Tuesday , February 20 2024

Film Legend Mary Pickford and Sara Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’

Suffragette movie poster
SUFFRAGETTE is the first ever feature film to tell the inspirational story of the foot soldiers of the early feminist movement who risked everything in the fight for equality. Carey Mulligan, Meryl Streep. Now showing in theatres across the U.S.

“We break windows. We burn things. Because war is the only language men listen to,” Maud says in Suffragette, now playing in theaters across the U.S.

Director Sara Gavron said, “Working (class) women often are the vanguard of change, and they’re often not recognized for that.”

Tess walking
Mary Pickford as “Tess of the Storm Country” out for a walk. Notice the body language, of swinging her arms wide commanding lots of space.

Another woman not recognized by history is Mary Pickford, the most famous woman in the world at the time the Suffragettes were breaking and burning things.

Maud and the other Suffragettes would have been very familiar with Mary Pickford and her films, where she broke female stereotypes.

On screen, Pickford’s characters fought, choked, kicked, hit, bit, and broke chairs over the heads of men about twice her size — and won. I wonder who inspired who? Did the Suffragettes inspire Mary Pickford, or did she inspire them? Or was it that women’s reality was actually portrayed in the movies?

Like Maud in “Suffragette,” Mary Pickford starting working at the age of seven. She was born in 1892 into a working class family.

By the age of twelve Pickford financially supported her mother and younger siblings as a traveling stage actor.

At the age of fifteen she started working in the movies and went on to start her own studio — United Artists, together with three friends. She starred in hundreds of movies, which almost all were the top grossing movies of the era.

The roles Pickford chose to play were of working class women, since that was her reality.  Most of her audience were working class immigrants, like Maud in “Suffragette.”

But today’s reality is very different. Women and our stories have been erased, marginalized and ignored in movie-making.

In an interview with Sarah Gavron, the director of “Suffragette,” Women-in-Film PDX and Portland Oregon Women’s Film Festival founder Tara Johnson-Medinger stated,

I think you’ve created the quintessential film that women in film are striving toward: to have a strong ensemble of women cast, incredible actors, along with such a strong female crew, the writer, producers, yourself…

Director Sarah Gavron responded,

I have to say, it’s very rare, sadly. The statistics are bleak. There’s so few films directed by women and so few films with female protagonists. . . . We’re half the population and we want to see our stories reflected. We buy over half of cinema tickets that sell these stories. Let’s get them made by women and refracted through the lens of women.

That’s what Mary Pickford was doing while the Suffragettes were agitating for women’s right to vote — she was making movies with female protagonists and thousands and millions of people were watching them.

But like Disney reducing the 50 year struggle of the Suffragettes into the single character of Mary Poppins flying around with her umbrella, (male) film historians have similarly marginalized, ignored and erased from history the screenwriter, movie-mogul, and first movie star, Mary Pickford. They reduced her to only her most insipid of movies–Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Tess tackling a bad guy
Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” tackles a bad guy.
Tess choking a bad guy
Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” chokes a bad guy.

Male film historians ignored Mary Pickford’s hundreds of other movies, especially her favorite character, “Tess of the Storm Country” (1914 and 1922).

Tess solo climbing a rock wall chimney
Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” solo climbs barefoot up the stone “chimney.”

“Tess” is one of the many movies in which she brawls and does most of her own athletic stunts.

In “Tess of the Storm Country” Mary Pickford, just five-feet tall, dives from a cliff into a fast-flowing river to save a drowning woman.

She free solo climbs barefoot up a “chimney” of a rock wall, while wearing a dress, to visit her falsely-imprisoned father through his jail cell window.

Tess gathers Holy water
Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” usurps the role of Priest and dips her hand in the font of Holy Water.
Tess baptizes a dying baby
Mary Pickford in “Tess of the Storm Country” baptizes a dying baby.

And she even usurps the role of Priest. She interrupts his service by walking up front demanding he baptize the dying infant in her arms. When he hesitates, she acts as her own Priest, dips her hand in the basin of Holy Water and baptizes the baby in front of the shocked hundreds present in the church.

In the movies of Mary Pickford, Suffragettes could see powerful female role models on screen while they took to the streets. In the news they could read how Pickford negotiated her contracts to have complete creative control and the highest salary ever.

Mary Pickford and the Suffragettes demanded their rights and got them.

When will we see equal representation of women protagonists in films made by women?

According to a study done by the University of Southern California, Sundance Institute, and Women in Film, we are over 50% of the population yet we direct only 5% of the top grossing movies, because of the male-controlled economic power structure of Hollywood.

The study also noted,

 …Female producers and directors affect the prevalence of girls and women on screen, they also impact the very nature of a story, or the way in which a story is told. Examining more than 900 motion pictures, one study found that violence, guns/weapons, and blood/gore were less likely to be depicted when women were directing or producing, and thought-provoking topics were more likely to appear.

Thanks to the Suffragettes, yes, we have the vote. But our voice continues to be silenced. The boys still tell most of the stories, whether it is on the big screen or in the White House.

One exception is Bolivia, where women hold 50% of the seats in parliament. That story, too, has been ignored or marginalized in the U.S. by the male-dominated media.

Sara Gavron’s movie “Suffragette” is a huge step in the right direction.

Support women — go see “Suffragette.”

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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.

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