Tell us about your book MARY PICKFORD: QUEEN OF THE MOVIES.
Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies is a lavishly illustrated anthology about one of the early film industry’s most influential actors and producers. There are fourteen essays by nine writers, including silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, Pickford biographer Eileen Whitfield, and feminist film critic Molly Haskell. The book boasts 240 images black-and-white and color images, most from the collections at the Library of Congress, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I had the idea for the book, edited it, chose the writers and images, and wrote five of the essays.
Why should fans read your Pickford book over other books written about her?
I would never tell anyone to read just one book on Mary Pickford. I greatly admire and highly recommend Eileen Whitfield’s biography Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood and Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered. Pickford’s extraordinary life and career is worthy of many books, so I hope more follow mine. What I tried to offer readers was something not already available in other publications. A biography, for instance, has to cover a whole life, but a book of essays like Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies provides an opportunity to delve into specific areas of the actress’s life and work. For example, many people have noted that Pickford sold liberty bonds for the U.S. government and appeared at home-front events to raise morale during World War One. Yet, no book before mine had fully told the story of Pickford’s efforts over many decades to aid soldiers and veterans during war and peacetime. There are several other topics that the book was able to explore at length, including the star’s interest in the archival film movement, her lifelong commitment to philanthropy, and her progressive marriage to actor Douglas Fairbanks.
Another unique aspect of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies is its gorgeous illustrations. Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered used only black-and-white photographs from the collections at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His selections are beautiful, but I wanted Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies to showcase photos, movie posters, lobby cards, postcards, magazine covers, and other ephemera from Pickford’s career. Most of these items cannot be seen today outside an archive. Luckily, I was not limited to black-and-white, so I was able to present these artifacts in their glorious original colors. Beth Werling’s visually stunning photo essay on Pickford’s costume collection at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is just one of the pieces to benefit from the use of color images. I believe the book would be lesser without them.
What drew you to Mary Pickford?
I became interested in Pickford professionally during the mid-1990s because I felt she was underrepresented in film histories and misrepresented by feminist film scholars. The general public seemed to have forgotten her completely. This was a shocking state of affairs for a woman of such remarkable achievements — and who had also been one of the most famous people in the world for decades. I wanted to help set the record straight, or at least get my view of this amazing woman out into the world.
On a personal level, I am drawn to Pickford because I love her work. She usually plays strong working class heroines, characters I relate to and admire. The plots of her films are not just centered on heterosexual romance. Yes, there are often romantic subplots in her films, but the main stories usually revolve around her character fighting against injustice, protecting or helping someone in need, or simply overcoming life’s difficulties. And Pickford is also incredibly funny. She really excelled in comedies. I adore people who can make me laugh.
Were you drawn to other silent era stars while researching and writing this book?
I already had a strong interest in silent film and its stars when I began this book, but there were certainly performers I came to know through my many years researching Pickford. For example, I’ve seen every Biograph short Pickford made between 1909 and 1912, so I came to know the group of actors who worked for the company during that period. Arthur Johnson, Marion Leonard and Henry B. Walthall are three of my favorite Biograph players. I also came to know the work of Pickford’s contemporaries from other companies, including Florence Turner at Vitagraph, Mary Fuller at Edison, and Alice Joyce at Kalem. I really enjoy Turner, who was one of the first true movie stars, and (in my view) one of the best of the early film actresses.
Are there things in the book that you wanted to include, but couldn’t?
I was really spoiled on this project because I got nearly everything I wanted. My one real regret is that Pickford scholar Robert Cushman died before he could write an essay for the book. I greatly admired his vast knowledge and insight into the actress. He would have written an excellent piece. I am glad that we were able to include an edited version of his previously published essay on the Pickford photo collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where Cushman worked as the photo curator for thirty-seven years.
Were there challenges in writing this book – challenges from those that were still alive – family, friends?
Every book has challenges and Queen of the Movies was no different. But none of the obstacles came from Pickford’s family or friends. Actually, one of the things that kept me going over the four years I worked on this project was the Pickford family’s enthusiasm for it and how openly and fondly they shared their memories. Family was everything to Pickford, and it was an honor for me to create something that they would enjoy.
Are there things that you wish Mary Pickford had done differently in her life or career?
I wish Pickford had come out of retirement and tried acting again in movies or in television. She would have been perfect in the role Lillian Gish played in the 1955 film Night of the Hunter. Gish’s character, a small but strong heroine who was willing to battle an evil man to save two innocent children, was exactly the kind of part Pickford played throughout her silent film career. Unfortunately, Pickford lacked the confidence to make a comeback. She was hampered in this by alcoholism, which plagued her and many of her family members. More than anything I wish she had beaten the bottle.
Do you want to write about any other silent film stars?
I have no plans to write another book about a silent film star but, as the saying goes, “never say never.” My next project involves an American theater actress who worked predominantly during the Progressive Era. It will be a lovely change of pace for me from the world of early cinema.
When writing this book, did you dream that you’d be giving lectures and touring, or did you know this going in?
I did expect that there would be some opportunities to discuss the book at film screenings and bookstore events but nothing on the level that it became. I previously organized a small promotion tour for another Library of Congress publication, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (Little, Brown, 2007), which I co-edited. The tour went to some major cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC, and at each event I introduced a silent film and signed copies of the book. When I started to organize a promotional tour for Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies with assistance from the book’s co-publishers, the Library of Congress and the University Press of Kentucky, I reached out to a large number of film venues. I hoped maybe ten or so would want to collaborate. The response from movie programmers and curators was very enthusiastic and I ended up hosting over thirty-five events in thirty cities. My next presentation will be in at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC on September 21.