The First Movie Star

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She is the great unknown star. If she is recalled, it is for her curls, her mansion and her second husband Douglas Fairbanks. Mary Pickford was called America's Sweetheart, but even that tribute smacks of candy samplers and crinoline, of a tintype age as remote as the Flood.

Pickford needs to be known to see how quickly and glamorously the movies exploded into feature-length life--and at last she can be. Milestone Films has just reissued spiffy video restorations of six of Pickford's best films, made between 1917 and 1927. Mary Pickford Rediscovered (Abrams; 256 pages; $39.95), an eloquent appreciation by silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow, joins a superb biography, Eileen Whitfield's Mary Pickford: The Woman Who Made the Movies (University Press of Kentucky; 416 pages; $25), in bringing the actress alive on the page. Many of the Brownlow book's photos--evocations of an era that are jaw-droppingly gorgeous in their clarity and power--are now on display at the Motion Picture Academy in Hollywood. A documentary, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, is headed for video. Like one of her scruffy heroines who find love at the final fadeout, Pickford is back in movie-star style.

And why not? She virtually invented movie stardom. It was Pickford who first kindled the wildfire of film-fan ardor; Charlie Chaplin, no doubt greater, was also later. And it was the 5-ft. pixie, known for playing cute or pathetic little girls, who first made the moguls pay huge sums for talent. "No--I really can not afford to work for only $10,000 a week," she coyly told Adolph Zukor of Famous Players in 1915, when that was real money.

On- and off-screen, Pickford was the prototype star. She had a stage mother who was her closest and only adviser (Mary faced the moneymen without an agent or manager). Though she never took director's credit, she supervised every aspect of production. When she founded United Artists with Fairbanks, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, Pickford was the one with the canniest business sense. Later she had plastic surgery, three fraught marriages, a substance- abuse problem (alcohol) and two show-biz siblings, Jack and Lottie, with a talent for scandal. Instead of ensuring iconic immortality by dying young, Mary outlived her fame, ending up as cranky and isolated as Sunset Blvd.'s Norma Desmond--a role she was offered but turned down.

Born in Toronto in 1892, Gladys Marie Smith was five when her father died; she revered his memory and refashioned it in dozens of movies about kids grieving for their sainted dead dads. To earn money Mary, Jack and Lottie went onstage. Soon they were in New York City, where, at 17, Mary strode into Griffith's Biograph studio and got a film job.

She burst into stardom in 1915, just as picturemania was erupting. Fans mobbed her; they fetishized her luxuriant curls; they bought massage creams and calendars with her face on them. Moviegoers (and movie moguls) just couldn't pay enough to see their darling.

She gave as good as she got. By 1917, Hollywood was turning out features with amazingly assured pizazz; and Pickford's films, often written by Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, were the best of the bunch--fresh then, still fresh now. Engaging films like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, A Little Princess and Daddy-Long-Legs strutted their effects (dream sequences, clever animation, split screen and double exposures) in the service of fables as bold as they were sweet.

Most of Pickford's films were parables of class and money: the poor colliding with, and educating, the rich. They shrank neither from the audacious depiction of adult brutality to children nor from the optimism that gave a climactic absolution to the misery that preceded it. Translating her youth into melodrama, Pickford usually played the poor, plucky waif; she suffered for her poverty (she was beaten, scalded, whipped) and, in Stella Maris, she died for it. Like Dickens, Pickford wed sentiment to social passion and created enduring popular art.

When she married Fairbanks in 1920, the two reigned as Hollywood's king and queen in their legendary home, Pickfair. He was the athletic bon vivant, she the gracious princess. But the poetic silent picture was replaced by the prosaic talkie, and Pickford was finally too old for her girlish grit to be convincing. She made her last film in 1933 at 40, and within a few years Jack, Lottie and Doug were dead. Bereft, she quietly drank herself to oblivion, pickled in Pickfair. By her death in 1979, only a few oldsters could recall Little Mary with anything like that innocent gasp of discovery, when she and the movies were young.

Now, with Pickford's instructive life and surpassing art again available for appraisal, we can begin to appreciate the impact of the movies' first star--her gift and her curse.