Audrey Kupferberg: Mary Pickford Films

Nov 23, 2018

Flicker Alley has just released two restorations of Mary Pickford films from the silent era –  FANCHON THE CRICKET from 1915 and LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY from 1925.  Today, when so many women are aiming for careers as producers and directors, and when so many women actually are attaining power behind the scenes in big-budget and smaller, independent feature filmmaking, it is fascinating to look back one hundred years or so to see that there were women who had achieved significant roles as filmmakers. 

I can think of no women who held more power during the silent film days than Mary Pickford.  She was a successful producer, co-creator, and major star.  Legend has it that life-long friend and fellow silent film star Lillian Gish persuaded her to preserve her screen work.  And so she began gathering in the 249 shorts and feature-length films in which she starred in hopes of saving them from deterioration and oblivion.  

One film that she considered lost was FANCHON THE CRICKET.  Now we have a new restoration.  This new DVD/BluRay release would have thrilled Pickford because it was the only film in which she appeared with her brother Jack and sister Lottie.  FANCHON THE CRICKET is a fairy tale story originally written by George Sand.  The plot is minimal; a young wild girl, granddaughter of a woman said to be a witch, is lonely, lacking affection and friendship, and spurned by the young people of her community.  She falls for a handsome young man and eventually teaches those rather callous young people about love and humanity.

What makes FANCHON THE CRICKET delightful is not the plot.  It’s Pickford.  She plays the wild country gal with abandon.  She portrays a child of nature in every way, and, as such, in her early twenties, becomes one of the most naturally beautiful women ever to grace the silver screen.

LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY came ten years later, at a time when so many of Pickford’s huge fan base loved seeing her play spunky adolescent girls.  It sounds a bit odd and unlikely by today’s standards, but Pickford was outstanding in children’s roles.  Even at the age of thirty-three, she is totally believable as Annie Rooney, the spirited and brave daughter of an Irish cop in New York City’s Lower East Side. I laughed as Annie held off a gang of tough little boys in an energetic neighborhood fight. What adds to the fun is the array of ethnicities and races among the children.  From Chinese to African-American to Eastern-European Jewish to Irish, they may fight with abandon but seem to be bonded by their neighborhood ties. Later in the film, when sad things happen to Annie, my eyes filled with tears.  Whether its physical comedy or tragedy, Mary Pickford was a true master of the genre.  Few others were or are as versatile.  

FANCHON THE CRICKET is restored from materials located at the Cinematheque Francaise and the British Film Institute.  The source material for the restoration of LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY is Pickford’s own tinted nitrate print, now under the control of the Mary Pickford Foundation.

These and other Mary Pickford films not only continue to have entertainment value, but also show us aspects of girlhood and womanhood in a time when so many young American women were moving from the restrictive world of Victorianism into a more modern era.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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