Judge Gordon Sullivan's home movies were released as The Rags & Rags Collection.
Mary Pickford—the first film actress to achieve international superstardom.
Many of even the most casual fans of cinema can name at least one Charlie Chaplin film, while almost as many could recall at least one of Douglass Fairbanks' swashbuckling roles. Thanks to film class, there are a whole host of people who've heard of D.W. Griffith, and could probably bring titles like Birth of a Nation or Intolerance to mind. Mary Pickford, however, is a different case. Though her star shone brighter than any of her male counterparts before the arrival of talkies, none of her films achieved the kind of pop-culture transcendence necessary to keep it in the minds of the people—which is a crying shame. With Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Griffith, Pickford founded United Artists, one of the most powerful players in the Hollywood game. Moreover, she managed her image and an empire with such skill that she was beloved by the whole nation. Now, fans of silent cinema and Mary Pickford in particular can rediscover some of her colossal body of work, thanks to Rags & Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
Gathering four of the star's films (three features and a short) on three Blu-ray discs, Rags & Riches spans a decade of silent cinema:
• The Poor Little Rich Girl finds Pickford as a young girl ignored by her wealthy parents until she accidentally overdoses on a sleeping agent administered by ne'er-do-well servants.
• The Hoodlum finds Pickford again playing the scion of a wealthy family, but this time she ends up living with her sociologist father in the slums. Unsurprisingly, her plucky charm wins over the residents.
• In Sparrows, Pickford is an orphan living in the care of the Grimes family in a Southern swamp, where she mothers the younger orphans as they're mistreated by the Grimes family.
• Finally, "Ramona" is a 17-minute short where Pickford plays a woman in love with a Native American; their romance is tragic and leads to terrible consequences.
All three of the features are essentially episodic morality plays intended to present and bolster Mary Pickford's image as "America's Sweetheart." Long before blogs and Entertainment Tonight, Pickford packaged her persona into a powerful brand. Her characters were always young, plucky, and able to solve problems—or sweet, innocent, and tragic. She never plays the villain or any unchaste roles. That's in evidence here, as she plays the charming heroine in two of the three films, and the tragic heroine in the third.
Because Pickford is the center of each of these films, and because she must so strictly maintain her image, it would be easy to think that the resultant films would be formulaic and boring. That's luckily not the case. Though they are rather episodic (a problem that dogs many a silent-era feature viewed today), the films included in the Rags & Riches collection showcase the wide variety of styles that silent film was responsible for. Poor Little Rich Girl shows all the dazzle that silent film could conjure, from rich costumes and sets to sight gags and interesting visual tricks. The Hoodlum includes some surprising scenes that appear to have been photographed in an actual slum, giving some moments a documentary feel that belies the film's age. Finally, Sparrows plays like a practice run for Night of the Hunter. Combining the swamps of the south with rich black-and-white cinematography and a gothic atmosphere of oppression, Sparrows is an interesting experience.
One of the most amazing things about this set is the broad number of audiences it is aimed at. Obviously, it's there for fans of Pickford's films; her work hasn't been given the most consistent treatment on home video, and this set is an easy way to own some of her excellent films. This set is also aimed squarely at silent film fans and scholars. Extras include a commentary on The Poor Little Rich Girl (by film historian Scott Eyman) and on Sparrows (by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta). Both commentaries are informative, discussing the specific context for the film while also giving listeners a wider glimpse into silent film-era moviemaking. Finally, the set is aimed at children as well. Pickford always played children and younger women, so they're a natural audience for her films. Rags & Riches takes in younger viewers by offering introductions—a bit cheesy, but effective in explaining why these films look different from the ones they may be used to—and narration to replace the intertitles and explain the action.
Whatever audience they're intended for, these three films look pretty good. In their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios with 1080p/AVC-encoded transfers, all three films have had preservation work done. The black-and-white images are generally good, with less print damage than I expected. Some of the intertitles look odd (and the frame rates might not please purists), but the grain of the original films is appropriately represented. Black levels are consistent, and whites don't bloom. Overall, this is as good as we can expect films this age to look on today's home video technology. All three films get orchestral scores in PCM 2.0 stereo. These newly recorded tracks (based on the styles of the era) sound excellent.
Extras (other than those already mention) include a nice 8-minute short of footage from "Pickfair," the home shared by the husband/wife duo of Pickford and Fairbanks. This is a famous short film that includes a visit from Charlie Chaplin, and everyone involved performs for the camera. Sparrows includes a theatrical trailer, 4 minutes of outtakes, and a short featurette on one of the actresses in the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Silent films are not for everyone. These films might feel antiquated, excessively episodic, or just plain dull to viewers reared on contemporary films. Even those who enjoy silent films might not appreciate Mary Pickford's too-innocent persona, preferring the slightly darker bad girls of the late silent/early sound period (like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich).
Rags & Riches: The Mary Pickford Collection is an excellent Blu-ray release that gives fans three of Pickford's more notable features, and a silent-era short to boot. With extras designed to appeal to everyone from scholars to children, this set is worth recommending to anyone who wants to broaden their knowledge of film history and one of the first to legitimately hold the title of "America's Sweetheart."
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Scales of Justice, The Poor Little Rich Girl
Perp Profile, The Poor Little Rich Girl
Studio: Milestone Films
Distinguishing Marks, The Poor Little Rich Girl
Scales of Justice, The Hoodlum
Perp Profile, The Hoodlum
Studio: Milestone Films
Distinguishing Marks, The Hoodlum
• Bonus Short
Scales of Justice, Sparrows
Perp Profile, Sparrows
Studio: Milestone Films
Distinguishing Marks, Sparrows
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