chapter  5
16 Pages

mud pies and tears: little mary’s funny side anke brouwers

This chapter seeks to reclaim Mary Pickford as one of the comic minds who, from the second half of the 1910s onward, created successful mainstream comedy features that included both sophisticated and slapstick elements. I will argue that Pickford, fully exploiting the creative freedom offered to her by a protected environment under the Artcraft banner, as well as an ideal working situation with a creative team of like-minded collaborators, made a reformative move similar to the one Charlie Chaplin made around 1915, but in reverse. At the time, Chaplin actively sought to clean up his short comedy, which was considered as unsophisticated and vulgar by middle-class and conservative tastes. (He started this reformation by including romance elements in The Tramp in 1915, then moved on to the socially conscious The Immigrant in 1916 and beyond; though he maintained his burlesque on both uplifters and the bourgeoisie.1) As part of this new style, he alternated gags with pathos and sentiment. The more sophisticated part of the mix, qualities associated with nineteenthcentury Victorianism, would commend the Chaplin comedies to respectable middle and upper classes. Pickford, on the other hand, inversely

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added more comedy to her predominantly dramatic or melodramatic repertoire. Although praised for her versatility during her long career, Pickford has been discussed only sparingly as a comic actress, most likely because her iconographic child roles in sentimental films have dominated perception and shaped memory ever since her retirement from the screen in 1934. Paradoxically, however, we will see that it was her “sentimental,” if rather impish, child persona that became the vehicle for moments of pure slapstick in otherwise inoffensive features.2