Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema

Precocious Charms: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema

by Gaylyn Studlar

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In Precocious Charms, Gaylyn Studlar examines how Hollywood presented female stars as young girls or girls on the verge of becoming women. Child stars are part of this study but so too are adult actresses who created motion picture masquerades of youthfulness. Studlar details how Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Elizabeth Taylor, Jennifer Jones, and Audrey Hepburn performed girlhood in their films. She charts the multifaceted processes that linked their juvenated star personas to a wide variety of cultural influences, ranging from Victorian sentimental art to New Look fashion, from nineteenth-century children’s literature to post-World War II sexology, and from grand opera to 1930s radio comedy. By moving beyond the general category of “woman,” Precocious Charms leads to a new understanding of the complex pleasures Hollywood created for its audience during the half century when film stars were a major influence on America’s cultural imagination.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520274242
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/15/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gaylyn Studlar is David May Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age and In the Realm of Pleasure: Von Sternberg, Dietrich, and the Masochistic Aesthetic. She has co-edited four anthologies: John Ford Made Westerns, Visions of the East, Reflections in a Male Eye, John Huston and the American Experience, and Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster.

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Precocious Charms

Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema

By Gaylyn Studlar


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95529-5


Oh, "Doll Divine"

Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze

Mary Pickford, doll divine,
Year by year, and every day
At the moving-picture play,
You have been my valentine.
—Vachel Lindsay, "To Mary Pickford, Moving-Picture Actress"

Mary Pickford was, arguably, the most famous woman of the first quarter of the twentieth century. Inarguably, she was one of the first major stars of the Hollywood film industry and one of the very few—female or male—able to sustain stardom for more than twenty years. Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, Mary Pickford became a stage actress at age six (published age "5"). She first appeared in motion pictures in one-reelers of American Biograph in the spring of 1909. In the 1910s the actress known as "Our Little Mary" quickly cemented her popularity through numerous films that coincided with the industry's shift to Hollywood and using the actor as a personality for drawing audiences to the box-office. Pickford was promoted as "America's Sweetheart," "The World's Sweetheart," and, as poet Vachel Lindsay dubbed her, "The Queen of the Movies." Her films for Famous Players in the late 1910s regularly netted more than a million dollars a year. In 1918 an article in American Magazine proclaimed what by then was obvious: "Our Little Mary" had become "the most popular motion picture actress in the world."

What made her so popular? What exactly was the appeal of Mary Pickford and of her films? In attempting to answer these questions, it cannot escape notice that from the beginning of Pickford's film career, the actress's characters often are ambiguously inscribed with characteristics of both child and adult woman, as a child-woman. As I will show, even when she ostensibly is cast as an adult, the grown-up Mary Pickford registers as an adolescent girl or a "child-woman," ambiguously poised between childhood and womanhood. As her career moved into the feature-film era, her screen persona grew even younger, until she was, for all intents and purposes, a child impersonator.

In 1914 an industry trade magazine, The Bioscope, published a review of the Pickford star vehicle Tess of the Storm Country (dir. Edwin S. Porter) that articulates one view of the actress's youthful appeal: "There are many young comediennes ... but it is only Mary Pickford ... who can create through the silent medium ... just that particular kind of sentiment—ineffably sweet, joyously young, and sometimes, if one may put it so, almost unbearably heartbreaking in its tender pathos—which has become identified with her name, and with which we are all familiar."

In Tess (as well as in its 1922 remake) Pickford was cast as an adolescent hoyden living in poverty. Many of the actress's other star vehicles, including Rags (dir. James Kirkwood, 1915) and M'Liss (dir. Marshall Neilan, 1918), followed the same formula, placing the girl in a small town or the country. A Variety reviewer of Rags thought that the basis of Pickford's popular appeal was already rather obvious: "she and her bag of tricks are so well established ... [that] no matter what she does in a picture they [film followers] are sure to term it 'cute,' and in the current offering are many scenes that call for that expression." Pickford regularly played "cute" girls who, in the emerging language of the time, fell into the category known as "adolescents." In the late 1910s, however, her characters began to grow even younger. She became a child impersonator in The Foundling (dir. John O'Brien, 1916), The Poor Little Rich Girl (dir. Maurice Tourneur, 1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (dir. Marshall Neilan, 1917), and The Little Princess (dir. Marshall Neilan, 1917). Audiences and critics responded with enthusiasm. She spawned imitators, like Mary Miles Minter, and wrote for Vanity Fair about the techniques and technical problems of undertaking child roles.

The numerous textual iterations of the childlike "Mary Pickford" enabled her remarkable success. The model of young white femininity Pickford represented, sometimes fragile and imperiled, sometimes feisty and resilient, was not the only type available to audiences in the 1910s. In those same years Fox star Theda Bara was the most famous embodiment of the seductive power of the dark, orientalized vamp; and Pearl White and Grace Cunard exemplified the thrilling athleticism of the serial heroine who turned physical danger into high adventure. Yet none of these stars achieved the sustained popularity of Pickford.

In searching for an explanation of Pickford's juvenation, one might be tempted to assume that it reflected the predictable typecasting of a popular actress by an exploitative, male-dominated industry. Such a view has to be tempered by the knowledge that, by the late 1910s, the actress was already exercising a great deal of influence over her film projects made through the Artcraft division of Famous Players–Lasky. She briefly moved to First National, where she enjoyed more control as her own independent producer. As one of the founders of United Artists in 1919, she was in the forefront of film artists who exercised absolute creative mastery over their vehicles, from concept through distribution.

In spite of Pickford's unprecedented control over her films, the formula for her star vehicles changed relatively little. In fact, not only did she continue to play ragged adolescents, but also during the years in which she exercised the most creative authority over her silent film career, many of her most important and popular films present her in the role of a child. These included, at First National, Daddy-Long-Legs (dir. Marshall Neilan, 1919) and, at United Artists, Pollyanna (dir. Paul Powell, 1920), Through the Back Door (dir. Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford, 1921), Little Lord Fauntleroy (dir. Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford, 1921), Little Annie Rooney (dir. William Beaudine, 1925), and Sparrows (dir. William Beaudine, 1926). A commentator reacted to Pickford in Through the Back Door: "She stands absolutely alone in the portrayal of youthful roles, and conveys the impression of extreme youth, both through face and conduct as no other player ever has.... She appears with equal facility and conviction a child of eleven and a girl of seventeen."

The notion of a grown woman playing a child and the specific techniques used to represent "Our Little Mary" on- and offscreen certainly raise a host of questions about the fascination that Mary Pickford inspired in a broad range of viewers. In spite of her enormous popularity Pickford's sustained association with child roles did not go without comment. "Why do people love Mary?" was a question often raised in the 1910s, but Mordaunt Hall's review of Pollyanna in the New York Times articulates the rather more nervous question that was asked especially often in the 1920s: "People have been asking recently why doesn't Mary Pickford grow up? The question is answered at the Rivoli this week. It is evident that Miss Pickford doesn't grow up because she can make people laugh and cry, can win her way into more hearts and even protesting heads, as a rampant, resilient little girl than as anything else. She can no more grow up than Peter Pan."

The public strongly associated Pickford with child and "girl" characters, so much so that the actress was said to be expressing ambivalence toward her typecasting in juvenated roles as early as 1917; in 1921 she protested: "The world wants me to remain a little girl all my life.... I want to give the very best that is in me, but whenever I try to do something different, the public complains I have tucked up my curls and let off the short pinafores. To them, I am eternal youth, and they won't let me grow up."

If juvenation of her onscreen image frustrated the actress's desire to widen her range, it did not become the basis of any sustained effort to remake her screen persona. Pickford did attempt a departure in Frances Marion's The Love Light (dir. Marion, 1921), a World War I melodrama. Cast as an Italian peasant, Pickford starts out as a village hoyden but quickly grows up when she falls in love with and marries a stranded sailor (Fred Thomson). He turns out to be a German spy. The film called for Angela, Pickford's much-suffering protagonist, to temporarily lose her mind. Pickford immediately reverted back to type in her next film, Through the Back Door, in which she plays a child abandoned by her socialite mother to be raised by Belgian peasants. She did attempt dual roles, of mother and curly-headed son, in Little Lord Fauntleroy, also released in 1921.

Pickford's most famous departures from "type" came in two historical costume dramas. In 1923 the star sought to play Marguerite in an Ernst Lubitsch–directed version of Faust, but her mother objected to her daughter playing a woman who commits infanticide. Instead, Pickford assumed the role of a coquettish young street dancer who catches the eye of a Spanish king in Rosita (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1923). The next year, Pickford starred in Marshall Neilan's Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), in which she played another coquettish adolescent, one who rebels against the dictates of her father to follow her heart.

The career stretch the actress attempted in these two star vehicles may appear to be a very conservative one. A thoughtful commentary in the New York Evening Post concluded that both Dorothy Vernon and Rosita offered only inconsequential differences from Pickford's usual screen work: "Our Mary herself is better and prettier than ever before. But for some unknown reason, she seems to insist on sticking to a type.... This, of course, tends to monotony. We believe that this is recognized by Miss Pickford, and probably gives her many uneasy moments.... However, it isn't exactly fair to criticize Miss Pickford for her lack of versatility. She has so firmly established herself in the affection of a large army of movie fans that, perhaps, there would be disappointment if Mary turned out in some picture to be anyone else than Mary."

Most critics were quite positive about Pickford's performances in productions that were more sexually sophisticated than her usual vehicles. Both films made money. Pickford, however, regarded Rosita and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall as failures. Perhaps their lack of resounding box-office success worried the star that she would inevitably lose some measure of her popularity if she were not "Little Mary" in her pictures. Shortly after Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall was released, Pickford warned her fans that she might be forced to take radical action: "I created a certain type, which has been worked out now. It is finished. It is possible to do another type, of course, but the public wants me only in one character, that of Mary Pickford. Now I have finished that and I think it is time to quit."

Contrary to her published remarks, Pickford didn't quit, and she did not quit her little girl roles. In a letter to a family member she blamed others for her return to type: "Everyone seemed to resent so much the two grown up parts of Rosita and Dorothy that I felt I had to return to a little girl role." Did her loyal public constitute "everyone"? If so, how did the public articulate this resentment if not at the box office? We do not have access to evidence (such as troves of angry fan letters) that might support Pickford's claim, but in a letter to Photoplay, in 1925, a female fan emphasizes the powerful conflation of Pickford with her child characters that no doubt influenced the star's decision to stay true to her juvenated type:

My Dear Little Mary:

The idea that you are "just a little girl" is so firmly established in my mind that any attempt to discard it is resented.... Only a great actress or one who is really a child at heart, could make those little characters so natural that they become our friends, and we refuse to give them up when another "Mary Pickford" appears in the role of an older girl. We love Dorothy Vernon, too, but we never, never associate her with our own little Mary, Rebecca, and Pollyanna.

To the letter writer "Little Mary" is yet another little girl among her favorite Pickford characters. A virtual collapse had occurred between "Our Little Mary" onscreen and "Mary Pickford" the actress.

In the same issue in which this letter appeared, Photoplay published a poll listing the roles that its readers wanted Pickford to play. The magazine claimed, "Almost twenty thousand readers spoke with a clear majority that was overwhelmingly in favor of roles [for Pickford] depicting childhood." We do not know the age of those who responded or if the majority were girls and women, but their top choices seem to indicate a familiarity with girls' literature. Readers wanted Pickford to play Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, the Little Colonel, and Sara Crewe. As if in capitulation to the tastes of her fans, Pickford was back on the screen in the next year as a feisty Irish American tenement girl leading a multiracial neighborhood gang in Little Annie Rooney (dir. William Beaudine, 1925). Mordaunt Hall's review was appreciative but aware of the intractability of the Pickford screen persona: "Viewing Miss Pickford in such a role is like turning the clock back as this charming actress has not changed perceptibly since the early days of pictures."


Mary Pickford engaged in a masquerade of childishness with significant implications for gender-determined spectatorship. Pickford's juvenation, I will argue, complicated the erotic and identificatory responses of gendered spectators in reaction to femininity embodied by an adult star. Pickford's child-woman characters function as an object of identification but also of desire—whether as an object of the spectator's desire or of other characters. The spectator must negotiate the subtleties of a complex masquerade in which an adult star who represents feminine aesthetic perfection also embodies a girl whose juvenated qualities suggest that she is too young to know what desire is. This notion of a masquerade of childishness bears some structural similarities to the masquerade of femininity often cited in feminist film theory. The latter is derived from Joan Riviere's psychoanalytically based theory of womanliness. In her 1929 essay "Womanliness as a Masquerade" Riviere offers a psychoanalytic case history and argues that the cultural codes of womanliness or femininity are assumed rather like a masquerade to allay anxiety and deflect patriarchal criticism of the woman patient's demonstration of masculine traits such as intellectual prowess.

Pickford's adult masquerade of childishness makes acceptable, perhaps even inevitable, the sexualization of her child-woman. Rather than performing the cultural codes expected to construct womanliness, Pickford assumed the signs of childishness. Pickford was diminutive (slightly over five feet tall), but her height alone does not explain why she so successfully embodied the child-woman. Many female stars in this era were petite; the movie industry believed that the camera was unflattering to taller women who also might look overwhelming beside many leading men.

Although she often portrayed girls who were strong-minded and vigorous rather than silly and delicate, Pickford's masquerade of childishness undercut her potential to be a sexual subject. That masquerade of childishness reflects a nostalgia-driven, Victorian-influenced cultural determination of femininity. Pickford's films were often drawn from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature about children but not necessarily addressed only to them. Adults frequently read this literature. Many of the novels and plays adapted by Pickford to film were by women writers who offered the adventures and triumphs of independent little white girls whose behavior rebelled against expected norms of feminine refinement. Although largely adhering to expectations for the development of rambunctious girls into refined women, sometimes this literature was critical of gender inequalities. The inscription of the girl's immaturity and her transition to adulthood gave her "permission to behave in ways that might not be appropriate for a woman."


Excerpted from Precocious Charms by Gaylyn Studlar. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Oh, “Doll Divine”: Mary Pickford, Masquerade, and the Pedophilic Gaze
2. Cosseting the Nation; or, How to Conquer Fear Itself with Shirley Temple
3. “The Little Girl with the Big Voice”: Deanna Durbin and Sonic Womanliness
4. Velvet’s Cherry: Elizabeth Taylor and Virginal English Girlhood
5. Perilous Transition: Jennifer Jones as Melodrama’s Hysterical Adolescent
6. “Chi-Chi Cinderella”: Audrey Hepburn as Couture Countermodel

Selected Bibliography

Customer Reviews