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Small and silent -- but a screen giant

Mary Pickford was cinema’s first female superstar. The diminutive Canadian-born actress, nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart,” made more than 250 films during her career and elevated silent-film acting to mature, realistic heights.

She also was a producer who ran her own studio, she co-founded United Artists, and she was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Although many of her films have been shown at festivals and released on video and DVD, others have fallen into disrepair or have disappeared.

The academy’s “Lost and Found” series is presenting two recently restored Pickford films: 1926’s “Sparrows” and 1914’s “Behind the Scenes.”

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The Dickensian drama “Sparrows” was one of her most popular. Because its rights had fallen into the public domain, prints shown on TV and released on video were duplicates of duplicates -- “Sparrows” was a shadow of its former self.

Until now. The Library of Congress recently restored the film, which will have its West Coast premiere Wednesday at the academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.

“Sparrows,” directed by William Beaudine, finds Pickford playing Molly, the eldest of a clutch of orphans forced to work like slaves on a farm in the swamps. After their evil overseer helps kidnap a child, Molly must lead her charges through alligator-infested wilderness. (Oddly enough, Pickford was 33 at the time.)

“It’s definitely an adult approach to a story about kids,” says programmer Randy Haberkamp. The screening will also feature outtakes and the film’s restored trailer. Michael Mortilla will supply the musical accompaniment.

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On June 28, the academy will screen the restored print of a true Pickford rarity, “Behind the Scenes,” in which she plays a successful stage actor who leaves the footlights behind to marry a farmer. A former curator at the George Eastman House bought the only known nitrate print in the 1970s for $850 from a private collector.

That program will also feature two rarely screened Pickford shorts from 1911 and the only surviving reel from her 1914 film “A Good Little Devil,” about a blind girl who creates a make-believe world of fairies. Mortilla will provide accompaniment.

“She is a great actress,” Haberkamp says of Pickford. “She is certainly one of the people who invented film acting. I think her films hold up in terms of acting style, much more so than most ‘silent actors.’ I think her films are emotionally effective.”

After making a few talkies -- she won the best actress Oscar for 1929’s “Coquette” -- Pickford retired from films. She died in 1979.

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The Linwood Dunn Theater is at 1313 N. Vine St.. Admission is $3 to $5. Info: (310) 247-3600 or www.oscars.org.

-- Susan King


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