Long before Charlie Chaplin ever met Mack Sennett, silent film actress Mary Pickford had become the first superstar of a burgeoning movie business with her collaboration with director D.W. Griffith. Having broken into movies in 1909, Pickford became such as a fast-rising star, that by 1916 she was making an unprecedented $10,000 a week and a percentage of the profits. She rode the wave to stardom as the curly blonde, elfin moppet in "Tess of the Storm Country" (1914), "Madame Butterfly" (1915), "The Poor Little Rich Girl" (1917) and "The Little American" (1917). She had big hits with "Stella Maris" (1918), "Daddy Long Legs" (1919) and "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1921). In 1919, Pickford - along with Charlie Chapin, D.W. Griffith and future husband Douglas Fairbanks - formed their own studio, United Artists, in an effort to secure more artistic control over their films. Meanwhile, she developed a more mature persona with director Ernst Lubitsch and eventually segued into talkies, winning an Oscar for Best Actress - and kicking up a bit of controversy - for her performance in "Coquette" (1929). But she soon left acting altogether, making her last film, "Secrets" (1933), before settling into a strictly producer role. Living in Pickfair, her famous Beverly Hills estate, in near seclusion for the rest of her life, Pickford nonetheless basked in her legacy as a pioneering actress whose girl-next-door charm made her Hollywood's first true movie star.
Born Gladys Smith on April 8, 1893 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Pickford was raised by her father, John, an alcoholic who left the family shortly after she was born and later died in 1898, and her mother, Charlotte, a seamstress who took in boarders to make ends meet. Pickford showed her pluck early on, refusing to allow the family to split up and consciously assuming the father's role as breadwinner. A working actress from the age of six, she solidified the family fortunes by aligning herself with producer David Belasco as a teenager, who gave her the name Mary Pickford, before she made her New York City debut in "The Warrens of Virginia" (1907). She entered the film business by working with D.W. Griffith, who at the time was directing silent pictures at Biograph. Initially, Griffith offered her $5 a day like all the other actors with the studio, but Pickford held out for a guarantee of $40 a week after only one day of work. Because Biograph churned out many short one-reelers, Pickford racked up a number of credits in short order, including "The Lonely Villa" (1909), "The Country Doctor" (1909), "The Sealed Room" (1909) and "The Restoration" (1909), in which she played one of her first named roles.
Displaying the same intuitive genius for film acting as Griffith had for direction, Pickford rejected the broad stock gestures of 19th Century stage technique in favor of a stillness that riveted audience attention. She not only showed feeling, but she captured the subtle shift of feeling without dialogue and, as the first actor to understand the impact of the close-up, soared to the top of the new art form in films like "To Save Her Soul" (1909), "The Englishman and the Girl" (1910) and "Romona" (1910). In 1910, Pickford briefly left Biograph to make movies for Independent, where she wrote and starred in "The Dream" (1911), directed by Thomas Ince and co-starring then-husband, Owen Moore. After further starring roles in "Sweat Memories" (1911), "The Lighthouse Keeper" (1911) and "'Tween Two Loves" (1911), Pickford left Independent and signed a contract with Harry H. Aiken's Majestic Film Company, only to make five one-reelers, including "Little Red Riding Hood" (1911), before returning to Biograph. Reunited with Griffith, she starred in "The Inner Circle" (1912), "So Near, Yet So Far" (1912), "The Informer" (1912) and "The New York Hat" (1912), her last film with Griffith and Biograph.
In 1913, Pickford left the movie business for a spell to star on Broadway in a production of David Belasco's "A Good Little Devil," before resuming her film career in May of that year after signing a contract with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company. She starred in "Caprice" (1913), "Hearts Adrift" (1913) and "Tess of the Storm Country" (1914), before Paramount Pictures began releasing Zukor's films. Under Paramount, Pickford became a major star with movies like "Cinderella" (1914), "The Dawn of a Tomorrow" (1915), "Madame Butterfly" (1915) and "Poor Little Peppina" (1916). When she was ready to sign a new contract with Zukor, Pickford was undoubtedly "America's Sweetheart," which allowed her to earn an unprecedented $10,000 a week and a percentage of the profits of her films. Adoring audiences flocked to Little Mary's movies, with the actress having struck a deep chord in the new mass of moviegoers. During her peak between 1917-19, she was a prime shaper in developing the movie narrative, bringing verve and finesse to feature storytelling, often in collaboration with directors Cecil B. DeMille, Marshall Neilan and William Desmond Taylor. Such titles as "The Poor Little Rich Girl" (1917), "The Little American" (1917), "Stella Maris" (1918) and "Daddy Long Legs" (1919) solidified her status as Hollywood's biggest star.
Though she never took a directing credit and rarely one for screenwriting, Pickford was undeniably the power behind her pictures, and she used that power to ensure she was well compensated. So when Zukor joined forces with Jesse Lasky, they attempted to reduce her power, only to be met with failure. In fact, Pickford frustrated Zukor so much that, according to her testimony in a 1923 lawsuit, he once offered her $250,000 if she would simply stop making movies. She reached her peak of popularity during the last years of World War I, touring the country selling Liberty Bonds, and afterwards becoming a mogul herself as one of the founders of United Artists, along with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith and soon-to-be second husband, Douglas Fairbanks. In fact, Pickford and Fairbanks were something like Hollywood royalty at that time, being the industry's two most popular stars, and became the first true celebrity couple. They even entertained fellow celebrities, presidents and world leaders at their rolling Beverly Hills estate, dubbed "Pickfair" by the press, which, during their marriage, became the most famous American residence outside of the White House. Meanwhile, the formation of United Artists marked the period of her best films and the most complete exploitation of America's Sweetheart in films like "Pollyanna" (1920), "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1921), "The Love Light" (1921) and "Tess of the Storm Country" (1922), a remake of her 1914 film of the same name.
Perhaps tiring of her Little Mary curly-cue persona, Pickford brought Ernst Lubitsch over from Germany to help her adopt a more mature screen attitude, but her hated of working with him on "Rosita" (1923) led her to work with more amenable directors like Marshall Neilan on "Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall" (1924); William Beudine on "Little Annie Rooney" (1925) and "Sparrows" 1926); and Sam Taylor on "My Best Girl" (1927), her last silent film. In 1926, while on a visit to the Soviet Union, Pickford was convinced by director Sergei Komorov to kiss a local actor, an event that was captured on film and turned into an entire film, "A Kiss from Mary Pickford" (1926). She continued to break new ground - this time literally - when in 1927 Pickford and Fairbanks became the first stars to press their footprints into concrete at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Pickford made the transition into talkies and showcased a new screen personality, renouncing her famous curls to play a flapper in Taylor's "Coquette" (1929), based on a Broadway hit that had starred Helen Hayes. She used her clout as half of Hollywood's reigning royal couple to lobby the Central Board of Judges and win the Best Actress Academy Award, which triggered controversy and led to direct voting by Academy membership.
After starring opposite Fairbanks in the disastrous adaptation of "The Taming of the Shrew" (1929), which contained the infamous credit "By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor," Pickford starred in two more sound films before surrendering ground to new stars like Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. She made her last film, "Secrets" (1933) before settling into the role of producer on "One Rainy Afternoon" (1936), "The Gay Desperado" (1936) and "Little Iodine" (1946). In 1936, a distraught Pickford divorced Fairbanks after his affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley became public knowledge; not long after, she soon married "My Best Girl" co-star, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, with whom she stayed happily married for the remainder of her life. Pickford had her last producing credit on Douglas Sirk's "Sleep, My Love" (1948) and later rejected the offer to play Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" (1950). She planned to act in "Storm Center" (1956), but gave way to Bette Davis in the end, settling once and for all into genteel retirement at Pickfair. Pickford eventually sold her share of United Artists after buying out Griffith and Fairbanks prior to their deaths, which allowed her to live in comfort for the rest of her life. She slipped into alcoholism and reclusion, entertaining few old friends and otherwise staying out of view. In 1976, Pickford received an Honorary Academy Award, which she accepted via videotape at Pickfair. On May 29, 1979, Pickford suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at 87 years old. She left behind a legacy as the biggest star of the silent era, surpassing even Chaplin, perhaps due to the hope she inspired for a new century and a new American art form.
By Shawn Dwyer