Playing girls in Hollywood

Q&A with film scholar Gaylyn Studlar

Gaylyn Studlar, director of Film and Media Studies in Arts & Sciences, in the program’s new offices in Seigle Hall.

In Precocious Charm: Stars Performing Girlhood in Classical Hollywood Cinema, Gaylyn Studlar, director of Film and Media Studies in Arts & Sciences, explores the masquerade of youthfulness in the films of Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Elizabeth Taylor, Jennifer Jones and Audrey Hepburn.

Between 1914 and 1967, these six stars helped to define girls and girlhood in the American imagination.

We sat down to discuss audience expectations, the studio system and the difficulty of aging in public.

You open with Mary Pickford, a founder of United Artists and one of the great stars of silent film, famous for playing girls and young women. Was Pickford’s career a case of Hollywood refusing to let a child star grow up?

Well, no, actually. As a teenager, when she first started working for [director D.W.] Griffith, Pickford was cast in a range of roles. You see her playing the ingénue, the matron — or at least, the adult married woman. What’s interesting is that, when she gets older, she plays an orphaned child in part of The Foundling (1916) and the public responds. Her roles start getting younger.

Did she resist that constraint or embrace it?

She tried other roles — a Spanish street singer in Rosita (1923), an Elizabethan-era aristocrat in Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). And these movies made money, but not what they did when she played a teenager or a kid. So she retreated to type.

To what degree did Pickford control her own public image?

I think very much so. She was an incredibly savvy businessperson, which may be why she clung to that image of the little girl.

For example, when she married Douglas Fairbanks, it was very messy. They’d both been committing adultery, until the first Mrs. Fairbanks blew the whistle. This was during World War I — and Mary and Doug initially claimed the accusation was German propaganda! [Laughs].

But soon, the publicity around her is saying things like, “Oh, Mary had such a sad childhood.” “She had to support her family.” “She deserves this happiness.”

Mary Pickford in a studio portrait for The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917).

What was the constitution of Pickford’s audience?

Across the board. There was a belief — particularly in the 1920s — that women controlled family movie-going. We have exhibitor reports complaining about, say, Lon Chaney, “This guy can’t bring in women. He’s too gruesome.” Or “Great with men and boys, but the women don’t like it.”

Interesting how conventional wisdom has flipped. Today, Hollywood is all about boys and young men.

There’s this whole discussion about whether female stars can guarantee box office anymore. Everyone is so amazed by the success of movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat.

But it waxes and wanes. In the 1930s and ’40s, movie exhibitors would poll fans about their favorite stars. Women tended to like women and men generally liked men — except in 1934, when men’s favorite was Shirley Temple.

Let’s talk about Temple. She’s the iconic child star but, like many others, had difficulty transitioning to more grown-up roles.

Shirley Temple ran into that brick wall when she was 12. Twentieth Century-Fox basically said, “You’re too tall. You’re too fat. We’re letting you go.”

The singer and actress Deanna Durbin. Her popularity, in films such as Three Smart Girls (1936), helped save Universal Studios from bankruptcy.