One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw a promising young actor:
Great Expectations never was one of Dickens’s favorites with his public. It is too somber, too uncanny, too much lacking in the saving humors, the droll character portrayals which make most of his books so brilliant and attractive. Jack Pickford has achieved a real victory in characterization in his playing of Pip—a characterization appealing, sincere, but from the very nature of the role so unobtrusive that its excellence may be easily overlooked, and probably will be by lovers of the obvious type of chest-heaving, swashbuckling hero. His great moment is when, full of vain revulsion against fate, bitterness, humiliation, outraged pride, he discovers the old convict to have been his benefactor. Pickford rises to the occasion in a bit of flawless acting.*
Pickford had been appearing in small parts since 1909; Pip was his second major role and it was his big break. He specialized in all-American boy next-door roles and his next film, Tom Sawyer, was such a hit that they made a sequel, Tom and Huck. Unfortunately like Pip, things didn’t turn out very well for him. His career was hampered by scandals and he died of multiple neuritis caused by alcoholism in 1933. Last century film histories portrayed him as a wastrel who never lived up to his potential but this century there have been spirited defenses of him. Steve Vaught wrote a series of three blog posts titled “You Don’t Know Jack,” and Shane Brown wrote another for the Bright Lights Film Journal.
Now it’s odd to think of Great Expectation as less-popular Dickens: it was Number 1 on Publisher’s Weekly’s Top 10 Dickens. Tastes have changed, even in Victorian novels.
This version of Great Expectations is a lost film, according to the Film Survival Database.
This week, Kingsley noticed increasing consolidation and vertical integration in the film industry:
Closer and closer is the relationship developing between the picture exhibitor, the picture exchanges and the producing companies. This has always been the case with Universal; the Triangle producing organization is composed of a class of men who brought about a union of effort; the Paramount has lately been purchased by the Lasky-Famous Players-Morosco organization, and is now extending its activities to control the output of certain outside stars, the latest of whom is Roscoe Arbuckle.
Here’s the beginnings of classical Hollywood cinema and the studio system in 1917, just like the film history textbooks say. Newspapers really do write the first draft of history! Vertical integration didn’t end until 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled that production had to be separate from distribution and exhibition.
Kingsley gave her readers the “real beginnings” of Charlie Chaplin’s genius. Back on the Keystone lot when he was a “humble knock-about comedian” it wasn’t recognized. Furthermore:
As a matter of fact, he was scolded by the stars whenever they wanted anybody to vent their temperament on, and looked upon without faith by the directors. One who knew him well in those days declares that all the directors, one after another, tried to bend Charlie to their ways. Because he wouldn’t respond, they all gave him up as a bad job one day, and said in sheer desperation: “Aw, let’s leave the idiot to his own devices!” They did. And out of the ashes of dead hopes (Charlie shared them, it is said!) rose the Phoenix of Fun—the unique figure in world dramatic history – the greatest laugh-getter in the world, Charlie Chaplin.
Without realizing it, Kingsley pointed out a weakness in the coming studio system: nobody would be able to afford to just leave some idiot to his own devices any more.
*She didn’t worry about spoilers for a 56-year-old novel.