During her heyday, only Charlie Chaplin could compare to Mary Pickford when it came to worldwide fame. Beloved across the globe, she was the highest paid actress of her day and for Americans, she was known as America’s Sweetheart.
Of course, the irony is that she was Canadian.
Today, I’m looking at one of the biggest movie stars of the silent era, Gladys Louise Smith, or Mary Pickford.
Born on April 8, 1892, Mary Pickford was the oldest child of Charlotte and John Charles Smith. When she was born, Pickford was baptized as a Methodist, the religion of her father.
When she was four, she contracted diphtheria and was baptized by a Roman Catholic priest and her middle name was changed to Marie. Two years later when she was six, her father, who had already abandoned the family, died from a head injury after a fall while working on a Niagara steamship.
Charlotte began to rent a room to a stage manager from the Cummings Stock Company of Toronto. As it turned out, this renter would change the life of the entire family. The manager suggested to Charlotte that her daughters would be perfect for the stage. That same year, Mary would make her stage debut with the Valentine Stock Company in 1898 in Bottle’s Baby.
In 1900, she performed at Toronto’s Princess Theatre, playing the parts of a boy and a girl in The Silver King, while her mother played the organ for the production. Before long, she began to land more roles in Toronto theatres.
For the next six years, the family toured with mostly third rate companies and plays, barely making enough money to get by. By this point, Pickford was 15 and she decided she would spend one more summer trying to land a leading role on Broadway and if she failed, she would quit acting.
In 1907, when she was 15, the family joined the David Belasco Theatre Company and he suggested that Gladys start going by the name Mary Pickford, which was her middle name and the middle name of her grandfather John Pickford Hennessey. That same year, she landed a supporting role in The Warrens of Virginia. The play was written by William deMille and his brother Cecil, was a member of the cast. He would eventually have a long connection with Pickford during her rise to stardom.
By 1909, motion pictures were starting to take the world by storm. Seeing that this was where acting was heading, Pickford began to seek work in the new medium and landed her first cinematic experience in Her First Biscuits, which was directed by D.W. Griffith. She had been offered $5 per day whenever he needed her to be in a scene. Pickford, declined, asking for $25, stating quote:
“I am an actress and an artist, and I must have a guarantee of $25 a week and extra when I work extra.”
While she didn’t get that amount, she was given $10, double what the usual was for the time.
She soon signed with the Biograph Company and had her first starring role in The Violin Maker of Cremona, also directed by Griffith. The 15-minute film was released on June 7, 1909.
Of that time, Pickford would say, quote:
“I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities. I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be demand for my work.”
In 1909, she appeared in 51 films, although some sources say 40, and when Biograph went to California in 1910, Pickford followed the company and would continue to make short films with D.W. Griffith.
With each new film, audiences and critics began to see that Pickford, who was just over five feet tall, dominated her scenes through the feisty characters she would play. Unlike many actors at the time who treated movies in the same manner as plays, she knew how to play for the camera instead of a live theatre audience. She did this by fusing realism with the balletic gestures of silent films, which created an intimacy between herself as the actor and the audience viewing the film in the theatre.
Described as an acting genius, and a comic spitfire, Mary Pickford soon began to grow in popularity and as films grew longer in length, her fame grew with it.
Florence Lawrence would leave Biograph in 1910 and Pickford replaced her as the main female star of the company. That same year, she married Owen Moore, who acted with her in Their First Misunderstanding.
At the time, actors were not listed in the credits but as people noticed Pickford, the company capitalized on this by advertising on sandwich boards, calling her “The Girl With The Golden Curls” and “Blondilocks” or “The Biograph Girl”
In 1911, after leaving Biograph, she would work for the Independent Moving Pictures Company, later to become Universal Pictures in 1912. During this time, she continued to work with Griffith, in movies such as The Mender of Nets, Just Like A Woman and The Female of the Species. She made her last Biograph picture that year, The New York Hat.
She would say, years later, quote:
That same year, she would appear on the cover of the New York Dramatic Mirror, an honour usually only given to theatre stars.
She would return to Broadway in 1912 to act in A Good Little Devil. Always hoping to become a Broadway star, she soon found that she deeply missed acting. It was this play that inspired her to work only in film.
With that decision, William De Mille, would say, quote:
“She can’t be more than 17 and now she’s throwing her whole career in the ashcan and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement. There will never be any real money in those galloping tintypes. Say goodbye to little Mary Pickford. She’ll never be heard of again.”
He was wrong. Very wrong.
In 1913, she began to work with Famous Players in Famous Plays, which would become Paramount Pictures. She would act in a silent version of A Good Little Devil, but Pickford was unhappy with the film, stating quote:
“One of the worst I ever made, it was deadly.”
Despite the poor showing of the film, she would act in several films from 1913 to 1914 including In The Bishop’s Carriage, Caprice and Hearts Adrift. It was the last one that made her a extremely popular with the viewing public and she would ask for a pay raise thanks to the excellent showing of the film. In her next film, Tess of the Storm Country, released five weeks after Hearts Adrift, her name was above the title and it sent her career into overdrive. It was believed that this was the film that made her not only the most popular actress in America, but the world.
By 1916, only Charlie Chaplin surpassed Pickford in popularity. Both Chaplin and Pickford enjoyed fame far beyond anything the other actors in Hollywood enjoyed. From the mid-1910s to the 1920s, Pickford was believed to be the most famous woman in the world. One silent film journalist would say she was, quote:
On June 24, 1916, Pickford signed a contract that paid her $10,000 per week, or $213,000 today. This new contract, signed with Zukor would also give her full authority on the production of the films in which she was starring. She was also entitled to half of a film’s profits, with a guarantee of $1,040 or $22,000 today.
According to legend, Pickford’s mother Charlotte had overheard a Zukor salesman saying that as long as they had Pickford, they could make the exhibitors take everything. With that knowledge, Pickford was able to negotiate that incredible contract.
Having full control of the production was important for Pickford, she would say, quote:
“So many things can ruin fine work.”
Adolph Zukor would say years later, quote:
“Mary Pickford is the best businessman in Hollywood.”
The decision did not come without cost. Her friend Griffith was outraged and said that he made Mary Pickford and she would now vanish. He also said he would make actress Mae Marsh bigger than Pickford. One rumoured tale of why she quit with Griffith was that he asked her to flash her legs in a cave man costume during a film. Knowing that her public saw her as innocent, and even a child, she refused. For most of her career, Pickford dictated her career rather than allow others to do so.
Often, Pickford would play the role of a child, but it was not incredibly common. For Pickford, because she never had a normal childhood, she enjoyed playing the role. Pickford was so good in these roles as a child, helped by her height of five feet, that when Douglas Fairbanks Jr. met her, he assumed she was a boy and a new playmate for him. When he asked if she would play trains with him, she happily did.
Typically, her films had Pickford in the role of an orphan looking for a paternal figure, which would often end up becoming a romantic figure. She was often poor, or working class, with her characters, allowing Mary to draw upon her past.
During the First World War, she routinely campaigned for the war effort, including selling one of her trademark curls for $15,000. Ironically, many of her curls were not real, and often the hair was bought from prostitutes and other people who needed money, and then built into hair pieces for her ringlets. Each curl cost $50, a huge amount at the time, and Pickford travelled with a suitcase full of curls.
Pickford was also seeing that people would act very strange around her. People would often steal the flowers from her hat, and if she was barefoot in a film some people would become angry with her. Once, after a manicure, a child saw her in public and said, quote:
“Mama, she’s not a real little girl. She has long fingernails.”
From this point, she clipped her nails short and banned herself from fiddling with lipsticks and pencils in public so that people didn’t think that she smoked. Sometimes women would come to her asking for thousands of dollars and telling her that it would be her fault if they had to sell their bodies to make money.
One time, a man stared at her for two minutes and then, said, quote:
“You may have the face of an angel and the heart of a devil. If you have, I pity you. If you haven’t, I pray for you.”
Despite this, many more loved her and the movies she was in.
While she was Canadian, many saw her as a symbol of America and she would often kiss the American flag for cameras. In one speech in Chicago, it was estimated she raised $5 million worth of bonds. The US Navy began to call her the official Little Sister of the Navy and the Army named two cannons after her and made her an honorary colonel. Some soldiers took her picture in lockets when they went off to war.
In August of 1918, her contract expired and she decided not to renew it. Zukor offered her $250,000 to not make movies again, preferring not to have her as competition with another company. That amount would be $5.3 million today. Instead, Pickford went over to First National Pictures.
In 1919, along with Charlie Chaplin, Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, she formed United Artists. Through this new company, she could produce and perform in her own movies and distribute them in a way she liked.
In 1920, she would release Pollyanna, which grossed $1.1 million, followed by Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921 and Rosita in 1923, all of which grossed over $1 million.
Also that same year, Pickford divorced Moore on the grounds of desertion. Moore was an alcoholic and as an actor in his own right, he was insecure about her level of fame. There are rumours of domestic violence as well, and the couple had not been living together for some time.
One time, according to Pickford, when she came down in a new dress, he yelled in front of several guests, quote:
“You look like something on top of a birthday cake.”
Another time he would tell friends at a party, quote:
“Mary has an expressive little talent. Hardly what I’d call cerebral.”
She was forced to pay him $100,000 as part of the agreement for the divorce settlement. Days later, she married Douglas Fairbanks.
Two years previous, Pickford had begun a relationship with Douglas Fairbanks when they toured together to promote Liberty Bond sales for the war effort.
The couple were worried about a public backlash related to their marriage, since they were both divorced and had been seeing each other while they were both married to others, but instead they were treated like royalty by fans. Pickford would say, quote:
Upon her marriage to Fairbanks, she became an American citizen. They would move into a mansion in Beverley Hills that they called Pickfair.
At the time, they were the most glamourous couple in Hollywood. When they went on a trip to Europe for their honeymoon, they were mobbed by fans. They would leave New York on June 12, 1910 on a Red Star cruise liner. When they arrived in London, the New York Times reported, quote:
“Arriving in London, the pair were mobbed to such an extent that they had to spend one weekend at Lord Northcliffes place in the Isle of Thanet and another at one of the country seats of the Duke of Sutherland.”
Fairbanks then hired an Italian driver to chauffeur them throughout Europe. They would visit the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and were honoured with a dinner in Paris that was attended by 200 of the country’s most prominent actors.
The marriage was called the marriage of the century, and they were referred to as the King and Queen of Hollywood. The fame of the couple was such that when foreign heads of state came to see the president at the White House, they would ask if they could go to Pickfair to meet the couple. At Pickfair, the couple would host Charlie Chaplin, the best friend of Fairbanks, as well as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, Amelia Earhart, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Babe Ruth, among many others. Will Rogers would say that his biggest job as the mayor of Beverley Hills was to direct tourists to Mary Pickford’s house.
In 1921, she would co-found, and serve as the first vice president, of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which provided financial assistance to employees in the film industry in need.
Pickford was not someone who enjoyed traveling, but she did so to find inspiration for movies. She would travel with Fairbanks in 1926 to Berlin and upon watching a movie by Sergei Eisenstein that brought her to tears, she would say quote:
“How my hand had frozen to the umbrella I was holding, and how I had to pry it away with the other hand when the picture was over.”
She would then become the first Hollywood producer to bring an established European director over to the United States.
Throughout her career, she was highly charitable, helping friends, family and other who needed money. On every set she worked at, she hung a bucket and asked everyone working to put money into the bucket to help out others in the industry who had no work.
In 1927, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford was the first star to make an imprint of their hands and feet in cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. She also became one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, now known as the Academy Awards.
Times began to change that year, when The Jazz Singer was released, the first talking film. Pickford would star in her last silent movie, My Best Girl the same year. Like many silent movie stars, she was dismissive of talking films at first, stating quote:
“Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus DeMilo.”
In 1928, Pickford lost her mother to cancer. With this loss, and the changing movie industry, it was a difficult time for Pickford but she would star in Coquette in 1929, her first talkie, and received the Academy Award for Best Actress. This made her the first Canadian to win an Academy Award. The movie caused a stir because she had cut her trademark ringlets and instead had a bob haircut, something she had actually done in the wake of her mother’s death. For many, the transformation was a shock as her hair had become a symbol of female virtue for some. The cutting of her hair made front page news with the New York Times. Some people even resorted to sending her hate mail.
She also starred in The Taming of The Shrew that year with Douglas Fairbanks, and the film failed at the box office, a sign of things to come.
In 1933, Pickford would make her final major film appearance when she acted in Secrets. Due to the closure of the banks as a measure to fight The Great Depression, it did poorly at the box office. Soon after, Pickford retired from acting in films for good.
She would say, quote:
“I left the screen. The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me.”
She would appear on the stage in Chicago in 1934 in The Church Mouse, and went on tour in 1935. She also did radio plays for NBC and CBS in 1935 and 1936. While not acting, she produced films throughout the 1940s, including One Rainy Afternoon and Love Happy with the Marx Brothers. Pickford was highly skilled when it came to business and she would oversee everything related to the films released by her.
In 1934, she wrote The Demi-Widow, as well as Why Not Try God, a pamphlet promoting Christian Science.
She returned to Canada in May of 1934, going back to Toronto where she was given an official civic reception, and huge crowds jammed the streets of the city to see her. She was given a gold Centennial medal and in her speech she would say, quote:
“I am proud to be a Canadian.”
In 1936, Pickford would separate from Douglas Fairbanks citing infidelity. Despite the divorce, Douglas Fairbank’s son stated that Pickford and his father long regretted their inability to reconcile. Fairbanks would die only three years later.
In 1937, she married Buddy Rogers, and adopted his two children Charles and Roxanne. She would remain married to Rogers for the rest of her life.
While she no longer acted in films, Pickford would keep busy through business. She would set up Mary Pickford Cosmetics, co-found the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and the Mary Pickford Charitable Trust.
In 1943, her family home was demolished in Toronto and most of the bricks were delivered to Pickford in California. The proceeds from the sale were donated by Pickford to build a bungalow in Toronto. The bungalow was then made the first prize in a lottery to benefit war charities. On May 26, 1943, she unveiled the home.
Pickford and Chaplin remained partners in United Artists for decades until 1955 when Chaplin left the company. Pickford left the company one year later, selling her shares for $3 million, or nearly $30 million today.
Thanks to her prudence during her heyday, she would often put upwards of two-thirds of her income away in the bank rather than spend it. By the time she was long past acting, her net worth was estimated to be $40 million, or upwards of $200 million today.
She also owned many of her early silent films, and her intention was to have them burned upon her death. Thankfully, in 1970 she agreed to donate 50 of her Biograph films to the American Film Institute.
Sadly, as she aged she became more of a recluse and would struggle with both alcoholism and depression. She rarely made public appearances, except in 1953 when she took part in the first televised broadcast of the Academy Awards.
As a recluse, she only saw Lillian Gish, a fellow actress, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and a few other people.
She would say around that time, quote:
“It would be unfair to the woman I was. Why should I try to compete with the beauties of today?”
In 1955, she would publish her memoirs Sunshine and Shadows.
In 1959, she had to appear in court in a matter relating to her co-ownership of a North Carolina TV Station. The court date was actually her 67th birthday and when asked under oath to give her age, she said, quote:
“I’m 21 going on 20.”
By the mid-1960s, she would only receive visitors by phone, speaking to them from her bedroom. Her husband Bobby would give tours of Pickfair, which included a western bar she had bought for Douglas Fairbanks, and a portrait of Pickford that is now in the Library of Congress. She would hold charitable events at her home as well, including a Christmas party held every year to help blind veterans from the First World War.
When she received a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1976, she did not attend the ceremony and only accepted it from Pickfair.
Late in her life, Pickford believed that she was no longer a British subject, as she was at her birth, because she married Fairbanks in 1920. When Canadian citizenship was created in 1947, she never acquired it as a result. She did have a passport, which was a British/Canadian passport. As well, she owned a home in Toronto.
As she approached her last years, she stated she wished to die as a Canadian and was able to reclaim her Canadian citizenship. Canadian authorities were not sure she ever lost her citizenship since she had a Canadian passport, but her request was approved and Pickford became a Canadian citizen.
On May 29, 1979, she would die in Santa Monica, California and is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
During her life and after, Pickford was heavily honoured throughout North America. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Mary Pickford Theater at the James Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress is named for her. Several movie theatres were named for her as well. A bust and historical plaque marks her birthplace in Toronto. Pickford was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1999, and a postage stamp featured her face in 2006. On April 8, 2017, a Google Doodle was created to celebrate her 125th birthday.
Over the course of her life, Pickford acted in roughly 200 short and feature films. She won two Academy Awards and as of 2009, two of her films have been added to the National Film Registry.
I’ll close out this episode with a quote from her friend D.W. Griffith, who said, quote:
“She has tremendous driving power in her and a most remarkable talent for self-appraisal. She never kids herself. The thing that most attracted me the day I first saw her was the intelligence that shone in her face. I found she was thirsty for work and information. She could not be driven from the studio while work was going on. She was, and is, a sponge for experience.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Ontario Heritage Trust, Wikipedia, JSTOR Daily, The Guardian, Women Film Pioneers Project, Mary Pickford Organization, National Public Radio, Mental Floss, History.com,
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