Director Nicholas Eliopoulos’ documentary, Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies , opens with a bold, but ultimately justified assertion that the story of actress Mary Pickford (1892-1979) and that of the development of the film form in the early days of motion pictures are intrinsically-linked tales with analogous historical trajectories. As a world-renowned actress, humanitarian and all-around film industry dynamo, Pickford’s significance in film history cannot be understated. And Eliopoulos reveals through this cinematic love letter to Pickford and her chosen art form that indeed her influence on the motion pictures industry places her name high among the most influential personages in the history of cinema. Sadly, her name is now all but lost on modern audiences.
Born in Canada in 1892, Pickford would become known as “America’s Sweetheart” not long after joining Biograph Studios in 1909, where she worked closely with D. W. Griffith in pioneering the very language of cinema. As a result of her incredible popularity, Pickford would become the first actor ever to have his/her name featured on a cinema marquee along with a film’s title, and is the only star ever to receive a 50% profit share of his/her movies. Her acting career spanned from the days of the one-reelers and nickelodeons into the early sound era, during which she earned the distinction of winning the first Academy Award for Best Actress in a talking picture. Pickford proved instrumental in the founding of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and, along with D. W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, founded the studio, United Artists.
Now, hers is no E! True Hollywood Story of a star’s rapid rise to fame and tragic decline. No, Pickford rose to prominence, and with a level head and keen business sense, remained active in the motion picture industry for decades after she retired from the screen. As such, the information presented in this documentary is almost entirely flattering, presenting only first-hand information and interviews with those who knew and loved Pickford best. Commendably, Eliopoulos also found a way to let the late actress tell her own story here, incorporating selections from over 18 hours of audio interviews with Pickford into The Muse of the Movies’ narration, with supplemental narration provided by actor Michael York. In addition to these interviews, Eliopoulos utilizes countless photographs and bits of archival footage featuring Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and many more key figures of the early 20th Century in his relation of Pickford’s life story.
The DVD release of The Muse of the Movies, available June 19, 2012 on DVD from Cinema Libre Studio, includes text biographies of key personages who appear in the film, including co-narrator Michael York; a photo gallery; an audio interview with Eliopoulos on NPR’s On Film; and a 15-minute Q&A with Eliopoulos at the Toronto International Film Festival. Notably, during the Q&A, an audience member puts Eliopoulos to task for not including information about Pickford’s supposed isolation and turn to alcoholism later in life. The director commendably justifies the exclusion of these elements by first explaining that none of the accounts of her isolation and alcoholism he could find were first-hand accounts, and by offering feasible explanations for the public (mis)perception of Pickford as an isolated alcoholic.