When starting to research Mary Pickford, I’ve come across a lot of superlatives:
- The most powerful woman in Hollywood.
- One of the Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood.
- One of the most popular actresses of the 1910s and 1920s.
- “Queen of the Movies”
- She invented modern screen acting.
- The first movie star.
- The most successful producer of the silent movie era.
Mary Pickford’s drive which ultimately made her ‘the most powerful woman in Hollywood,’ was initiated through tragedy in her early childhood. Her father left the family when she was three, returned when she was six, but died shortly after. Her mother was so stricken with grief, that Gladys Smith, who only later took on the name Mary Pickford, realized that she had to become the ‘father’ of her family, earning enough money to provide for her mother and two siblings.
A boarder the family took in to help pay the rent introduced Smith to stage acting. He was a stage manager looking for a child actor and because he paid, her mother let her act in the local play. Smith’s raw talent turned out so profitable, that the family packed their bags to tour as their own theatre group, bringing them from Canada to the United States. That’s also when Gladys Smith changed her name to something catchier: Mary Pickford.
Movies provided a more steady income than theatre plays at that time, and when Director D.W. Griffith did a screen test with Pickford, he saw her potential to become a star. He hired her to become a full-time actress for the Biograph Company.
The first movie star
Pickford with her blonde curls and petite statue was the first actor to be typecast. She played careless children, a role she was never allowed in her own childhood, or young innocent women. The audience loved her so much that she became known as the ‘the girl with the curls’ or the ‘Biograph Girl.’ Her appearance in movies proved so profitable for the producers that they started to introduce her name to the credits. In the early days of cinema this was a new thing, as actresses and actors usually weren’t credited. Hence, she really was the first movie star of her time, paving the way for the Hollywood stardom we know today.
The most powerful woman in Hollywood
Besides being a terrific actress, Pickford was a skilled businesswoman and negotiated unheard of deals for herself. By the age of 24, Mary Pickford was earning a million dollars a year, making her the highest-paid star in Hollywood, earning more than Charlie Chaplin.
In 1919 she co-founded United Artists (UA) with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and her soon-to-be husband, Douglas Fairbanks. They were the first artists to take control over their own productions, which led to the famous quote of studio owner Sam Goldwyn “The lunatics have taken over the asylum.” Pickford was also one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is responsible for the Academy Awards.
Pickford and Fairbanks were sort of the ‘Brangelina’ of their time, royalty in Hollywood, with frequent guests like Albert Einstein or Charlie Chaplin. They brought a status to Hollywood which it previously didn’t have. But Pickford the business woman was compromising Mary Pickford, the artist. She was working relentlessly to make United Artists a success, when Charlie Chaplin, for example, went on to do several profitable films a year for other studios.
As an actress, Pickford had grown tired of being typecast and tried to change her image from the innocent persona. Once, she asked her fans what they wanted to see her in, but she was disappointed with the answer. The audience wanted to keep her as a coy young girl. She cut her famous curls. A lot of people were horrified and outraged. She received hate mail for her decision, and it made front-page news in the New York Times.
Burn it all
The 1920s saw the introduction of the talkies. Pickford successfully made the transition unlike so many others from silent to sound, but she never felt at ease in them and her fame was waning. Regardless, she won the second-ever Academy Award for Best Actress with her performance in ‘Coquette,’ but starred in her final film in 1933. Regardless, she remained working behind the scenes for the next 40 years. At some point she threatened to burn all her films, trying to provoke an outcry which never came. Luckily, she never made good on her promise.
In 1976, Pickford received an honorary Oscar. I think it a disservice to her though, that she was awarded simply as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. Commended for being lovely and sweet in her roles, for being an adorable creature. Her contribution to film history or the fact that she was one of the founders of the Hollywood industry as we know it today, was not mentioned. As with so many other women, it’s time for us to bring her name back into film history.
Juliane is an award winning film director and producer, with more than a dozen short films and several features under her belt. She has given guest lectures on various filmmaking subjects in universities around the world. She founded this blog in order to connect with her ‘dream audience’, which is, if you read this far, you!