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Image Entertainment presents
Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (1998)

"She invented acting for the camera."
- Narrator (Whoopi Goldberg)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: September 17, 2001

Stars: Mary Pickford, Whoopi Goldberg, Charles 'Buddy' Rogers
Other Stars: Roddy McDowall, Janet Leigh, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Leonard Maltin
Director: Hugh Munro Neely

Manufacturer: IFPI
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief language)
Run Time: 01h:38m:20s
Release Date: August 28, 2001
UPC: 014381979428
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-C-C D-

DVD Review

Mary Pickford (1892-1979) was one of the greatest stars of the silent cinema, "America's Sweetheart," a talented actress and a shrewd businesswoman. Working with pioneering director D. W. Griffith at the Biograph studio, the established stage actress developed a more naturalistic, scaled-down acting style, subtle and rich with detail, suitable to the more intimate eye of the motion-picture camera. Her films were consistently profitable, and she was a founder and driving force behind the United Artists studio. She even recognized the value of new technology, moving gracefully into the "talkie" era before her on-camera career ended in 1933. While Pickford was assaying more adult characters to critical acclaim, her mass audience only wanted to see her in the sympathetic little-girl roles that made her famous in Pollyanna, Sparrows and the like. The actress/producer withdrew from the business, unfortunately turning down the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard some years later.

The Mary Pickford Foundation funded the creation of this 1998 documentary, directed by Hugh Munro Neely with executive co-production by Ms. Pickford's surviving third husband, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, prior to his passing in 1999. The 98-minute film provides a luxurious survey of Pickford's life and career, and it's a quality productionóRita Mae Brown wrote the narration, delivered on and off-camera by Whoopi Goldberg. Much of the material is illustrated by archival film footage, photographs and clips from Pickford's surviving films. Due to the passage of time, interviews are generally limited to film experts, historians, and people who knew Mary Pickford or had parents who knew her. Roddy McDowall, Janet Leigh, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Leonard Maltin, and "Buddy" Rogers (among others) contribute recollections and impressions, often a generation removed but still of considerable value.

The film follows Pickford's life in chronological order, from her poverty-bound Toronto childhood and early stage appearances (as little Gladys Smith) to her final public appearance on the 1976 Academy Awards® broadcast. To its credit, the film acknowledges aspects of Pickford's life and personality that might have been glossed over in such an "authorized" production, while avoiding the overly fatalistic tone of contemporary cable biography programs. The filmmakers briefly mention her extramarital affairs (always with future husbands) and a momentary flirtation with Mussolini's fascism, as well as her alcohol abuse later in life. More time is devoted to her misguided plan to buy up and destroy her "embarrassing" old films. Pickford finally relented, donating the reels to the Library of Congress, but some were inadvertently lost forever due to lack of funds for restoration, the nitrate film stock disintegrating into red dust.

The filmmakers appear to have done their homework, turning up quite a few behind-the-scenes stills and newspaper clippings, including some rare images from Pickford's brief stint in Cuba at Carl Laemmle's IMP studio and footage from the unfinished Forever Yours. It would have been nice to see some footage from Talking Screen Snapshots and other such fan-oriented short subjects, and the film devotes more time to Pickford's personal life than to her body of work. No major films are omitted, but there's not a lot of information on her relationship with directors like D.W. Griffith and Mickey Neilan, and little critical commentary on the relative merits of her movies (for instance, her Golden Turkey Award winner, The Taming of the Shrew). Still, this documentary is a fine companion piece to the growing Mary Pickford library available on DVD. No silent-film buff should miss this one.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Image Entertainment presents Mary Pickford in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio, perfectly appropriate for the early Academy ratio film clips and television-style interview segments featured here. Some of the new material was shot on 16mm film but transferred to video for editing; the vintage film clips aren't up to DVD quality, and digitally-edited stills and zooms are occasionally blocky. The videotape-sourced transfer exhibits quite a bit of chroma noise, false-color aliasing, and scan-line shimmeróit's a shame this 1998 release doesn't look better, but the presentation is adequate for informational purposes.

Image Transfer Grade: C-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Mary Pickford is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 format, generally centered and monaural with stereo separation evident only in stock music and sound effects. The soundtrack has a "television" quality about it, with limited dynamic and frequency range, but voices and music are generally clear and serviceable, and no content is obscured by audio deficiencies.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 13 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: As is often the case with documentaries, Mary Pickford: A Life on Film on DVD includes no bonus features whatsoever; it is itself a sort of feature-length supplement, after all. Milestone Films' disc presentation is extremely simple, consisting of a single menu screen displaying 13 text-based chapter stops over an image of Ms. Pickford, with the film slightly mistitled as Mary PickfordóHer Life on Film. This grade is therefore at the bottom of the scale, but the disc doesn't really suffer for the lack of significant extras.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Mary Pickford: A Life on Film provides insight into the life and career of one of the greatest stars of the silent screen. Archival clips, relevant interviews and solid research make this a must-see for anyone interested in "America's Sweetheart" or the early days of Hollywood. Recommended.


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