Fanchon the Cricket (1915) Blu-ray Review: Lost Pickford Film Charms

Mary Pickford's waif character is charming in a rural comedy about a wild child and the townsman she loves.
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In modern films, it seems that everybody who wandered anywhere in the vicinity of the set gets an on-screen credit. Credits stretch on and on - some unfortunate movies like Darkness Falls (2003) even pad their credits out to get the films to a releasable length. Mary Pickford, in contrast, was one of the very first screen stars to get an on-screen credit in her films. In the first 20 years or so of cinema, the cultural status of films was uncertain: were they entertainment or art? Throwaway fad or works that would stand some test of time? Mary Pickford early on realized that there was the potential for a lengthy career in motion pictures, but only if she worked as hard on the business side of film-making as she did in the actual productions, and do what she could to get the public to stay in love with the movies. She was one of the founding members of the Motion Picture Academy.

Even well after her on-screen career was over, Mary Pickford worked on increasing and maintaining the prestige of motion pictures, and securing her own legacy, by preserving as many of her own films as she could get her hands on. In her lifetime, Fanchon the Cricket was not one of these films. When she died, she believed the film, the only one in which she shared the screen with her brother and sister, was lost, as were maybe a quarter of the films she'd made. It wasn't until 2012, more than 30 years after Mary's death, that Fanchon the Cricket was found, and has now been restored and released on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a novel by French 19th century novelist George Sand, is about an uncultured girl who lives in the woods with her crotchety grandmother, whom the nearby town despises as a witch. The girl, Fanchon of the title, lives freely, wandering the woods. Through a series of episodic adventures and misadventures, she falls in love with a local young man, Landry, and tries to win his heart despite being completely out of step with the rest of the village. Fanchon interrupts an engagement party by pretending to be a ghost in the woods, which frightens the guests into running off. Landry catches her, but lets her go before his fiancée can see. Later, Fanchon witnesses one of the local boys being cruel to Landry's brother, who's described in the titles as "half-witted". So, Fanchon beats the other boy up. Eventually, she saves Landry from drowning, and he wants to escape his engagement with his fiancée and go to Fanchon, but neither she nor his domineering father, who chased Fanchon's family out of town to begin with, will allow it.

The tone of the film is best described as a light melodrama - while near the end there are people sick on their deathbeds and desperate confessions and the like, most of the action of the film is in more light-hearted rural comedy: when Fanchon finally gets a dress to go to a picnic with, the first "person" she shows it off to is a cow, sitting in a stream. The cow is not impressed.

A silent film, Fanchon the Cricket is presented in tinted black and white. Most scenes in the film are outside in the woods, and are slightly sepia toned while inside scenes are usually a dusky blue. Shot in the academy ratio of 1.33:1, the film is beautifully photographed by cinematographer Edward Wynard, apparently on location in New Jersey.

Directed and written by James Kirkwood, ostensibly Mary Pickford's lover at the time, Fanchon features Mary Pickford's "waif" characterization, a style of character she played in many films. Essentially an eternal child, the waif was an independent and determined girl who may be happy to fit in with the people around her, but isn't going to change herself to do so. Watching Fanchon, it's easy to see why she was one of the earliest real stars to make a name for herself. With her pale skin and dark features, her expressions can be read from practically any distance. She's always projecting to the camera, but never mugging or over-extorting herself like many silent-film actors would. She seemed to be able to intuit just how much expression she should allow herself, how much she should hold back, and exactly what it would look like on camera. While the rest of the cast is fine (though I thought the lead a little simpering - played by Jack Standing, a big tall man, he seems to readily bowled over by the smaller women in his life), it's easy to see why Mary Pickford was a standout.

Fanchon the Cricket has been released by Flicker Alley on a Blu-ray/DVD. The only extra is a booklet with some brief words on Pickford and the team behind the film. The soundtrack on the film deserves special notice: rather than go with the typical guy at a piano (or organ) noodling away under the silent film, a new folk and even rock-tinged score by Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach was commissioned. Largely guitar based, it's a far cry from the typical silent-film score, and it's even mixed in surround sound. I found it, and the whole production, a welcome surprise.

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