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With: Mary Pickford, Albert Austin, Harold Goodwin, Rose Dione, Darwin Karr, Lavendor the Horse
Written by: Waldemar Young, based on a play by Richard Bryce, Frederick Fenn
Directed by: John Francis Dillon
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 75
Date: 01/27/1920

Suds (1920)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

America's Original Sweetheart

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1919, Mary Pickford formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. At the time, she was arguably the most popular of the four, but today she's probably the least remembered or respected.

It's a conundrum. Even those who love and appreciate Pickford can't make much of an argument for her films. She fell into a specific screen persona ("America's Sweetheart") that required a certain kind of formula film, and despite many successful years and more than 200 shorts and features, she never really broke out of it or made any kind of masterpiece. (Her one potential pinnacle, an outing with Ernst Lubitsch called Rosita, ended in violent disagreements.)

Yet there are things to love in Pickford's films. She usually plays a young girl with long, blonde ringlets; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is probably her best-known film. But she was a gifted actress, able to shift effortlessly between comedy and drama, and she always showed intelligence and spunk within her limited roles. Off-screen, she was a clever and canny businesswoman, a fierce producer who knew exactly what she wanted and was ably rewarded for her ideas.

Milestone Film and Video has recently released three restored Mary Pickford DVDs, each with its own bonus feature.

(1919) is a pretty routine programmer, with Pickfordplaying a Kentucky farmgirl devoted to finding her father's killer. She playsthe character with a kind of Annie Oakley quality, riding horses and shootingguns and forgetting her manners. Pickford effortlessly carries the material,and she manages to melt hearts without breaking stride. The disc's secondfeature, M'Liss (1918), is slightlymore interesting, though it has a similar plot. Based on a Bret Harte story andadapted by the great screenwriter Frances Marion, it sails along on itscleverly written intertitles, which capture the slang of the Gold Rush era.This time, Pickford wishes to acquire manners and attempts to go to school,with interesting results.

Probably the best of the three discs, (1920) shows Pickfordtotally transformed into a character role. Playing a withered and shabbylaundress, she pines after a customer who has left his shirt behind, andconjures up fantasies of misplaced loyalty to go with him. The film plungesdeeper into both slapstick and melodrama, beating Chaplin and hisgroundbreaking The Kid by a year. Suds is also quite exquisitely photographed, perfectlycapturing the dank, steamy feel of the basement laundry. Best of all, as itsbonus feature, the Suds disc includesthe slightly longer, alternate version of the film used for foreign release.The practice at the time was to place a second camera alongside the first anduse slightly different takes for the overseas version. Certain shots lookdifferent, the editing is slightly different and the pace is a little slower,but it's fascinating to compare. The disc also includes a 1960s-era short filmabout Pickford and Fairbanks and their overwhelming popularity.

The third disc begins with (1921), thelongest of the five films. Directed by Alfred E. Green (BabyFace), this is a well-told story about a young girl separated fromher wealthy mother, raised by her maid, and mistaken for dead. Unlikeher other films, Pickford ages in this one, playing both her belovedchild character and a grown woman capable of romance. Frances Marion'sintertitles on this film are among the wittiest I've ever seen. Thisdisc's bonus feature digs into the past for Cinderella (1914), apretty basic re-telling of the fairy tale. The film lights up whenPickford is onscreen, but otherwise drags through the familiar plot.

DVD Details: All three discs boast crisp, new digital transfers of these silent classics, with beautiful new scores (as opposed to the usual plunky piano).

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