Watching Mary Pickford’s films for the first time I was startled at how sexy she was. Even if she’s not your type, even if the curls make you cringe, it’s hard not to be vexed by her energy, her obvious intelligence, the expressive use she makes of her whole body. I have this same feeling about Lillian Gish. No matter how delicate and virginal a character she plays, she always moves sublimely, communicating subtleties but also controlled power by the very inclination of her body — something a great ballerina can do as well. This sort of thing gives a fellow ideas.
In a sense, the whole medium of silent film is permeated by this kind of frank though innocent sexuality. For adults, communicating emotion and character through the expressive power of the whole body is just inevitably bound up with the idea of sex, which is one reason why dancing has always been suspect in the Puritan mind . . . and great silent film acting is closely related to dance. Keaton is, ostensibly, a clown, and the characters he plays are rarely informed by any conscious awareness of their own attractiveness — but the raw animal lust he seems to inspire in some female silent film fans is impressive.
This may be one of the reasons I’m disconcerted by Pickford’s portrayals of children — Pickford’s sexual persona, which she really can’t lose, seems out of place in a pre-sexual being.
It occurs to me also that this may explain the vague “creepiness” some people feel about Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He just moves so beautifully, so exquisitely, that perhaps he arouses unconscious thoughts which people, women especially, don’t want to associate with that particular physique.
A more extreme version of this reaction, in a more buttoned-up age, might also explain, on a subconscious level, some of the antagonism towards Arbuckle, the immediate presumption of guilt, when he got caught in a sex scandal. It would be impossible to imagine such a scenario in the case of John Candy or Chris Farley, because they simply weren’t capable of the kind of carnal grace Arbuckle had at his command.
Most modern actors have lost this means of suggesting a complex sexuality by sheer physical carriage, which is why they’re forced to expose themselves, or say naughty things, to grab a viewer’s attention in that regard. Pickford’s little jig in Tess Of the Storm Country got the job done for me.