- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

Mary Pickford (1892-1979) began acting professionally at age 7 under her original name, Gladys Smith, when cast in a stock company performance of “The Silver King” in her native Toronto, Ontario.

She, her younger siblings, Lottie and Jack, and her widowed mother, Charlotte, became well-traveled touring-company gypsies over the next decade, a period Miss Pickford recalled as “our endless odyssey of the road” in a memorable 1955 autobiography, “Sunshine and Shadow.”

She aspired to conclude the odyssey in New York City, as a successful actress on the Broadway stage. That prospect was within reach in 1908, when she played the principal juvenile role in David Belasco’s production of “The Warrens of Virginia.” The show closed in the spring of 1909, as even hit shows tended to do at the time, in order to avoid sweltering summers.

Beginning to get nervous about the family’s financial reserves, she swallowed her pride and decided to look for fleeting employment as an actress in a burgeoning new entertainment industry, motion pictures.

At the time, Miss Pickford (she had acquired the new name for her Broadway debut) looked down on the so-called “flickers.” Minutes after walking into the converted mansion in lower Manhattan that had become the Biograph studio, she encountered an energetic, mocking house director named David Wark Griffith, who quipped “You’re too little and too fat, but I may give you a chance.”

Those proved the first moonlighting steps toward a career adjustment that would make Mary Pickford one of the world’s most popular human beings in about five years. Initially recognized by moviegoers as “The Biograph Girl” and “The Girl With the Curls,” she ultimately was cherished throughout the silent film era as “America’s Sweetheart.”

Though justified, the adoring sobriquet was destined to distort Miss Pickford’s reputation after her movie career faded in the early 1930s, not long after the demise of silent movies themselves. Though still a partner in United Artists, the independent company she had formed in 1919 with Mr. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Miss Pickford became an aging Hollywood dignitary, still wealthy and socially prominent but reclusive and disinclined to preserve or showcase her own inventory.

By the time the British film historian Kevin Brownlow interviewed her for his wonderful 1968 book about the silent era, “The Parade’s Gone By,” it had become necessary to clarify the magnitude of her popularity and the abiding appeal of her prowess as a film actress.

To commemorate the centennial year of Mary Pickford’s movie career, the Pickford Foundation has organized a free public showing of a starring vehicle of 1917, “The Poor Little Rich Girl,” on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Music Center of Strathmore in North Bethesda. This one-shot revival will serve to introduce an orchestral score recently composed for the movie by Philip Carli. It will be performed by Strathmore’s National Philharmonic, conducted by Hugh Munro Neely, curator of the Pickford Foundation.

As a rule, this is the most pleasurable way to rediscover silent movies. Evidently, the event also anticipates a new DVD edition of “Rich Girl,” not well-served by the video transfer currently in circulation.

A somewhat similar exercise in juvenile impersonation and social comedy, “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” made in 1921, is available in a far more flattering and satisfying DVD edition from Milestone Films. It also offers Miss Pickford in a trick-shot dual-role; she plays the title character, Cedric, a Victorian lad whose curly locks conceal a considerable amount of grit and belligerence, and Cedric’s beloved widowed mother.

“I was always old beyond my years,” Miss Pickford observed in the early pages of “Sunshine and Shadow,” admirably calculated to dignify a success story with ample amounts of rueful, sadder-but-wiser reflection. A premature breadwinner, the actress ended up delighting her public on many occasions by playing youngsters. The example in “Rich Girl,” a lonely and naturally mischievous 10-year-old called Gwendolyn, neglected by parents who have become distracted by high finance and social climbing, came at an anxious career juncture. It restored Miss Pickford’s self-confidence after two pictures under a lucrative new contract for the Famous Players company were commercially disappointing.

In fact, “Rich Girl” loomed as a third disappointment, since the studio management disliked it. The screenwriter Frances Marion, in her autobiography, “Off With Their Heads!,” recalled how she and Miss Pickford were happily surprised by the response in Manhattan’s Strand Theatre on opening day.

Sitting in the balcony, incognito, they discovered that the paying audience was on the same, semiwacky wavelength that they had shared while making the picture. What had left insiders cold proved an irresistible romp to customers. Recognized while leaving the showing, Miss Pickford was mobbed by fans, a recurrent event for years to come.

According to Miss Marion, this experience resulted in an enduring business precaution. “Mary decided,” she wrote, that “several previews in different neighborhood houses must be arranged before even a foot of film was cut out or new scenes shot — a decision which eventually became common practice for all filmmakers.”

WHAT: “The Poor Little Rich Girl”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1917)

CREDITS: Directed by Maurice Tourneur. Produced by Adolph Zukor. Screenplay by Frances Marion, based on the play by Eleanor Gates. Photographed by John van den Broeck and Lucien Andriot. Scenery by Ben Carre.

RUNNING TIME: 65 minutes

FREE SHOWING: 8 p.m. Monday, Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda

INFORMATION: 301/581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org

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