By Tony Williams.
These DVD restorations represent another important collaborative venture on the part of The Mary Pickford Foundation and Flicker Alley, a company specializing in promoting often forgotten achievements of the past. The occasion offers cause to rejoice for previous cultural heritage in contrast to the ignominious productions of the present. While Little Annie Rooney had been preserved and seen during many retrospectives, Fanchon the Cricket appeared to be lost until quite recently. Pickford died lamenting the fact that the only film she made with her brother Jack and sister Lotte appeared to have gone the way of most treasures of the classic era. Fortunately, copies were rediscovered leading to collaborations on the part of several film archives resulting in this very beautiful restoration with tinting restored. Little Annie Rooney has likewise benefited but with the addition of a new score by young composer Andy Gladbach who, with a team of an equally young orchestra, has captured the mood of one of the star’s most popular films superbly. Personally, I found it much better than the too-modern new score for Fanchon by Julian Ducatenzeiler and Gladbach that jarred with the acting and action leading me to turn down the volume and just concentrate on the visuals.
The re-release of these two films is significant especially with the introductory logo showing Mary seated at a table signing the United Artists contract after her fellow luminaries Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. It was she, after all, who had astute corporate knowledge, and had she not been living in an era hostile to the achievements of women, Mary would have been a far more significant powerbroker in the silent and early sound Hollywood industry than her male rivals. Fanchon the Cricket is a Famous Players Adolph Zukor production made at a time when the star was moving towards total autonomy over her projects. Directed by James Kirkwood (1876-1963), who is probably most remembered today as the stubborn retired Confederate General in John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright (1953) to redeem himself in an African-American church by recognizing a very different version of “family honor” he once adhered to, it is one of the few surviving works of a now forgotten Griffith and Pickford collaborator, who made nine films with the latter and co-starred in three of them. Kirkwood also worked on the screenplay with Pickford’s friend Frances Marion (1888-1973), both women the subject of Cari Beauchamp’s excellent biography Without Lying Down: Screenwriter Frances Marion and The Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1997). Naturally, Beauchamp is the ideal person to contribute essays for the souvenir booklets that accompany each DVD contain rare photographs.
Fanchon the Cricket appeared a year after one of Mary’s favorite films, Tess of the Storm Country (1914) that she re-made with improved technology in 1922. Both lead characters resemble each other as impoverished outcasts from polite society who exhibit an independence and resilience that not only results in overcoming obstacles but also justifiably shames oppressive societies for their callous socially exclusive behavior. Mary must have been aware of the significance of George Sand (1804-1876) who questioned social norms in her own era. Fanchon the Cricket belonged to Sand’s disillusionment with the result of the 1848 February Revolution, when she retreated to her country home. This still in-print 1849 novel repeats Sand’s early rustic themes of sympathy for the poor and respect for the environment. Like Tess of the Storm Country (1914, 1922), Marty’s Fanchon threatens uncaring social norms until the usual resolution of love overcoming class and social barriers.
Viewed in this light, the film could be dismissed as archaic, but closer examination of Pickford’s performance again reveals that “Little Mary” may have been short of stature but she more than made up for it by feistiness and resilience especially in fighting a bully (played by brother Jack) attempting to steal from the hero’s weak brother and supporting her bitter and isolated grandmother, who is another victim of a vicious affluent society. Lotte Pickford’s demure Madelon eventually reveals herself as lacking compassion and sympathy, which are attributes of a conveniently scapegoated impoverished “other”.
This 74-minute film moves to its resolution but the final scene does not show a Hollywood romantic couple embracing but rather a solitary image of Fanchon in a cornfield “Comin’ Thro the Rye” (to quote the title of that British 1923 silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth, a clip of which is seen in the 1957 The Smallest Show on Earth). As in the 1914 Tess, Mary is the sole victor, not the hero who is absent from the frame like his marginalized predecessor a year before. She appears as a free spirit totally at home with nature and not the exclusive society she has shamed for its callous hypocrisy.
Little Annie Rooney appeared after Pickford had made two unsuccessful attempts to change her image – Rosita (1923), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and Dorothy Vernon of Hadden Hall (1924). Yet the public still wanted “little Mary” and the business-minded star acquiesced but not without displaying her own version in a story she wrote in two weeks. Perhaps conscious of the threat her real potential made to the growing male corporate control of the industry, she decided to credit the screenplay to her grandmother Catherine Hennessy but, here as elsewhere, she was determined to be her own person – as far as entertainment industrial circumstances would allow.
The film does not glamorize childhood or growing up in a rural American but instead attempts to show how the other ethically impoverished “other half” live in a supposedly affluent Roaring 20s where many do not share in its supposed benefits. Shot over a ten-week period on a set created on the Pickford Fairbanks Studio by art director John D. Schulze, this Mary Pickford production resembles the slum conditions of Griffith’s earlier The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and The Mother and the Law (1919), a re-edited segment of the director’s Intolerance (1916), than anything else. As was recognized at the time, the street kids comprise a multi-ethnic melting-pot version of a League of Nations who eventually will unite against common enemy Spider, who has murdered Annie’s father. The scene where she learns of his death after she has carefully prepared a birthday celebration is one of the most emotional and touching scenes that silent cinema ever created. Charges of sentimentality often brought against Pickford by those who have never bothered to see and appreciate her films remain unjustified, as this film and many others reveal. Though the industry’s highest-paid star at the time, she never forgot her low social origins at the height of her fame while continuing to cast a non-judgmental eye on human fallibility within certain circumstances. For example, when Spider’s’ girlfriend Mamie supplies him money to enable them to gain admission to a dance, the suspicious boyfriend eyes the dollar bills left. It does not need to be made explicit that this “working girl” has other sources of income!
For Willian Beaudine (1892-1970) this was the first film he made with Pickford, and he followed it up a year later with the exceptional Sparrows (1926). Yet it is undeniable that this over-productive director with over 500 films to his credit (including half the Bowery Boys series) owed much to a creative producer who brought out the best in him during their brief collaboration. These two films are exceptional re-releases from a company that justifiably earns multiple awards for its quality distribution of film classics as well as another tribute to the significance of The Mary Pickford Foundation. Hopefully, more viewers will rediscover the star, discern what really lay behind her most well-known images, and recognize her contribution to Hollywood cinema and the role of women in film production. Despite the fact that she may never have occupied the director’s chair (at least, officially) she was a key talent in this early era of cinema. If we today recognize the role of collaboration as being instrumental to understanding the complex operation of film authorship, then the collaborative role of Mary Pickford will receive further recognition in addition to that it has already received.
See David Bordwell’s blog entry for another recent review with stills.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international.