Monday, 30 December 2013

When Buddy met Mary … My Best Girl (1927)


This was Mary Pickford’s last silent film and was produced at the technical high point of the form with Sam Taylor directing and Charles Rosher’s camera generating those smooth “european trick shots” Hollywood had come to love. Like all films of the late period, they feel more modern than they should do given our exposure to the dulled ice age of early talkies which left events stuck in studio, actors huddled around immobile microphones… But here, the camera swoops, travels on speeding motorcars and, most importantly, shows us two people falling in love.

Whether or not the two stars began their relationship with this film is open to debate and it would be a full ten years before they tied the knot to begin their 42-year marriage, but it feels like it.

The future Mrs and Mr Pickford...
Now, for the sums… Mary Pickford was 35 – just a little older than Zooey Dechannel and a little younger than Amy Adams – and still able to carry off the shop girl ingénue. Charles “Buddy” Rogers was just 22… considerably younger than Mary’s hubby Douglas Fairbanks who was 44 at the time.

Regardless of the events off-set, the film stands as one of Pickford’s best and most enduring: a thousand rom-coms have followed in its footsteps including those still featuring Zooey and Amy.

Pots and pans
Pickford produced and it’s hard not to imagine that she also co-directed parts of the film. Our first glimpse of her is of her feet as she attempts to carry too numerous a collection of pots and pans in the department store in which she works. As one pan is picked up another falls to the floor until she has to resort to sticking her feet in them to lift them along – it’s inventively daft and shows us all we need to know about the brave and gutsy shop girl, Maggie Johnson.

Maggie works in Merril’s Department Store – I have a penchant for films set in 1920s department stores: think of Clara Bow in It! or Brent and Brooks in Love ‘em and Leave ‘em… places where society mixes almost on a level and where there’s always the possibility of unexpected dalliances across the class divide.

Are you being served?
A young man sidles up to Maggie’s counter and starts to ask her flirty questions about the various items for sale… turns out he’s the new guy 'Joe' Grant (Rogers) who eventually gets assigned to Maggie for ad hoc induction to the world of the store.

The two get on well and soon share their lunchtimes sitting cosy in a packing crate in the staff room. It is here where we see Mary’s first prolonged screen kiss: a side-on affair that conveys much delicate passion.

Maggie invites Joe home, where he gets to meet the family: Pa Johnson (Lucien Littlefield) a man disorientated by the curious position in which life has left him, not least of which is his easily-shocked and narcoleptic wife (Sunshine Hart) whom he frequently has to rouse with smelling salts.

Then there’s sister Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) a jazz baby hanging around with decidedly-dodgy men and, as a result, in constant conflict with her parents.

Sunshine Hart, Carmelita Geraghty, Mary, Pat Harmon and Lucien Littlefield
Maggie is ashamed of their bad humour and pretends that they are rehearsing for a play, leaving Joe waiting on their porch for their first date.

But she’s not the only one hiding something… “Joe” is actually Joseph, the son and heir to the Merrill fortune who has been assigned to the shop by his father Robert (Hobart Bosworth) in order to learn the business without his name giving him advantage.

His mother Esther (Evelyn Hall) also has ambitions and wants to see him married off to the winsome and wealthy Millicent Rogers (Avonne Taylor). Joe doesn’t appear to have any strong feelings about this social arrangement, at least not yet at any rate.

Buddy Rogers
Joe does well at the store and is soon being promoted but he’s also getting closer and closer to Maggie. To two spend a blissful journey in the back of a truck after walking through traffic as if it wasn’t there: totally absorbed in each other’s presence. This section reminded me strongly of the closing sequence of Sunrise (made some months earlier…) with the couple walking through the staged street traffic…

Joe and Maggie go on a rain-sodden date as he ignores his parent’s request to dine with them – they are planning to announce his engagement. He persuades Maggie to venture to the Merrill’s house to see if the family’s oft-pronounced equal treatment would extend to their being offered dinner.

Winking his way past the doorman and butlers he gets them to lay on a meal whilst Maggie looks around in nervous amazement: even more delighted by her dazzling young man than before. But, they are rudely interrupted by Joe’s parents as they arrive back home with the decorative Millicent in tow… the game’s up!


Meanwhile, Liz’ fella has really dropped her in it and they are being processed before the night court. Unable to contact the brains of the family, the Johnson’s are helpless to prevent their younger daughter from being locked up.

As luck would have it, Maggie, having tearfully made her excuses and left, encounters Ma and Pa downtown as they enter the court: she goes into battle for her sister in front of a Judge played by Mack Swain.

But Joe isn’t done yet and goes out in search of his “best girl” – he’s not going to be swayed. A helpful hobo spots events and directs him to the court where he is in time to see Maggie’s eloquent defence and to end up in clink after thumping Liz’s no good boyfriend.

Maggie brings order to the court
It makes the papers and there’s a big stink but, will class barriers be broken and will true love run smooth… We been here before my friends and I have no intention of revealing what happens.
 
My Best Girl is a lovely film and one to file under heart-warming. Rogers is good in the same way he was in Wings: wholehearted and sincere… my teenage daughter recognised those regular features instantly!

But he’s not the one you watch. It’s Mary’s show and she demonstrates an undimmed intensity with a face and a voice that can almost be heard… so close is she to the talkies. She performs particularly well in the ending section I’m not mentioning and there was hardly a dry eye in our living room: how can she do that when we can almost see it coming!? Amazing skill: a wizard and a true star!

The look of love...
I watched the Milestone DVD which comes with some precious home movie footage showing Mary and Buddy’s wedding and their honeymoon – a nice touch. Whatever the ups and downs of the decades to follow this was one of those Hollywood marriages built to last. It may have started here in front of our very eyes.

My Best Girl is available direct for institutional use from Milestone or from Amazon’s second hand sellers – seems it’s out of print and becoming collectable. Hopefully the good folks at Milestone have a Blu-ray in the works, this is indeed amongst the very best of Pickford.

Trivia: Carole Lombard has an uncredited appearance as a Flirty Salesgirl whilst Charles Rosher deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography. He shot so many of Pickford’s films not to mention his other projects with Herr Murnau.

Carole Lombard and Buddy

2 comments:

  1. Douglas Fairbanks, who was born in 1883, was 44 not 52 in 1927. He wasn't in Europe but making his own films at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio. He actually visited the set of My Best Girl during filming. I'm not sure you can call the Pickford-Rogers marriage successful just because it lasted. The serious troubles in that relationship are well documented.

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    1. Fairbank's age and location duly corrected - I should have checked that!

      I'm not saying whether the subsequent Pickford-Rogers marriage was successful or not but it was long-lasting. I'm aware of the issues they had but they certainly stuck at it for whatever reasons.

      But the above is an observation on their film and it was a sweet artistic collaboration if nothing else in their lives.

      Best wishes.

      Paul

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