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Eight decades after Mary Pickford's last film, her name summons the image of an eternally optimistic adolescent girl with a sweet nature and wholesome values--a kitschy incarnation of her nickname "America's Sweetheart." Not only is this view of Pickford a vast simplification of her star image but few are aware of her enormous impact on the Hollywood film industry during the Silver Age of silent cinema. The serio-comic The Hoodlum (1919) offers a perfect example of Pickford's artistry as the big screen's first superstar, while its production reveals her savvy understanding of the film business.
The Hoodlum features Pickford in her prime as spoiled Amy Burke, a young girl who lives with her grandfather, wealthy tycoon Alexander Guthrie. Grandpa Guthrie indulges his granddaughter's every whim, and Amy is unaware of the impact of her selfish behavior on others. Like most of Pickford's characters, Amy's age is purposefully ambiguous--she's youthful enough to play with little children but old enough to fall in love at the conclusion.
Amy's father, John Burke, is an eminent sociologist who lives among the poor immigrants of New York's Lower East Side where he studies the daily lives of the residents of Craigen Street. When Amy argues with her grandfather because she doesn't want to go to Europe, she opts to live with Daddy in a tenement. At first, Amy is shocked at the dirty, dice-playing kids in the street, the arguments and petty fights among the neighbors, the strange foreign languages that she doesn't understand, and the pungent smells that waft through the hallways. But, when her father's Irish housekeeper becomes a surrogate mother to her, and her father tells her she needs to learn to get along, Amy quickly blends in. Within a few weeks, she is shooting dice with the boys in her tacky, mismatched dress and holding her own in fisticuffs. She feels compassion for her neighbors on Craigen Street and pitches in to help them, including the mysterious John Graham who lives across the alley from her.
In the meantime, Grandpa Guthrie disguises himself in a wig and beard and moves into the same tenement as Amy, calling himself Peter Cooper. He befriends Amy, who ropes the self-centered socialite into providing help for a sick, poverty-stricken neighbor with too many kids. Eventually, Amy convinces her grandfather that kindness, tolerance, and helping the unfortunate are the keys to happiness, not power or material possessions.
Though optimistic and sensitive, Amy Burke--like most of Mary Pickford's characters--is not saccharine or insipid. She possesses boundless energy with an indefatigable spirit, whether she is acting like the spoiled rich kid who speeds off in a roadster, destroying everything in her wake, or the tenement waif who falls into the coal bin. Pickford excelled as a physical actor, who tussled, tumbled, climbed, fell, and played with children with a natural ease and grace. Her films often included a kind of manic dance, in which Pickford created a series of crazy steps that were at once humorous and endearing. In The Hoodlum, Amy and one of the African American street urchins dance happily in the alley, enjoying the day while the neighbors look on.
In addition to being both vivacious and life affirming, Pickford's characters are typically crusaders or defenders of the oppressed. She comes to the aid of the underdog or anyone suffering the consequences of prejudice. In Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), she takes up for unwed parents; in Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), she supports the peasants; in both versions of Tess of the Storm Country (1914 and 1922), she organizes against the wealthy landowner; and in The Eternal Grind (1916), she exposes the conditions of life in a sweatshop. Often, her films feature a rich vs. poor struggle in which her character derides the rich or challenges their views. The Hoodlum amplifies this part of her star persona because at first Amy is presented as the spoiled little rich girl, but she overcomes her immaturity and selfishness to be the type of compassionate go-getter typically associated with Mary Pickford. Not only does Amy genuinely love her neighbors but she changes her grandfather's attitude about helping the poor and influences his methods of doing business.
The Hoodlum also offers an example of Pickford's tendency to play characters who are placed in unfamiliar environments where they are not understood or welcome. When Amy first arrives on Craigen Street, the colorful neighborhood residents are just as suspicious and curious as the well-dressed but dazed adolescent. As she stands on the street looking bewildered, a boy comes up behind her and fingers one of Amy's long, blonde curls, unaccustomed to females with coiffed hair. The gesture not only signals Amy Burke's differences from the other residents but also reminds viewers of one of the trademarks of Mary Pickford's star persona. As Amy becomes integrated into the neighborhood, she dresses like the other residents, her hair is piled haphazardly on top of her head or in general disarray, and smudges are visible on her face. Hair, costume, and makeup signal Amy's transformation from alienated outsider to beloved resident.
Pickford believed that motion pictures had the potential to change the world by showcasing compassion and understanding for the poor and downtrodden, and she wanted her characters to embrace this idea onscreen. She saw her films as pleas for tolerance among humans with the power to spread ideals of brotherhood and to stop the bitter disputes that ended in war. Though her views are idealistic, the underpinnings of her star image as a call for tolerance and compassion make Mary Pickford much more than America's Sweetheart.
In retrospect, Pickford's star image has been reduced to that of sweet childhood innocence defined by comic antics, humorous disguises, and sentimental interactions. Part of this simplification may be because her characters are doers. Pickford was not a subtle, contemplative actress; the intricacies, charms, and emotions of her characters were conveyed through physical action, gestures, and overt facial expressions in heart-stopping close-ups. From early in her career, which began with D.W. Griffith, she understood the purpose of the close-up as a technique to showcase her characters' emotions and to elicit sympathy from the audience, and she often directed cinematographers to come in close to capture her expressions during a scene. Pickford realized that the connection between her characters and the audiences--and therefore her appeal--depended on the close-up, the simplest of filmmaking techniques.
Pickford played adolescents and children well into her twenties. In order to maintain a youthful illusion in her close-ups, she engaged in a few acting and lighting tricks. According to Pickford, children's faces were full, with no depressions in the cheeks or around the mouth. She took care in her makeup and hair style to ensure that her face remained as full as possible, covering any depressions. She noted that children's foreheads never wrinkled, so no matter her expression, she worked hard not to wrinkle her forehead. Pickford preferred working with cinematographers that she knew well and trusted. By 1919, Charles Rosher had become her cameraman of choice, and the two collaborated on how best to light her face and her trademark curls--as evidenced in The Hoodlum. Rosher was also an innovator whom Pickford could trust to figure out production problems. For Little Lord Fauntleroy, Rosher created a phenomenal double-exposure effect without benefit of an optical printer in a scene in which Pickford as young Fauntleroy kisses Pickford as the boy's mother.
Pickford understood her star image better than any director, and she managed to secure creative control over her performances from early on. When she realized her appeal to viewers was the reason they flocked to her movies, she continually renegotiated for an increase in salary, which earned the respect of the fledgling industry just as it was settling on the West Coast. She may have been the first star to fully grasp the economic and social power of film stardom. While under contract to Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Co., she requested and received her own production unit, taking full advantage of the power to choose roles that would showcase her star image and to contribute to the final edited versions of her films.
After her contract with Zukor ran out in 1918, she signed with First National, where she made three films, including The Hoodlum. First National Exhibitors Circuit was formed around 1917 by exhibitors Thomas Tally and John Williams, who were tired of the strong-arm tactics of major distributors. Producer-distributors like Zukor forced theater owners into block-booking deals, in which movies were rented in "blocks" consisting of mediocre movies combined with good ones. In other words, to get the good films with major stars, they had to also take quickly made programmers featuring unknown actors. Tally and Williams brought other exhibitors from around the country into First National, and the pair decided the best plan of action for their company was to produce their own films with their own roster of stars. Among the stars they lured from other studios were Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford.
Pickford's deal with First National proved her to be a savvy industry insider who negotiated for creative control rather than just a lucrative cash deal. Pickford was signed to deliver three films in nine months, and she had complete creative control from story selection to cast and crew approval to final cut. More importantly, she was granted her own production unit called the Mary Pickford Co., which split the copyright with First National. Both were listed as copyright holders during the initial run, but ownership reverted to Pickford after five to six years. Her contract also forbade the block booking of her films and allotted $50,000 to her mother, Charlotte, for any services she might provide during shooting. The Hoodlum was Pickford's second film for First National; the others were Daddy-Long-Legs and The Heart o' the Hills (both 1919).
Pickford's experience with First National paved the way for her involvement with United Artists. In 1919, she joined forces with her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, William S. Hart, and Charlie Chaplin to form their own production company, United Artists. Hart quickly dropped out of the venture, but the remaining partners hung on to the dream of a company that allowed artists hands-on control in the filmmaking process from development through exhibition. United Artists was a response to the rapid consolidation of the film industry into the hands of executive producers running major studios, which increasingly constrained the actors and directors' creativity and salaries. Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith sought to take responsibility for the production of their movies and to own the rights to them in order to maintain the integrity of their work. With the formation of United Artists, America's Sweetheart became the first female mogul in the film industry, and one of Hollywood's most powerful figures.
Producer: Mary Pickford for Mary Pickford Company, distributed by First National
Director: Sidney A. Franklin
Story: Julie Mathilde Lippmann from her novel Burkeses Amy
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Editor: Edward McDermott
Art Director: Max Parker
Intertitle Paintings: Ferdinand Pinney Earle
Cast: Amy Burke (Mary Pickford), Alexander Guthrie (Ralph Lewis), John Graham (Kenneth Harlan), Dish Lowry (Melvin Messenger), John Burke (Dwight Crittendon), Nora (Aggie Herring), Pat O'Shaughnessy (Andrew Arbuckle), Abram Isaacs (Max Davidson).BW-83m.
by Susan Doll