PICKFORD, MARY (Gladys Louise Smith, Little Mary) (1892–1979) Actress
The modern film industry is difficult to imagine without the infiuence of Mary Pickford. As the first international movie star, she helped invent screen acting, pioneered now-widely-used special effects, and was instrumental in creating a movie studio whose role was crucial in moving film from the silent to the sound era.
Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Ontario, on April 8, 1892. When she was four, her father, a ship’s steward, died in an accident, leaving her family’s economic fortunes in doubt. In order to survive, her mother, Charlotte, pushed Gladys and her siblings, Jack and Lottie, to act in touring theatricals. From the beginning, Gladys—billed as “Baby Gladys Smith”—was the most successful. Even as a child, she felt the heavy burden of supporting her family, instilling in her early a determination always to be paid as much as her talents were worth. Driven to earn more, at 16 Gladys Smith approached Broadway producer David Belasco and persuaded him to hire her for his show The Warrens of Virginia. The show had a lengthy run, providing Smith—now acting under the stage name Mary Pickford—with a steady paycheck for two years. The show’s closing, however, sent her mother into a panic. She insisted that Pickford look for work in the new film industry, even though Pickford feared that taking a job in film, then considered an unsavory branch of show business, would destroy her chances to become a stage star. At Charlotte’s insistence, though, Pickford interviewed with director D. W. Griffith at the Biograph studio. He immediately saw her potential and offered her $5 a day. She said she wanted $10 and got it.
When Pickford began working in films, studio executives did not give players billing, because they were afraid that if the audience started recognizing the actors’ names, the actors would start demanding more money. But even without knowing who they were, filmgoers had already begun to embrace certain performers. Pickford was one of the first to earn the public’s affection. Some fans referred to her as “Little Mary,” as the title cards called her character in her first film, The Little Teacher (1909). Others simply called her the “girl with the curls” because of the head of ringlets she wore. In 1910 Pickford married fellow actor Owen Moore. The same year, she left Biograph to work for the newly founded Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP). IMP vigorously promoted the actress, using the slogan “Mary Pickford is an imp now!” Her name established, she returned to Biograph the next year, now commanding a salary of $150 a week. After a brief stint at the studio, Pickford returned to the stage in A Good Little Devil (1912). The show was a hit, largely because the fans of her films fiocked to see “Little Mary” in person. After the show, she signed on with the Famous Players film company at $500 a week to star in the movie version of the play. Pickford had learned a lesson: Her future lay in film, not theater. As her star rose, Pickford continually demanded salary increases from Famous Players head Adolph Zukor. Negotiating without an agent or a manager, she became legendary for her business acumen. (Sam Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer once quipped, “It took longer to make one of Mary’s contracts than it did to make one of Mary’s pictures.”) By 1916, she famously announced that she could not afford to work for less than $10,000 a week. Zukor agreed not only to her salary demands but also to her insistence that she have creative control over her movies. For instance, her contracts gave her approval over the actors and directors she worked with.
Pickford’s gain of control over her star vehicles ushered in the height of her career. Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart,” she solidified her most successful screen persona in Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917). Her characters were young, plucky girls whose high spirits and innate goodness helped them triumph over adversity. Freed from directors’ mandates, Pickford rejected the exaggerated gestures used by most film actors, using instead restrained expressions and subtle movements to communicate emotion. She also inspired creativity in the more technical aspects of filmmaking. In Poor Little Rich Girl, for example, to make the 25-year-old Pickford more credible as her 11-year-old character, the props and set designs were oversized to make her appear smaller. In Stella Maris (1918), a split screen was used for one of the first times to allow Pickford to play dual roles.
Seeking even more control over her films, Pickford left Famous Players and briefiy signed with First National, which created a new division called the Mary Pickford Company. In 1919, she took an even greater step toward autonomy by banding with Griffith and actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists (UA). With her new film company, Pickford had the power to choose her own projects, oversee their promotion and distribution, and share directly in their profits. Although she may not have initiated the idea of forming UA, by most accounts she was the shrewdest of its four original partners, thus instrumental to its success. Though in public Pickford seemed in total control of her career, in private she was terrified that her personal life would destroy her success. Her marriage to Owen Morris, an abusive alcoholic, was in shambles, but she worried that her fans would reject her if she got a divorce. Even worse, she had fallen in love with the married Fairbanks. At his insistence, Pickford and he divorced their spouses and married in a secret ceremony in 1920.
Anxiously awaiting filmgoers’ reactions, the couple set off on a European honeymoon. To their shock, as news spread of their wedding, the public responded not with outrage over the dissolution of their former marriages, but with delight over the romance between two of their favorite stars. Pickford and Fairbanks were mobbed by well-wishers as they disembarked their ship. Their appearance in London even incited a riot by rowdy fans eager to get a glimpse of the fairy-tale couple. The experience revealed to Pickford the extent of her celebrity. As her stepson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., later assessed, she and her husband “enjoyed a status in the world’s imagination that is . . . inconceivable and incomparable by today’s standards.” One of the most famous women in the world, Pickford herself came to understand that to her audience she was no longer Gladys Smith or even the character “Little Mary,” but a concept called Mary Pickford. Remembering her reception in Europe, she wrote, “Ovations, I have come to believe, are seldom or never accorded to persons, but to ideas.”Pickford’s celebrity grew even greater when she and Fairbanks settled on a grand Los Angeles estate they called Pickfair. It soon became famous as a palace befitting the closest thing America had to a royal couple. There, Pickford and her husband entertained often, playing host to such luminaries as Alfred Einstein, H. G. Wells, Amelia Earhart, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Pickford’s first films for UA did little to tarnish her star. Pollyanna (1920) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), for example, were solid hits. Nearing age 30, however, Pickford was growing uncomfortable playing children and adolescents. She attempted to play adult roles in Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924), but both were box-office disappointments. For several years, Pickford returned to playing the juvenile characters her fans loved. But in 1928, she finally and dramatically abandoned her little girl persona by cutting off her curls and shipping them off to a museum.
At the same time, Pickford faced another daunting challenge as an actress: the advent of sound pictures. Her first talkie was Coquette (1929), which was based on a stage play that actress HELEN HAYES had made famous. Wearing her new bobbed hairstyle, Pickford played a fiapper and won an Academy Award for best actress for her performance. Nevertheless, the film was a critical failure and Pickford herself disliked it. Hoping for a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, Pickford chose as her next film an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew costarring Fairbanks. The lavish 1929 extravaganza was a costly disaster. Pickford was justifiably unhappy with her shrill performance. The production also marked the beginning of the end of her marriage. As tensions increased between Pickford and Fairbanks, he spent most of his time traveling, leaving his wife alone at Pickfair. The couple was divorced in 1935. Unable to find her footing in sound pictures, Pickford made her last film, Secrets, in 1933. Although she remained active in the management of UA until 1953, she devoted most of her time to her third husband, actor Buddy Rogers (whom she married in 1937) and their two adopted children.
Increasingly, Pickford became a recluse, making only rare public appearances. She was last seen before the public in 1975, when she was awarded an honorary Academy Award. Pickford, however, refused to come to the ceremony, preferring instead to accept the Oscar at Pickfair in a filmed segment. During the ceremony, the year’s best actor winner, Jack Nicholson, paid his own tribute to the screen legend by thanking Pickford in his acceptance speech for being “the first actor to get a percentage of [the profits made by] her pictures.”By the time of her death on May 29, 1979, Mary Pickford’s films were largely unseen. She controlled the rights to the movies and refused to allow them to be screened, perhaps sensing that they and her pure and innocent screen image belonged to a different era. But, even if her characters belonged to an old world, Pickford had ironically ushered in a new one—a world in which a woman could control her professional destiny, make her own fortune, and enjoy the fruits and suffer the sorrows of the modern celebrity culture.
Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend. New York: Abrams, 1999.
Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart. New York: Donald Fine, 1990.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Coquette (1929). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1993.
Daddy Long-Legs (1919). Image Entertainment, DVD, 1999.
Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (1999). Tapeworm, VHS, 2000.
Stella Maris (1918). Image Entertainment, DVD, 2000.
The Taming of the Shrew (1929). Madacy Entertainment, VHS, 1995.