Saturday, September 12, 2009


My Best Girl


A Film Review by Dan Navarro

Copyright 2009 Dan Navarro

If you’ve heard of the Mary Pickford legend and wondered what all the fuss was about, look no further than My Best Girl (1927), Miss Pickford’s last silent film and, arguably, her best film ever.

Mary Pickford appeared in almost 250 movies and produced 30, besides several uncredited stints as writer and director. By 1920, the year she helped establish United Artists, she was the most popular female movie star in the world. In 1927, she became one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In a word, she was Hollywood.

It’s ironic that this Very Big Star – probably the biggest of them all – was physically tiny, standing just a shade over five feet tall.

In the wonderfully warm romantic comedy My Best Girl, Miss Pickford is Maggie Johnson, a stock room girl employed at Merrill’s Department Store. There’s a clever early scene where Maggie is asked to bring some kitchen pots from the stock room, and finds she can’t carry all of them; so she wears one of them as a shoe and brings it out that way.

Maggie falls for Joe Grant (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a new co-worker with a charming smile. His smile may be a winner, but as a stock room worker Joe seems a bit slow to learn. At one point, Maggie teasingly tells him: “You know, you’re awfully dumb!”

What Maggie doesn’t know is that Joe Grant is really Joe Merrill, the son of the store’s owner, working incognito to learn the business from the ground up. Young Joe is “engaged to be engaged” to an upper-crust girl named Millicent (Avonne Taylor), but she doesn’t seem to light Joe’s fire the way Maggie does. The two co-workers eat lunch together, sometimes sitting in a large crate in the stock room, and we can feel their love for each other growing.

There’s a charming scene where Maggie is riding in the open bed of a truck and Joe chases after her, running pell-mell down the street, trying to keep up with the moving truck. Director Sam Taylor and cinematographer Charles Rosher keep things lively with a long tracking shot that follows Joe on his run, with Maggie and the truck bed framed in the foreground. When Joe finally catches the truck, he climbs aboard and, thoroughly smitten, builds a “throne” for Maggie out of the crates and barrels on board. He even fashions an ersatz tiara for her to wear. It’s as if Rogers and Miss Pickford invented meet-cute.

Eventually, after a comic subterfuge that lands Joe and Maggie at the Merrill mansion, the truth comes out when Mr. and Mrs. Merrill return home unexpectedly. The terrified Maggie jumps into hiding under the dining room table, but to her surprise, Joe remains standing to greet the Merrills. Hearing their conversation, Maggie finally gets the picture: She’s been romancing the store owner’s son!

Maggie’s own family is what nowadays we would call dysfunctional. Her dad (Lucien Littlefield) is a mailman and a reliable breadwinner, but his wife (Sunshine Hart) and younger daughter Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) are a pair of world-class flakes, and Pa can’t deal with them. So, Maggie’s the one who puts dinner on the table night after night, even after working a full day at the store.

One night, flapper Liz and her loser boyfriend get in a jam with the law and wind up in night court, possibly facing jail terms. When Maggie hears of it, she rushes to the court and, putting on her best Clarence Darrow impersonation, pleads a sob story that utterly melts the judge’s (Mack Swain) heart and leads to the dropping of all charges. Because this is a silent film, we can’t hear Maggie’s words, but we don’t have to. Her facial expressions, especially the puckishly pursed lips and sad eyes, convey her sincerity and tell us all we need to know.

My Best Girl is lovely, witty… and busy. Taylor sees to it that the screen is never idle; in nearly every scene there is some bit of business going on in the background. And there’s a whirlwind climax, when Joe proposes to Maggie in front of her family and the two lovers have to scurry to the docks in time to catch the ship that will take them to their honeymoon – all in just ten minutes! With this sequence, Taylor emulates the best of Mack Sennett, Hal Roach, and Leo McCarey, as the screen is packed with comic action during a frenzied final reel.

And, in case you’ve come late to the party and didn’t know this, the romance between Mary Pickford and Charles “Buddy” Rogers was repeated in real life, though not right away. Ten years after they made My Best Girl, Mary and Buddy tied the knot and remained a loving married couple for life.

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