By Tony Williams.

The title of this article has a double meaning. It is primarily a reworking of that lavishly illustrated and meticulously researched 1999 publication Mary Pickford Rediscovered written by someone (Kevin Brownlow) who already knew her work and had the privilege of once meeting the 70 plus year-old star who had long retired from the screen. However, for the past few months I’ve been engaged in the process of discovering this star’s work. Although a retrospective of some of her films played in London during the 1970s I saw no reason to travel there to view at least a couple of her films as I did for the D.W.Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks seasons, where I saw Judith of Bethulia (1912), America (1924), The Black Pirate (1924) in gorgeous tone-tone Technicolor, and The Man in the Iron Mask (1929). In those pre-VHS, DVD, and internet days, where silent film screenings were a rarity on UK television, I mistakenly felt that the brief clips and images I’d previously seen of “America’s sweetheart” and “Little Mary” dated the actress. How wrong I was! But I’m not alone. The late James Card pointed out that among The Big Three in the 1920s, the others being Fairbanks and Chaplin, Pickford has yet to receive the same type of recognition as the other two, let alone that given to Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon (2012: 210).[1]

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Viewing many of her films on the internet in a quest to return to discovering the roots of cinema, as opposed to contemporary financially successful box-office examples such as American Sniper and Fifty Shades of Grey, introduced me not only to the achievements of an era made redundant too soon by sound, but also to the talents of a very accomplished professional actress. She not only understood the medium she worked in but also occupied control over production during her heyday. It did not take me long to discover a talent not solely confined to playing child roles as in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917). Her repertoire was far more varied. Even her child roles revealed an independent sense of self-reliance and struggle against the harsh conditions of human existence whether familial or social that belied any attempt to confine her significance to fantasized images of childhood. Although these appear to be the dominant image of the actress they are not in the majority and within these roles are important sites of contestation and contradiction that deserve further examination.

In her recent study of Mary Pickford, Gaylyn Studlar sees the appeal of the actress based on “the sustained power of late nineteenth-century idealization of the child-woman as a sentimentalized object of desire” whose star “construction exemplifies an antimodernist rearticulation of the Victorian child-woman as a sexually controllable and idealized version of beautiful white femininity with origins in fin de siècle attitudes towards the ‘sacred child.’” It could also evoke a pedophilic aspect of “disguised sexual enjoyment for male viewers of the 1910s and 1920s” as well as “a host of feelings that Pickford’s films also made available to women, including reform-minded concern for children, nostalgia for childhood, and identification with the child’s freedom to make mischief” (Studlar 2013: 47). To her credit Studlar recognizes that Pickford’s stardom had multiple meanings not exclusively based upon a “doll divine” representing innocence “but implicated in a sexualized gaze fixed on the screen fiction of the girl-child played by a woman” (Ibid.: 48).[2] However, Cari Beauchamp offers a far more comprehensive and relevant interpretation.

A Little Princess (1917)
A Little Princess (1917)
Beauchamp’s remarks on A Little Princess (1917) are interesting:

“Pluck is the operative word for the film and no real attempt is made to deal with social inequities except as something to be personally overcome. Yet Mary’s characters did not advocate passivity. In The Foundling, her character seeks approval and is anxious to please but she is also willing and able to strike out on her own when she and her friends are threatened. In The Poor Little Rich Girl, she rebels at being kept in an ivory tower away from other children and creates situations where she can have playmates and becomes a leader of their games. In each of the characters there is more than just spunk and a faith in humanity; there is a moral compass, a caring for others, and a willingness to fight.” (Beauchamp 1997: 395, note 22).[3]

For those who have seen as many of her films as possible and overcome the misleading stereotype of saccharine innocence the comments of James Card are very relevant.

“While it is true that Pickford confessed to a penchant for tearful scenes involving the demise of an infant, a beloved parent or guardian, and occasionally herself, the idea that the prevailing note of Pickford films is one of sentimentality is wrong. If Pickford portrayed many versions of Cinderella, her slavey character was no feckless, weak-willed, or dispirited heroine pining away for rescue at the hands of a fairy godmother or Prince Charming. Those of her films devoted to the rags-to-riches story invariably present the ragged one as a battling hellcat, orally and physically committed to all-out attack against the forces of evil, bigotry, or malicious snobbery that seek to frustrate the proper denouement of a triumphant lovely girl appropriately presented in stunning close-up, her incomparable curls back-lighted and the Botticelli smile shimmering through the last glittering remnants of any leftover teardrops.” (Card 2012: 211)

Could this also be one reason for Doug and Mary’s rapturous reception in the young Soviet Union during their visit in 1920 governed less by the appearance of two glamorous Hollywood products but one recognizing elements in their films protesting against social injustice and economic deprivation?

Her films actually exhibit a resilient talent not just formed by the conditions of her own historical era but also speaking to it. Mary Pickford was never a “spoken subject” and I use this phrase in the context of certain theories of ideology rather than the artistic structure within which she made her most successful films. She was a person who was the breadwinner of her family from a very early age, witnessed the harsh realities of agrarian and urban existence, and never forgot the fact that she emerged successfully from conditions that could be described as Dickensian. Although the 1920s publicity machine focused on her marriage to one of the most popular action stars of the era and their “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” domicile Pickfair, the real Mary Pickford (born in Toronto under the very different name of Gladys Smith) never forgot “how the other half lived” and engaged in generous acts of charity throughout her life. Unlike many contemporary stars, she never turned her back on the poor and several of her films reflect this fact. She may have worked in the Dream Factory of her time in products which to those of us today reflect naïve beliefs and unrealistic outcomes, but many of her films represented serious treatments of social issues that were never illusionary and fantastic. As Andrew Britton once wrote,

“We cannot properly object to The Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, because we think that John Bunyan’s theology is false: it is not a valid criticism of a work that it disagrees with the critic. What we judge is the work itself as the material form of a sensibility defined by, and addressing itself to, a culture, and we derive our sense of this form from an analysis of the work both as historical project and realized meaning.” (Britton 2009: 425.)

Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
One cannot and should not expect to find any traces of revolutionary tendencies in the films of Mary Pickford, let alone the writings of John Bunyan. The actress remained conservative during her life and career.[4] Yet, her films contain both recognition of the harsh side of existence for poor people and a desire to alleviate sufferings. No matter how sentimental and overtly religious her sensibilities may seem to viewers today, she never denied the existence of another side of life and to her credit exhibited the darker side of American society in many of her films. The biblical morality that characterizes many of her films may seem old fashioned by today’s perspectives. Yet the moral codes in many of her films have nothing to do with this era’s perverted religious fundamentalist attitudes but also derive from an Old Testament prophetic tradition that protested not only against injustice but religious representatives who turned their backs on the poor and hungry. Deacon Elias Graves in Tess of the Storm Country is one of these figures and Pickford makes the biblical moral of the story explicit in the opening logo of the 1922 film version.[5]

The Dream (1911)
The Dream (1911)
Since Pickford made many films, this study concentrates on specific features for reasons of space. Yet a survey of her 1909-1912 Biograph shorts, most directed by D.W. Griffith, reveals an astonishing versatility at odds with popular conceptions of her star image. These range from playing women of different classes and ethnic groups (whether Native American or Hispanic) to ones displaying very striking images in a diverse number of genres. For example, The Dream (1911) reveals her personality changing from demure wife to “just a girl who wants to have fun” through the perception of her alcoholic boorish husband (played by Owen Moore in not so coincidental casting). In the Independent Moving Picture Company The Female of the Species (1912), as well as writing the story she plays the aggressive sister of a vengeful wife who desires to kill the “other woman” who by no means has welcomed the attentions of a deceitful and weak husband who cannot survive harsh desert conditions unlike “the weaker sex.” Despite the fact that the ideology of “True Womanhood” dominates the climax when the unholy female Trinity adopt an abandoned Native American baby whose parents have died, what most remains in the mind is the image of Mary casting a contemptuous glance at her spineless brother-in-law during an earlier scene and provoking her sister to murder an innocent woman. Griffith depicts Mary as a Biograph “femme fatale” before the film’s arbitrary resolution. Her range of acting abilities involving many ages, racial groups, and genders is little short of amazing. (For a listing of her short films see Schmidt [ed.] 2012: 241-256).

Pickford also wrote stories for two missing Selig Polyscope Company stories: Caught in the Act and The Medallion (both 1911), and the also lost Famous Players Film Company A Girl of Yesterday (1915). Among her later star-producer credits are the 1921 films The Love Light, Little Lord Fauntleroy and Through the Back Door, as well as Tess of the Storm Country (1922) followed by Rosita (1923), Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), Little Annie Rooney (1925), Sparrows (1926) and My Best Girl (1927). Due to her early involvement with Griffith and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer, Mary gained knowledge of the technical side of filmmaking (Beauchamp 1997: 44; Whitfield 1997: 92-93). It is far from accidental that Frances Marion’s autobiography places her first meeting with the star during the spring of 1914 inside a Famous Players editing room (see Marion 1972: 9-10; Whitfield, 1997: 152). Several stills show Mary posing with cameras as if she wished to reveal her familiarity with the technological devices of cinema generally regarded as male preserves (see Brownlow 1999: 5, 227). Kevin Brownlow also refers to a production still dating from 1915-1916 showing the Pickford family behind a director suggesting that “there is a case to be made for the argument that Pickford’s films were directed by the Pickford family” (Ibid.: 119).

Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Evidence within many films suggests a much more self-aware actress often understanding the nature of the roles she played and their artificial constructions. While Mary was no Brechtian actress certain opening scenes suggests a particular type of self-awareness. The first version of her favorite film Tess of the Storm Country (1914) opens with a glamorous image of the star very different from her urchin performance as if emphasizing the difference between star charisma and the role that she plays in the film, one far from glamorous. Madame Butterfly (1915) opens with Mary in Japanese costume and make-up bowing demurely to the camera and then smiling at the audience in her familiar manner as if alerting them to the fact that the following film is only a story and that she would have no tolerance for any ungentlemanly Pinkerton in her own life. It looks like she is about to burst out in laughter. Even the American consul in the film regards Pinkerton (played by her future director Marshall Neilan) as a cad when he hears about his second marriage to an American woman. Although the actress operated as a part of the early star machine she definitely knew the difference between her actual persona and the narrative vehicles she appeared in, ones not entirely different from conditions of everyday life.

Many of Mary’s films reveal what Patrick McGilligan has described elsewhere about the actor as auteur. Although she valued the skills of her many collaborators, “with few exceptions, Mary chose directors who were capable but passive. Through them, Pickford’s vision would shape the film” (Whitfield 1997: 237).

For the purposes of this exploration the following silent films will be examined in terms of their exemplification of female characters emphasizing agency rather than passivity and who are aware of the vast extremes of affluence and poverty existing in society such as: Tess of the Storm Country (1914 and 1922), Stella Maris, Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley (both 1918), Heart O’The Hills (1919), Little Annie Rooney (1925), Sparrows (1926), and My Best Girl (1927). The article concludes with comments on her generally neglected sound films such as Coquette (1929), The Taming of the Shrew (1929), Kiki (1931), and Secrets (1933) in terms of the revealing contrasts to Pickford’s recognizable screen image.

The Two Faces of Tess

Tess of the Storm Country was one of the actress’s favorite films made at the time she was under contract to Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players when she felt that her success was only transitory. “Then, as always, it haunted me that every year might be my last in pictures. I never once thought my popularity was anything but a temporary and transitory phenomenon” (Pickford 1956: 163).[6] Directed by Edwin S. Porter in a manner often recalling his days in the primitive cinema pre-classical Hollywood type of narration, the film opens with the real-life glamorous Mary emerging from behind a curtain with roses. Designed as a Mary Pickford starring vehicle adapted from a best-selling novel and stressing religious virtues of purity and Old Testament prophetic virtues of social justice, the film itself is very much a part of those silent era “films of social conscience,” works that Kevin Brownlow has analyzed in his book Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990).[7] The film is a contradictory production combining social criticism with biblical motifs whose elements operate in a productive collision that none of the participants may have realized at the time.

Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
This 1914 production belongs very much to the socially critical films of the pre-WWI era, but incorporation of romantic motifs with biblical precepts contained in the source novel prevents the film from realizing its more radical potentials. Hollywood could not allow the appearance of a film that condemned a system permitting class oppression and the neo-starvation of the less well-off members of society. The original 1909 source novel by Grace Miller White who lived in Ithaca for most of her life exhibits both a feminist sensibility as well as condemnation of the hypocritical practices of the affluent class who may read their Bible but do not practice its precepts, a motif that appears in the opening caption of the 1922 film version.

Miller White’s novel is now unfortunately neglected but it belongs to a past tradition of literary female protest against oppression in the land of freedom, especially concerning working-class women and the dangers of white slavery. In the book, Tess hesitates about taking the lives of eels had not impoverished family conditions necessitated it (White 1909: 44). The selfish Teola Graves displays a brief female bonding with Tess despite class barriers separating them. “Tess was a human being who sympathized with her, and sympathy was as necessary to Teola’s soul at that moment as breath was to her body” (Ibid.: 220). Tess shows compassion towards an upper-class girl who has broken one of the sexual taboos of her repressive system and identifies with her as a woman: “And remember we air a woman, and women, when they loves men, keep their mouths shet” (Ibid.: 222).

Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Tess of the Storm Country (1914)
Opening with two scenes, defining the barrier between the haves and have-not, contrasting Deacon Graves’s affluent Ithaca, New York mansion with the unsightly squatter village below, the film reveals the callousness of the well-off. Graves’s attempts to dispossess the squatters who live in squalid shacks is opposed by his more humanitarian son Frederick. Many sequences are shot on location and the squatter environment resembles those naturalist depictions characteristic of early Hollywood cinema. Mary does not appear until nearly five minutes into the running time but when she does she emerges from a pile of refuse outside her shack dressed in ragged and torn clothing. Although no Rosa Luxemburg, she rallies the community behind her when they read the dispossession notice and leads them to their attorney who informs Graves that his actions are illegal. The resilient Tess is the natural leader of her community, one who will tolerate no nonsense from anyone especially from the upper class. Far from being a socialist, Tess definitely does not “respect her betters” in today’s Downton Abbey fashion.

The despicable Deacon Graves (a Pastor in the source novel) shows no evidence that he has ever read his Bible’s injunctions mandating compassion towards the poor and homeless. He resorts to a legal ploy designed to starve the squatters by removing their means of subsistence. Evoking a law to ban fishing with nets, he sends his gamekeepers to destroy every net in sight. The ever-resilient Tess suggests that her community resort to poaching and they follow the advice of their natural leader. Tess follows advice concerning cleanliness being next to godliness when she enlists the aid of a woman who has born a child out of wedlock (something that presents no problem for her community) to wash her hair. During this process Mary engages in the type of slapstick humor she and Frances Marion often injected into too-serious films by making a moustache and goatee beard on her face with soap suds. As Whitfield (1997: 123) notes concerning the lost film, In the Bishop’s Carriage (1913), “Slapstick, it seems, was central to her features from the start”. Further evidence suggests her early influence on Chaplin though James Card suggests a more family symbiotic relationship between three famous stars during 1915 and 1925:

“If in her chases, in her grotesqueries as gamin, urchin, or enfant terrible, Pickford quite often seems to be doing Chaplin routines, we should remember that it is just as likely to be the other way around. Chaplin, when he clowns by suddenly becoming mock heroic in the midst of slapstick, enacts Fairbanks, with head held high and romantic valor flashing from his eyes. And Fairbanks, along with all his own lyrical movements, can, on occasion, shrug and skip away as Charlot, to underlie his indifference to the odds against him.” (Card 2012: 210)

However, as Card also points out, Mary was the senior partner having more experience behind her than the other two.

The narrative also contains two sub-plots: the arrest of Tess’s father on a charge of murder (the deed actually committed by Ben, father of the illegitimate child and killer of Tess’s pet rabbit) and the pregnancy leading to an illegitimate birth by Teola (Olive Carey) due to the latter’s one-night stand with her brother Frederick’s visiting friend Dan Jordan. In one of the film’s poignant scenes the barely literate Tess goes to the court where her father has been judged guilty hoping that the biblical values she espouses will be recognized. Goddy has promised his return home. Singing lines from a hymn she used to mourn the death of her rabbit – “Rescue the perishing, Care for the Dying” – from a Bible she “cribbed […] from the mission,” Tess finds that upper class values concerning religion are different. Her father is sentenced to death. Although these scenes appear maudlin by today’s standards, Mary’s accomplished and heartfelt acting removes them far from the realms of saccharine sentimentalism towards universal humanist values. While Tess later refuses the advances of Fredrick, probably due to resentment against being regarded as “easy” as well as having no birth control devices, unavailable in those times, Teola agonizes over her “sinful” acquiescence to desire knowing full well how her upper class community would regard it. Learning of Dan’s death in a fraternity house fire, she attempts suicide until rescued by the more compassionate Tess who not only cares for her baby after delivery but takes on the “burden of shame” Teola cannot bear (“If I had only been a good girl… I am so scared”).

movingpicturewor19newy_1530-31The scene where Frederick discovers the baby when Teola visits Tess exemplifies silent film acting and social criticism at its best. Realizing the stigma of bearing illegitimate children that exists among the upper classes, Tess sees Teola averting her gaze from hers. Tess has already sworn an oath that she will not divulge the secret. Teola then adds insult to injury when she tells her brother, “don’t blame her too much. She’s only a girl.” Class condescension needs little emphasis here. Tess responds, “Air it any of yer business if I want to bear a brat?” She looks defiantly at them both. Frederick reacts hysterically by tearing up her Bible while Teola remains hypocritically silent.

Viewers of this film would have been well familiar with the original novel as well as interpreting the gestures of those on the screen. Tess does not want Frederick to think the baby is hers but is honor bound to keep “a woman’s secret.”

“She turned toward Teola again, and seemed about to open her lips, when the expression upon the other girl’s face stayed her tongue. It was a mixture of despair, illness and fright. Tessibel imagined she had discovered beneath the pain-drawn face a desire to claim her own. Ah! Teola would gather her babe, that tiny bit of shriveled flesh, into her arms before the whole world.” (White 1909: 267)

But it does not happen. Instead, Tess does not experience a universal bonding between women of different classes but hypocrisy and rejection. It is remarkable how the screen performances echo what White has written as if actors and director were clearly familiar with the text of the novel. Tess’s emotions are torn as she “remembered her oath – remembered her love for the boy, and Teola’s cowardice. Her despair gathered as her false position was forced upon her” (White 1909: 269).

Like the Savior whose humanitarian teachings she reveres, Tess now understands that due to her promise to keep Teola’s illegitimate birth secret, she is now to bear a no-less stigmatized version of “bearing the sin” of a hypocritically social world. One of the most powerful passages in the novel follows one that could not be articulated in any silent film caption but suggested by contemporary conventions of silent screen performance. Tess defiantly responds to Frederick’s attitude by telling him explicitly to mind his “damn business” over her supposed illegitimate action.

“She had silenced the student by the condemning words, which seared his soul like molten lead. A dazed terror gathered in his eyes. He smoothed his forehead with trembling fingers. The lightning forked about the squatter and the babe, illuminating the small head and the bony body of the child. Tess felt it shiver and mechanically she lifted her skirt, wrapping him closely within it. Her gaze took in sneeringly the shrinking form of Teola, and the arm of the student encircling his sister’s waist. For one instant she hated them both with all of the strength of her half-savage nature […] ‘Ye can both go to hell,’ she ended distinctly.” (White 1909: 267)

After looking in vain at Teola to tell the truth, Tess “shot a soul-cutting glance at the other girl, who owed her very life to her” (White 1909: 271), she witnesses Frederick destroying her Bible and gains strength by seeing what the “better half” are really like and affirming the nature of a social religion that embraces everyone.

“A glorified expression lightened the white face and shone from her eyes. He had taught her a lesson of independence she could not have learned through any other person. Without one glance at the shivering young mother, she walked to the door, and opened it, as she had done that night when he had come first to the hut.

‘Ye can go,’ she said, both of ye. ‘Ye burned my Book, ye did, but ye can’t take it out of my heart. The God up their ain’t all yers. He air mine – and Daddy’s – and – the brat’s.’” (White 1909: 272)

This is the pinnacle of the entire novel and the 1914 film version. However, author and star cannot consciously follow the implications of this scene, one that would lead towards forming an alternative working-class Marxist feminist community. Instead, all versions must submit to the tenets of the dominant ideology of capitalist society and move towards that inevitable, but false, happy ending.

movingpicturewor-03281914-19newy_1678-79Despite her treatment, Tess remains loyal to Teola, but lack of sustenance (due to Graves’s removal of the squatter’s means of subsistence) results in her desperately entering the Graves household to find milk. Discovered by Graves, Teola remains silent while her father savagely beats Tess. He then pours out the remaining milk in her can after her plea, “I have been beaten – now air I to have the milk?” After this hideous inhumane act of class oppression, one the novel describes as leaving more scars on her body than the film can actually show, she defiantly bites the hand that refused to feed his grandson before she leaves. Another revealing earlier passage in the novel depicts Tess as recognizing that Teola is a more appropriate candidate for admission to the lower depths category that society has cast her into. As she tells the baby, “hates yer ma worse than I hates you. Yer ma air a piker, she air” (White 1909: 273) She also dismisses Teola’s suicidal self-pity with the key line that (real) “Women ain’t a dyin’ so easy” (Ibid.: 278).

Events move to a swift conclusion. The authorities learn the identity of the real murderer from his mortally injured accomplice Ezra. Realizing the dying baby’s needs according to the rigid law of society, Tess visits the church during a baptism ceremony. In the novel, it is the self-pitying Teola who informs Tess that a child must be cleansed of its original sin in the church. This is another burden she forces Tess to bear in facing further social ostracism. Only Graves’s intervention prevents the minister from performing his duty, “Be ye a goin’ to let him go to a place where God can’t find him?” (White 1909: 328). In the novel it is Graves himself as pastor who refuses to perform this God-ordained function, an act making him appear more despicable than he already is. Up to this point, the scene has been filmed in the same type of long shot as the earlier court room scene to parallel two examples of institutional violence against the less well-off in contemporary society. When Tess does the baptism herself, the shot changes to a mid-shot as Teola comes forward to identify herself as the now dead baby’s mother. Despite Frederick’s opening his arms to Tess in a gesture of forgiveness, she defiantly walks away from him. Returning home, she finds her beloved father waiting for her.

Tess of the Storm Country should really conclude at this point with an added epilogue showing Tess leading a proletarian revolt against an oppressive society. Yet, we should not ask more than what Mary Pickford and her cultural sensibilities can offer at this time. As described by Ellen Whitfield, they were melodramatic in the moral sense derived from her early theatrical experiences maintaining “that life, with its sudden reversals, is ultimately hopeful; the heroes gain dignity through suffering and attain their goals. Mary, too, though she senses life’s uncertainty, saw its flip side. If you work implied the plays, you can make your life work” (Whitfield 1997: 34). Yet life in its entirely never contained illusory happy endings and the nature of the original source novel with its more revealing images of class hatred by the affluent hypocritical Parson (not Deacon) Graves for the less well off depicted a world Mary knew all too well from her early years.

Despite early Hollywood’s need for a happy ending, the preceding events of the film show its impossibility. Deacon Graves arrives with Frederick to inform Tess of Teola’s death and to beg forgiveness. Frederick attempts resuming their earlier romantic feelings by holding her hand but she removes it abruptly, replying “I air Daddy’s brat. But I air yer squatter.” She then allows him to kiss her hand. This may suggest acceptance of his past feelings towards her, but the way that Tess offers her hand makes her the “lady” in this scenario by virtue of her superior humanitarian sensibilities. By proclaiming the social barriers between them and emphasizing her continuing status as “squatter” Tess articulates her version of “East is East and West is West and never the Twain shall meet.” The resilient actress who supported her family from an early age keenly aware of social prejudices against thespians knew fully well that Prince Charming and Cinderella scenarios did not exist in real life. Despite her participation in the Hollywood Dream factory, she was fully aware of the differences between illusion and reality. She had beaten the system financially but was well aware that many in her audiences had not. Although both novel and film versions end with the line “I air your squatter” having romantic Cinderella associations, the film’s depiction of Frederick reveals him as no Prince Charming answer to an impoverished working class girl’s prayers. Although she allows Frederick to hold her hand, the final scene shows her leaning on her father’s chest revealing that her heart really belongs to her impoverished working-class Daddy. The later version presents its own version of an absurd ending where viewers are encouraged to think more critically. Although limited by Porter’s inability to advance beyond the era of early cinema he was associated with, this film owes much to Mary’s acting skills.[8]

Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
In 1922, Mary made a new version of her favorite film to use the advances in contemporary cinematic production values. Running nearly two hours, this new version gains much in new technological advances but loses several key elements of the raw production values of the original. Shot by Charles Rosher, the film is a more polished and professional production lacking the naturalist location shot dimensions of the original. Tess’s dress is less torn than in the earlier version and resembles the more decorous outfit in the Howard Chandler Christy illustrations within the original published novel that would appeal to the sensibilities of genteel readers. Several glamor shots of a backlighted Mary now appear, familiar to her recent films and the religious elements become more prominent. Tess opens with a biblical quotation “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” and concludes with a more emphatic Hollywood happy ending with the two fathers reconciled, Elias donating squatter territory to its occupants, and Tess and Frederick embracing and kissing in the snow. Yet even here, Mary must have recognized the artificial irony of this final shot with the lovers covered by snow up to their knees. However, the film was made in the aftermath of the Palmer Red Raids and the fear of the new Soviet Union that led to the elimination of many interesting features within the original 1914 version. The squatters no longer have their own lawyer to protect them from illegal upper class activities. Dan is now a law student who interprets statutes to the advantage of his skeptical prospective father-in-law rather than the squatters. Tess no longer rallies the community like a revolutionary heroine nor does she suggest poaching as a means to combat the upper class starvation policy to force them to move. Instead she now expresses reluctance for her father’s involvement in the illegal net fishing that will eventually led to the murder of Dan by Ben rather than a gamekeeper as in the 1914 version.

Despite these ideological limitations on her female agency, Mary’s Tess exhibits resilience whenever the appropriate opportunity arises. She still bites Graves’s hand when he spills the baby’s milk pail in the kitchen but also jumps and overpowers Dan when he leads a group to burn the squatters’ nets in the best manner of Charlie Chaplin. Although no “little tramp” she is still poorly clothed. She attempts a well-placed kick at the rear of this budding shyster before he departs. She will later kick her way into the courtroom at the moment her father is pronounced guilty for Ben’s murder. In this version, Ben (played by the more accomplished Jean Hersholt) has a more prominent role deliberately taking Orn Skinner’s rifle with him on the poaching expedition to Tess’s dismay. This version eliminates his role as the father of an illegitimate child since censorship issues were becoming more dominant in the 1920s.

More romance occurs in this version. Frederick teaches Tess to read incurring his father’s anger. In the 1914 version, Tess was self-taught. Whenever possible, Mary’s actions undercut the romantic aspect. When Frederick arrives at her shack during a wet night, she dries his coat by the fire. She may kiss and embrace him but a succession of edited shots show the coat sleeve slowly burning by the fire something that Frederick seems oblivious of as he puts it on to go outside.

Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
Tess of the Storm Country (1922)
Unlike the 1914 version, Teola’s pregnancy does not occur due to a one night stand in a cabin. The new version implies that she and Dan have been sleeping together under her father’s roof. Despite Tess saving her from drowning, the Teola of 1922 resents Tess as the daughter of the man who supposedly murdered her lover and expresses self-pity rather than gratitude after the rescue: “Why didn’t you let us both die?”. Tess offers the same type of female solidarity as in the original version: “Enmities are forgotten in another’s need.” Feminist implications of sisterhood solidarity between women of different classes are again undeniable. Teola will again deny her savior despite the fact that social ostracism will be Tess’s reward for swearing an oath keeping Teola’s secret. “Through the black months that follow Tess bears another’s burden.” Frederick also rejects her when Tess claims having a baby is “nobody’s dum business.” When he anguishes, “You, the girl in whom I put my faith!” she defiantly replies “What do you know about faith? Get out of here!” Unlike the New Testament Savior who experienced denial by one person, Tess undergoes rejection by two people from a higher social class: a potential suitor and a woman she has saved from suicide. By protecting the cowardly Teola, Tess proclaims female agency as much as religious sincerity.

The film moves to its climax. Teola dies in the church with her dead baby in her arms. Tess rejects the hypocritical upper-class community. However, for 1922, a more affirmative and non-political ending must occur. Elias openly admits that Tess has taught him “the true meaning of charity.” If the film does not conclude like the original novel and the 1914 film version with “but I air your squatter,” the 1922 adaptation reveals that any happy ending for these lovers of different classes is totally absurd and illusory. It ends outside Tess’ hut with she and Frederick blissfully embracing knee deep in snow!

Changing Images: 1917-1919

In the first of two films directed by Maurice Tourneur, The Pride of the Clan presents Mary as the natural leader of a poor Scottish fishing community anticipating Barbara Stanwyck’s role as the “woman with a whip” in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns scourging ungodly elements into attending church. Her sweetheart is really an abandoned child of an aristocrat who visits the island with her new husband to conduct her offspring “to the manor born.” Despite initial reluctance, Mary’s character realizes that she can’t stand in the way of his upward mobility so relinquishes him. Unfortunately, “true love” and a forced Hollywood happy ending set things aright.

Once Frances Marion began her collaboration with Mary future films would take a more complex and contradictory tone. Happy endings would occur in these films but not at the cost of eliminating entirely thematic motifs that would question, although faintly, any form of totally positive resolution. Neither Pickford nor Marion came from privileged backgrounds like Teola Graves. They both knew the real nature of human existence surrounding their audiences once they left the movie theaters. The most interesting Pickford films are those which reveal other forms of less privileged lives.

The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)
Directed by an austere Tourneur affronted by being outnumbered by two uppity women injecting humor into the narrative, The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) is regarded by many critics such as Scott Eyman in his DVD commentary as the first Pickford film in which all the key components of her star persona coherently blend together. It also has many associations with Mary’s earlier work in which she played emotionally and socially deprived working-class characters. In this film, she plays young Gwendolyn whose character embodies the contradictory aspects of its title that Marion also depicts in her caption – “Empty hearts. Empty lives. Empty homes. Poor little Rich Girl.” Even one hundred years ago, the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” took its emotional toll on parents as well as children. Gwendolyn is the only child of a rich family. Her poverty results from emotional deprivation by two parents totally involved in their respective social worlds. Father is a Wall Street stockbroker dominated by either making money or fearful or losing it in any economic crash. He lives Black Friday and 2008 on an hourly basis. Mother is a social butterfly oblivious to the fact that the rich women she hopes to impress see through her as acutely as any university administrator quickly recognizing over-eager Sidney Falco faculty members greedily desiring the “glittering prizes” of hugely inflated six figure salaries. One of the key images in the opening scenes is a subjective shot of working-class kids playing outside Gwendolyn’s brownstone with prison like bars blocking her view. When she ascends an elevator for dreary home-school lessons designed to quench any form of spontaneity, bars again prominently appear on the glass window. Except for a kindly older butler, other servants perform their duties like mechanical dolls. Eyman notes in his DVD commentary that many Pickford child roles exhibit a sense of emotional deprivation she felt as a child when she was often the sole economic support of her family and had virtually no time for “childish things.”

Despite social alienation the street kids intuitively recognize her as one of their own, especially Mickey Dolan, leader of the Salmon Alley gang, before all engage in a mud fight inside the palatial brownstone. “She’s a good little fella’ even if she is rich.” Another natural ally is a lowly plumber overjoyed when Gwendolyn invites an organ grinder inside to play a tune she can dance to. When Gwendolyn lies at death’s door, the butler proves himself the moral conscience of the film by condemning her parents. “You, Big Ears! And You, You Two-Faced Thing! What have you done to this child?” Although she recovers to see two reformed parents this “poor, little rich girl” has discovered a more supportive group of companions such as organ grinder, plumber, and street kids in the outside world her social class attempted to deny. It is a world this now affluent star knew well twenty years before.

Adapted from Frances Hodgson’s Burnett’s novel by Frances Marion but directed by one of Mary’s key directors Marshall Neilan, A Little Princess (1917) is a version of the Cinderella story in reverse as well as a nightmare of downward mobility. Following the loss of her father in India, the orphaned Sara Crewe loses her privileged status in Miss Minchin’s boarding school and is cast into the bottom of the social pit becoming a menial servant like working-class Cockney Becky whom she earlier befriended despite class differences. As she said to her earlier speaking lines anticipating her fall from upper-class grace into working class hell, “I’m only a little girl like you, Becky, and it’s just an accident that I’m not you and you’re not me.” Yet accidents do happen in film and real life as Sara abruptly discovers when she finds herself one of Jack London’s The People of the Abyss.

Suds (1920)
Suds (1920)
Fantasy often plays a significant role in Pickford’s films whether it be the dream-like imagery in The Poor Little Rich Girl where the ailing Gwendolyn assesses past events and characters in Freudian analytic structures or engages in her own version of the family romance as in Suds (1920). Here, she conjures up her own version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in which she, and not the male hero, plays the major role. Envisaging herself fully grown as an attractive slave-girl, she not only re-tells a familiar narrative through a female perspective but also anticipates a Douglas Fairbanks hero long before her future husband solidified his later star status by killing the leader of the forty thieves as he is about to stab Ali Baba. Although the original novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett does contain the reference concerning the natural equality existing between Sara and Becky (see Burnett 1963: 55, 91), Mary’s Ali Baba heroine narrative is unique to this film version. During her tenth birthday party she learns of the death of her father by Miss Minchin who cruelly consigns her to a filthy attic room. With Becky now as her only friend the two girls bond together until her late father’s friend learns her identity and tells her of the fortune she is entitled to. Despite the spiteful attempts of her tormentor to prevent Becky from joining her, she finally succeeds in getting her to share an unexpected good fortune.

A Little Princess reveals the beginning of Neilan’s role as director in collaboration with star and scenarist. It is characterized not only by Mary’s poignant performance as an orphaned girl who loses her father at an early age paralleling Pickford’s own loss but also key lighting techniques that will typify the unique visual star charisma that will remain throughout her silent work. However, far exceeding these features is the aspect of female solidarity and intuitive empathy between women of different classes and social background. Sara reaches out to Becky and befriends her in the same way that Mary and Frances Marion expressed sympathy towards a young Zasu Pitts whose unglamorous appearance evoked contempt from one male studio worker. However, director and scenarist saw the potential in a novice who would later reveal the breadth of her sadly underused talents in two films directed by Erich von Stroheim. One of the remarkable aspects of the closing scene is a Christmas celebration to which Sara has invited poor, underprivileged children who have not appeared in the film so far. This not only depicts the star’s sincere recognition of the less fortunate in society but also anticipates the charity work she was well known for during the height of her stardom and long after her retirement from the screen.

As Whitfield (1997: 300) notes concerning the Shirley Temple remake of The Little Princess in 1939, the power of the classic became diluted “with pointless subplots, dance routines, and gurgling and burbling from its star” with the older star being “a far more complicated creature, informed by temper, violence, tragedy, street sense, optimism, and slapstick. And with few exceptions, these surfaced in adolescents, not prepubescent girls.” These insightful remarks are crucial towards understanding the key elements behind “Little Mary” who is never an adorable, passive little girl. She exhibits no doll-like child persona but depicts someone who often appeared older than her years as befitted a child brought up in impoverished circumstances who rapidly matures beyond her physical years having little time for the normality of childhood and play. These were only available to affluent classes in her era, something that the supporter of her family from a very early age knew and recognized far beyond the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. Whatever class Mary played, whether street waif or Little Lord Fauntleroy, her characters exhibit a streetwise resilience, playing whatever social game they find themselves in attempting to save not only themselves but other kids as in Sparrows (1926) and ageing, helpless animals as in Suds where she saves an ill-fed horse from the glue factory.

Stella Maris (1917)
Stella Maris (1917)
Directed by Marshal Neilan and scripted by Frances Marion, Stella Maris (1917) is the logical successor to A Little Princess. Adopted from a turgid and verbose novel by British writer William J. Locke, the film narrates two parallel narratives dealing with girls from different class backgrounds both played by Mary herself. Stella Maris is the beautiful bed-ridden ward of Lord and Lady Blount who aim to conceal from her the ugly realities of everyday existence. Shot in the lighting style designed to elevate Mary’s glamorous image, Stella represents a combination of those fragile heroines from nineteenth century literature such as Dora from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and Little Eva from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both destined for that early demise that Stella does not experience. Stella’s female alter ego is the non-glamorous working class Cockney Unity Blake despised by everyone in her orphanage. A sub-plot involves John Risca (Conway Tearle) unhappily married to “commoner” Louisa rumored to have an alcohol problem well before her marriage. One wonders whether the alcoholism developed after the marital union between the upper-class John and his Cinderella bride especially since she appears confined to the Risca residence and is never welcome in the Blount household. Marion does not develop the back-story sufficiently here. Stella has a sign outside her bedroom door banishing “unhappiness and worldly wisdom” and welcoming only “smiles.” She exclaims, “How beautiful this world is – and how good” – a fantasy that the star and her audience can demolish from their everyday lives, past and present. Although the Blounts and Risca strive to protect her from the outside world, Stella’s isolation encourages an infantile fantasy world similar to the Victorian idealization of childhood and the developing illusions of the dream factory. Despite its gentle and subtle nature, Stella Maris is a self-aware film as if star, screenwriter, and director fully understood what must be repressed to create the illusion of Hollywood stardom. The contrasting glamor and naturalistic cinematic techniques used to depict both heroines are revealing in themselves.

When Unity suffers brutal physical assault from the drunken Louisa, John adopts her. His wife receives a three year prison sentence for “torture.” An eternal triangle develops. Stella loves John who cannot return her affections. Unity realizes that her ugliness can never appeal to the man she also loves. Marion has added a very significant line about the faint physical resemblance between these two very different women that does not exist in the original novel. It is almost as if the gifted screenwriter wants to differentiate the glamorous star image of Mary from her non-glamorous female fans in the cinema. Marion thus contributes a distinctively cinematic original interpretation not present in the original novel with the focus being on upper-class life and manners. This development suggests screenwriter and star wishing to alert discerning members of the audience that the glamorous images of Stella (and Pickford by association) are illusions created by the camera having no basis in the everyday working-lives of spectators whose social positions resemble Unity’s. Parallel editing sequences between Unity looking at her image in the mirror and a moonlit garden tryst between Stella and John emphasize the difference between reality and fantasy. Unity’s reflection reveals to her that she can never attract John while comparing her realization of this to scenes showing romantic feelings between beautiful Stella and handsome John. Stella does not know that John is married and John can never acquaint her with the harsh reality of his existence. Stella Maris may be a romantic film but it is one contrasting two different worlds of fantasy and brutal naturalistic reality. For romantic love to succeed another world and its occupants must be destroyed. This latter world contains a failed marital relationship and a subordinated working-class upon which the higher realms of society and its own class fantasies depend for its existence. Unity eventually sacrifices herself for John’s happiness by murdering Louisa and committing suicide to permit the unity of the happy upper-class couple at the end of the film.

On one level, Stella Maris works as a touching romantic drama revealing the versatility of its star in performing two contrasting roles. But it also operates as a suggestive narrative revealing “what lies beneath” romantic class-based fantasies and Hollywood stardom. For one to succeed, another alternative must be denied. Working-class “ugly duckling” orphan Unity undertakes the noble sacrifice to ensure the happiness of her betters. Mary Pickford’s stardom is really an artificial construction of the Hollywood machine designed to provide a compensatory temporary respite of glamor and beauty to working and middle class audiences whose everyday lives are quite different. Stella Maris penetrates the illusions of both romance and Hollywood stardom for the discerning viewer. The film lays bare the device of Hollywood stardom and what it depends on, namely audience complicity in a Fantasy Machine whose glamorously lit up star is as artificial as the make-up and different forms of technical devices Mary employed to portray Unity Blake. It is perhaps not without irony that the religious skeptic Frances Marion supplies the religious caption as the last one in the film of “God’s in his heaven. All’s right with the world.” Star and scenarist knew fully well that “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Amarilly_of_Clothes-line_Alley_posterAmarilly of Clothes Line Alley (1918) is another star-scenarist-director investigation of class barriers in American society and the impossibility of a Cinderella solution that typified facile popular culture resolutions of that era and beyond. Pickford, Marion, and Neilan not only engage in an honest and unsentimental depiction of working-class life not entirely devoid of humor but also now indirectly critique the upper-class elements of society often revered in capitalist society. The critique is not revolutionary nor did the collaborative talents engaged in this enterprise ever intend it to be. Amarilly now questions whether the sacrificial act of Unity Blake in Stella Maris is even worth it. The film contrasts the life of the lower New York East side Irish working class with the better-off element in Manhattan and Park Avenue to the latter’s detriment. While not denying working-class poverty with opening shots of slums similar to the introductory scenes of Little Annie Rooney (1925), the inhabitants of the lower-depths exhibit more vitality in their daily life than emotionally sterile West Side occupants. Recalling D.W.Griffith’s Biograph and Intolerance (1916) critiques of the better-off, the working-class backgrounds of star and director as well as the unbiased observation of a screenwriter into diverse social attitudes make this film one of the most interesting of Pickford’s social dramas.

Upper class matriarch Mrs. Phillips lives by the “fourteenth commandment,” “Thou shalt not forget thy pose” while her nephew Gordon is little better than a lounge lizard with dubious artistic aspirations equivalent to the privileged males in Puccini’s La Bohème. This Prince Charming (played by the uninspiring Norman Kerry) is rescued by Pickford’s Cinderella following a brawl in a working-class dive frequented by prostitutes, working-class brutal males and a multi-ethic band, two of whom (drummer and pianist) are African-American. Early silent cinema does not erase the melting-pot constituency of urban life entirely as its classical Hollywood successor will eventually do unless for purposes of racial condescension. The action of Lawrence Peyton’s Martin Eden defending a young black from Cheese Face in Hobart Bosworth’s 1913 film version of Jack London’s novel (a scene that does not occur in the source material) is another such example.

Welcoming a temporary respite from upper-class girlfriend Colette, whom Marion describes as a “product of cold storage” Gordon begins his Pygmalion process of turning Amarilly into a lady with all the archetypal Pickford glamorous lighting in full sway as it was for her Stella Maris role. His hypocritical Aunt sees the whole process as a social experiment without any form of humanitarian consideration for its victims. Aiming to humiliate Amarilly as Exhibit A in her upper-class Society for the Betterment of Humanity matriarchal group, she invites her whole Irish working-class family to destroy the developing romance between her nephew and the “wrong type.” After Amarilly’s mother has accidentally offended a society matriarch who wants her former low social status forgotten, a close-up shows Amarilly witnessing the devastating result of upper-class viciousness. When the family leaves, Neilan uses a symbolic shot of goldfish expiring outside a fish bowl before using another image of fish happily again inside the bowl once the family returns to the East Side. Mrs. Phillips’s condescending statement, “My dears, this is our reward for trying to raise the unfortunates of the slums to a higher social state” expresses the moral of this sad story. Like the Heart o’ the Hills (1919), it is Mary who understands that the classes cannot mix as “ice-cream” cannot merge with “pickles.” She reunites with her Irish working class boyfriend achieving her own form of upward social mobility by arranging for him to get a middle-class job to start a family and ride in a motor-cycle on excursions to Central Park.

The Hoodlum (1919)
The Hoodlum (1919)
The Hoodlum (1919) is more light-hearted that the previous films but still contains many relevant socially aware features. Featuring several slapstick sequences in which Mary proves herself a challenging rival to Chaplin, Sidney A. Franklin’s film depicts her as spoiled adolescent rich brat Amy Burke whose grandfather Alexander Guthrie (Ralph Lewis) is a ruthless robber baron already responsible for sending an innocent man to jail. Such instances were common in the Gilded Age and beyond so it is to the star’s credit to mention such often denied facts in a film that appeared two years after socialist writer George Allan England’s The Greater Crime (1919) that depicts the railroading of another victim of the social system. The film’s nominal hero William Turner (Kenneth Harlan) must have also shared the feelings of England’s main character when he began his one year sentence in the penitentiary.

“The grim entrance of the penitentiary filled him with exultation. Its very massiveness and all the ingenious safeguards thrown about the unhappy victims of an insane social system spoke to him of his own safety.” (England 1917: 169)

Deciding to join her sociological writer father to live in a New York slum district resembling the environment depicted in D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Amy initially acts disdainfully towards its working-class inhabitants but later takes her father’s advice to drop her social prejudices. “Amy, if you are to be happy among these people you must dress and act as they do – treat them as your equals – be one of them or they will be suspicious of us and you will jeopardize my life’s work, my book.” She takes this paternal advice with a vengeance dressing not only as gaudily as the working-class girls whose friendship she initially rejected due to snobbishness but also becoming one of a group of street kids (one of whom is black) and playing with loaded dice before a Keystone Kop slapstick chase. She later admits that she is not as bright in school as other working-class kids but gets her grandfather to gradually change his attitudes when she attempts to help an impoverished working-class family living in the worst type of slum conditions. A mid-close up shot of Amy witnessing these conditions speaks volumes. When rebuffed by her grandfather in disguise who is appalled by the fact that she is becoming a “hoodlum”, she replies, “I used to think that way but I’ve seen things that have opened my eyes.” Grandfather not only brings food to the ailing family but also adopts one of the street kids. It is significant that Mary does not use the cloying sentimentality of a Shirley Temple to change the heart of the older generation but introduces both her grandfather and the viewer to the appalling conditions suffered by the less well-off in the New York slums. She also aids in making a five year antagonistic relationship between an Irish and Jew temporarily cease. The film concludes with the expected “happy ending” with Turner refusing to forgive the Alexander Guthrie who railroaded him but forgiving his now reformed persona Peter Cooper and the wedding of Amy and William. Yet what remains in this film are those bleak, real-life images of New York slum life, ragged children, and an infant fetching his father’s pail of beer from outside a saloon door, something that will represent Guthrie’s “first loving cup” offered to him at the table of a working-class family. It is to the star’s credit that she includes such scenes in The Hoodlum, scenes which most of her audience would be very well familiar with.

Heart O’ the Hills (1919)
Heart O’ the Hills (1919)
Franklin’s First National production Heart O’ the Hills (1919) begins with Mary playing Kentucky hillbilly Mavis Hawn from the age of 12 to 19 while her leading man is played by two actors (one a boy, the other an older man). Losing her father to the bullet of an unseen assassin she lives with her mother now courted by the repugnant Steve Honeycutt, stepfather of Mavis’s young friend Jason, who wishes to acquire her property. His line to Mavis’s mother, “Women got no sense about business,” must have resonated with the producer-star who not only negotiated successfully with Adolph Zukor but was also one of the major figures in the formation of United Artists that very same year of the film’s release. Both children suffer child abuse as a brief scene showing them comparing their scars reveal, something unthinkable in Hays Code Hollywood. Mary Pickford never denied the existence of child abuse in her society. In Daddy Long Legs (1919) Mary’s orphan character has her hand placed on a hot plate in a traumatic “discipline and punish” scenario far beyond anything that Michel Foucault could imagine. Unity Blake suffers a brutal beating with a poker by her adopted mother in Stella Maris. When a group of outsiders led by capitalist Sanders arrive to appropriate mining rights like Reconstruction carpetbaggers, Mavis is the one person in the community to chase them away until she is thrown out of her home once Honeycutt marries her mother. In one amusing scene, Mary reworks the premises of Birth of a Nation (1915). She leads the local Klan not against freed slaves but to oppose outside interests opposing her community. Although this sequence may offend contemporary sensibilities, the Klan also fought preying Northern capitalists in its early years and this is the group Mavis and her Klan fight against. She leads the Klan in the same way that Tess in the 1914 film version mobilizes her community against a rapacious outsider. After the murder of Sanders by a hidden assailant she faces trial but is saved by members of the jury and most of the courtroom in a manner anticipating the “I’m Spartacus” scene in Kubrick’s epic forty years later. Kindly Southern Colonel Pendleton, who was misled by outside interests adopts Mavis and brings her up to be a lady. Six years later Mavis turns down the proposal of his son Guy (John Gilbert) clearly aware of the class barriers separating them. “My people are not yours, nor yours mine… not in our generation.” After discovering Steve to be her father’s murderer, she is saved from killing him by a timely bullet from Jason’s rifle. Although the two former sweethearts are now old enough to tie the knot, Mary undercuts the potential cloying sentimentality of this happy ending by resorting to a “comic pratfall.”

Not Just the Roaring Twenties

Suds (1920) saw Mary undertaking another non-glamorous role as a Cockney laundress in London’s East End. Despite dreams of upward mobility, the film emphasizes that such fantasies are not realizable. Suds states this moral in two scenes. One is a fantasy scene with the glamorous Mary who, like the other aristocrats, speaks in working-class lingo, and the other later expresses her realization that no solid relationship can happen with the upper class man of her dreams. “It came to her, swiftly, poignantly – he would be ashamed of her.” At the end of the film Suds is seen happily enjoying the company of her working-class boyfriend and the horse she has rescued from the glue factory suggesting the earlier fantasy’s associations with Freud’s 1917 “escape fantasy” of the “family romance” thus placing it within the category of those fictions that “allow one to come to terms with the real world through stories about the past – about the origins and history of self and community” (Williams 1995: 89). Life may be grim in Mary’s working class worlds but it is far better to struggle against the harsh realities of everyday existence than indulging in impossible dreams of class mobility.

Pollyanna (1920)
Pollyanna (1920)
Like The Poor Little Rich Girl, Pickford and Marion managed to inject “some funny little scenes in spite of our indifference” within Pollyanna (1920), a role Pickford hated (Marion 1972: 67). In addition to slapstick scenes is the line spoken by the heroine about wanting to marry a missionary when she grows up since they are easy to cook for because they don’t eat much, a line expressing both skepticism for the delusion of calls to the ministry as much as society’s material rewards for such dedication. Mary does not remain in the realm of childhood at the end of the film but is last seen as a mother with a brood of children. Her child roles often look forward to adulthood with the continuation of youthful resilient qualities. Earlier in M’Liss (1918) derived from a Bret Harte story, the heroine whose name expresses miner’s lingo for “Limb of Satan” not only holds up a stagecoach and punctuates the pretentiousness of a pompous civic leader (Tully Marshall) but also proves adept at using a slingshot and rivaling the future President Richard Nixon’s use of “expletives” as the future star apparently did in her younger days (see Eyman 1999: 34).

Directed by William Beaudine, Little Annie Rooney (1925) is a revelation in more ways than one. Not only does it reveal Mary portraying an Irish-working class girl on the verge of adolescence at the age of thirty-five but again reveals some very progressive features. She plays another version of her Tess character leading a multi-ethic gang of street kids (composed of African-American, Jewish, Greek, Italian, and Chinese) battling against an Irish white faction led by Mike Kelly. Her kindly father Timothy Rooney is loved by all the ethnic groups living in a slum neighborhood, one woman going so far as to name her baby Timothy J. Levinsky. Like the Hebrew titles used in one scene in The Hoodlum, Little Annie Rooney recognizes that native languages are still fluent in New York’s melting pot as seen in some Greek captions, one of which gives away the real villain of the piece Tony who has railroaded Annie’s potential sweetheart Joe Kelly (William Haines) for the murder of her father. While alive, Officer Rooney acts as a one-man adjudicator of the community’s version of a League of Nations solving problems affecting all ethnic groups and showing favor to none. According to Brownlow (1999: 119), at least one contemporary reviewer noticed the gang’s resemblance to “a junior League of Nations.” It is an ideal image and it is to Pickford’s credit that she shows the possibility of this being realized while fully aware of class divisions in her own country as the opening caption reveals. “Up town, a gang calls itself ‘society’ – down town a gang calls itself a ‘Gang’ and lets it go at that!” Successive images of New York slums follow. Pickford and her collaborators wish to make viewers aware of the hypocritical nature of class divisions. Eventually, all the kids collaborate in bringing the murderer to justice with Annie and her antagonist young Mickey (whose gang is not multi-ethnic) shaking hands at the end. Although several scenes involving the comic African-American kid Humidor performing a dance may offend contemporary sensibilities everything is treated in good humor. After her father’s death a Jewish family invite Annie in for an evening meal even giving her a special ham dish – “Extra special for you, Annie” – despite their normal religious sensibilities. The film presents this as an act of generosity on the part of sympathetic neighbors to someone who has recently lost her father. Little Annie Rooney ends with the now young adolescent Annie riding alongside Jim in his own company truck that he has purchased to begin following Timothy Rooney’s advice to begin an honest life rather than ending up as a gangster. While Annie and Joe ride in the front like sweethearts, the multi-ethic group of kids ride behind. It is thus obvious that the progressive sensibilities exhibited by the film are to continue.

Sparrows (1926)
Sparrows (1926)
William Beaudine’s Sparrows (1926) is one of the star’s major cinematic achievements. Undoubtedly influenced by German cinematography, the film combines expressionist horror with the social Dickensian features of Pickford’s earlier films. It not only anticipates Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008) by over eighty years but again reveals the star’s intuitive awareness that social oppression still affected many in the supposedly affluent Roaring Twenties. Photographed superbly by Charles Rosher, Hal Mohr, and Karl Struss, the film not only contains an exciting escape through an alligator infested Bayou swamp equivalent to Lillian Gish’s hazardous ice-flow trajectory in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) but also another Biograph-type social expose of the baby farms where illegitimate offspring of unwed mothers and prostitutes were deposited to work as slave laborers or sold to farmers for the same purpose. Mary’s Molly is the oldest of this group who acts as mother to foundlings of different ages, whether babies or younger kids, and who teaches them biblical axioms to help them survive the harsh conditions of their existence. As the DVD audio-commentary mentions, they are all abused children and the film hints at a condition that now cannot be explicitly revealed as in Stella Maris, Daddy Long Legs, and The Heart o’ the Hills but is evident to any perceptive viewer. Speaking of a God who accounts for every sparrow in the world (hence the film’s title), Molly reveres a Christian Savior Good Shepherd who will welcome a dead baby into a better world than the one it left. As in many of Mary’s films, religion has more of a social Gospel connotation, one neglected in her era and even more today. She is an impoverished rural Virgin Mary tending her flock in the hope of some unexpected form of salvation and she leads them into the wilderness of the swamp where they are threatened not only by Satan (who already exists in the monstrous Nosferatu figure of Gustav von Seyffertiz’s Mr. Grimes) but also by savage carnivorous alligators. At the end of Sparrows, she has not only returned a kidnapped baby to its rich father but persuaded him not only to adopt her to continue her maternal care but also those other sparrows in her flock, including one who was earlier sold into slavery. This is one of the most touching performances of her career and needs to be seen not within the cynical perception of a supposedly progressive but negative postmodern era but one articulating the American ideal of social justice and fairness to all members of society. Sparrows ends with Mary now adopted by a rich benefactor in the same way as Oliver Twist, leading her flock in a rendition of “Shall we Gather at the River,” John Ford’s favorite hymn which he often used to express the utopian ideals of a society that very rarely lived up to its promises. At this point of film history, the hope exists that some segments of society may achieve a better life even though it is only represented on the cinema screen.

My Best Girl (1927) directed by Sam Taylor was her last silent film. Although replaying the Cinderella motif once more and characterized by on-screen chemistry with a new leading man, Charles Rogers, the film again manages to transcend its source material by inserting aspects of the star’s own past history into the narrative. Eyman correctly describes it as being really an intuitive type of “emotional autobiography” with the star performing the tiring role of family enabler (Eyman 1999: 181-182). Mary plays a working-class shop girl but she is also the bedrock of her dysfunctional family repeatedly called back into a savior role whenever problems emerge. As she once observed, “I was the father of my family” (Eyman 1999: 71) and this element appears emphatically in the last third of the film when she attempts to destroy the feelings of her rich young man towards her. In a bravura performance portraying a dancing, smoking, twenties “red hot manna,” she appears to achieve success in her “floozy” role until she relents after seeing tears in Roger’s eyes. This is an interesting reversal in traditional gender roles in film. The events finally stir her indolent father into asserting his patriarchal duty and role so that she can rush off to Honolulu and attain marital bliss. Her role in this film reveals that she could have matched competitors like Clara Bow and Colleen Moore had silent cinema continued for several more years. But it did not and like many she had to adapt.

The Sound Era: Her Last Performances

As one of the first Hollywood all-sound film Coquette naturally suffers from that initial period of transition from one technology to another in which certain productions appeared the victim of over-theatricality in speech delivery. Adapted from a play, Coquette appears to display most of the vices and very little of the virtues of sound technology. Lines are often pronounced in a deliberate theatrical manner with Mary’s performance as a young Southern Belle suffering from the burden of a hideous Southern accent. However, once these obstacles are seen as transitory problems in a challenging period of industrial adaptation, then the merits of her performance can be appreciated. Her Southern accent is no better nor worse than most Hollywood pronunciations of that time. The value of Coquette lies in Mary again attempting to break the glass ceiling of rigid audience expectations by playing a more mature role. Her variations in developing from an immature flighty Southern belle to a woman in love soon tragically bereft of her suitor and perjuring herself to save her father from the death penalty, reveal a talent quite capable of adjusting to the sound era once refinements in performance and technology reached an appropriate stage of perfection. Unfortunately, despite the film’s critical and commercial success, it vanished into the limbo occupied by many early attempts of cinematic sound development. In addition to the actress’s attempts to demonstrate a versatility she was more than fully capable of developing, changing economic circumstances along with audience demands for fresher and younger faces would doom her efforts within this radical change of cinematic technology.

The Taming of the Shrew (1929)
The Taming of the Shrew (1929)
The Taming of the Shrew (1929) was the only film in which Fairbanks and Pickford co-starred and one which they both expressed dissatisfaction with later. However, in retrospect, this is one of the better early sound films made and far superior to Coquette. Despite the personal and industrial technology problems affecting Hollywood at this time, The Taming of the Shrew works best as a slapstick Shakespearian comedy with Doug’s Petruchio being an exaggerated version of those swashbuckling heroes he played in his heyday and Mary being a mature version of those spitfire roles she was well-known for in the silent era. As Brownlow points out, “She is both funny and, at the end of the bedroom scene, touching. And her close-ups, lit by Karl Struss, are ravishing” (1999: 236). Furthermore, her tongue-in-cheek delivery of spousal obedience delivered at the end of the film to bride-to-be Bianca (Dorothy Jordan) reveal much of the accomplished controlled businesswoman she was in everyday life. Despite Mary’s reservations, this is one of the best of her early sound films and had the real-life partnership with Fairbanks continued, one could envisage them appearing in several screwball comedies and perhaps pioneering The Thin Man movie series as a very different Nick and Nora Charles than William Powell and Myrna Loy.

1929 later became known for Black Friday and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite Frances Marion’s astute comments comparing the trauma of that era to the events a decade before, movie-going became a secondary concern and this may explain the disappointing box-office returns of Kiki (1931).[9] However, despite its flaws, Kiki is an early example of screwball comedy, with its heroine having much in common with Susan Vance of Bringing Up Baby (1938) paying the “unruly woman” to another British male actor, Reginald Denny, who similarly capitulates in exhaustion to the conquering heroine at the end of the film as does Cary Grant before Katherine Hepburn. With a chorus scene choreographed by Busby Berkeley, with Mary in a white tuxedo similar to that worn by Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), Kiki not only recalls the type of varied roles Mary played in the early part of her career but contains key associations with the “Pickford hellcat” as Whitfield astutely notes: “She fumes, swings her fists, and even bites another chorus girl” (1997: 272). Her mother may have disapproved were she alive but the film does show, like The Female of the Species, another direction Mary could have pursued in terms of Whitfield’s acknowledgement of achieving a performance suggesting “a mélange of Harpo Marx and Betty Boop” (ibid.) becoming a pioneer of what Kathleen Rowe describes as the “unruly woman” of the comedy genre. Amazingly, Rowe only refers to Mary once in that book, and then in a footnote only, mentioning Coquette that really does not fall in that category (Rowe: 1995: 234, note 6) Mary’s Tess is not also not only an unruly girl but also an unrepentant mother in both film versions since she heroically helps a less deserving woman than Clara Bow’s roommate in It! (1927). Her name is entirely absent from Kathleen Rowe Karly’s Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (2011).

Mary’s last film Secrets (1933), directed by Frank Borzage, reveals her as an accomplished actress ageing from youth to old age mourning her deceased baby in an earlier scene in the best traditions of silent film acting. The film was not commercially successful, a factor which probably had more to do with the Great Depression affecting audience attendance than her acting in general. A new era had arrived, cinematically and historically, that would render her stardom anachronistic (through no fault of her own) leading to her decision to retire from the screen.[10]

Despite the herculean efforts of film archives and The Mary Pickford Foundation, the image still stubbornly persists of a Victorian girl-child dominating the star’s performances. However, as Al Auster (1979: 43) wrote in his relevant obituary, “Mary played roles that related to the lives of her working-class audience” and was much more versatile than most critics have given her credit for. Even a supposedly unpromising film such as Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) depicts Mary’s Cedric as having no snobbish attitudes like the toffs in Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley and Through the Back Door since she is a friend of the working-classes who travel to England in the final sequences to help prove her legitimate inheritance. Although changing historical and industrial circumstances resulted in retirement from the screen, she did leave behind her a body of work now available to those willing to ignore the stereotype and discover a much more varied Mary Pickford. Among the legacy Mary has left are a group of films that show “America’s Sweetheart” and “Little Mary” fully aware of the social contradictions existing in her society during the peak of her popularity and beyond. These films show that her legacy cannot be totally separated from those American silent social-consciousness films documented by Kevin Brownlow and Steven J. Ross in their respective studies. As a Catholic and later Christian Scientist, Mary’s religious associations in her films have little to do with orthodox institutional religion, as the two versions of Tess of the Storm Country reveal, but more to do with that progressive form of Christian compassion associated with women such as the mid-nineteenth century crusader Dorothea Dix that transcended denomination as Howe (2007: 604) correctly notes. Quoting Dix’s key axiom, “Raise up the fallen, console the afflicted, defend the helpless, minister to the poor, reclaim the transgressor, be benefactors of mankind!” (ibid.: 604) immediately evokes those images of Tess and Mother Molly. Mary Pickford belonged to an era when the social gospel prophetic religious transition was taken seriously by all those who did not belong to the robber baron class and this particular influence needs detailed investigation. Condemnation of religious hypocrisy is central to both version of Tess of the Storm Country and East Side working-class characters recover from their snobbism treatment by West Side high society by satirizing their manners in the final part of Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley. Also one of the film projects Mary got her brother Jack to co-direct was the United Artists production Through the Back Door (1921) which Eyman unfairly denigrates as “something about seduction and blackmail among the idle, corrupt rich, all thwarted by plucky Mary” (1999: 139). By contrast, Brownlow describes it as “well up to the standard of the time and results in a rewarding and handsome production” (1999:183).

Stardom is a complex phenomenon and the films of Mary Pickford deserve further examination in the light of this. In all likelihood, there are many interesting discoveries and re-evaluations of this unfairly neglected star waiting in the future. However, these must involve a detailed exploration of all her work, recognizing the diversity of her roles, awareness of the intricacies of her screen acting, and relating her stardom to several important historical changes in nineteenth century American society, the most important of which was female activism in progressive causes, that influenced the films she made. As noted above, many of her early silent films have key associations with the social consciousness films of the silent era. But changes in post-World War I American society with the Red Scare, Palmer’s Red Raids, the “normalcy” ideology of President Warren Harding, and the radically different Roaring Twenties era affected her films in several ways. The Tess of 1922 is not the naturalistic social activist of the 1914 version. But in terms of female resilience and accomplishment Mary Pickford’s iconic star status represents an important example of the changing nature of women’s roles in the early years of the twentieth century and her films need also to be seen within that crucial context.

I wish to thank Elaina B. Archer, Director of The Mary Pickford Foundation for her generous advice and help she has offered me in writing this article.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He has recently published the second edition of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).


Auster, Al (1979),”Mary Pickford (1893-1979), the Star the Working Class Found,” Cineaste 9, Fall, pp. 42-43.

Beauchamp, Cari (1997), Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Hollywood, New York: Scribner’s/A Lisa Drew Book.

Britton, Andrew (2009), Britton on Film. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press.

Brownlow, Kevin (1973), The Parade’s Gone By…, London: Abacus.

___(1990), Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Prejudice, Crime: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

___(1999), Mary Pickford Rediscovered, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

___(2012), “Mary Pickford: Passionate Producer,” in Christel Schmidt (ed.), Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson (1963 [1905]), A Little Princess, New York: J.B. Lippincourt Company.

Card, James (2012), “The Films of Mary Pickford,” in Christel Schmidt (ed.), Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

England, George Allan (1917), The Greater Crime, London: Cassell and Co.

Eyman, Scott (1999), Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart, New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc.

Haskell, Molly (2012), “Introduction,” in Christel Schmidt (ed.), Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Howe, Daniel Walker (2007), What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, New York: Oxford University Press.

Karly, Kathleen Row (2011), Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers: Redefining Feminism on Screen, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Locke, William J (1912), Stella Maris, New York: The Century Co.

McGilligan, Patrick (1982), James Cagney: the Actor as Auteur, San Diego: A.S. Barnes & Co, Inc.

Marion, Frances (1972), Off with their Heads! A Serio-Comic Tale of Hollywood, New York: Macmillan.

Pickford Mary (1956), Sunshine and Shadow: An Autobiography, New York: Doubleday & Co.

Ross, Steven J. (1998), Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Rowe, Kathleen (1995), The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schmidt, Christel (ed.) (2012), Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Studlar, Gaylyn, (2013), Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Childhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

White, Grace Miller (1909), Tess of the Storm Country, New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Whitfield, Eileen (1997), Pickford: The Woman who Made Hollywood, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

___(2012), “The Natural: Transitions in Mary Pickford’s Acting from the Footlights to Her Greatest Role in Film,” in Schmidt (ed.) 2012.

Williams, Anne (1995) Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


[1] Card also notes that one of the basic reasons “for the film historians’ remarkably inarticulate understanding of the Pickford genius is that few of them ever looked at her pictures” (2012: 209)

[2] Although she recognizes the star’s “unprecedented control over her films,” Studlar then states that “the formula for her star vehicles changed relatively little” (2013: 21). This is disputable on closer analysis. Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall are just of two of her films that present her in adult roles apart from those such as Little Annie Rooney (1925) where she is clearly growing up both emotionally and physically. In her autobiography, Pickford mentions reception to these first two films – “the public just refused to accept me in any role older than the gawky, fighting age of adolescent girlhood” – and her later goal of pursuing more adult roles in the sound era (see Pickford 1956: 255, 295). Similarly, on the DVD audio-commentary of Sparrows, Jeffrey Vance emphasizes the fact that of the 250 films Pickford made during her career less than a dozen had her playing little girl roles. Her characterization of “gawky, fighting age of adolescent girlhood” emphasizes activity and resilience rather than passive submission to any type of pedophilic gaze. Little Annie Rooney reveals that Pickford is far from being Studlar’s definition of “a girl whose juvenated qualities suggest that she is too young to know what desire is.” To her credit Studlar also recognizes other factors such as Pickford’s appeal to female viewers as well as the role of economic factors conditioning the lives of girls (see Studlar 2013: 41, 48-49).

[3] This statement is applicable to both her juvenile and younger adult roles. For the contrast between “the stereotype of a Pollyanna with golden ringlets and simpering charms” and the star’s display of “spirit, gumption, beauty, and (perhaps most of all) tenacity” in an extremely diverse number of films see Molly Haskell 2012: 2-3, 5.

[4] See Cecil B. DeMille’s introduction to Sunshine and Shadow where he applauds Mary’s support of his “right to work” philosophy in refusing to pay a $3 fee to a radio union! For Frances Marion’s opinion of the director and his “artificially inseminated” historical features see Marion 1972: 48. Although Pickford displayed anti-union attitudes towards the end of her life (see Brownlow 1968: 149), Steven J. Ross (1998: 131, 348, note 47) notes the support that Fairbanks and Pickford gave to organized labor during the peak years of their respective careers.

[5] A study of the enlightened and reformist aspects of religion in 19th century American society that may have influenced Pickford and her contemporaries is beyond the scope of this article (see, however, Howe 2007: 424, 446-482, 547, 617, 630, 837-855).

[6] In her 1959 Canadian Broadcast Corporation interview, she stated that the 1914 version of Tess of the Storm Country was the one feature she was really proud of.

[7] I quote the line “films of social conscience” from the actual dust jacket title since it aptly defines the relevant content of the author’s fine study.

[8] For a very fine analysis on Mary Pickford’s acting see Eileen Whitfield 2012: 7-20. She describes the role of Tess (1914) on paper as not only resembling “a schizophrenic mess of clashing traits” (8) but also Pickford’s portrayal as exhibiting “the soul of modern acting in the first great performance of feature film” (20; for Pickford’s affinity with the plight of the unfortunates in society and her portrayals of the less fortunate see also 15, note 7). For Pickford’s awareness of the flaws of several directors including Porter and her acute awareness of the intricacies of film production see Brownlow 2012: 35. Despite DeMille’s pompous reference to her supposed “right-to-work” support in his introduction to her autobiography, Brownlow mentions ample evidence for her consideration of others on set, preferential treatment to union members in hiring, and being “among the few who signed up for the closed-shop agreement” (Brownlow 2012: 42, note 39).

[9] “How bitterly ironic to think that these men had ended their lives because of the loss of their wealth and yet had never heard about any man who had committed suicide over the loss of his only son killed in the war” (Marion 1972: 192).

[10] As Brownlow (1999:247) points out, “The film opened in twenty-five key cities the very day President Roosevelt declared a bank holiday. The public had largely lost interest in Pickford, as it had with many other great silent stars, and wanted new faces and personalities that seemed to be more in step with the new styles and attitudes of the 1930s. The film was a financial disaster.”

8 thoughts on “Discovering Mary Pickford”

  1. Tony, a necessary piece on one of the women who helped us rethink notions of the female early in film history. Such a fine piece of research and impassioned thinking.

  2. Thank you. Yes, I believe that the whole significance of Pickford has to be re-thought since her persona was far more complicated than is generally assumed. The same can be said fot the historical and social background that influenced her films.

  3. Having seen only three Pickford films ever (The Female of the Species and two personal favorites, Stella Maris and Secrets), I’m encouraged to see more after reading this. A real eye-opening survey of Pickford.

  4. Thank you, Robert. youtube has a lot of her films available and Cari Beauchamp’s biography of Frances Marion, WITHOUT LYING DOWN as well as Anne Whitefield on Mary herself are woth looking up as are others listed in the bibliography

  5. As a ladies’ barber and amateur historian of hairstyles, I’d like to see more on Mary Pickford’s influence on hairstyles. Some historians have stated that she expressed refusal to have her hair bobbed because she disliked the clipped nape which was entailed in real bobs. (The style normally shown as her historic first haircut, around the time of her mother’s death and before her Coquette film, is not really a bob.) One can infer that her publicised refusal to join the bob fad slowed somewhat the invasion by women of barbers’ shops where they had to go to get bob styles with clipped napes e.g. the shingle. Did she ever express any opinion on that widely-resented invasion of a men’s realm?

  6. Maybe, Elaina Archer, Director of The Mary Pickford Foundation (that has a very good website) may be in a better position to answer this question.? Please contact her. She is very helpful.

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