Christel Schmidt thought she knew early Hollywood star Mary Pickford, until she started watching Pickford's movies.
"She's an extremely important figure in silent film, but there's not much scholarship on her, and most of it is dismissive," Schmidt said.
Schmidt says she expected a regressive personality, a pretty damsel in distress in need of a man. But when she started watching Pickford's movies, she found a very different woman.
"She was the kind of woman who would rescue you," Schmidt says. "She was fiery, spunky."
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It started Schmidt on a career of Pickford scholarship, resulting in the new book Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies ($45), co-published by the University Press of Kentucky and the Library of Congress. She edited and wrote a number of essays for the sumptuous large-format book, filled with photos and illustrations.
Schmidt will be at the Kentucky Theatre in Lexington on Thursday to host a screening of the Pickford classic Sparrows (1926) and sign her book.
Schmidt said she and the Library of Congress, which is co-sponsoring her tour with the book and film, picked Sparrows, which the Library owns as part of Pickford's personal film collection.
"It's a very interesting film," Schmidt says. "We wanted to showcase her at her best."
Pickford was a pivotal figure in the dawn of motion pictures, a face that was instantly recognizable to audiences at a time when film stars weren't billed. Over a 25-year career, the Toronto native became a producer, philanthropist and co-founder of the United Artists film studio with La Grange native D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She also was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That organization awarded her the best-actress Oscar in 1930 for Coquette and gave her an honorary lifetime achievement award in 1976. She died in 1979 at age 87.
Pickford also earned several nicknames in the press, including "little Mary," "the girl with the curls" and, most notably, "America's sweetheart."
That and media coverage that focused on her celebrity might have softened her profile through the decades. Plus, after the silent film era ended, her films were not widely seen.
"You have to remember, her art form died," Schmidt says.
But she was one of the first film artists, starting her acting career in 1909.
"The fact that she was such a good actress so early brought the movies attention and respectability," Schmidt says. "She was for the uplift of the movies. She thought movies could be an art form, they could be important, and she preached it. People did not necessarily believe that. They thought the movies were just something for the working class and immigrants to see, paying a nickel in little small theaters. She thought movies could be shown in really nice theaters and movie palaces. She was a believer in all that."
She made movies that mattered.
Sparrows shows Pickford as the oldest inmate at a "baby farm" near a swamp, rescuing herself and the other children from the cruel owner. It's a gritty type of role that Schmidt says she repeatedly sees from Pickford, including 1922's Tess of the Storm Country, in which Pickford is a squatter, determined to defend her and her fellow squatters' homes against a wealthy landowner.
"She's this pretty package, but she's a challenge," Schmidt says.
Asked about current actresses who remind her of Pickford, Schmidt cites Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence, who has shown talent and grit in Winter's Bone and The Hunger Games .
Schmidt was drawn to the University Press of Kentucky because it published Eileen Whitfield's Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (1997), which is considered the definitive Pickford biography.
Schmidt is happy to add to the canon of Pickford scholarship.
"She deserves it. She's one of the most important people in cinema, and there's not enough research on her," she said. "So it's nice to get people talking and writing. I'm excited what will come after, because that's what the point of this book was."