One of the acknowledged giants of the silent cinema, Mary Pickford was the first real movie star, starting with D.W. Griffith in Biograph shorts and ending with Secrets, Frank Borzage’s remake of an earlier success he’d had with Norma Talmadge. The Talmadge version is too stagy and drawn-out, and this second version is much more cinematic. Pickford, a hard worker and tenacious businesswoman, often prostituted her talent in cutesy little girl parts but she expressed herself complexly in a handful of films that detail the wonderment of identity (Stella Maris) and the Dickensian fighting spirit of the beaten-down masses (Sparrows).
Pickford didn’t last very long in the talkies for two reasons: the Shirley Temple roles she had made her name with were untenable as she passed the age of 40. More importantly, her style of acting didn’t work in sound films: in the first scenes of Secrets, Pickford does an emotion, freezes it as if she’s waiting for a title card to be inserted, then goes into the next emotion. (Gloria Swanson had the same problem.) She can’t piece behavior together or make it flow, and Borzage wanders away from her into some unusually stylized close-ups of objects and body parts, fragmenting certain compositions to enliven the old-fashioned, Edna Ferber-esque material.
In the section where she’s roughing it as a pioneer woman, however, Pickford catches fire. She’s perfectly touching when she realizes her baby is dead, crying silently and staying very still as she gently rocks the child’s corpse in her arms (it’s no mistake that her best scene is a silent one). In the last section, Pickford stands by her husband (Leslie Howard) after she learns of his affair with a dark-eyed temptress; this was meant to show Pickford’s loyalty to her husband Douglas Fairbanks, whose eye had begun to wander to other women (they would later divorce). All in all, it makes a rather lovely and satisfyingly romantic swan song for its star, who thereafter holed herself up in her mansion, Pickfair, to indulge in chronic alcoholism and regret.