In honor of Mary Pickford’s birthday today, we look beyond her famous golden curls at her close association with George Eastman House and her early film preservation efforts.
On November 9, 1949, Mary Pickford was on hand to cut the ribbon at the ceremony for the opening of George Eastman House as a museum for photography and film. She was the sole celebrity representing motion pictures at the opening, but was joined by other noteworthy guests such as photographer Edward Steichen and poet Carl Sandberg.
In November 1955, George Eastman House held the first Festival of Film Artists (later called the George Awards). Conceived by the museum’s first director Oscar Solbert and organized by James Card, the first curator of motion pictures, the awards honored twenty living film artists of the silent era — five in each category of actor, actress, director, and cinematographer — “for distinguished artistic contribution to the universal medium of motion pictures” for the period 1915 to 1925. Ballots were sent out to people in the industry from that era, asking them to select their top five choices of film artists in each category. Pickford received the most votes by far of all the actresses on the ballot — 383 votes, the next highest being Lillian Gish with 236 votes.
Someone at the museum had the forethought (or curiosity) to note the name of the person who returned each ballot, so we can actually see how some of these luminaries voted. It’s good to see that Pickford had the class not to vote for herself. (There were many others on the ballot who did vote for themselves!)
The awards were repeated two years later in October 1957, this time honoring film artists for the period 1926-1930. Pickford was a second-time winner and returned to Rochester for the awards ceremony, which was again held at the Eastman Theatre.
As a result of the connections made during the first and second Festivals of Film Artists, George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures, embarked on an oral history project in 1958 whereby he interviewed 27 pioneers of the silent film era, including many of the winners of the George Awards. Mary Pickford was one of them and the interview was conducted at Pickfair, her legendary home in Beverly Hills.
During the interview, Pickford recounts her early days on stage with David Belasco and on film with the Biograph Company, her less than favorable experiences with director Ernst Lubitsch (whom she brought to the U.S. from Germany to direct her in Rosita), acting with alligators in Sparrows, and cutting off her hair in 1928 (at the age of 36):
I wanted to be free of the shackles of curls and playing little girls. And I thought that was one step toward it. Of course I had the most indignant letters, insulting letters. And I thought, if that’s all, after all these years, a lifetime in the theatre and motion pictures, if it’s a bunch of eighteen curls that’s keeping me on screen, it’s about time I retired.
Perhaps one of the nicest moments, caught on tape during the testing of the tape recorder, is Pickford telling Pratt that she thought “Mama, Lottie, and Jack ought to be with us” during the interview as well, referring to a photograph she had with her of her mother, sister, and brother, all long ago deceased.
In 1959, James Card wrote an article for Eastman House’s Image magazine, assessing Pickford’s career. He felt compelled to counter the prevailing remembrance of Pickford’s performances as “the epitome of saccharine banality, sweetness and light and all permeated with the philosophy of Pollyanna,” due in large part, he believed, to the unavailability of her films at that time for screenings at film societies and festivals. He firmly defended her as:
. . . a battling hellcat, morally and physically committed to all-out attack against the forces of evil, bigotry or malicious snobbery that sought to frustrate the proper denouement of a triumphant, lovely girl appropriately presented in stunning close-up, her incomparable curls backlighted and the Botticelli smile shimmering through the last glittering remnants of any left-over teardrops.
Pickford struggled with the idea of preserving her legacy on film. In 1931, and with what turned out to be only one more role on screen in her future, she told an interviewer for Photoplay magazine, “[W]hen I go, my films go with me. They are to be destroyed. I am buying all my old films for this purpose. I would rather be a beautiful illusion in the minds of people than a horrible example on celluloid. I pleased my own generation. That is all that matters.” Fearing that she and her films would be misjudged according to modern tastes — sound films had recently supplanted silent films as the industry standard — she reacted in this extreme manner. Fortunately, she had a change of heart and by the mid-1940’s was negotiating with the Library of Congress for the donation of her nitrate films for preservation. Much bureaucratic wrangling with funding and reorganization within the institution, however, made the preservation copying of her films from nitrate to safety film stock a decades-long endeavor.
George Eastman House played a significant role in the preservation of some of Pickford’s films during this muddled period. In 1951, Pickford allowed Eastman House to assist in the stalled copying of her films at the Library of Congress, and in five years eight of her feature films were copied by Eastman House onto acetate film. To further speed up the process, Pickford donated funds to Eastman House for the preservation of 26 additional feature films and 25 Biograph shorts. Card concludes his article by assuring us that:
Mary Pickford’s pictures are shown repeatedly to the public in the Dryden Theatre of Eastman House. In these continuing encounters, Mary’s art stays wonderfully alive . . . . For Mary still charms and always will. The poet [Vachel Lindsay], too, was right – there is something heavenly about Mary Pickford. It is a quality, we must admit, most uncommon in motion pictures.
And so today, we celebrate Mary Pickford’s legacy in motion pictures, and her foresight in preserving her films for future generations to study and enjoy.