Although bolstered by pictorially outstanding clips, abundant private footage and running commentary from beyond the grave by the subject herself, “Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies” is a disappointingly conventional career recap of the silent era’s preeminent female star and businesswoman. Glossing over controversies and potentially touchy personal issues as if afraid of offending the Pickford estate, this well-mounted docu is itself nearly as old-fashioned as the star’s oeuvre appears today, leaving it to be appreciated mostly by silent-cinema aficionados keen to watch the parade go by one more time.
Given that the allure of “America’s Sweetheart” seems unusually rooted to a particular time — some years on either side of World War I — and that her specialty of playing plucky, adorable little girls even as she pushed 30 seems like something of an aberration, it would seem incumbent upon a filmmaker to explore the nature of her vast popularity and provide a strong reason for a modern viewer to take an interest in her.
With the appeal of films such as “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Pollyanna” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” now appearing unavoidably quaint, no doubt the most rewarding approach today would have been to analyze the phenomenon of Pickford the industrial titan. By 1918, she was the highest-paid woman in the world, and the following year, she founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and her future husband, Douglas Fairbanks.
Forced to become her family’s breadwinner at age 5 when her beloved father was killed, she commanded significant salaries as a child actress onstage and in movies, and later controlled her own vehicles by producing half of them, picking her roles, directors and cameramen, and even writing and directing herself when she wanted to.
Instead, director, editor and co-writer Nicholas Eliopoulos assumes a nostalgic posture, laying out his subject’s quick rise while spending too much time sketching in early screen history that will be familiar to anyone who cares to sample this film. The helmer is methodical and reasonably comprehensive in covering Pickford’s massive output — she made 140 one-reelers beginning in 1909, then 54 features — but at the expense of showing any scenes long enough to amply suggest the star’s effectiveness in any one of them.
There are rewards: The visual quality is often vault-perfect, and the audio-only interview material with Pickford, while not deeply revealing, offers a sense of her mental toughness and some shadings concerning her choices and regrets. Archival interviews with Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Pickford’s third husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, are colorful, and homemovie and behind-the-scenes footage of Chaplin, Fairbanks senior and even Griffith give a feel for prankish, fun-filled times at Picfair, the studio and on tour. One fabulous curio is a brief sound film chat between Pickford and aviatrix Amelia Earhart.
These plusses notwithstanding, the pic glosses over not only Pickford’s business prowess, but also any dark corners, including her somewhat cool relationship with early mentor Griffith, her long, problematic marriage to Fairbanks, her quick career slide when sound arrived (Eliopoulos includes a sample of Fairbanks declaiming in the disastrous “The Taming of the Shrew” but timidly denies us the chance of hearing Pickford speak Shakespeare’s words), her subsequent financial battles with Chaplin over UA, her unexplained (but fortunately unfulfilled) determination that her films be destroyed upon her death, and any allusions to the personality quirks that evidently accumulated during the final 40-plus decades she holed up at Picfair.
In the end, the docu politely tiptoes through a mighty career where it would have profited from taking its full measure.
Tech aspects are outstanding.