I saw The Artist for the second time last weekend. It’s wonderful how this film, as well as Hugo, reminds us of the vitality of our film heritage. Michel Hazanavicius’ audacious black and white silent film about a movie legend facing the coming of synchronized sound gets its inspiration from a number of stock and real-life stories, and recycles them brilliantly, while adding some new touches. Academy Award-nominated actor Jean Dujardin obviously uses Douglas Fairbanks as a significant part of his inspiration for his character of George Valentin. But thus far, no one I’ve talked with has mentioned the profound Mary Pickford reference in the film.
Early in the story Bérénice Bejo, as Peppy Miller, enters Valentin’s empty dressing room, to thank him for preventing her from being dismissed from her job as a dancing extra. She spies George’s tux and hat on a rack, and in a touching moment of emotional vulnerability, folds herself into his non-existent arms and looks lovingly up to where his face should be. If you haven’t seen the film yet, the moment can be briefly glimpsed 40 seconds into the trailer, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK7pfLlsUQM
Intentionally or not, this recalls the moment in Stella Maris (1918), where Mary Pickford, as the lonely, abused orphan Unity Blake, wraps herself in a similar arrangement of jacket and hat belonging to her employer, John Risca (played in the film by Conway Tearle). Hazanavicius goes Stella Maris director Marshall Neilan one better, by having Peppy slip her arm into the sleeve of the jacket to complete the embrace. But through no fault of Bejo’s work, Mary Pickford’s moment is even more affecting, because we know that unlike Peppy Miller, little Unity’s dream of romance is doomed from the start, and we fear she will never get her happy ending.
In both films, the woman’s private reverie is interrupted by the arrival of the man she has imagined. In The Artist, George discovers Peppy still half in his jacket, but in Stella Maris it is Unity who sees John Risca arrive home, broken and disconsolate, and it is she who ends up comforting him, in a complete and dearly ironic reversal of roles. If you haven’t seen the Milestone DVD release of Stella Maris, you might want to take a look at the video clip above.