My 93 year-old neighbor, Charlie, tells me he fondly remembers seeing Mary Pickford in 1925 when she visited his hometown of Anaheim, California. A huge crowd lined up to see her motorcade, and Charlie recalls the excitement of seeing Pickford wave to him. Luckily, her arrival in Anaheim did not cause riots as it did in London and Paris in 1920.
I got a similar thrill watching “My Best Girl,” at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event this month. The 1927 film stars Pickford as Maggie Johnson, a stock clerk at the Merrill’s Department Store. One day, the store hires Joe Grant (played by Charles “Buddy” Rogers) for the stock room, but Joe is really the owner’s son sent undercover to prove he can understand the business. A later film with a similar plot, “The Devil and Miss Jones,” from 1941, stars Charles Coburn as the owner of a department store who poses as a clerk to keep tabs on his workers. But My Best Girl stays a wonderful and mostly light romantic comedy with enormous chemistry between Pickford and Rogers.
Pickford married Rogers in 1937, but as Jeffrey Vance (who wrote a biography of Douglas Fairbanks) mentioned at the Castro Theater screening, the relationship with Rogers obviously started with My Best Girl. Everything Pickford does is so intriguing and watchable that I wondered if she directed her scenes herself. The director’s credit went to Sam Taylor, who directed the comedy classic “Safety Last,” with Harold Lloyd, in 1923. Pickford, known as the “Queen of the Movies,” could do everything well. My favorite scene shows Maggie (Pickford) throwing packages off a moving truck while Joe (Rogers) frantically runs through traffic to retrieve them.
Maggie’s chaotic home life, which includes bickering parents and a sister who may be dating a gangster, contrasts with the Merrill’s high-brow and stuffy mansion. Pickford performs wonderfully when Joe convinces her that the Merrills don’t mind if they show up unannounced for dinner. When they arrive at the Merrill’s mansion, a few winks from Joe lets the butler in on the ruse and the couple begins their dinner. When Joe’s parents and fiance come home unexpectedly, Maggie’s reaction sets the scene for the romantic conclusion. Even though Joe lies to Maggie about his real identity, he displays honest feelings towards her that keep him a sympathetic character throughout the film.