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Mary Pickford: Still Queen of the Movies

Film historian Christel Schmidt gave two talks about Mary Pickford before a screening of "Sparrows" at the IU Cinema.

Film historian Christel Schmidt

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There’s something about Mary Pickford.

A century after the actress became the most popular female movie star in America from a combination of charisma, spunk, and comedic gifts, “The queen of the movies”—as journalists called her—is still winning over audiences, and her accomplishments as a woman working in Hollywood have yet to be topped.

On Thursday the 28th, Bloomington audiences will get a chance to experience Pickford’s onscreen appeal and hear about her multifaceted life off-screen when the IU Cinema screens Pickford’s 1926 film Sparrows and hosts two talks by film historian Christel Schmidt.

WFIU’s Adam Schwartz interviewed Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford, Queen of the Movies.

Event Information


Film screening with lecture by Christel Schmidt

IU Cinema

March 28, 2013, 7pm

IU Cinema

A grievous wrong

Schmidt was a women’s studies major when she learned that feminist film scholars held a dim view of the movie star once known as “America’s Sweetheart.” She became determined to form her own opinion of the actress.

“I decided to watch the films for myself,” says Schmidt. “When I watched Sparrows, I was really blown away, because [Pickford] was so different than I had ever imagined her to be onscreen. And her off-screen achievements are so extraordinary. It just seemed there was a grievous wrong there. That she did not get the attention she deserved, considering her place in film history.”

It turns out that the five-foot-tall beauty known as “Little Mary” was also the most powerful woman in Hollywood.

Schmidt hopes that her book will raise awareness of Pickford’s roles as actress, producer, screenwriter, philanthropist, author, newspaper columnist, and morale booster during two world wars.

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Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies brings together essays by noted film historians such as Kevin Brownlow and Molly Haskell. Issued by the Library of Congress, the coffee table-sized volume is a feast for the eye with nearly every page featuring at least one illustration. The publicity stills, lobby cards, behind the scenes snapshots, photos of Pickford’s movie costumes, and artifacts from her life are given high-quality reproductions.

“I wanted to give people a wider idea, not just of her film career, but of her life,” says Schmidt.

“More people know who [Pickford] is now than they did fifteen years ago. There have been a couple of other books published. But I wanted to cover the bases that they couldn’t cover, and give people a wider idea—not just of her film career but of her life. So we included pieces about her philanthropy, her work with film archives . . . being one of the founders of United Artists, one of the co-founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, her extraordinary work as a producer, her talents as an actress. I think these achievements are remarkable, especially for a woman at that period.”

Working class heroine

Adam Schwartz: What did Mary Pickford mean to Americans?

Christel Schmidt: She captured everybody’s heart. She had just extraordinary charm. It made people want to be like her, it made people want to be with her, it made people feel like they knew who she was. And she was so natural on screen that you think she is knowable, that she is your friend. She wasn’t one of those glamor girls. She had an attainable beauty, an easy-to-relate-to persona.

AS: What screen characters was she known for?

CS: Today people remember her little girl roles. Her signature character is in Tess of the Storm Country. That is a character who is coming of age, between 16 and 18—very strong, very willful, rebellious. I think people see those curls and that beautiful Victorian, ethereal angel that she looks like, and they think that’s what they’re going to get on screen.

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But what they get on screen is quite different. She’s kind of a tomboy, and really a working class heroine. I think that’s why she was so beloved by so many people. Because the working classes made up a lot of the early film audiences.

She came from very poor circumstances. She understood working class life. She played characters who overcame a lot of adversity. And she was always able to find someone more vulnerable than her.

You see this with Sparrows. She’s the oldest of a group of kids who are living on a “baby farm.” She’s old enough to leave, but she stays and becomes a mother to these children because as vulnerable as her situation is, [the children] are more vulnerable without her. And she does what she needs to do, to take care of them.

And she’s very heroic. . . . very physical. She’s not afraid to fight, to pick up a pitchfork, to raise her fists, a rock. Whatever she has to do to defend herself and those who are in need, she does.

Passionate producer

AS: Pickford was a movie producer who at age 24 owned her own studio. What did she accomplish as a producer?

CS: She began producing films 1916, and had total control in 1918. . . .  She was so popular, she could’ve made any kind of movie, and people would’ve gone to see it. This happens to a lot of actors. Clara Bow’s films aren’t very good, because people loved Clara Bow and the studios knew that they didn’t have to invest a lot of money in making a quality production. Pickford did not want that.

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She thought films were important. She thought she was important, that she had talent, and so she really fought to make quality films. To bring in good directors, good writers, she wanted the sets to look good. And she learned this at the feet of D.W. Griffith, when she worked at Biograph.

So everything she did as a producer was about making the best films she could make, because she felt that film was an art form. That her performances were artistic, and that they should last. That they should be just as important as books or theater.

Still charms audiences

AS: Since the publication of your book, you’ve been touring the country showing movies that star Mary Pickford. How do audiences respond to her films?

CS: People are so surprised. I’ve been showing Mary Pickford films for the past ten years and it never fails. They come and they don’t know what to expect and then they’re really charmed by her. They find her relatable and her films enjoyable.

That thing [Pickford] was doing in the teens and the twenties is still there and still wonderful to watch. And it’s wonderful to see audiences appreciate her.

Christel Schmidt gives two talks at the IU Cinema on Thursday the 28th.  At 3 p.m., she’ll give a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture about Mary Pickford’s efforts rallying support for World War I, and at 7, she’ll talk before the screening of Sparrows. A book signing will follow the screening. 

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Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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