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SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Mary Pickford, Sweetheart of Silent Film : In celebration of the centennial of the actress's birth, several of her classics are being shown this week.

April 05, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of Mary Pickford, who was born Gladys Smith in Toronto on April 8, 1893, the Silent Movie, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., will present on Wednesday at 8 p.m. "Stella Maris" (1918) and "A Poor Little Rich Girl" (1917). "The Little Princess" (1918) and "M'Liss" (1918) screen Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.

Mary Pickford, her second husband Douglas Fairbanks and their partner in United Artists, Charlie Chaplin, acquired more fame than anyone ever had before them, thanks to the universal language of the silent screen. The diminutive Pickford became the era's archetypal innocent child-woman, who didn't play truly adult roles until she was 35 and then retired when she was only 40. Her image eventually became a straitjacket and at one point, Pickford deemed her films so dated she considered destroying those she controlled personally.

Director George Cukor, who knew a thing or two about actresses, considered her a great talent; time, the ultimate critic, is proving to be on her side. Approached as period pieces, many of Pickford's films hold up well and attest to her instinctive rapport with the camera, her humor, expressiveness and her star radiance. It has been suggested that Pickford, having become her family's principal means of support as a child actor at age 5, gave her characterizations a special poignancy.

In "A Poor Little Rich Girl," marking Pickford's first film portrayal of a child, you have to wonder where her 11-year-old Gwendolyn got her spunk even to try to stand up to overwhelming forces of indifference and oppression. Ensconced in a Manhattan mansion palatial enough for a Vanderbilt, little Gwen, neglected by her parents, is left to the scarcely tender mercies of a strict governess (Marcia Harris). You would expect such a child to be crushed but Gwen good-naturedly fights back at every turn, escaping whenever she can to play with ordinary youngsters, imploring her parents to pay attention to her.

Adapted--and improved upon greatly, according to contemporary critics--by Frances Marion from Eleanor Gates' novel and play, "A Poor Little Rich Girl" is very much a Victorian cautionary tale, but it's been told with considerable style by Maurice Tourneur, one of the major directors of the silent era. The film is one of the great collaborations between Tourneur and pioneer art director Ben Carre, whose rightly ornate interiors reflect the nouveau-riche tastes of the self-absorbed parents. Where Carre's artistry soars is in an extended, enchanting "Wizard of Oz"-like nightmare sequence, in which the forces of dark and light battle for Gwen's very life.

Frances Marion also adapted "Stella Maris" (from a novel by William J. Locke), and it affords Pickford a tour de force dual role: as a rich, beautiful handicapped girl sheltered from the world until surgery restores the use of her legs, and as a sweet but plain orphan--Pickford is truly unrecognizable--for whom kindness and affection leads to a self-sacrifice that today would be treated with dark irony. "Stella Maris" is a dated melodrama but it reveals, under the guidance of Marshall Neilan, another of the silent era's best directors, what a remarkable actress Pickford really was.

"The Little Princess" (1917) and "M'Liss" (1918) are also collaborations between Pickford, Neilan and Marion, who adapted a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel for the first film and a Bret Harte story for the second.

The first tends to ramble, as many silent movies do, but it has charm and benefits from Neilan's light touch. This time, Pickford plays a 9-year-old English girl, abruptly sent to England from India (much like the heroine of Burnett's children's classic "The Secret Garden"). The story has to do with her adjustment to life in a fancy London girls' school, where she enraptures her classmates with tales from the Arabian Nights, which come alive in quaintly exotic fantasy sequences. Notable is Zasu Pitts as the school's servant girl.

Far more engaging, "M'Liss" allows Pickford to play a tomboy in a rowdy tall tale of the Old West set in the High Sierra (and filmed in rugged locales). A sort of teen-age Calamity Jane, Pickford is tamed by handsome new schoolmaster Thomas Meighan. Marion and Neilan have considerable fun with the film's melodramatic plot twists, sending up Judge Roy Bean-style frontier justice. Pickford is all effervescent girlishness at the film's start, but by its end Neilan subtly makes it clear that, through the mutual attraction between her and Meighan, she's on the verge of becoming a woman.

Information: (213) 653-2389.

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