Mary Pickford (1893-1979) was the first star of American cinema. Immensely popular in the silent era of motion pictures, Pickford was also a savvy businesswoman and the first female movie mogul. She and three other film legends (including one-time husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.) formed United Artists to produce and distribute their work. In 1953, she sold her share of the company for $3 million, the equivalent of nearly $30 million in 2019. After divorcing her husband, Pickford fell onto hard times, succumbing to alcoholism and a life of seclusion. Still, she lived a long life with an intact legacy that will never be forgotten by the film industry.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1893 in Toronto, Canada. Her father, John Charles Smith, was an alcoholic laborer who abandoned his family. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1898 after an accident at work. Her mother, Charlotte (née Hennessey) Smith, took in boarders and sewing to support her family, which included Pickford's younger brother Jack and younger sister Lottie.
One of Charlotte Smith's lodgers was the manager of a theater company in Toronto. Though her mother was initially leery of being involved with the theater, Pickford began acting at the age of six to support her family. She worked primarily in stock company melodramas in Toronto and tours across Canada. Pickford only attended school for three to six months, with Charlotte Smith educating her children at home. Pickford once quipped that roadside billboards taught her how to read. She had no real childhood.
In 1907, at the age of 14, Pickford traveled to New York City by herself to seek work, when the Canadian stock company production tours grew too demanding. She decided that if she could not be a Broadway actress, she would become a dress designer and quit show business.
She managed an audition with a famous stage producer/mogul named David Belasco. Belasco and Pickford came up with the name Mary Pickford (Pickford being her paternal grandmother's name), and he cast her in his Broadway production of The Warrens of Virginia. The play was successful, and Pickford's acting improved. She later claimed that this experience taught her to act with heart and feeling.
By 1909, Pickford was lured by the movies. At the time, movies were still regarded as cheap entertainment, far inferior to the stage. Her mother urged her to try movies because the family needed the money if they were to stay together. She was hired by D.W Griffiths at Biograph, appearing in her first film The Lonely Villa (or Her First Biscuits depending on the source) only after insisting on better terms than Griffiths originally offered.
From the first, Pickford knew her worth as an actress and expected to be paid accordingly. Deborah G. Felder in The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time quoted producer Samuel Goldwyn as saying, "It took longer to make one of Mary's contracts than it did to make one of her pictures." This was a hallmark of her career, though it was considered unladylike and aggressive at the time. Pickford was still her family's primary source of income.
The public began to notice Pickford, dubbed "Little Mary" after some of the titles in the films. (There were no credits in films at this time.) She had a rare ability to silently express emotion. Pickford became known as the "Biograph Girl" and she appeared in over 100 Biograph films. Pickford was typecast as the moppet girl with hair full of curls (some of which were fakes bought from prostitutes for $50). As Felder wrote in The 100 Most Influential Women, "Her screen image-childlike, sweet, demure, with a touch of mischievousness, and a great deal of spunk-belongs to a completely different era. In an age which prided itself on its innocence, 'Little Mary,' was acclaimed as the feminine ideal." Many of Pickford's silent films paralleled her own life. She often played a girl who was trying to find her absent father and bring her family together.
In 1910, Pickford briefly defected from Biograph to a different film company, Independent Motion Picture Company. Here, she wrote a script (credited as Catherine Hennessey, her grandmother's name) titled The Dream and appeared in the film. Pickford wrote about 30 scripts over her career. She also did five films for another company, Majestic, but returned to Biograph for a while. In 1911, Pickford secretly married an alcoholic Biograph actor named Owen Moore. They divorced after a shaky marriage in 1920.
By 1913, Pickford severed ties completely with Biograph. She was back on the stage for one production (a Broadway play staged by Belasco titled A Good Little Devil) before signing with Famous Players, owned by Adolph Zukor. He made her "America's Sweetheart." Pickford's salary was $500 per week (about $13,000 in 2019 dollars), a princely sum at the time.
In 1915, Pickford appeared in 12 films, including The Foundling, on which she served as producer. By 1916, Pickford was receiving $10,000 a week (about $251,000 in 2019 dollars, equivalent to about $13 million annually) and a percentage of the profits as her salary. She invested much of the money wisely, especially in real estate. Though Zukor made a fortune off Pickford, her demands as an actress proved so exacting that he once offered her a quarter of a million dollars to retire. Still, Pickford later said these were the happiest years of her life. However, her childhood haunted her. She was always afraid of losing everything she had earned and did not enjoy the money.
Between 1917 and 1919, Pickford appeared in higher quality films and was at the peak of her career and popularity. She made some of her best-known movies and was in control of many aspects of production. She could pick and choose her scripts and directors, for example. Pickford also helped develop lighting techniques by insisting that Charles Rosher act as her cameraman for every movie. Pickford similarly furthered film narrative techniques.
Despite this savvy, she was still cast as the little moppet girl. For example, in 1917, Pickford played a 12-year-old in The Little Princess though she was 24 years of age. Pickford continually challenged herself as an actress, playing more than one role in a film or roles that were physically demanding. In 1918, she and her mother formed the Mary Pickford Film Corporation, making her the first female film star to head her own film company.
In 1919, Pickford was lured away from Famous Players by First National, which offered her a $675,000 per year salary and 50% of the profits made by her movies. That year, Pickford was also one of the four principals who founded United Artists with famous actors Douglas Fairbanks (her fiancé) and Charlie Chaplin, as well as director D.W. Griffiths.
On March 28, 1920, Pickford and Fairbanks married, after a three-year affair. Their marriage was idealized by their adoring fans, and they were considered the first couple of Hollywood. Publicly, the couple encouraged this. Pickford and Fairbanks were the first stars to imprint their footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. The private reality of their marriage was far from the myth. Fairbanks was jealous and had numerous extramarital affairs. Pickford also had affairs, as well as a problem with alcohol.
In the early 1920s, Pickford wanted to cultivate a more adult screen presence. To that end, she arranged for a European director, Ernst Lubitsch, to come to the United States. She appeared in his first American effort, Rosita, though she did not like working with him. Despite this and other efforts to be cast as an adult, Pickford was forced to do juvenile roles, like playing the son and the mother in Little Lord Fauntleroy, to please her audience. While Pickford wanted to take on more creative roles, she wanted to increase her box office receipts even more.
The quality of her films began to decline as Pickford tried to escape her typecast moppet image. She appeared in her first, and most successful, sound picture in 1929. Coquette was the subject of controversy for fans because Pickford cut off her curls and bobbed her hair in the style of the flapper that she played. She won an Academy Award for best actress, although this decision was even more controversial. At the time, voting for the Oscars was done by the Academy's central board of judges. Pickford was a co-founder of the Academy and Fairbanks was its president. She used Fairbanks' position as leverage in her aggressive campaign to obtain the prize. As a result of this incident, voting for the awards was done by all Academy members from that year forward. Still, Coquette was one of the most successful films of Pickford's career, earning $1.3 million at the box office.
Pickford's acting career faltered after her Academy Award victory, although she always tried to give the audience what it wanted. Pickford retired from acting in 1933, after an appearance in Secrets, her last film and a box office failure. Pickford believed her audience wanted her to always play the young girl and this was no longer possible at the age of 40.
In the 1930s, Pickford kept herself busy in a number of ways. She served as a vice president at United Artists from 1935 until 1937. She also produced films such as 1936's The Gay Desperado. Pickford continued to work as a film producer until 1948's Sleep, My Love. She was also active in charity work (especially the Motion Picture Relief Fund and Home), wrote books (an autobiography and a novel), and appeared on her own, short-lived radio show. Despite the end of her acting career, Pickford retained her popularity. Upon a visit to Toronto in 1934, more people came to see her than Prince Edward, the future king of England.
Pickford's personal life was not as rosy. Her drinking increased after her divorce from Fairbanks in 1936. The following year, she married her third and last husband, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, an actor and bandleader. They adopted two children, Ronald and Roxanne, in the mid-1940s. Her alcoholism grew more pronounced over the years, in part because she was still in love with Fairbanks.
The film industry continued to pine for the legend, but she was beginning to back away from the limelight. Pickford had several offers to act in the 1950s, most notably in Sunset Boulevard and Storm Center, but she ultimately turned them down. In 1953, she and Chaplin, the only survivors of the four who founded United Artists, sold their shares for $3 million each.
By 1972, Pickford had become quite reclusive. She was given an honorary Academy Award for her contributions to the cinema in 1975, but refused to appear in person at the ceremony. Pickford died of a cerebral hemorrhage on May 29, 1979, in Santa Monica, California. Her estate's net worth was estimated at $50 million. Richard Corliss in Film Comment wrote that it was "best to remember Mary Pickford as her fans did: part Eve, part angel, total evangelist for the blooming art of cinema."
There’s no denying Pickford’s illustrious life. It stands in stark contrast to her relative seclusion toward the end. Biographies on her life abound; here’s a healthy list to help you get started:
- The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography, edited by Jennifer Uglow, Continuum, 1989
- Felder, Deborah, The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past and Present, Citadel Press, 1996
- Mordden, Ethan Movie Star: A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood, St. Martin's Press, 1983
- Read, Phyllis J. & Bernard L. Witlieb, The Book of Women's Firsts, Random House, 1992
- Reynolds, Moira Davidson, Immigrant American Women Role Models: Fifteen Inspiring Biographies, 1850-1950, McFarland & Company, 1997
- Film Comment, March-April, 1998
- Films in Review, January-February 1997
- Journal of Popular Film and Television, Fall 1994
- Maclean's, November 3, 1997
- New Yorker, September 22, 1997
- People Weekly, May 21, 1990; Spring 1991
- http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe (February 16, 1999)
Updates by Kit Kittelstad