Toronto Silent Film Festival 2013: ‘My Best Girl’ is a charming proto-screwball romance
TSFF made its merry way up to Casa Loma on Monday night for a special screening of Mary Pickford’s final silent film on the occasion of the star’s 121st birthday (the organizers even served birthday cake during the intermission). Despite an interminable, bone chilling rain (which looked rather cozy sliding down the other side of the hundred-year old Gothic Revival castle’s windows), there was a packed house on hand to experience an authentic presentation of the film as it would have been shown at a cinema palace of the era, complete with accompaniment by the irrepressible Clark Wilson on the Toronto Theatre Organ Society‘s justly celebrated Wurlitzer organ. This magnificent instrument, which once enlivened screenings at Shea’s Hippodrome on Bay Street, was designed to put the power of an entire orchestra (plus a whole dramatic arsenal of pipe-generated sound effects, from sirens to telephone bells) in the hands of a gifted player – and Wilson is undeniably one of the best. An accomplished film historian as well as an award-winning musician, Wilson managed to unearth the original cue sheet for My Best Girl, and he genially invited audience members to keep an ear out for pop and jazz classics like “Tea For Two” and “Red Hot Mama” during the course of his period-perfect performance.
The film itself, one of the most fondly remembered of Mary Pickford’s career, reminds the viewer that “screwball comedy” – now so tightly associated with the mile-a-minute banter of the 1930s – did in fact have antecedents in the pre-“talkie” era. Unlike the purely slapstick comedies that one tends to associate with the silent era (such as the shorts screened at Sunday’s “1000 Laffs” event), My Best Girl takes its romantic plot seriously, and incorporates many of the gender and class concerns that fueled the best efforts of screwball auteurs like Frank Capra, Leo McCarey, Gregory LaCava, Howard Hawks and George Stevens. Here, for those who care to look, are the mismatched lovers (Mary plays a poor five-and-ten stock girl, while her co-star Buddy Rogers is only masquerading as a lowly employee — actually, his family owns the entire retail chain), the oddball supporting characters (particularly Mary’s mother, who seems to spend every free moment attending strangers’ funerals), the disruptive courtroom brawls and the plea for youth to have its fling which would eventually come to define the screwball genre. Without live voice recording, there are no Hawksian talkfests, but we still get some pretty impressive character-based comedy set-pieces, most notably a scene in which Rogers convinces Pickford that the store’s owner is happy to allow rank-and-file employees to dine at his mansion whenever the family is out. The ensuing supper service is a riot, as Pickford infuriates the posh wait-staff by trying to do their jobs for them and deviating in every particular from the protocols of the rich at gastronomic play. Moreover, director Sam Taylor finds numerous non-dialogic ways of indicating how sympathetically in sync his young lovers are, culminating in a standout sequence in which Pickford and Rogers cross a murderously busy street, somehow avoiding all oncoming traffic without ever unlocking lips or eyes.
Of course, this is still a 1927 film starring “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford, and there are some ways in which its approach differs from the more resolutely feminist true screwballers of the following decade. As she nearly always did, Mary plays a very traditionally giving and self-sacrificing girl in this film (a far cry from the more self-possessed heroines portrayed by people like Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur), and the film takes very special care to differentiate her from her “bad girl” sister Liz (played by Carmelita Geraghty). Nevertheless, it does move toward a resolution in which Mary’s father (played by comic milquetoast Lucien Littlefield) pretty much orders his dutiful daughter to think of her own happiness for a change – and in that the film definitely points the way to the cinematic future.
The Toronto Silent Film Festival will conclude with a 7pm Buster Keaton double feature (The General and the NFB’s short The Railrodder) on Tuesday night at the Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles. You can find the entire TSFF schedule here.