IU Cinema screening to showcase silent film star

Washington, D.C.-based film historian, writer, editor and author Christel Schmidt was in college when she first became interested in Mary Pickford, a silent film actress known for her curls, her role as one of Hollywood’s first movie stars and — following her marriage to fellow film star Douglas Fairbanks — as one half of a seriously glamorous power couple.

But Schmidt was disappointed in what she found written about Pickford, both by film historians and feminist scholars.

“Her career highlights were seldom noted, let alone detailed, in many of the film histories I read in college,” she said. “When I turned to feminist writers for more information, I found little enthusiasm for the star. Though they acknowledged her business sense, they countered with often scathing critiques of her movies and her onscreen persona.”

Mary Pickford book coverSchmidt calls those scholars “terribly wrong” in writing off Pickford as a women who played regressive caricature roles, and offers Pickford’s 1926 film “Sparrows” as an example. In it, Pickford plays a young woman who is good, kind and loving — traits that provide balance for the Dickensian world she lives in, Schmidt said, and reveal a character who is a fighter.

“The divide between what others had written about Pickford and what I saw in ‘Sparrows’ led me on a 15-year journey that has ended in my new book, ‘Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies,’” Schmidt said. “The essays flesh out the details of Pickford’s life and career, and the illustrations allow the reader to experience her beauty, strength and charm.”

To celebrate the release of her book, co-published by The University Press of Kentucky and the Library of Congress, Schmidt will give a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Lecture at 3 p.m. March 28 at IU Cinema. The cinema will then screen Pickford’s 1926 feature film “Sparrows,” after which Schmidt will sign copies of her book. The lecture is free and open to the public, while the screening of “Sparrows” is free but ticketed.

“Sparrows” tells the story of courageous young orphan Mollie (played by Pickford), who must rescue her fellow orphans from their cruel master after she discovers his plan to drown a child in the swamp.

Schmidt’s book features more than 200 color and black and white illustrations — including photographs and stills from Pickford’s personal collections, housed at the Library of Congress and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — and explores rarely discussed areas of the star’s life and career, including her interest in the archival film movement, her role as a national icon during World War I and her marriage.

Schmidt was awarded two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities for her work on Pickford; co-edited “Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture;” and is currently researching and writing about the careers of stage actresses during the Progressive Era.

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