Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Q & A with Christel Schmidt, editor of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

For more than a month now, film historian and writer Christel Schmidt has been touring the country promoting her new book, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies. Co-published by the University Press of Kentucky and the Library of Congress, this exceptional new volume brings together a distinguished group of contributors, including critic Molly Haskell and Academy Award honoree Kevin Brownlow, who together shed new light on the life and legacy of a cinema icon.

Schmidt's nationwide tour comes to the Bay Area starting January 31 with a talk and screening at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. That event will be followed by appearances at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont.

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies was published in late 2012 to mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of the silent era's most accomplished, most popular, and most beloved star. Recently, Schmidt answered some questions about her new book and the importance of Mary Pickford.

Thomas Gladysz: When did you first come upon Mary Pickford?

Christel Schmidt: Pickford first came to my attention when I was a kid. My grandmother used to tell me about the movie stars of her childhood—Valentino, Clara Bow and Pickford. She had such fond memories of these people and it made me curious about who they were. I also remember hearing about Pickford and Fairbanks’s love affair, and Pickfair, their home, on television. That was probably around the time of Pickford’s death in 1979. I was nine.

My first opportunity to see one of her movies came when I was in college. I watched Sparrows (1926), one of the only Pickford titles available on video at the time, for a class paper. A few years later, when I was studying at the George Eastman House, I had an opportunity to see more of her films, including the rare titles Behind the Scenes (1914) and A Romance of the Redwoods (1917), as well as both the 1914 and 1922 versions of Tess of the Storm Country.

Thomas Gladysz: Mary Pickford has been called a "watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity, the rise of Hollywood, and the development of both film acting and movie production." What makes her so special?

Christel Schmidt: Pickford was the first actor to inspire the intensely intimate connection that film can create between the audience and star. She was probably idealized more highly than any actor in history; her image was angelic, with the weight of real royalty. And unlike performers today, she could not anticipate how widespread and fervid movie fame would be. In response, she carefully managed and shaped her image on a scale that no performer had ever imagined. In terms of acting, Pickford's seems light years ahead of many of the actors who appeared in early cinema's one-reelers. She had an abundance of charm and the camera loved her, but the actress also gave, for the most part, remarkably understated performances that have stood the test of time. Pickford, as it has been said, did become a focal point for the film industry. Her extraordinary fame and talent brought attention, money and prestige to a film industry seeking to uplift its image from cheap entertainment to respectable art form. Pickford was a key figure in that transformation.

Thomas Gladysz: Despite her fame then, is it true that Pickford is now a somewhat neglected figure?

Christel Schmidt: It is certainly much better for Pickford than it used to be. For decades her accomplishments in the film industry were overlooked and her work misunderstood, but she is closer than ever to being restored to her proper place in cultural and film history. Much of that is due to two books published in the late 1990s, Eileen Whitfield's biography Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (University Press of Kentucky, 1997) and Kevin Brownlow's Mary Pickford Rediscovered (Abrams, 1999). These publications, and the nearly simultaneous release of some of her films on DVD, did wonders in raising Pickford's public profile. And, in the past few years, the internet and social media have played an important role in reestablishing her in our collective cultural memory.

Still, considering her life achievements and her status as a monumental figure in the rise  of Hollywood, you expect more scholarship to have been undertaken. Over the years, I  have tried to do my part by locating and cataloging information about the Pickford films that reside in archives throughout the United States and Europe. And I have hosted numerous screening of her movies at venues across the country. With Mary Pickford:  Queen of the Movies, I hope to generate interest in her remarkable life and encourage further scholarship.

Thomas Gladysz: Your new book is a collection of essays and articles. It also serves to reevaluate Mary Pickford's role in film history. How did the book come about?

Christel Schmidt: The Pickford book was originally planned as a companion volume to an exhibition on the actress that would have been held at the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, the exhibition fell apart before fundraising could even begin. Thankfully, Ralph Eubanks, the Library’s Director of Publishing, still wanted the book. After the loss of the exhibition, I thought I might need to revise my original plans for a large format, heavily illustrated book. However, I quickly decided that the publication could serve as a showcase for items, such as the Pickford curls and costumes, that I had wanted to publicly display at  the Library.

I always wanted a visually beautiful book, but it also had to be informative and smart. The language needed to be geared towards a general audience instead of academic one, and the essays had to interest the Pickford novice as well as the long-time fan. And while I wanted new scholarship, I also thought it was important to include essays by past Pickford experts, such as James Card and Edward Wagenknecht. These authors, contemporaries of the actress, offered unique, first person insights into her career. Their contributions are invaluable to Pickford scholarship and are unknown to many modern readers.

Thomas Gladysz: Did you learn anything new in editing the book?

Christel Schmidt: There is always more to learn about Pickford, even for someone like me who has spent much of the past fifteen years researching her life and career. For example, before working on this book I did not know that she was a member of the National Women’s Party and had publicly supported the equal rights amendment. And, while I knew her marriage to actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers was not always happy, I was surprised to discover that she had hired a detective to document his numerous affairs and had divorce papers drawn up.

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies has a lot of new information. The level of detail in these essays, especially those in areas of her life never before completely explored, will give even the Pickford expert a lot to chew on. I am particularly proud of my article on the actress’s support of the archival film movement, and her decade’s long search for a permanent home for her movie collection. Many people know that at one point in the early 1930s Pickford considered having her films destroyed after her death. However, few realize that so much of her remarkable body of work survives today in large part due to her own efforts towards their preservation.

Thomas Gladysz: Is it true that many of the images in the book have been little seen, or not published since the 1920s?

Christel Schmidt: A large number of the images and illustrations in Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies have not been published since the 1910s and 1920s, and some, especially those of a personal nature, were likely never released at all. Pickford artifacts, like her costumes and curls, have been exhibited in the past and a few were previously published decades ago. I’ve seen many gorgeous photographs, posters, magazine covers, and more in my fifteen years of Pickford research. It was wonderful to share this material with a wider audience by bringing it out of the archives to showcase in the book.

Thomas Gladysz: You've noted that Pickford has been wrongly seen as a "woman who made a career (and a fortune) playing regressive characters in an era of female progress." Could you explain?

Christel Schmidt: Most of Pickford's remarkable career took place during the 1910s and 1920s, a period when woman gained power and influence in the public sphere and won social freedoms. Off-screen, this star was the era's most famous and arguably influential woman. She was a savvy power player who, by 1918, had accumulated an impressive amount of wealth and had complete creative control over her work. Yet onscreen, as many people wrongly believe, she chose to portray naïve young girls, instead of strong, empowered women. I think some people, who didn't actually watch her movies or only a small selection of them, believed this was a disservice--even a betrayal--to the great strides her gender had fought for. In fact, Pickford's signature character was a feisty, rebellious young working-class woman who cared for the weak and took up battle in defense of the underdog. She was a true heroine and a positive role model. And her immense female fan base, who was well aware of her real life success, adored her.

Thomas Gladysz: You're giving three presentations in the Bay Area. What can we look forward to?

Christel Schmidt: Each of the three Bay Area venues will have their own unique programs. The films come from different points in Pickford's career, and my presentation will cover specific aspects of her life and work in relation to these movies. We begin at the end, so to speak, with the screening of the star's penultimate silent feature Sparrows (1926), at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center on January 31 at 7:00 pm. This Dickensian tale of children living on a baby farm boasts a visual landscape influenced by German Expressionist cinema.

Then, on February 1 at 7:15 pm, the Roxie Theater presents Pickford in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). This lavishly produced Elizabethan costume picture was one of several attempts the actress made in the 1920s to update her onscreen image. A delightful mix of comedy and drama, the film is a perfect showcase for Pickford, who also served as the movie's producer.

Finally, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum will screen a selection of one-reel shorts featuring Pickford on February 2nd at 7:30 pm. The program, which covers her early film career from 1909-1912, includes titles from D.W. Griffith's Biograph Company and from her short stint with the Independent Moving Picture Company.

Thomas Gladysz: Does Pickford have any San Francisco connections? Were any of her films made in the Bay Area?

Christel Schmidt: Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), which will be screened at the Roxie Theater, was partially filmed on location in Golden Gate Park. A number of key scenes in this Elizabethan costume picture were shot there, including one that Pickford directed herself. The movie, which is not available on DVD, is rarely screened in the United States because the only good print is in Europe. The Library of Congress borrowed this material, a 35mm restoration from the  inematheque Royale in Brussels, for the Pickford tour. The Belgian archive's material will be shown at just a half dozen venues across the country. The screening at the Roxie shouldn't be missed, as it is probably the film's first public showcase in San Francisco since the 1920s. I am not sure when this opportunity will come again.

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