Silent Reflections – Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)
by HELEN GEIB
Mary Pickford is one of the great stars of silent film. She began acting in movies as a teenager in the pre-feature period, became one of the first stars of the feature era and remained a top star until the end of silent films. Pickford was a person of considerable business acumen as well as a fine actress. She exercised creative control over her pictures for most of her starring career and, with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, was one of the founders of United Artists. She was one of the first film stars to become public property to her fans, and was popularly known by the affectionate nicknames “Little Mary” and “America’s Sweetheart.”
It was probably inevitable that as silent films became more and more obscure, the great stars of the era would be reduced in the popular memory to caricatures. Valentino is the Latin lover, Chaney the impersonator of monsters, Bow the flapper. Pickford is that actress who played child roles. Like other reductions of an actor’s body of work to a single-faceted persona, this image of Pickford is both true and false.
She did often play children (in modern parlance, ’tweeners), and to great critical and commercial success. Her performances in child roles remain credible and appealing. The distinct nature of silent film, with its emphasis on pantomime and absence of voices, made the performances possible. She was a very petite woman with a childlike figure. And she was a talented and skillful actress who knew who to act like a child. However, she did not only play child parts, and many of her films, including some of her best and most commercially successful, are those where she took adult roles, usually young women in their late ‘teens.
Daddy-Long-Legs features Pickford in both kinds of parts. It is based on Jean Webster’s beloved epistolary romance of the same title and is very faithful to its source. For those deprived souls who have never read it, a brief recap of the story: the heroine is a foundling raised in an orphanage. One of the orphanage’s trustees is impressed by her lively spirit and intelligence and sponsors her to attend college, where she gains a good education, close friends and romantic suitors. The story is told through her letters to her patron.
The movie introduces Pickford as a child at the orphanage. After a number of delightful scenes establishing her precocity, high spirits and kind heart, the action shifts forward to follow an all grown up and lovely Pickford through the college years. Daddy-Long-Legs is a charming, amusing and romantic film, technically superior and an excellent showcase for its star. It is a fine introduction to Pickford’s work and to silent films.