Mary Pickford Rags and Riches Collection (2012) – By James L. Neibaur

During the teens and twenties, Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart, and was one of the biggest stars in movies. Her name has lived on in the same manner as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Lillian Gish, and Mary’s husband Douglas Fairbanks.

Milestone Film and Video has released a three-disc set on DVD and blu ray containing three of Pickford’s most significant silent features. The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) is a fascinating early silent feature, containing greater subtlety than the overplayed melodrama that unfortunately stereotypes films of this period. Mary plays a young girl who confronts loneliness and alienation in her wealthy surroundings as her parents seek greater riches and power, neglecting their daughter. Although playing a young girl, Pickford was 25 years old at the time The Poor Little Rich Girl was filmed. The visual sense of director, Maurice Tourneur made Mary perfectly believable in the role, casting particularly tall actors to play opposite her already petite size (she only stood five feet) and used larger scaled furniture in scenes where Pickford is seated. The popularity of this film was so tremendous, it typecast Pickford into playing characters much younger than herself for most of her career.

The second film on the set, The Hoodlum (1919) is perhaps the least known of the three. By this time, Pickford’s success had reached a level where she produced her own films. This is only the second of her films to be produced by her own company. In another look at wealth and privilege, Mary plays a pampered young socialite who becomes bored with her life and decides to spend time slumming with her socialist father in a ghetto where he is conducting research. Unlike The Poor Little Rich Girl, The Hoodlum is a comedy, and the laughs explode onto the screen with the very first scene as Mary races to school in a roadster, causing all manner of slapstick mishaps. Director Sidney Franklin does a wonderful job displaying the wealthy opulence of Mary’s mansion dwelling life in the earlier scenes, as well as the poverty by which she is surrounded later. The first visual of the slum area, with crowded tenements encroaching an even more crowded unpaved street, is one of the most striking shots in the film. Mary’s first glimpse of the area, stepping out of her chauffeur-driven car surrounded by curious people wanting to touch her hair and her clothing, features some of Pickford’s best acting. There are many wonderful visuals in The Hoodlum. One of the most striking is the shot of the sleeping grandfather dreaming of baseball, with a baseball game shown in a clouded framed next to his head; a very early example of visual effects in cinema.

Finally, Sparrows (1926), one of the true masterpieces of silent cinema, rounds out this wonderful set. Pickford is once again playing much younger than her (by now) 34 years as the oldest member of a rural orphanage (described in the film as a "baby farm") whose proprietors mistreat the children in their care. When the head of the orphanage becomes involved with kidnappers who are holding a wealthy child for ransom, Mary gathers the orphans and they proceed to escape through the alligator-infested swamp that separates them from freedom. Director William Beaudine has garnered a reputation as a one-take B movie stalwart, due to some of the later films in his career falling under this category. However, his visual sense in Sparrows is striking, enhancing the gothic nature of the narrative with closeups that capture the emotions of the children, as well as keeping Mary Pickford in the center of the frame for all of her scenes, allowing her leadership to maintain the rhythm of the narrative. A director no less the caliber of Ernst Lubitsch referred to Sparrows as "one of the eight wonders of the world." It remains perhaps the best film of Mary Pickford’s career.

One of the greatest features of this already fine collection is that it is primarily directed at youngsters in hope of introducing them to the magic of silent movies. Each film includes a short intro featuring a group of children and teenagers who go to an old man’s attic to watch the film we are about to see presented on a screen. They ask questions about why the film is in black and white or silent, wonder about the process, and learn about film’s history and development in the process. There is an outro at the conclusion of each film where the kids react to what they have just scene. Finally, there is a separate audio track for each movie with spoken intertitles and explanations to enhance the experience for youngsters.

Of course this writer believes every school should teach film in the same manner as they teach literature, starting as early as grade school. The fact that this DVD set is designed for just such a situation is one of its most important features.

Other special features include commentary by film historians, rare shorts and home movies featuring Pickford, and wonderful orchestral accompaniment for each film by such fine accompanists as Phillip Carli conducting the Flower City Society Orchestra, and Hugh Munro Neely conducting the Rouse Philharmonic.

Mary Pickford – The Rags To Riches Collection is one of the most important DVD and blu ray releases this year.