Judge Steve Evans refuses to keep silent about this star vehicle for screen great Mary Pickford.
"A perfect Pickford picture!"—Variety (1921)
Legendary Mary Pickford, known as "America's Sweetheart" and one of the first genuine movie stars, plays a dual role in this well-preserved silent drama.
Facts of the Case
New York, 1885. Young Cedric (Mary Pickford) fights neighborhood bullies and ekes out a living in a poor neighborhood. When Cedric discovers he is the heir to a British fortune, he reluctantly leaves his widowed mother (also Pickford) and departs for England to move in with his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. Cedric's grandfather had disapproved of his son's marriage to an American woman and expatriation to the United States, which he still hates. Later, Cedric's mother comes to live on the estate, but the earl banishes her to a cottage, accusing the poor woman of marrying his son for money. The cold, foul-tempered Earl wants Cedric to become the aristocrat his own son never was, but Cedric, with wide-eyed innocence and beguiling charm, instead helps his grandfather learn the meaning of compassion. Cedric, now little Lord Fauntleroy, takes his rightful place as Earl, dispensing kindness and generosity.
Because it is glaringly obvious that the title character in Little Lord Fauntleroy is played by a beautiful woman, a certain suspension of disbelief must be maintained for the film to work. Since the sentimental story is as old as Methuselah and not terribly compelling in any event, the pleasures of viewing this film will flourish mainly in the hearts of silent-film buffs, who will appreciate the quality presentation that the Milestone Collection has afforded this old chestnut.
The film's production values are sterling. A tough businesswoman, Pickford was known for carving out lucrative contracts for herself, but she also poured money back into her production company, which made many of her early films. Costumes and settings are the best that 1921 dollars could buy. The special effects, though minimal, are astounding for their time. The technique of forced-perspective shots, making Pickford appear as a diminutive boy, is not substantially different from the tricks Peter Jackson deployed to make men look like hobbits. Pickford even acts with herself, appearing as both Cedric and his mother in the same scenes with a bit of cinematic magic that appears to rely on careful double-exposures and an antiquated compositing technique known as a matte, which involved masking ("matting") different portions of the frame, then rewinding the film for a second pass. Incredibly, the results are almost as seamless as the digital tricks filmmakers rely on today.
Little Lord Fauntleroy, of which there have been at least four film and three television versions, was adapted from the 1886 novel by English-born author Frances Hodgson Burnett. This 1921 version was codirected by Alfred E. Green and Pickford's younger brother Jack Pickford, a sometime actor and full-time ne'er-do-well whom Mary tried to support. Jack Pickford died in 1933 at age 36 of complications from chronic alcoholism and drug addiction. In a curious coincidence, Mary Pickford made her last film in 1933. She divorced second husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., three years later. Together, the couple had founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and famed director D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation).
Milestone's source print is remarkably clean for an 81-year-old film. There are inevitable scratches and blemishes, but not nearly to the extent we might expect in a film of this age. Sound is crisp and resonant. The mono musical score, quite pleasant and well timed to suit the rhythms of this silent film, was clearly produced recently with modern recording techniques.
Extras include two slide shows; one features a stills gallery from the film, and the other chronicles Pickford's career in pictures. The slide shows run automatically and together last about five minutes. Images change every five seconds, so it may be necessary to keep a finger poised over the pause button. Being unable to advance the photos manually is a small annoyance. Much better is the DVD-ROM press kit encoded on the disc. Accessing this feature requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader® software, which is available from Adobe as a free download. Note: Some computers cannot access the press kit directly from the bonus features menu on the disc. To get around this obstacle, launch Acrobat Reader, then retrieve the press kit by opening the Adobe file menu, clicking Open and browsing to the DVD-ROM drive. The Press Kit is clearly labeled as an Adobe .pdf file. A minor hassle, but it works. The 13-page press kit includes a wealth of production notes, a short history of Pickford's career, photographs, and information about Milestone's other releases. Interesting reading, once the hurdle of cracking into it has been overcome.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Silent films are an acquired taste, but one worth cultivating. The best films from this era boast wildly creative invention, executed with techniques that literally had never been done before. Some of these films are positively hypnotic. Those new to the unique pleasures of viewing old silents would be ill advised to start with this title, which is remembered today mainly for Pickford's involvement. Although hugely popular in its day, the narrative is underwhelming except as children's fare. The movie offers no major innovations in cinematic technique, beyond the clever special effects, so its historical value is not on a par with, say, Fairbanks's trend-setting The Three Musketeers, released the same year, or Battleship Potempkin, made four years later. At the risk of scribbling heresy, the mere virtue of being a silent film does not automatically confer classic status. But as gentle family entertainment featuring the premiere star of Old Hollywood in a lavish production, Little Lord Fauntleroy is treasure to the silent-film lover.
Pickford fans and students of the silent era will be absorbed in this disc. Audio and video are remarkable, even if the plot is not. For other silent-film recommendations and a rationale behind them, readers may send inquiries to the critic at the email address linked above.
Pickford's immortality is assured. Image Entertainment receives special commendation for distributing this title in the Milestone Collection. This is quality DVD product with a handsome, though not user-friendly, package of bonus material.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Stills Gallery from the Film
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