go but down. Al Jolson's famous line in The Jazz Singer, "You ain't heard nothin' yet, folks," started bouncing off the walls of America's movie palaces three weeks before the release of My Best Friend, Pickford's last silent film. For Pickford, the writing was on the wall. She sensed that the talkies would never shut up, drowning out the sound of silents. (For, as Lillian Gish used to point out, there was always sound, if only a piano's.) When she left, she tried to take her movies with her, specifying in her will that they be destroyed upon her death. Luckily, this was one of the few times in Pickford's life when her iron will didn't prevail.
And so, here they are--nine of them, anyway. Yes, it's a pittance compared to Pickford's vast oeuvre. But it's a start, especially for those who, for whatever reasons, ain't seen nothin' yet.