Mary Pickford was huge back in the silent era of filmmaking. She was one of the first true film stars and would go on to have an amazing career, in which she’d create a company together with Chaplin, Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, though unfortunately her career would come to a halt when silent films disappeared from the movie scene and sound became more popular. She was most well-known for playing the role of a little girl. She’d do that for the majority of her time as an actor, because every time she departed from playing a young girl, the film would flop and audiences would get mad, so far into her thirties, Pickford played an eleven year old and she’d do so wonderfully, nailing the characteristics of a small child wonderfully. The Poor Little Rich Girl is one of the many films where she portrayed her characteristic role. This time, she’s rich, sad and lonely because of how her parents neglect her and how cruelly her maid takes care of her. The film was directed by Maurice Tourneur, and I’d really like to talk about a shot of film because if there’s one thing I took away from watching The Poor Little Rich Girl, it’s that the film’s visually quite creative. Like this shot for example, where the text flies out of the keyhole, visualizing how Pickford’s yelling the words through it:
But that’s not the shot I wanted to discuss. This one is, however:
In the shot that I’ve chosen we obviously do not see Mary Pickford herself – well we do, though just her silhouette – but we see her father, sitting down in a chair, looking at himself while he’s holding a gun to his temple. While Pickford was known for her playful roles in comedies, it’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint a certain genre to this film, as it’s a mess in that regard because of the widely different visions the director and Pickford had. Pickford wanted slapstick, while Tourneur wanted a heavy drama. Now we have a mixture of both, and this shot is part of a scene that’s leaning quite severely to the heavy drama side of things. The film’s mostly about how Pickford’s character tries to go through her daily life and dealing with the struggles it brings, while she’s being tormented by her maid, but it’s set against quite a dark backdrop. Her father may be very rich, but that’s soon going to change because right before this shot takes place, he’s learned that he’s about to get some big financial problems. This makes the world go dark for him and he starts contemplating suicide, which is visualized in this shot.
He’s sitting down with a gun in his hand, thinking whether or not he should end it all. This contemplation is shown to us by having him look at himself, performing the act. The version of himself that he’s looking at, is slightly transparent as you can see. This effect is achieved by super-imposition. A technique that was invented around a decade prior to when this film was released, where two different layers of film are placed on top of each other, to make it look like the two things are taking place in the same shot. Super-imposition can be used for numerous reasons, as a type of thought balloon to show what’s going on in someone’s head, or as a background for something shot on a set. In this case, it’s to show how the father’s imagining himself committing suicide, and I thought that it this was a creative and effective way to visualize such a dramatic and powerful moment.
The shot also mirror’s itself, which I quite like because it really makes it feel as if he’s looking through a mirror. The chair to the right is the reflection of the chair to the left with respect to a vertical axis we can imagine that goes straight through the table corner. He’s confronted with the reality and has to try and cope with it.
Also, by having Pickford enter the scene from behind and walk through the entire room before she reaches her father, a lot of depth is added to the shot, because we’re now given a sense of dimension. It makes it feel like the set’s quite big rather than the flat walls sets used to be not so long ago from the film’s release. It also gives the shot more visual interest, on top of all the other thing it already accomplishes.
Another thing you might’ve noticed that the shot has a green tint to it, though I’m not exactly sure of its meaning. The green color could refer to his greed and sudden loss of money, or it may symbolize the hope that his daughter brings, as he eventually doesn’t commit suicide. It also may represent the time of day; it’s already late and the only two things lighting the room are the fireplace and the lamp right next to him. The director might’ve thought that the green was a great way to visualize the dim lighting while staying away from orange, which could’ve given it a more warm feeling rather than the harsh sadness the shot radiates at the moment. It mostly depends on what interpretation you prefer, as for me, I’m not quite sure.
Outside of the two shots already mentioned in this post, there are still plenty of interesting ones in the film. The last act of The Poor Little Rich Girl mostly takes place in a dream, giving the director the ability to create some cool, vibrant and unique visuals. It’s up on YouTube and it’s certainly worth a watch, just know that it’s a bit all over the place tonally speaking. The original usage of super-imposition, the clever shot composition that mirrors itself, the great way of indicating depth and the ambiguous usage of color really make this shot quite powerful and stand out. It’s one of many, but certainly a cool one.
If you’re interested in writing a Here’s a Cool Shot about a shot you like yourself, please let me know via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Just don’t be intimidated thinking that it has to be as long as this one, just a few words will do 🙂
Also, do you enjoy reading about older films? They do not particularly perform well on my blog, but I’m curious if there are some people that like them, otherwise I’ll try to avoid talking about them.