Mary Pickford Company
Distributed by United Artists
Release Date: September 15, 1921
112 minutes
Directed by Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford

CAST: Mary Pickford (Cedric Errol/Widow Errol), Claude Gillingwater (Earl of Dorincourt), Joseph J. Dowling (William Havisham), James Marcus (Hobbs), Kate Price (Mrs. McGinty), Fred Malatesta (Dick), Rose Dione (Minna), Arthur Thalasso (the stranger), Colin Kenny (Bevis), Emmett King (Reverend Mordaunt), Madame De Bodamere (Mrs. Higgins), Francis Marion (Minna's Son)


by Dean Thompson

In 1921 Mary Pickford, then the biggest star in the world, released her film of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy, essaying the titular role of Cedric Errol, aka Little Lord Fauntleroy, as well as the role of Dearest, his mother. The film was a smash hit. Surveying the canvas of her career many years later, Pickford's stepson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., thought it her best picture.

Kevin Brownlow, in his Mary Pickford Rediscovered, likes the film as well but tells us that "None of the critics thought that Mary made a convincing boy" and points to a 1928 interview with Photoplay magazine in which Pickford thought she had erred in assuming a double role, for "no one in the audience could feel very keenly for me when I was playing my own mother and my own son," adding that "I should have been content to be Dearest and engaged a real little boy for Lord Fauntleroy."

With all due respect to Miss Pickford, God rest her soul, I don't believe a word of that rueful admission from the throne. Not one. I argue that Pickford and company worked hard to remind us that this Cedric Errol is fueled by estrogen; that the film worked then, and works now, precisely because we never believe for a minute, not one, that Cedric is a boy.

Cue Thomas Jefferson: To prove this, let Facts [and a few observations] be submitted to a candid world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett published Little Lord Fauntleroy in serial form in 1885-86, and the overwhelming popularity of her tale of Yankee youth and warmth melting aged English reserve was such that a Broadway adaptation followed a mere two years later. Elsie Leslie, the most popular child performer of the late nineteenth century, starred as Cedric; if you care to google photographer Napoleon Sarony's portrait of her as Fauntleroy, your eyebrows will hit your hairline: she looks astonishingly like the stills you've seen of Pickford in the role. Pickford's cameo beauty and luxuriant curls far surpass Leslie's, of course, but the outfit, the hands-in-pockets stance, and even the attitude are identical. And she looks very much like a girl.

Leslie's cross-dressing as Fauntleroy was hardly a one-and-done example, for she played both Prince Edward and Tom Canty in an adaptation of Twain's The Prince and the Pauper two years later (though documentation there is spotty); and in any case, the assumption of trouser roles by younger women during the nineteenth century was common enough, Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet being an oft-cited example. The practice had pretty much died out on Broadway by the time Pickford made her film, but was still featured in amateur theatrics in small towns and rural areas, where much of Pickford's popularity was cemented and where archetypes of the nineteenth century remained firmly anchored.

As both Edward Wagenknecht and David Shipman have pointed out, Pickford's Little Mary persona was essentially a Victorian holdover, the diminutive and ringleted echoes of Stowe's Little Eva and Dickens's Little Nell augmented by Pickford's own spunk and sassiness. It was a persona inspiring worldwide adoration entirely foreign to our modern, more cynical sensibility. Wagenknecht spoke movingly of that adoration in an open letter to Pickford upon the publication of her memoir, Sunshine and Shadow, in 1955:

You speak of your appreciation of your title 'America's Sweetheart,' but I am sure you know we always read it with a difference.

We who loved you were, in general, much simpler people than the sophisticates who go to the movies nowadays, and you meant more to us than anybody can mean to them. We accepted you without question or analysis; we adored you in the honest simplicity of our hearts. And, paradoxically, your appeal was the more complicated on that account. Your own personality cast a madonna-like exaltation about you, and the roles you often played made you our mischievous child [emphasis added].

Wagenknecht spoke for a generation that, as late as 1925, expressed its wish to see Pickford in such roles as Cinderella, Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Sara Crewe (of A Little Princess), and Alice (of Wonderland).

What comes across today in reading Eileen Whitfield's magisterial Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood is that Pickford, a shrewd manager of her own career, knew what she was doing in leavening the demands of her complex and often tragic roles of Unity Blake and Madame Butterfly with calculated returns to the spunky roles of youth enabling her to be the mischievous child for which Wagenknecht's generation clamored. Given the enduring and widespread popularity of Little Lord Fauntleroy in the publishing and theatrical worlds as the 1910's came to a close, as well as the excitement greeting the news that the Mary Pickford Studios had contracted to film Fauntleroy, one pauses in imagining the outcry that would have greeted Pickford's casting a boy as Cedric. Of course Pickford would essay Fauntleroy herself; to paraphrase the Book of Common Prayer, it was meet and right so to do.

Really, now: had that public been meant to suspend disbelief at Cedric's gender reversal once Fauntleroy premiered, screenwriter Bernard McConville might have taken scissors beforehand to the opening intertitle of the film:

Miss Pickford, with the aid of the camera, has been able to portray both the part of Little Lord Fauntleroy and Dearest, the Mother.

Then he might have tossed the intertitle following our first close-up of Cedric two minutes later:

Cedric Errol-played by MARY PICKFORD

Scissors, too, for the intertitle chasing an initial close-up of Dearest one minute afterwards:

Dearest, the Mother-played by MARY PICKFORD

Though we are determinedly reminded that Mary Pickford is in the cast and, moreover, is playing two roles, the film isn't done in hammering the point home. Consider the moment at about 7:15, when Cedric faces a gang of bullies. Said bullies get their shot first: tall, freckled, sinewy lads, all of them, scowling to beat the band. Toss to Cedric: VO5 curls, porcelain skin with artful smudge on the cheek, and luminous eyes. The jig is up, and that's fine: it's what we came for.

Or take 42:16, once Cedric has traveled across the ocean to meet his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. Cedric shyly approaches the old man and says, "Grandfather Earl, I'm glad to meet you." Burnett's description in the novel is lovely here: "What the Earl saw was a graceful, childish figure in a black velvet suit, with a collar and lovelocks waving about his handsome manly little face, whose eyes met his with a look of innocent good fellowship." What we see onscreen is not a full-shot figure of the black velvet suit, but a close-up that stuns with its beauty: enormous eyes hesitant, then sparkling with delight as Cedric (all right, MARY PICKFORD) breaks into the most enchanting smile in the film. That's fine, too: we pave the way for the Earl in responding with happy, adoring capitulation.

What I'm saying is that Pickford's complicity with the audience works, not just in the charm that grounds the character of Cedric (and no one else in the history of cinema, not even Shirley Temple, has commanded Pickford's reserves of charm), but in the sentiment that grounds the story squarely in the realm of Victorian reticence that conceals a tender heart. Freddie Bartholomew and Rick Shroeder, in the fine remakes of Fauntleroy that followed through the years, brought their considerable acting chops to their respective portrayals of Cedric. But this 1921 production, I would argue, is most true to the ambience of Burnett's novel, not quite descending into treacle but skirting its edge with themes of mother-love, a wistful longing for home, and the tenuous filaments launched between Youth and Age, all played here to the hilt. Sentiment, yes, but honest sentiment, and Pickford's bringing a feminine touch to Cedric's aching vulnerability is entirely appropriate to this period piece directed to an audience for whom the tenets of Victorian sensibility were still a lingering presence.

But the tenderness of her portrayal is more than offset by Cedric's other side: the rambunctious, swaggering firecracker who takes no prisoners. Interestingly enough, Pickford's husband, the great Douglas Fairbanks, was filming his d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers at the same time, and more than one commentator has noticed a certain Fairbanksian panache in Pickford's Cedric.

That's putting it mildly. When you're in the mood for a fun 1921 movie night, you might do what I did and set up a screening of The Three Musketeers, following it with Little Lord Fauntleroy and keeping an eye out for Pickford's mimicry. Honestly, I rolled on the floor throughout Fauntleroy: Pickford's bantam he-man, whom we might christen Cedric Fairbanks, is a scream! How much Fairbanks caught on when he saw Fauntleroy, I don't know, but one can easily imagine his breaking into that inimitable grin. One can also imagine their mutual friend Charlie Chaplin in stiches.

It's Pickford's show, but the entire production, luxe in the extreme, is a treat. Brownlow notes that

With its remarkably high standard of production, its level of influence ---upon films as diverse as Hobart Henley's A Lady of Quality (1924) and Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality (1923)---cannot be denied. The art direction, by Stephen Goosson, convincingly creates two worlds: old New York and England. The former is full of dust, horse-drawn traffic, and clapboard houses; the latter is atmospheric, with oak beams and massive furniture.

Too, the expansive sloping lawns of Dorincourt's estate are just as gorgeous as the castle interiors and will delight Downton Abbey fans. (The print, admittedly, is a bit worn and scratched, but rarely to the point of distraction.) On a more intimate scale, not only does cinematographer Charles Rosher capture beautiful portraiture of both Dearest and Cedric, but his double exposures in which both characters appear is seamless, Pickford's playing as both characters perfectly timed. She plays best, as might be expected, against and with the crochety Dorincourt of Claude Gillingwater, who is a bit too Lionel Barrymore in the early scenes, all scowls and eyebrows, but who melts so convincingly that we just want to reach through the screen and hug the old guy.

Fauntleroy once had a reputation for being rather draggy (even Leider thinks it too stately), but this DVD, courtesy of the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Milestone, has a perfect running speed and is whisked along further by Nigel Holton's beautiful orchestral score. It is, at any rate, wonderfully energized by what Variety termed the "whimsical and always amusing touches of raw boyishness in the fighting, grimacing, scheming, lovable kid that Mary Pickford turns out to be."

Kid for only a day, as it were, for there finally was nothing small scaled, other than her height, about this remarkable pioneer, eloquently summed up by Jeanine Basinger in Silent Stars: "Mary Pickford took no shortcuts in life. She deserves to sit in her rightful chair, the throne of the Queen of Film history. And she deserves respect for what she really was: America's first sweetheart--but also one hell of a woman."

Copyright 2015 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved

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