LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

PICCADILLY (MILESTONE FILM and VIDEO - www.milestonefilms.com - 800-603-1104)

"Would everybody please fill your glasses and raise a toast to Mary, who is in that room over there." The request was made by Mary Pickford's husband, Buddy Rogers, who had been our charming and gracious host at their magnificent Pickfair estate that beautiful and unusually smog-free summer day. We ceased our afternoon-long frolicking in the enormous Pickfair pool and raised our soda-filled glasses in the direction he designated, a gigantic second floor window, the inside of which was completely obscured by heavy curtains. As we lifted our glasses in tribute I was almost certain that I saw the drapes tentatively open ever so slightly in acknowledgement of our salute. Maybe not.

And now, dear reader, it becomes my singularly unpleasant duty to make a confession that no self-professed movie fanatic should have to make. I sheepishly admit that, despite the memorable experience above, I always went to great lengths to avoid seeing any of the Pickford films. Through articles I had read and extremely brief clips of Pickford that I had seen, I had blindly bought into the then commonly-expressed belief that Mary Pickford was nothing more than an antiquated wide-eyed cutesy-poo creature whose films were relentlessly saccharine, precious and unwatchable. 

Thanks to Milestone's release of Pickford's LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY (1921), in which Pickford plays not only Fauntleroy's mother but young Fauntleroy himself (!) my grievous misconceptions have been corrected once and for all. For the incredible fact is that Pickford shines spectacularly in each role without ever resorting to mugging or indicating or overacting to the slightest degree. (Remarkably, the same can be said for the entire supporting cast down to the smallest bit-part) Pickford's delineation of Fauntleroy's fragile, feminine and entirely devoted mother is a work of subtle beauty, but it is her performance as Fauntleroy himself that fairly knocks one's socks off. Here she is somehow able to create a spirited, scrappy, energetic and ingratiatingly boyish Fauntleroy that's always believable, and never for an instant approaches caricature. This faultless FAUNTLEROY graphically illustrates just how versatile this lady was.

Milestone's full-screen sepia-tinted image is exceptionally good for a film of this age, and a new orchestral score by Nigel Holton supports the charming proceedings with melodically pleasurable grace and discretion. 

Milestone has announced that over the course of the next three months they will be releasing four more Pickford classics, all of which I eagerly look forward to. 

Having just admitted my previous and totally unfounded prejudicial pre-judgements as regards Pickford, I must now humbly admit to precisely the same failings concerning Anna May Wong, a Chinese silent film star that, due to the very few clips and pictures that I'd seen, I'd incorrectly assumed represented the racially demeaning and vampish image of the Oriental femme fatale that was predominant in her day. How wrong can I be? 

Wong's performance in Milestone's dazzling new dvd release of PICCADILLY (1929) as a poor scullery girl who through guile, manipulation and stunning beauty transforms herself into a London nightclub sensation and wreaks havoc on all who sexually desire her is, I believe, one of the finest performances of the silent era. She manages to sidestep each and every trap that such a potentially cartoonish role offers with a intricately detailed, sensitive and defiantly observant performance every instant of which is imbued with an intensely hot level of feline eroticism that is mesmerizing to a degree seldom seen on screen.

I had never heard of director E.A. Dupont before, but so consistently fine is his handling of every performance, so spectacular and hypnotically fluid are his camera movements (Max Ophuls must have been strongly influenced by them) and so skillfully does he utilize Alfred Junge's astonishing set designs that I fervently hope that Milestone nabs the rights to the two titles of his (Variete and Moulin Rouge) that they refer to in their informative and comprehensive liner notes. 

This full-screen restoration by the British Film Institute delivers tints of such delicacy and discretion that they actually enhance every dream-like instant of this intoxicating bona-fide masterwork, as does the skillful new score that composer Neil Brand provides.

--DICK DINMAN

 

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