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Archive for the ‘Mary Pickford’ Category

Reassessing the Legacy of Mary Pickford through Lillian Gish

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon. Please check out the other entries!

First of all, I am not sure if this title is even appropriate for this entry. As a warning, it may be one long ramble with no specific point, but I hope that you will enjoy it nevertheless. Maybe in the future, I will revise this entry and have a more focused argument.

Onto the article!


Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish became friends before they became involved in moving pictures and it was Pickford who introduced the Gish sisters to movie making and Biograph Studios. I do not know what the relationship was between Pickford and Dorothy Gish, but Lillian Gish and Pickford were friends until Pickford’s death. Their friendship was so close that Gish was one of the few people that Pickford saw as she aged and drew away from the public eye.

People who know even just a little bit of film history or have an interest in film know of Gish. Her place in cinema history has been secured through her ties with D.W. Griffith, such as through her role as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915). While Gish has starred in many films that are highly acclaimed now — Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1928), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955) — it is her role in The Birth of a Nation that people associate her with.

It is interesting that both stars who worked for D.W. Griffith became famous and that they had a certain label to them throughout the peak of their cinematic careers and what their legacy is at the moment. Pickford is largely forgotten despite her association with D.W. Griffith, mostly because she did not star in his currently well-known films even though she starred in numerous Biographs and was the one who negotiated her salary due to her awareness of her popularity. It was through the sheer number of films that Pickford starred in that helped her, and as she said, “I got what no one else wanted, and I took anything that came my way because I early decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known and there would be a demand for my work.”1
Despite being the most famous actress in America in the silent film era, Pickford is a name known only to fans of film history and rarely discussed by film buffs. On the other hand, Lillian Gish is given more attention even now yet this attention is mostly focused on the feature films she made with Griffith, just like how Pickford is known as an actress who played simpering sweet roles despite her varied oeuvre. In regards to Gish as an actress, one thing that remained constant since the peak of her career until now is that she was and still is considered a great actress. During the height of her career, she was known as the “Duse of the screen” (quote: “Mary Pickford is greatly loved but she is seldom called the Duse of the screen, as Lillian Gish is apt to be.”)2 and current movie fans still consider her acting to be sublime. Pickford was seen as a great actress in her day with some critics and fans waffling between Pickford as an actress and Pickford as a star (which I think is closer to being a personality and something beyond being considered as a legitimate actress) but currently, she is seen more as a personality and an embodiment of sickeningly saccharine roles (even though few roles, if at all, can be considered as such) that would have only been swallowable in the age of innocence. To top this off, I do think that it says something when Lillian Gish’s official website says, “If Mary Pickford was the silent cinema’s greatest personality, Lillian was its greatest actress.”3

The quote made me wonder what made Gish the great actress and Pickford just a personality. When someone calls an actor a “personality”, I see them as something like a reality TV star with not much talent yet brings great joy to the audiences due to their antics or a persona that they create. While I strongly believe that Pickford did create a public persona for herself, I would say that she is also an actress in her own right and was as gifted as Gish when it came to acting.
It is difficult to compare the actresses because I think that both had acting techniques that were different and both played roles that were different from each other. And yet when I see these actresses in close ups when they are portraying a highly emotional and sensitive moment, they are successful in twisting the audience’s hearts and astounding the viewers with how much emotion they can render with only a small movement. Whenever I watch close ups that make me feel this way, it reminds me of my favourite Jean Epstein quote:

I will never find the way to say how much I love American close-ups. Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy is anatomical. The decor of the fifth act is this corner of a cheek torn by a smile. Waiting for the moment when 1,000 meters of intrigue converge in a muscular denouement satisfies me more than the rest of the film. Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theater curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis. Crack. The mouth gives way, like a ripe fruit splitting open. As if split by a scalpel, a keyboard-like smile cuts laterally into the corner of the lips.
The close-up is the soul of cinema.

-Jean Epstein, “Magnification”

The “extraordinary intensity” is felt several times when I watch Gish is The White Sister (1923) and when I watch Pickford in Sparrows (1926).
Epstein’s quote, for me, also renders feelings of an ephemeral and surreal nature of certain performances, and how there is some quality about cinema and acting that one cannot put our fingers on — or as Louis Deluc and Epstein puts it, “photogénie”. There is something that is so realistic about a performance that you feel emotionally connected to that moment on the screen, but there is also something that seems like it far from our grasp and is this beautiful thing that we cannot describe. I believe that similar sentiments were felt by contemporary movie fans — this one article mentioned the difference between newer and older actresses and mentioned how there was something different about older actresses, as if there was a deeper quality to them:

Mary Pickford, in the greatest picture of her career, “Coquette” comes to the Empire today for a 3 day engagement. […] She has nothing to fear in the way competitition from any of the feminine stars who have sprung up of late years. Mary started in when pictures were a pup and she is still at the head. That old guard — Mary and Lillian Gish and Norma Talmadge and a few others — have something that the newer generation of film stars lack. They have courage. They had to have, to live through those early years, when they all knew poverty and hard work and hunger. Their experiences gave them something valuable than these fluffy-brained youngsters of today will never have. It shows in their acting — this deeply human quality, this understanding of life. There is dignity about them which they have won in the battle of the long years.4

An article that the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, wrote also reflects that there is some quality to great filmic performances and a special quality that great movie actresses have:

If an actress of a certain type created a stir, there was an immediate rush to find her physical duplicate. There must have be dozens of girls destined to become Mary Pickfords because they possessed pretty blonde hair and the same general cast of countenances; but I don’t recall any of them threatening the laurels of this inimitable little actress.
Now it is quite possible that some of the candidates for screen honors were no less physically attractive than Miss Pickford. Also they may have had acting ability but the all-important point is that they did not reflect the qualities of personality, or soul. If you prefer what made America’s favorite actress what she was and continues to be.5

For Goldwyn, a pretty face does not cut it and an actress needs to be able to show something that is more than just actions on a screen but show their soul. I think the use of the word “soul” is perfect because the soul is just as intangible as the quality that Gish and Pickford’s performances have. Gish also remarked similarly about Pickford when she said, “It was always Mary herself that shone through. Her personality was the thing that made her movies memorable and the pictures that showed her personality were the best.”6

Pickford being a product of her time is a huge part of how her legacy ended up. While her highest achievements as a businesswoman also reflects how the film industry reflected female roles in society, it is the photographs of Pickford that have proven their most enduring power. Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote an article that reflected how films changed what a beautiful woman was:

The statuesque and fulsome pulchritude of a generation ago has given way to the fragile girlish type.
And above everything else, we have radically changed our ideas an ideals about feminine beauty.
In spite of the 19th Amendment, the last ten years have seen the American beauty softened, feminized, and reduced to an amazing extent.
Did it ever occur to you that this metamorphosis for which the screen abstractly and D.W. Griffith personally are almost entirely responsible?
But after consideration, I had to admit that it was true.
The screen has had an effect upon our national life that cannot be estimated.
What was then the national’s ideal of the American beauty?
The Gibson girl.
Tall, stately, impressive. Juno rather than Psyche.
Now who is America’s sweetheart?
Mary Pickford.
Mary Pickford, who stands four feet and eleven inches in her shoes.
If England or France or Italy stops to think what the beautiful woman of America is like, the ideal type, to whom do their thoughts naturally turn?
Mary Pickford and the host of their screen beauties.7

Along with this article, there were pictures of both Pickford and the Gish sisters. The caption for the Gish sisters was “Lillian and Dorothy Gish, fragile, girlish types” and the caption for Pickford’s picture was “Mary Pickford represents today’s petite ideal type of beauty”. I believe that this change in what was considered American beauty at the time also reflects the legacy of both actresses. Both Gish and Pickford are known for roles that are considered naive to modern viewers. Both actresses are known for their child-like facial features and their hair and are seen as embodiments of times where women were supposedly weaker and more subservient. Despite people’s assumptions about these actresses, it is obvious that both women were the contrary and were intelligent and savvy women who knew what they wanted for themselves and their career. I believe that Gish was smart to play more dramatic roles because they showed off her talents and Pickford purposefully played child roles because she knew that that was what sold and brought in revenue. Nevertheless, both actresses were able to exercise some form of control over what they wanted and what the public wanted — Gish directed a movie, which is wanted to do (e.g. Remodeling Her Husband, 1920), and Pickford attempted making artistic pictures that also appealed to the public (e.g. The Poor Little Rich Girl, 1917). It is fascinating how photographs of these actresses during the height of their careers dictated the image that they have for modern audiences. When they were alive, they were seen as women who changed the image of beauty, but currently, they are seen as nostalgic figures who are vastly different than the modern women. It makes me a bit sad since I strongly believe that both of these women are feminist figures.

The aspect I love most in regards to the relationship between the two actresses is how they affected each other’s career. If Pickford never introduced the Gish sisters to D.W. Griffith, then the world would have never known one of the most powerful silent film actresses. If Gish didn’t prevent Pickford from disposing her films, Pickford would have become even more obscure and would have joined the ranks of actors that current movie fans know about but have limited or no access to films made by these once famous stars.
Did you know that it was probably Gish who influenced Pickford to take on more child roles? In a feature on The Ladies’ Home Journal, Pickford said:

I have become identified with child characters, which have been more cordially received than any other type that I have played so far. Only once in all my early picture work did I play a child, and that was in a film called The Foundling, and this was only in one scene–a flash-back to the childhood of a grown-up character.
When Lillian Gish saw The Foundling she said: “Why not play a little girl throughout a picture?”
I protested: “The public would never be interested in a story without a love theme.” Lillian told me that she liked the child incident better than anything she had ever seen me do.
I am really indebted to her for the suggestion, which I followed some years later with considerable success.8

From this quote, I inferred that Pickford wasn’t the only one who was in tune with the movie industry and artistic merit, but that Gish herself was as well. As she grew older, Gish became a proponent of the art of silent films and did talks, which makes me admire her even more because she was speaking from first hand experience. I always found it a shame that Pickford, who was very much active in the movie industry, became a recluse. What a dynamic duo they would have been if they did talks together about an art that is no more. It is no wonder that it was Gish who stopped Pickford from carrying on her plan to destroy her works:

Mary Pickford, who once willed that all her films be destroyed upon her death, has now decided to sanction a rare revival of one of her classics, “The Taming of the Shrew,” co-starring Douglas Fairbanks.
The 73-year-old star’s decision to sanction the revival has surprised some of her friends, who recall her earlier desire a few years ago to buy up negatives of her old films and prevent their reissue. Indeed, she added a codicil to her will requiring that these negatives be burned upon her death.
“She felt that she belonged to an earlier generation,” one acquaintance said. “That’s why she wanted to destroy her films and why she rarely appears in public any more.”
Reached by phone today, Miss Pickford explained in a high, reedy voice that she felt at the time that her old films would be “compared unfavorably” with modern films for technical reasons.
She added: “My friend, Lillian Gish, gave me a terrible argument. She said, “You can’t destroy then,’ I said, ‘Why not? I made them.’ She said, ‘But they’re not yours to destroy’.”
Ulimately friends persuaded her to change her mind, Miss Pickford said, and to donate her negatives to the Library of Congress and some prints to the Eastman House Archives in Rochester, N.Y.9

It is interesting that Pickford saw herself as something old and compared her films to newer films, when I strongly believe that comparing old films and new films is like comparing apples and oranges (I’ll be honest here, I do it too though!) Thank goodness for Gish’s intervention and her love for silent films. I loved that Gish saw Pickford’s films, and silent films as a whole, as cultural and historical property that must be preserved. Ironically it is Pickford’s keen eye that knows the public and film industry too well that almost made her films lost to the future generation. Pickford addressed the “aging” of her films and the flux nature of cinema even as early as 1917. In an article, she said:

“Fifty years from now,” prophesied Miss Pickford, “present day pictures will be looked upon with curiosity. They will merely represent a single period in the development of the screen. No one will care to refer to them except, perhaps, students and artists, while the public will flee from them. That generation will either be educated up to better things or the films will have died before then.
“My plays will not be popular,” she continued modestly, “nor will any other prominent player of the present live over again in the future through the films with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin. I believe his work has permanences. It wouldn’t surprise me if in later years some enterprising man should ressurect the Chaplin comedies and begin a Chaplin vogue all over again. He is truly a good comedian and a great artist.”10

If it weren’t for Lillian Gish, most likely many of Pickford’s features would have been gone, which would have made her a mysterious star. It was Gish who helped Pickford’s films be preserved and not destroyed, which in turn helped movie fans of all generations appreciate an actress who was truly great. Thank you, Miss Lillian Gish, for seeing silent films as an art that is special in its own way and not see silent films as a “curios”. As a Pickford and silent movie fan, I salute you, Miss Gish!


1 Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow
2 Katherine Mason Hill, “New Pickford Picture At California: ‘My Best Girl,’ Happy Fairy Tale of Dime Store Life, Is Latest Feature”, San Francicsco Chronicle, 1/14/1920
3 Lillian Gish Official Website, http://www.lilliangish.com
4 “Coquette”, Clipping from Syracuse, NY, 6/27/1929
5 Samuel Goldwyn, “The Camera Photographs The Soul”
6 Films of Yesterday, http://filmsofyesterday.blogspot.com/2012/04/happy-birthday-mary-pickford.html
7 Adela Rogers St. Johns, “New American Beauty”, Photoplay Magazine, 6/1922
8 The Ladies’ Home Journal, 8/1923
9 Peter Bart, “A Pickford Film To Be Reissued: Actress Approves Revival of ‘Taming of the Shrew’”, New York Times, 10/13/1966
10 W.K. Hollander, “Mary Pickford Says in Fifty Years Current Pictures Will Be Mere Curios”, Chicago News, 2/17/1917


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