She was the first star of the silver screen, the undisputed Queen of Hollywood and one half of its ultimate power couple, a pioneer of screen acting and a savvy businesswoman. Known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’, a nod to her talent for playing little-girl roles, which she did until well into her thirties, Mary Pickford was, nonetheless, a woman who knew her own mind and took charge of her own career. She may have looked young and innocent with her flowing hair and a diminutive stature, but Pickford, ‘The Girl with the Golden Curls’ and ‘Little Mary’, was tough.
Having endured hardship during the early years of her childhood in Canada, Pickford started earning money at seven years old when she made her stage debut at Toronto’s Princess Theatre in 1899, under her real name of Gladys Smith. The family then began a spate of six years touring around America with third-rate theatre companies. After failed attempts to land a Broadway role, she finally succeeded in 1906, and in 1907 her determination saw powerful theatre producer David Belasco agree to meet with her. Gladys Smith emerged from this meeting as Mary Pickford.
Life as an actress, however, was still not steady enough so Pickford found herself making the demeaning decision (for a theatre actress) to appear in moving pictures. In 1909 she began working at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Company, neatly negotiating herself a salary of double the going rate ($10 a day). She featured in 51 films that year, playing all sizes and sorts of parts.
Working alongside innovator Griffith, Pickford quickly learned to consider and appreciate the technical aspects of filming, and more specifically the relationship of the actor with the camera. Pickford realised that when on screen, far less of the stylized, grandiose theatre acting was required and naturalistic movements and expressions came across far better. Her talent for self-appraisal also saw Pickford recognise her aptitude for light, comical roles. 1910’s Willful Peggy gave her her first opportunity to play a character as she wanted to, making Peggy vibrant and resilient in contrast to the more usual insipid, Victorian female characters of the day. This characterization would become Pickford’s trademark.
Soon, Mary Pickford was the most popular actress at Biograph and the next few years saw her making films in California and swapping to Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company for 1911 as the industry hit its stride. In 1913 she joined Adolph Zuckor’s illustrious company Famous Players in Famous Plays, later known as Paramount Pictures. Pickford’s career blossomed as she received her first above-title marquee billing in 1914’s Hearts Adrift (the success and critical acclaim of which she used as the basis for her first of many salary increases). Some of her most famous and enduring pictures were made during these years, such as The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (both 1917).
1919 heralded the most important move of Pickford’s career: she formed the independent film production company United Artists, alongside Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks (this event is popularly believed to be the origin of the phrase “the lunatics are taking over the asylum!”). She could now have complete control over how she distributed her films, as well as continuing to produce and perform in them. More triumphs followed, such as Pollyanna (1920) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921).
Fairbanks and Pickford by this time were involved in an affair and would go on to divorce their respective spouses and marry in 1920. This union would put ‘Brangelina’ to shame. Pickford was regarded as the most famous woman in the world and Fairbanks was a massive star in his own right, famous for his daring stunt work and swashbuckling roles. They were the first stars to officially put their hands in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Anyone who was anyone was clamouring for an invitation to a gathering at their Hollywood mansion, dubbed ‘Pickfair’. Guests included George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, Fairbanks’ close friend Chaplin.
The advent of talkies in 1927 was to signal the beginning of the end for Pickford. Despite earning the first Academy Award for an actress in a sound picture for 1929’s Coquette, the audiences could not warm to a Pickford that spoke. Speaking showed Mary Pickford to be a woman in her mid-thirties, as did her new bob hairstyle (Pickford having cut off her celebrated curls after the death of her mother), and no longer ‘America’s Sweetheart’. Following the commercial failure of Pickford and Fairbanks teaming up for The Taming of the Shrew later that year, Pickford’s career was all but over. She made only three more pictures and retired from acting in 1933. She and Fairbanks were divorced in 1936.
Mary Pickford’s star faded into obscurity as the actress failed to find new work and slumped into alcoholism, the same addiction that had infected her entire family. Decades of nothingness followed and Pickford became a virtual recluse. 1976, however, brought an Honorary Academy Award for the actress in recognition of her vast contribution to the motion picture industry. She was, after all, a founding member of the Academy.