*Brief Warning, I recommend watching “The Renunciation” before reading this article about it. I do talk about the film in detail so spoiler alert!
Film: The Renunciation
Released: July 19, 1909
Film Company: Biograph
Director: D.W. Griffith
Writer: D.W. Griffith
Cinematography: Billy Bitzer & Arthur Martin
Kittie Ryan - Mary Pickford, Kittie’s Uncle - Anthony O’Sullivan, Joe Fielding - James Kirkwood, Sam Walters - Harry Solter, Kittie’s fiancé - Billy Quirk
Preceded by Sweet and Twenty (July 22, 1909)
Released after Tender Hearts(July 15, 1909)
# of camera shots: 27
# of scenes: 7
Mary’s 21st Biograph appearance(IMDB)
Mary’s 14th Biograph appearance(Wikipedia Mary Pickford Filmography)
5.4/10 with 23 votes on IMDB
In this blog I review various Mary Pickford works and reveal some interesting findings that may have been overlooked in the past. Today I review one of her early Biograph shorts directed by D.W. Griffith during the summer of 1909. This was the year she was first hired for Biograph so I started with “The Renunciation”(1909).
I did a shot-by-shot chart on this film to get a full idea of the storytelling and technical aspects. With only twenty-seven shots for a twelve minute short, the cuts aren’t so numerous but they are certainly intentional as I’ll explain later on. The young woman in this film(Mary Pickford) is supposedly named “Kittie” though you would never know while watching the film(I looked it up on IMDB and Wikipedia). Her and her uncle are staying in a mining village where they encounter two young men, Joe Fielding(James Kirkwood) and Sam Walters(Harry Solter). As the two men start gawking at her she wanders into the foreground and enjoys the attention, then she wanders off the frame with her uncle. After she’s gone, the two men gesture that the woman is theirs by hilariously pounding their chests and leaving the frame in opposite directions. Once this happens, you know it’s a story about the rivalry between two male friends.
When I first watched this film, I had a hard time identifying the difference between the two men. Part of this might be because I have only seen this film in a bad quality format on Youtube so it’s hard to distinguish their facial features. As I studied the film frame by frame the second viewing I realized there are some differences that I didn’t notice before. First of all, both men have dark pants and a button shirt on with a hat and a scarf. Both men have the same haircut and mustache. The difference is Sam Walters has a light colored shirt and Joe Fielding has a dark colored shirt. Another difference is that when both men go back to their own cabin, the interior space looks similar except for a few items on the table. In Sam Walter’s cabin, you see a whiskey bottle sitting at the table and in Joe Fielding’s cabin, it’s tidier and there are pictures of his friend. You also see a Biograph logo hanging on his wall which is what the American Biograph Company did to prevent copyright infringement. This helps distinguish the men a little better and the Biograph logo in Joe Fielding’s cabin indicates early on that most of the story will take place there.
It’s clear early on that Joe seems to be better with women than Sam. Sam,the guy from the unkept cabin that contained the whiskey bottle, startles her from behind the rocks,grabs the water bucket from her hand and insists on carrying it for her. She pulls away from him and decides to carry the water bucket herself up the hill. When she arrives at the waterfall to fill her bucket, she sees the other guy Joe appear. At first she doesn’t want anything to do with him either but he smiles at her and slowly approaches her letting out a hand. She becomes charmed with him and finally gives him the bucket so he can fill it up with water. Mary Pickford does an awesome flirty thing where she smiles as she gently slaps his hands away whenever he gets too close to her. He then carries the pail for her back to where she lives, however when he gestures her to go back to his cabin, she abruptly refuses and grabs the pail from him. As she walks away entering the foreground of the shot, she pauses to think about it and turns around to look at him before walking away again. As soon as she leaves the frame, he smiles and gets all excited and returns back home.
Later on, Sam(who was spying on her and Joe earlier) approaches her again, this time actually grabbing her. She tries to pull away but Sam won’t let go of her. Finally Joe arrives and fights Sam away from her, rescuing her. This moment establishes Sam as less likable than his friend Joe and he runs off back to his cabin. The title-card reads: “A CHALLENGE: To the death with pistols”
One of the more interesting turns in the film for me was the scene where Joe(James Kirkwood) is in his cabin and is fired up right after the first confrontation with his friend over the girl. There is a portrait of his friend in his cabin and he grabs it and pauses to look at it then he puts it down gets flustered again. He puts a piece of paper on the back wall and he practices shooting. He realizes he’s not very accurate and sits down to look at the portrait of his friend again. He then uses the paper to write a letter to Sam. Unfortunately because of the poor quality, I couldn’t make out what he wrote out exactly. However it’s assumed that he is “renouncing” the girl and wanting to repair his relationship with Sam instead. I came to the conclusion that perhaps Joe and Sam have a deeper connection than what was previously known and with Griffith weighing the story heavily on just these two male characters, the story is really about their “bromance”.
The other man, Sam still is eager to battle with Joe after a couple of drinks in his own cabin. Griffith parallels the two men by showing them practice their shooting skills with both concluding they aren’t very good at it. Sam however doesn’t own a portrait of his friend. Instead he takes out his knife and decides he’s good with it. In a segment that confused me the most, Kittie is actually in front of Sam’s cabin about to go in. I have no idea why she would want to talk to Sam after he tried attacking her earlier in the story. Anyway, for the convenience of the story, she happens to peek through the window and see Sam practice swiping his knife around. She then runs and hides as she sees Sam running out his door towards Joe’s cabin. She decides to run after him at first but she gestures that she has an idea and she runs off somewhere. Meanwhile, Sam barges in and realizes Joe is asleep. He looks on the table and sees the note that Joe wrote to him and after reading, he almost seems to calm down for a second. The calmness abruptly goes away when he decides to go after him anyways. Joe wakes up and Sam starts to attack him. In the middle of the fighting, Kittie comes back and goes inbetween the two men to end the fight. She summons what I interpreted as her fiancé(Billy Quirk) to come in. The two men glance at Kittie with her Fiancé and they decide to end the fighting and remain friends.
I’ve come to a few conclusions over this film. Did Mary Pickford become a huge star after this one film? Griffith’s focus was on the friendship between these men and Mary PIckford played more the conflict in the story. A character that got in the way of these two men. Did people have any interest over Mary Pickford after this film came out? Maybe, maybe not. I do like that she plays some fun role in the situation between the two male friends who fight over her. She offers the viewer a nice good looking young female to look at and wonder about. Her Charm is there in some bits like when she slaps the guys hands and then smiles at them. In the end, I found the early Pickford film interesting to analyze and amusing to watch. Tune to the next blog where I’ll try and breakdown another Pickford/Griffith short.
In 2012, people are lucky to have many opportunities to catch various forms of cinema art at many beautiful venues. Over the course of a few years I’ve managed to catch screenings in Los Angeles and discover many great filmmakers, performers, art directors, musicians, editors and writers. However, I noticed something very troubling amid the screenings. There has been a glaring lack of a certain film pioneer: Mary Pickford.
As a frequent film goer and film student, I fell in love with silent cinema and haven’t looked back. Some of my favorite silent films are La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc(1928), Metropolis(1927), Battleship Pokemkin(1925), City Lights(1931),The Patsy(1928),The Poor Little Rich Girl(1917), Sparrows(1926)and Stella Maris(1918). I’ve seen most of those films in all their glorious beauty in beautiful 35mm prints on the big screen except Sparrows, Stella Maris and The Poor Little Rich Girl, all Pickford films. Could this be my fault? Am I simply overlooking months of screenings and missing them? Well,I can’t possibly spot every screening around the world so maybe one Pickford might have slipped in but here’s the main point:
Pickford films don’t screen as frequently as they should and that needs to change, otherwise how are future generations supposed to care about her legacy, saving her old studio or keeping her institute running? In the past, some of her films have been screened for the public on 35mm every once in a great while but… here’s my concern.
The Pickford films need more exposure beacause future generations aren’t viewing her films on a big screen and while a good handful of her films are restored beautifully on DVD thanks to Milestone Films and the Mary Pickford Institute, many of her films aren’t restored, aren’t on DVD, and some probably haven’t been screened in over 90 years. The general public might know her as a powerful woman from a US history course or an encyclopedia article but they will not get who she is or what she represented or why they should care. It’s like reading about a famous painter without seeing their paintings. When I see the old Pickford/Fairbanks studio starting to get demolished from the very town she helped create, that’s a red alarm that we are failing and need to make changes now on preserving her legacy. We can start by making Mary Pickford more accessible.
I think if the public were more exposed to her films, they would learn about who Mary Pickford was and why it’s important to support The Mary Pickford Institute where they educate future generations about her legacy and expose them in turn to film history.
I am so happy to have seen all of the Pickford DVDs, to have read most of her biographies and own the Kevin Brownlow book on her. Those resources are giving her some exposure and that’s better than nothing right?
Here are some of her rare films that I would like to see screened in the future someday. I am not only saddened but totally frustrated that I can’t see her in such films as Little Peppina(1916) because the film still alone is amazing and makes me very curious.
I’m also very curious to see her in Rags(1915) which looks like a quintessential Pickford film judging from this still.
But perhaps the most frustrating for me, is not having access to her film collaboration with director Ernst Lubitsch(his first American film) in Rosita(1923) that continues to remain somewhere in a dark vault without the funding for it to get restored and make it accessible for the public.
I don’t have all the answers as to how we can get Mary Pickford more exposed to the public or how to get more funding to give her films the exposure and restoration they deserve, but I can tell you this: The blogathon that KC from AClassicMovieBlog.com is a step in the right direction for more exposure to Mary Pickford, who she was, why we care, and how crucial it is for future generations to discover her work hopefully in 35mm and continue her legacy as an important film pioneer.
Please help save the Mary Pickford Institute by signing their petition here:
If you want to learn more about Mary Pickford, here are some good sites to start out with:
www.marypickford.com(The Mary Pickford Institute Site)
http://www.aclassicmovieblog.com(Mary Pickford Blogathon)
http://pickfordfilmlegacy.tripod.com/libraryofcongresspd.htm(Library of Congress Report on her films)
We often ponder why an aspect of the world sparkles our interest. Around one year ago, a puzzling innovator and artist became my favorite subject to study. What makes a woman born Gladys Louise Smith a personal interest is a clue into my own mind. I choose to create a very public discourse specifically into the films of the female founder of United Artists and explore the pathos of her films. My aim is to create a better understanding into the mind of the artist who intended to burn their own work and fade away forever.