Silent Superstars, The Incomparable Mary Pickford
You’ve all seen pictures of her, no doubt–of a girlish actress with long golden curls and a face like an Edwardian valentine. She was often photographed holding puppies and kittens, practically radiating purity and sweetness. And you might know she was famous for playing “little girl” roles, despite being in her twenties. Yes, you’ve heard of Mary Pickford…but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen one of her films. And perhaps, just perhaps, it’s because you think they’d be pretty old-fashioned.
Ah, my friends, you’re missing out! Pickford was absolutely a universal symbol of goodness in the early 20th century, but don’t equate her with those wan “Victorian” stereotypes we think we know so much about. She was a wonderful, charismatic actress, equally adept at comedy and drama, and was a remarkably powerful film pioneer behind the scenes. Her characters were spunky, funny, courageous, and often tomboyish, and audiences identified with them to the point where they affectionately nicknamed the actress “Our Mary.” In a 1921 Photoplay article, writer Adela Rogers St. Johns put it well: “In the mass of people is a splendid, upward surging toward good–and they have found the symbol of that goodness in Mary’s face.”
Gladys Louise Smith was born on April 8, 1892, in Toronto. She had two younger siblings, Lottie and Jack. Her mother Charlotte was a strong-willed, capable woman who would one day be essential to her eldest daughter’s career. Her father John, however, was an alcoholic. After abandoning his family he eventually died of a brain hemorrhage in 1898, leaving the Smiths impoverished. This was a deeply painful experience for young Gladys, who vowed to one day be free of poverty and to never let her family become separated again.
Charlotte took in boarders as a way of scraping by. One of the boarders was a stage manager who convinced her that acting could be a respectable profession and a good way to bring in extra income. Thus, at the mere age of seven, Gladys Smith became a stage actress, helping contribute to her family’s meager earnings. In time, Lottie and Jack would follow.
Gladys adored the theater, with all its melodrama and its comedy, its handmade special effects and brightly-colored scenery. She would play in East Lynne and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to name a few, and join touring companies that took her family from boarding house to boarding house across the country.
By the time she was a teenager, she was a remarkably mature actress and beginning to feel unsatisfied with touring cheap theaters. She managed to talk her way into working for famed Broadway theater producer David Belasco, and he gave her the name that would go down in cinema history: Mary Pickford.
It was probably Charlotte who suggested that Pickford try acting in motion pictures–then a fairly new form of entertainment that was considered a big step down from the stage. Although Pickford protested that she was “a Belasco actress!” Charlotte convinced her it would be a good way to earn extra money. And thus the young woman confidently presented herself to director D.W. Griffith at the Biograph studio and persuaded him to take her on.
Much to her own surprise, she enjoyed film work, finding it took more skill than she thought and was less grueling than stage touring. As much as she loved the theater, she decided to stay in films (Lottie and Jack would soon follow). In those days before screen credits, she became known as the “Biograph Girl” and also “the Girl with the Curls,” due to her signature hairstyle of long ringlets. She would marry fellow screen actor Owen Moore in 1911, although his alcoholism quickly became an issue for them.
At the time movies were evolving swiftly, becoming longer and featuring complex editing and camera effects. Now adept at climbing the career ladder, Pickford joined Famous Players–one day to be called Paramount Pictures. Feature-length films like Hearts Adrift (1914), Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Rags (1915) made her a worldwide star at a speed and a scale that had never been experienced before. Conscious of this, she and her mother handled the business side of the film industry fearlessly. In 1916 they worked out a deal to give Pickford control over her films and an incredible salary of $10,000 a week.
Pickford worked tirelessly on overseeing every aspect of her work, from set designs to costumes to cinematography, becoming a big influence on the industry. She churned out hit after hit, her specialty being beautifully-shot comedy-dramas with uplifting morals. She often played working-class girls, as in Amarilly of Clothesline Alley (1918) or Suds (1920), or adapted popular stories like The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917). These adaptations were particularly popular and caused the public to associate her mainly with “little girl” roles (although she played mature women just as often). She took these roles very seriously, studying children’s behavior and movements to try and make her characters as convincing as possible.
In the late 1910s, Pickford became romantically involved with energetic fellow superstar Douglas Fairbanks. Both were unhappily married at the time (Pickford, in particular, could no longer take Owen Moore’s alcoholism), and decided to obtain divorces so they could marry. This was a risky move, but their clean public images were so beloved by the public that their marriage was instantly accepted. Pickford and Fairbanks became the closest thing to U.S. royalty, frequently appearing at public events and entertaining the rich and famous at their beautiful estate, Pickfair.
In 1919, Pickford, Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin would form United Artists, giving them power over not just their films but how they were distributed, too. This was an unprecedented level of independence, making Pickford the single most powerful woman in Hollywood.
Her career stayed strong until beginning to fade in the late 1920s, her work beginning to look old-fashioned in the new era of the talkies. She would bob her famous hair (shocking her fans) and act in a few sound films, but ultimately decided to retire from the screen. Unfortunately, she and Fairbanks would divorce in 1936, their marriage strained by their immense levels of fame. They apparently always regretted not reconciling.
Her third and last marriage was to actor Buddy Rogers, and they would adopt two children. Pickford would become increasingly reclusive, staying within the walls of Pickfair and receiving few visitors. She was apparently a secret alcoholic, which was perhaps exacerbated by her divorce from the Fairbanks and lingering sadness over the death of her mother from cancer in 1928 and deaths of both Lottie and Jack in the 1930s.
Mary Pickford would pass away on May 29, 1979, at age 87. She was one of cinema’s most important and influential pioneers, a woman of class and strength, dedicated to making her work the best it could be. And her legacy can be described in just a single word: Hollywood.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.