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.