Unquestionably one of the most important figures in the early development of Hollywood, having co-founded United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Mary Pickford was also a tremendous screen star with enormous charisma and transformative acting abilities. Though her cultural cachet now is probably lower than fellow UA founders Chaplin, Griffith, and (one-time husband) Fairbanks, Pickford ought not to be relegated to mere historical footnote — a fact readily confirmed by the three films in Milestone’s new Blu-ray set Rags & Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection.
Leading off the set is 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, directed by Maurice Tourneur (yes, Jacques’ father), a film that proves striking, atmospheric mise en scène ran in the family. A 25-year-old Pickford plays 11-year-old Gwen, and though that sounds like risible gimmick casting at best, it’s stunning how thoroughly convincing Pickford is in the role, both physically and emotionally.
Given every material need, but neglected by her businessman father and socialite mother, Pickford’s Gwen longs for friendship and some connection to the outside world. A bratty, equally spoiled potential playmate doesn’t provide that, but an impromptu concert when she pulls in an organ grinder off the street certainly does. When an unthinkably selfish decision by her servants puts Gwen’s life in jeopardy, Tourneur plunges us into a fever dream of surreal imagery. But Tourneur doesn’t save it all for the dream sequences — a scene in which Gwen is forced to dress in boy’s clothing and gets in a mud fight with some neighborhood kids pulses with a kinetic sense of fun. Though its narrative is fairly simplistic, The Poor Little Rich Girl is anything but stodgy.
A less successful blend of comedy and drama comes about with 1919’s The Hoodlum, which combines silly slapstick with social realism in a fairly labored message drama. Still, Pickford’s expressive performance elevates the material. She stars as Amy Burke, another (slightly older) spoiled rich girl who grows tired of the lifestyle afforded to her by her unscrupulous tycoon grandpa and jumps at the chance to live with her sociologist father as he documents life in the slums.
Amy is unprepared for the drastic lifestyle change, but she soon takes to it, falling for a neighbor photographer and learning some street smarts along the way. Melodramatic twists include a mysterious upstairs neighbor in disguise and a break-in scheme hatched by the photographer to clear his good name. While the photography is fairly successful at creating convincing environments out of set work, it’s mostly Pickford’s wide-eyed, compassionate turn that makes The Hoodlum worthwhile.
Much different is 1926’s William Beaudine-directed Sparrows, a riveting and often sublimely gorgeous tale of survival in which Pickford plays Molly, the de facto caretaker and maternal figure for a group of orphans. Residents of a purported orphanage run by a cruel, murderous master named Grimes, Molly and her gaggle of adorable moppets are confident they’ll be rescued some day. But when a kidnapping goes bad and Grimes begins threatening to dispose of children in the surrounding quicksand-filled swamp, Molly decides it’s time to take action.
Featuring stunning set design and inventive photography, Sparrows offers up a number of truly harrowing moments as the group struggles through a swampy nightmare. The film’s questions about divine intervention and personal agency are mature and thought-provoking, making Sparrows a sophisticated leap forward from the engaging but episodic other films in the set.
The Blu-ray Discs
Milestone gives each film in the set its own Blu-ray disc, presenting each with a 1080i transfer in original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. These are overall very fine transfers, offering healthy levels of fine detail and solid clarity. All three films are naturally riddled with marks and scratches, and Sparrows shows some slight nitrate degradation. None of the damage is overwhelming though, and the image beneath it often shines. The Hoodlum does feature an odd quirk, wherein the intertitle frame freezes for about a second every time, in what is probably an attempt to adjust for a non-standard frame rate. It’s a little distracting, but not a dealbreaker.
Audio tracks are PCM 2.0 stereo tracks featuring nice, crisp orchestral scores. There are a couple of moments where the sound clips out for a half-second on my Sparrows disc. As far as I could tell, this is not an issue with my equipment, but either way, it’s only a minor annoyance.
Each film is given a “kid-friendly” intro and outro in the form of a kindly old grandpa teaching a group of preteens about Mary Pickford and silent films. While the cheese factor is pretty high here, the information provided serves as a pretty good primer on silent film production — something it’s never too early to learn about in my opinion. The films are also afforded an optional narration track for very young children who can’t read intertitles.
Other extras include home movie footage of Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin, 1910 two-reeler Ramona, a few outtakes from Sparrows and a profile of one of the child actors from Sparrows. Scott Eyman lends an audio commentary to The Poor Little Rich Girl, while Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta collaborate on one for Sparrows. The theatrical trailer for Sparrows is also included.
The Bottom Line
A truly tremendous set of varied, striking work from one of the great silent film actors, Milestone’s Mary Pickford collection comes highly recommended.