Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921)
When honoring important women in film, I find it alarming that Leni Riefenstahl is so frequently mentioned, but Mary Pickford barely receives a peep. It is perhaps because we have so misunderstood the expression "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Yes, meek, conventional women cannot make their mark on the world, but should a woman who created as damaging a legacy as Riefenstahl be placed on so high a pedestal? Yes, she was an innovative director, especially during a time when women directors were too scarce to even be considered an oddity, but just knowing she aided Hitler's rise to power with Triumph of the Will is too unsettling for me to admire her.
Mary Pickford, on the other hand, possibly gets the shaft because her wholesome image overshadows her achievements, which were great and many. Best-known for her "little girl" roles such as Pollyanna, Sara Crewe, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the former Gladys Smith of Toronto became "America's Sweetheart" and was one the very first movie stars, her popularity rivaling that of the formidable Charlie Chaplin. With her small frame, large, innocent eyes, and long hair worn in ringlets, Pickford had a delicate, unthreatening charm that captivated millions. Journalist Alistair Cooke said of her,
"She was the young girl every man wanted to have- as his sister."
Pickford was indeed one of the most popular movie stars in the world, but she could do more than look sweet for the camera; she was not only the co-founder of United Artists, but the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. That's right, this woman was one of 36 people who founded the friggin' Oscars. In fact, Pickford is the second winner of the Best Actress Academy Award, for the now forgotten film Coquette. Many speculate Pickford unfairly used her clout in the industry to receive votes for her win, but, overlooking that, Pickford was one of the most powerful women in the business. She was the first woman in Hollywood to become a millionaire, enabling her to retire in her 40s.
Not bad for a "little girl", no?
Directed by Alfred E. Green (Baby Face) and Pickford's brother Jack, today's film is a bit of change of pace for our star, in which she plays a little boy, rather than a little girl: Cedric Errol, the titular protagonist of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also wrote The Secret Garden and A Little Princess), Pickford not only plays our plucky hero, but his mother, as well. Using double exposure on film for actors with dual roles was nothing new in 1921, but this is said to be the first time it was used to show the characters touching. Apparently, the scene where Mrs. Errol kisses her son took 15 hours to film to perfection, all for a 3-second scene.
Tiresome Fashion Trivia for the Day: Little Lord Fauntleroy was so popular upon its publication in the late 1800s, it spawned what is easily the most unfortunate fashion and hairstyle trend for boys in history. Based on the book's illustrations, velvet coats with lace collars, knee breeches with stockings and flat shoes, and shoulder length hair worn in ringlets, or "lovelocks" became all the rage for young boys. That is, for mothers to dress their young boys. If you thought your childhood photos were embarrassing, imagine growing up during the time the "Fauntleroy" wardrobe was popular. There was a tremendous backlash against the look by the early 1910s, and the fashion became the butt of ridicule for comics and animators for decades to come.
The plot of Little Lord Fauntleroy could have served as the template for many a film starring Shirley Temple. Cedric (Pickford) lives in genteel poverty with his mother, "Dearest" (Pickford again) in the city. Though Cedric frequently gets into fights with the neighborhood kids (they constantly ridicule his hair), he is a good-hearted lad whose friends include the local grocer, a feisty apple peddler, and a poor boot black. Cedric always boasts that he'll one day be the President of the United States, so imagine his surprise when he discovers that he's destined for something almost as great: his estranged father was in fact a British lord! Not only that, but he has conveniently- er, tragically died, leaving Cedric heir to his title! So Cedric and his mother travel to England, where Cedric is grudgingly accepted by his grandfather the Earl of Dorincourt (Claude Gillingwater), but Dearest is forced to live in a cottage on the castle grounds, due to the Earl's suspicion of her and her one-time hold on his son. But, wouldn't you know it, Cedric melts the old codger's heart with his innocent, kindly ways, and even when it appears that Cedric might not be lord after all, the Earl is determined to keep the youngster in his life.
More Tiresome Triva for the Day: Speaking of Shirley Temple, years later, Claude Gillingwater would appear in several of Temple's films, always playing-you guessed it-an old codger whose cold heart is melted by an irrepressible tyke. Gillingwater had a decades-long career in stage and film before his death in 1939. I wonder how he would have felt, knowing that he would be typecast and remembered as old curmudgeons whose heartstrings must be pulled by the ingenue of the moment.
There is a tendency to think that Marlon Brando invented modern film acting, the implication being that all who came before just hammed it up on screen without a clue to what they were doing. I'm not saying there wasn't a stylistic aspect to acting pre-Brando, and that there weren't some legitimately bad actors in the Golden Age (don't get me started on Tyrone Power), but to dismiss all actors during that time period, especially the silent age, is to deny them their due. Yes, there is a staginess to Pickford's acting, but we must bear in mind that the lack of sound meant that screen actors had to work harder to convey emotion. And Pickford was a much better actress than she's given credit for (for the record, I've never seen Coquette, so I don't know how good or bad she is in that particular movie). Like any actress who's played Peter Pan, she is surprisingly adept and persuasive as a sweet little boy who isn't afraid to pull a few punches. Pickford didn't just go through the motions when playing Cedric; according to the blurb on the back of the Little Lord Fauntleroy DVD, Pickford drew inspiration for Cedric's physicality and mannerisms from her young son Jack, and her husband at the time, legendary film swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks. If that isn't good acting insight, I don't know what is.
Little Lord Fauntleroy, while leisurely at 110 minutes, is more economically paced than most silent films, and not as filled with padding. Interestingly, Little Lord Fauntleroy is one of those books we've all heard of through osmosis, but never bothered to read or check out. It's possible it simply fell out of favor (and Hodgson's better known books have cast a large shadow), but also because we tend to be wary of heroes who are too pure. Yes, Cedric does come dangerously close to being saccharine (he comes into money, and his first impulse is to help out his less fortunate friends), but, as I've stated before, maybe we need protagonists like that once in a while. Maybe we need heroes who will put us to shame and make us want to be better people. Pickford manages to convey Cedric's scrappier side (velvet suit and all), so he never becomes too priggish. She is also fragile and lovely as Cedric's long-suffering mother. This is a sweet silent film that displays Pickford's acting prowess and innovative special effects that paved the way for dual role movies such as The Parent Trap and Dead Ringer. If you want to seek out the work of unlikely cinematic pioneer Mary Pickford, this is the place to start.