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Oh, "Doll Divine": Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze
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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 197-227

Mary Pickford, doll divine,
Year by year, and every day
At the moving picture play,
You have been my valentine.

--Vachel Lindsay (1913), opening of "To Mary Pickford
Moving Picture Actress (On Hearing She Was Leaving the
Moving-Pictures for the Stage)."

"Oh, you beautiful doll -- you great big beautiful doll," the words and strain of the old song rushed into my mind the minute I saw her, all curled up in a steamer chair covered with her mink coat and wooly scarfs [sic], just the toes of her tiny feet emerging from an equally tiny footstool. And at the top of this bunch of fur and wool, those golden curls known round the world, hung shiny and saucy from beneath a blue organdy cap. Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks, as the lovely Mary Pickford likes to be called now, was on the set.

--Caroline Moore, "Mary Tells of Initial Experiences: Relates
Incidents to Tacoma Girl in Interview for Apollo Theater"

Mary Pickford was, arguably, the most famous woman of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Inarguably, she was one of the first major stars of the Hollywood film industry, and one of the very few -- female or male -- able to sustain stardom for more than twenty years. Also known as Gladys Smith of Toronto, Canada, Mary Pickford became a stage actress at age six (published age five). She first appeared in film in the one-reelers of American Biograph in the Spring of 1909. In the 1910s, the actress known as "Our Little Mary" quickly cemented her popularity through numerous films that coincided with the Hollywood film industry's shift to using the actor as a personality for drawing audiences to the box office.

Pickford was promoted as "America's Sweetheart," "The World's Sweetheart," and, as poet Vachel Lindsay dubbed her, "The Queen of the Movies." Her films for Famous Players in the late 1910s regularly netted over a million dollars a year. In 1918, an article in American Magazine proclaimed what was by then obvious: "Our Little Mary" had become "the most popular motion picture actress in the world."

What made her so popular? What exactly was the appeal of Mary Pickford and of her films? In attempting to answer these questions, it cannot escape notice that from the beginning of Pickford's film career, the actress's characters often are ambiguously inscribed with characteristics of both child and adult woman, as a "child-woman." As I will show, even when she ostensibly is cast as an adult, the grown-up Mary Pickford registers as an adolescent "girl" or a child-woman ambiguously poised between childhood and womanhood. As her career moved into the feature film era, her screen persona grew even younger, until she was, for all intents and purposes, a child impersonator.

In 1914, an industry trade magazine, The Bioscope, published a review of the Pickford box office hit, Tess of the Storm Country (dir. Edwin S. Porter, 1914) that articulates one view of the actress's youthful appeal:

There are many young comediennes . . . but it is only Mary Pickford . . . who can create through the silent medium . . . just that particular kind of sentiment -- ineffably sweet, joyously young, and sometimes, if one may put it so, almost unbearably heartbreaking in its tender pathos -- which has become identified with her name, and with which we are all familiar.

As in Tess, in Rags (dir. James Kirwood, 1915), Pickford was cast as an adolescent spitfire living in poverty. In response to the film, a Variety review suggested that the basis of Pickford's popular appeal was rather obvious: "She and her bag of tricks are so well established . . . [that] no matter what she does in a picture they [film followers] are sure to term it 'cute,' and in the current offering are many little scenes that call for that expression." In a review of M'Liss (dir. Marshall Neilan, 1918), Motion Picture News defined "the 'typical' Pickford picture" as one that "shows her in rags and curls, in situations both humorous and dramatic." A newspaper review of M'Liss suggested that the primary strength in this tale of an adolescent stagecoach...

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