My brush with Mary Pickford at Winthrop University

Here is a little post in honor Mary Pickford’s 120th birthday on Sunday, April 8, and the tearing down of historic Pickford Studios earlier this week.

Mary Pickford was Hollywood’s first American sweetheart.  Usually playing little girl roles with long curls and big eyes, though she was in her 20s or 30s. For example, when Pickford played an orphan in “Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farms” (1917) she was 25.

Silent star sweetheart, Mary Pickford

Pickford was Hollywood royalty, marrying top silent star, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and then married star of “Wings” Charles Buddy Rogers.

All of this build up of an important star leads to how she fits into my college career. During my senior year of college I took a media ethics class and I wrote a paper on white actors who played ethnic roles in classic film.

I sniffed around Winthrop University’s library and picked up a few autobiographies and biographies. I picked up Mary Pickford’s 1954 autobiography “Sunshine and Shadow” about her film career, thinking of her role as a Mexican-Indian in “Ramona” (1910).

I opened the book and found this:

Mary Pickford's autograph inside a library book at Winthrop University.

Winthrop University’s copy of “Sunshine and Shadows” is AUTOGRAPHED…and it’s down in the basement with other old books that are rarely checked out.

When I found that I ran out screaming to my roommates-though none of them knew who Mary Pickford was-and called my mom. I doubled checked it with other autographs online and it seems to match.

I plotted on how to get the book out of the library, even thought about claiming it was a lost book, which would be a $100 fine. I figured for that price, I could find it on Ebay.  I even asked if I could buy it from the library, but they said no. I don’t know if they realize they have an autographed book from one of Hollywood’s top silent stars.

Happy birthday Mary Pickford! I enjoyed my brush with you at my alma mater.

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Classic film in daily life: Classic film in ethics paper

In my classes and extracurricular activities at Winthrop University, I try to incorporate old movies as much as possible. Recently in my Media Ethics (MCOM 410) class, we were required to write a 10 to 12 page paper on an issue in diversity in the media. It could be movies, television, newspaper articles or etc.

Of course I wanted to write about movies. Instead of taking the route of how certain minority groups are stereotyped in films, I decided to write about how white actors played minority roles in films-and this happened a lot in films. White actors and actresses would don heavy make-up, false noses and over-exaggerated gestures to play different ethnic roles such as Asians, American Indians or Hispanics.

Here are movies I talked about in my paper:

Lillian Gish and Richard Bathelmess in “Broken Blossoms”

Actors playing Asians:
-Richard Barthelmess playing the Asian man  “Chinky” opposite Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms: The Yellow Man and the Girl” (1919)
-“ (D.W) Griffith’s caricature notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso he (Barthlemess) uses throughout the film.” from Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis by Charles Affron
-Danish Nils Asther as Chinese General Yen in “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933)
-Helen Hayes playing a Chinese girl in “The Son-Daughter” (1932)
-“Anna Mae Wong was dropped in favor of Helen Hayes, whose casting then necessitated the firing of all other Chinese in the cast ‘with the exception of some Chinese as extras in long shot, because white actors looked freakish set against the faces of authentic Asian players.Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema; 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty 
-Luise Rainer and Paul Muni in “The Good Earth” (1936)
-“I’m about as Chinese as Herbert Hoover.  I won’t look Chinese, no matter how much makeup I use, and I won’t sound it.” Paul Muni said in biographyActor: The Life & Times of Paul Muni by Jerome Lawrence
-Jennifer Jones as Eurasian Han Suin in “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955)

Whites playing light-skinned African Americans “passing for white”:
-Ava Gardner as Julie Laverine in “Show Boat” (1951)
-“My own personal choice would have been Lena Horne (for the role of Julie),” Gardner said.  “She was really born for this part. She would have been perfect for it…George Sidney however wanted me.” Ava: My Story by Ava Gardner
-Jeanne Craine as Pinky in “Pinky” (1949)

Actors playing American Indians:
-Mary Pickford playing Indians/Spanish women in “Ramona” and “Song of the Wild Wood Flute” (both 1910)
-Mary Pickford in Sunshine and Shadow: “I noticed rather early that Mr. Griffith seemed to favor me in the roles of Mexican and Indian women.  Perhaps it was because I was the only leading girl in Biography (the studio) with eyes that photographed dark…Whatever reason, I portrayed them all-Indian Maidens and squaws and Mexican senoras and senoritas.  I learned to apply thick applications of red clay mixed with water to my arms and legs with a sponge…don a black horse hair wig and a beaded dress”
-Donna Reed as Sacagawea (or obnoxiously nicknamed Janie) in “The Far Horizons” (1955)
-J. Carroll Nash as Chief Sitting Bull in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950)
-Rock Hudson as Young Bull in “Winchester ’73” (1950)

Esther Williams and twin Ricardo Montalbon in “Fiesta” (1947)

Actors playing Hispanics:
-Hedy Lamarr, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield in “Tortilla Flat” (1942)
-Stereotypical sexy señoritas like Linda Darnell in “My Darling Clementine” (1946)
-Esther Williams playing Ricardo Montalbon’s twin sister in “Fiesta” (1947) and how she thought this was ridiculous.
-“Ricardo (Montalbon) came from Torrejon, Mexico. His accent was still very heavy at the time and, of course, I didn’t have one at all.  Since we were supposed to be twins, this marked difference in accents was something that troubled me, and I was sure it would bother audiences a great deal as well” The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography by Esther Williams
-John Garfield (again) and Jennifer Jones in “We Were Strangers” (1949)
-Natalie Wood as Maria in “West Side Story” (1961)

From my research and information I have gotten from Robert Osborne on TCM, whites played minority roles like these in films for a couple of reasons.
1. White audiences did not care to see authentic minority roles due to racism. It seems they preferred to see a white playing the role stereotypically.
2. If there happened to be a romance between a white and a minority (“Bitter Tea of General Yen”) white audiences would shun an authentic interracial relationship. Interracial romances were banned by the Hayes Code.

On a side note, 70 year old professor, Dr. Click, seemed to enjoy my paper and said he was informed on a new topic.

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