Mary Pickford

From SM-201
Revision as of 00:01, 2 December 2007 by Robinr65 (Talk)

Jump to: navigation, search
Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford portrait 2.jpg
Portrait of Mary Pickford circa 1913
Birth name Gladys Louise Smith
Born Apr 8, 1892
Toronto, Canada
Died May 29, 1979 - age 86
Santa Monica, California
Years active 1909 - 1933
Spouse(s) Owen Moore (1911-1920)
Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (1920-1936)
Charles Rogers (1937-1979)

Template:Emh Mary Pickford (April 8, 1892 – May 29, 1979) was an Academy Award-winning Canadian motion picture star, as well as a co-founder of the film studio United Artists and one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Known as "America's Sweetheart," "Little Mary" and "the girl with the curls," she was one of the first Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood and one of film's greatest pioneers. Her influence in the development of film acting was enormous. Because her international fame was triggered by moving images, she is a watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity. And as one of silent film's most important performers and producers, her contract demands were central to shaping the Hollywood industry. In consideration of her contributions to to American cinema, the American Film Institute named Pickford 24th among the greatest female stars of all time.

Early life

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her father, John Charles Smith, was the son of British Methodist immigrants, and worked a variety of odd jobs. Her mother, Charlotte Hennessy, was from an Irish Catholic family. She had two younger siblings, Jack and Lottie Pickford, who would also become actors. To please the relatives, Pickford's mother baptized her in both the Methodist and Catholic churches (and used the opportunity to change her middle name to "Marie"). She was raised Roman Catholic after her father, an alcoholic, left his family in 1895, and died three years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. Charlotte, who had worked as a seamstress throughout the separation, began taking in boarders. Through one of these lodgers, the seven-year-old Pickford won a bit part at Toronto's Princess Theatre in a stock company production of The Silver King. She subsequently acted in many melodramas with the Valentine Company in Toronto, capped by the starring role of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most popular play of the 19th century.

Early career

By late 1900, acting had become a family enterprise, as Pickford, her mother and two younger siblings toured the United States by rail in third-rate companies and plays. After six impoverished years, Pickford gave herself a single summer to land a leading role on Broadway, planning to quit acting if she failed. She landed a supporting role in a 1907 Broadway play, The Warrens of Virginia. The play was written by William C. DeMille, whose brother, the then-unknown Cecil B. DeMille, also appeared in the cast. David Belasco, the producer of the play, insisted that Gladys Smith assume the stage name Mary Pickford. After completing the Broadway run and touring the play, however, Pickford was once again out of work.

On April 19, 1909, the Biograph Company director D. W. Griffith screen-tested her at the company's New York studio for a role in the nickelodeon film Pippa Passes. The role went to someone else, but Griffith was immediately taken with Pickford, who instinctively grasped that movie acting was simpler and more intimate than the stylized stage acting of the day. Most Biograph actors earned $5 a day, but after a single day in the studio, Griffith agreed to pay Pickford $10 a day against a guarantee of $40 a week. Like everyone at Biograph, Pickford played both bit parts and leading roles, playing mothers, ingenues, spurned women, spitfires, slaves, native Americans, and a prostitute. As Pickford said of her whirlwind success at Biograph: "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 a demand for my work." In 1909, Pickford appeared in 51 films — almost one a week.

In January 1910 she traveled with a Biograph crew to Los Angeles. Many other companies wintered on the West Coast, escaping the weak light and short days that hampered winter shooting in the East. Pickford added to her 1909 Biographs (Sweet and Twenty, They Would Elope, and To Save Her Soul, to name a few) with films from California. Like the other players in Griffith's company, her name was not listed in the credits, but Pickford had been noticed by audiences within weeks of her first film appearance. In turn, exhibitors capitalized on her popularity by advertising on sandwich boards outside their nickelodeons that a film featuring "The Girl with the Golden Curls," "Blondilocks" or "The Biograph Girl" was inside. Pickford left Biograph in December 1910, and spent 1911 with the Independent Motion Picture Company (later Universal Studios) and Majestic. Unhappy with their creative standards, she returned to work with Griffith in 1912. She made her last Biograph, The New York Hat, then starred on Broadway in the David Belasco production of A Good Little Devil. The experience was the major turning point in her career; Pickford, who had always hoped to conquer the Broadway stage, discovered she missed movie acting. In 1913 she decided to turn her energies exclusively toward film. In the same year, Adolph Zukor formed Famous Players in Famous Plays (later Paramount), one of the first American feature film companies. Pickford left the stage to join his roster of stars. She instantly attracted a following, appearing in such comedy-dramas as In the Bishop's Carriage (1913) and Hearts Adrift (1914). Her appearance as a tomboyish guttersnipe in 1914's Tess of the Storm Country sent her fame into the stratosphere. Pickford's effect in this and similar roles was summed up by the February 1916 issue of Photoplay, "luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity".[Whitfield, Eileen: Pickford, the Woman Who Made Hollywood, page 126]


Pickford earned the right not only to act in her own movies, but to produce them and (through the creation of United Artists) control their distribution. She was also the first actress to receive more than a million dollars per year. Pickford starred in 52 features.

The arrival of sound, however, was her undoing. She played a reckless socialite in Coquette (1929), a role for which she cut her famous hair into a 1920s bob. Pickford's hair had become a symbol of female virtue, and cutting it was front-page news in The New York Times and other papers. Unfortunately, though she won the Academy Award for Coquette, the public failed to respond to these more sophisticated roles. Then in her forties, Pickford was unable to play the teenage spitfires so adored by her fans; nor could she play the soigne heroines of early sound.

She retired from acting in 1933, though she continued to produce films for others, including Sleep, My Love (1948), an update of Gaslight with Claudette Colbert.


Pickford was married three times. She first married Owen Moore (1886–1939), an Irish-born silent film actor, on January 7, 1911. It is believed she became pregnant by Moore in the early 1910s, but had a miscarriage or an abortion; Some accounts suggest this led to her inability to have children.[Whitfield, Eileen: Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, p. 125][citation needed] The couple had numerous marital problems, notably Moore's alcoholism, insecurity about living in the shadow of Pickford's fame, and bouts of domestic violence. The couple lived apart for several years, and Pickford became secretly involved in a relationship with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

Pickford and Fairbanks' romance was well along by the time they toured the U.S. in 1918 in support of Liberty Bond sales for the World War I effort, and the phrase "by the clock" became a secret message of their love. (Once during their courtship, Fairbanks was discussing his mother's recent death as the couple was driving. When he finished the story, the car clock stopped. The pair took this as a signal that Fairbanks' late mother approved of their relationship.)

Pickford divorced Moore on March 2, 1920, and married Fairbanks on March 28 of the same year. The tone of their European honeymoon was set by a riot in London as fans tried to touch Pickford's hair and clothes (she was dragged from her car and badly trampled). In Paris, a similar riot erupted at an outdoor market, with Pickford locked in a meat cage for her own protection, then pulled to safety through an open window. The couple's triumphant return to Hollywood was witnessed by vast crowds who turned out to hail them at railway stations across the United States.

The Mark of Zorro (1920) and a series of other swashbucklers gave the popular Fairbanks a more romantic, heroic image, and Pickford continued to epitomize the virtuous but fiery girl next door. Even at private parties, people instinctively stood up when Pickford entered a room; she and her husband were often referred to as "Hollywood royalty." Their international acclaim was so vast that foreign heads of state and dignitaries who visited the White House usually asked if they could also visit Pickfair, the couple's mansion in Beverly Hills.

Dinners at Pickfair were legendary. Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks' best friend, was often present. Other guests included George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Elinor Glyn, Helen Keller, H. G. Wells, Lord Mountbatten, Fritz Kreisler, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, Max Reinhardt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Austen Chamberlain, and Sir Harry Lauder. Lauder's nephew, Matt Lauder, Jr., a professional golfer who owned a property at Eagle Rock, near Pasadena, California, taught Fairbanks to play golf. Pickford and Fairbanks were the first actors to leave their handprints in the courtyard cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre (Pickford also left her footprints). Nonetheless, the public nature of Pickford's second marriage strained it to the breaking point. Both she and Fairbanks had little time off from producing and acting in their films. When they weren't acting or attending to United Artists, they were constantly on display as America's unofficial ambassadors to the world—leading parades, cutting ribbons, making speeches.

The pressures increased when their film careers both began to founder at the end of the silent era. Fairbanks' restless nature found an outlet in almost-constant overseas travel (something which Pickford did not enjoy). The relationship was fatally damaged when Fairbanks' romance with Lady Sylvia Ashley became public in the early 1930s. This led to a long separation and a final divorce on January 10, 1936. Fairbanks' son by his first wife, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., claimed that his father and Pickford regretted their inability to reconcile for the rest of their lives.

On June 24, 1937, Pickford married her last husband, actor and band leader Charles 'Buddy' Rogers. They adopted two children: Roxanne (born 1944, adopted 1944) and Ronald Charles (born 1937, adopted 1943, a.k.a. Ron Pickford Rogers). As a PBS American Experience documentary noted that Pickford's relationship with her children was tense, and she eventually criticized their physical imperfections, including Ronnie's small stature and Roxanne's crooked teeth. Both children would later remark that their mother was too self-absorbed to provide real maternal love. In 2003, Ronnie recalled that "Things didn't work out that much. You know. But I'll never forget her. I think that she was a good woman."

In March 1928, her mother Charlotte died of breast cancer, followed by her brother Jack in 1933 and sister Lottie in 1936. Fairbanks, meanwhile, died of a stroke in 1939. Upon hearing of his death, she reportedly began to weep in front of her new husband Rogers, saying "My darling is gone."

Ronald and Roxanne each left Pickfair at a young age. Pickford and Rogers stayed together for over four decades until Pickford's death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 87.

The film industry

Pickford used her stature in the movie industry to promote a variety of causes. During World War I, she was the most prominent film star to promote the sale of Liberty Bonds, an exhausting series of fund-raising speeches that kicked off in Washington, D.C., where she sold bonds alongside Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Marie Dressler. Five days later she spoke on Wall Street to an estimated 50,000 people. Though Canadian-born, she was a powerful symbol of Americana, kissing the American flag for cameras and auctioning one of her world-famous curls for $15,000. In a single speech in Chicago she sold an estimated five million dollars' worth of bonds. She was christened the U.S. Navy's official "Little Sister"; the Army named two cannons after her and made her an honorary colonel.

At the end of World War I, Pickford conceived of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization to help financially needy actors. Leftover funds from her work selling Liberty Bonds were put toward its creation, and in 1921, the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF) was officially incorporated, with Joseph Schenck voted its first president and Mary Pickford as its vice president. In 1932, Pickford spearheaded the "Payroll Pledge Program," a payroll-deduction plan for studio workers who gave one half of one percent of their earnings to the MPRF. As a result, in 1940 the Fund was able to purchase the land and build the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.

But Pickford's most profound influence (beyond her acting) was to help reshape the film industry itself. When she entered features, Hollywood believed that the movies' future lay in reproducing Broadway plays for a mass audience. Pickford, who entered feature film with two Broadway credits but a far greater following among fans of nickelodeon flickers, became the world's most popular actor in a matter of months. In response to her astonishing popularity, Hollywood rethought its vision of features as "canned theatre," and focused instead on actors and material that were uniquely suited to film, not the footlights.

An astute businesswoman, Pickford became her own producer within three years of her start in features. According to her Foundation, "she oversaw every aspect of the making of her films, from hiring talent and crew to overseeing the script, the shooting, the editing, to the final release and promotion of each project." Pickford first demanded (and received) these powers in 1916, when she was under contract to Adolph Zukor's Famous Players In Famous Plays (later Paramount). He also acquiesced to her refusal to participate in block-booking, the widespread practice of forcing an exhibitor to show a bad film of the studio's choosing in order to also show a Pickford film. In 1916, Pickford's films were distributed, singly, through a special distribution unit called Artcraft.

In 1919, she increased her power by co-founding United Artists (UA) with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and her soon-to-be husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Before UA's creation, Hollywood studios were vertically integrated, not only producing films but forming chains of theaters. Distributors (also part of the studios) then arranged for company productions to be shown in the company's movie venues. Filmmakers relied on the studios for bookings; in return they put up with what many considered creative interference. United Artists broke from this tradition. It was solely a distribution company, offering independent film producers access to its own screens as well as the rental of temporarily unbooked cinemas owned by other companies. Pickford and Fairbanks produced and shot their films after 1920 at the jointly owned Pickford-Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. The producers who signed with UA were true independents, producing, creating and controlling their work to an unprecedented degree. As a co-founder, as well as the producer and star of her own films, Pickford became the most powerful woman who has ever worked in Hollywood.

When she retired from acting in 1933, Pickford continued to produce films for United Artists, and she and Chaplin remained partners in the company for decades. Chaplin left the company in 1955, and Pickford followed suit in 1956, selling her remaining shares for three million dollars.

Later years

After retiring from the screen, Pickford developed alcoholism, the addiction that had afflicted her father. Other alcoholics in the family included her first husband Owen Moore, her mother Charlotte, and her younger siblings Lottie and Jack. Charlotte died of cancer in March 1928. Within a few years, Lottie and Jack died of alcohol-related causes. These deaths, her divorce from Fairbanks, and the end of silent films left Pickford deeply depressed. Her relationship to her adopted children, Roxanne and Ronald, was turbulent at best, and each left Pickfair at an early age. Gradually, Pickford became a recluse, remaining almost entirely at Pickfair, allowing visits only from Lillian Gish, her stepson Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and a few select others. In the mid-1960s, she often received visitors only by telephone, speaking to them from her bedroom. Buddy Rogers often gave guests tours of Pickfair, including views of a genuine western bar she had bought for Douglas Fairbanks, and a portrait of Pickford in the drawing room. Painted at the height of her fame, it emphasizes her girlish beauty and spun-gold curls. A print of this image now hangs in the Library of Congress.

Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood, California

The "Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study" at 1313 Vine Street in Hollywood, constructed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, opened in 1948 as a radio and television studio facility. The "Mary Pickford Theater" at the Library of Congress is named in her honor.

In addition to her Oscar as best actress for Coquette (1929), Mary Pickford received an Academy Honorary Award for a lifetime of achievements in 1976. The Academy sent a TV crew to her house to record her short statement of thanks upon acceptance of the award. Her frail, doll-like appearance and her nearly unintelligible speech shocked viewers, some of whom still remembered the vital, take-charge character Pickford played in silent features.


Before her death, Pickford began to worry that she had lost her Canadian citizenship through her marriages to three U.S. citizens. She then petitioned the Canadian government to restore her Canadian citizenship. Due to the byzantine immigration laws in place at the time of each marriage, the Canadian government wasn't sure Pickford had ever lost her citizenship. They officially declared her to be a Canadian, and she became a dual citizen. She died of cerebral hemorrhage on May 29, 1979, at the age of 87, and was buried in the Garden of Memory of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Buried alongside her in the Pickford private family plot are her mother Charlotte, her siblings Lottie and Jack Pickford, and the family of Elizabeth Watson, Charlotte's sister, who had helped raise Mary in Toronto.


Mary Pickford received a posthumous star on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto in 1999. In 2006, along with fellow deceased Canadian stars Fay Wray, Lorne Greene and John Candy, Pickford was featured on a Canadian postage stamp. In 2007, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has sued the estate of the deceased Buddy Rogers' second wife, the late Beverly Rogers, in order to stop the public sale of one of Pickford's Oscars. She was the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree from Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Partial chronology

  • 1909: discovered by D.W. Griffith at Biograph, worked for $5 a week, which he quickly increased to $8 a week.
  • 1911: I.M.P., $175 a week, with the employment of her mother and siblings guaranteed. Unhappy with the quality of I.M.P. films, Pickford sued to be released from her contract and won on the grounds that being under 21, she had been too young to contract with I.M.P.
  • 1911: Majestic Film Corp., $225 a week, with the employment of her husband, Owen Moore, as an actor and director, guaranteed.
  • 1912: back to Biograph, $175 a week, a pay cut she justified with the belief that the key to a great career was to "get yourself with the right associates." This period featured some of Pickford's most mature and varied work. Owen Moore signed with Victor Films and an unpublicized marital separation began.
  • 1913: appeared as the star (with Lillian Gish in a small role) in Belasco's Broadway production A Good Little Devil for $175 a week, raised to $200 a week.
  • 1913: Pickford moved to feature film by signing with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players in Famous Plays, for $500/week (D.W. Griffith had balked at paying more than $300).
  • 1914: Pickford became an international phenomenon through her roles as barefoot adolescents and urchins in the features Hearts Adrift and Tess of the Storm Country. Within the U.S., she was called "America's Sweetheart." In the country of her birth, she was "Canada's Sweetheart" and she became "The World's Sweetheart" overseas. Pickford asked Zukor for double her previous salary, and received it ($1,000/wk.).
  • 1915: At her request, her salary at Famous Players was again doubled, to $2000 a week, plus half the profits of her films. The movie Rags contained one of Pickford's ground-breaking roles as a self-described "hellcat."
  • 1916: Pickford formed her own producing unit, the Pickford Film Corporation, within Famous Players, and installed her mother as treasurer. She had a voice in the selection of her roles and the film's final cut. She chose her own directors and approved the supporting cast and the advertising. She was required to make only six films a year, a saner quota that earlier years, in which she made nine or more. She was paid annually $10,000 a week plus half the profits in her films, or half a million dollars, whichever was greater. As the contract's duration was two years, Pickford was guaranteed at least a million dollars. Famous Players also created a special unit called Artcraft to distribute Pickford's features, rather than blockbooking them, a practice Pickford vehemently opposed.
  • 1917: Pickford toured the United States with Fairbanks and Chaplin, supporting U.S. involvement in World War I and promoting Liberty Bonds. She played three of her legendary roles as children in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and A Little Princess. On the other hand, she was thoroughly adult in an anti-German propaganda picture The Little American, and the western A Romance of the Redwoods, both directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
  • 1918: She signed a contract with First National to make three films for $675,000 (about $10 million in 2005-terms). Pickford also received 50 percent of all profits, and complete creative control from script to the final cut. Meanwhile, Famous Players released one of her greatest films, the tragedy Stella Maris, in which she played a double role, as well as M'liss (another ragged spitfire) and the war comedy Johanna Enlists.
  • 1919: Pickford co-founded United Artists with Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and D.W. Griffith. During U.A.'s start-up, Pickford's films for First National were released, including Daddy Long-Legs (from the book by Jean Webster) and the violent melodrama The Heart o' the Hills.
  • 1923: Hoping to expand her image, Pickford convinced Ernst Lubitsch to direct her next film. After considering Faust, they settled on Rosita, the story of a Spanish street-singer who attracts the attention of the lecherous king. Though the role catered to Pickford's gift for playing sweet-but-fiery women in rags, it introduced a note of sexual sophistication which many of her fans loathed. Plans for future films with Lubitsch were abandoned. For the next few years she appeared in a series of superlative productions, culminating in Sparrows (1926), which blended German expressionism to Hollywood production values.
  • 1925: Pickford purchased 132 reels of camera negatives and prints from her Biograph period, 1909–1912, nearly 70 percent of her short films for that studio.
  • 1927: United Artists, under Pickford's direction, opened their flagship Spanish Gothic movie theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Pickford became deeply involved in the design of the theatre, and two Anthony Heinsbergen murals in the auditorium feature her. Theatre architect Howard Crane opened two other UA theatres in the same year, in Chicago and Detroit. The Los Angeles theatre has become known as the University Cathedral of Dr. Eugene Scott. The romantic comedy My Best Girl was released with her future husband, Charles Rogers, playing the male interest.
  • 1929: Pickford starred in a sound film, Coquette, a production that did well at the box office, earning $1.4 million. Pickford used the break from silent film to established a more flirtatious and sophisticated adult character. Her performance earned her an Oscar. In the same year, Pickford appeared with her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in a sound version of The Taming of the Shrew.
  • 1933: Pickford starred with Leslie Howard in Secrets, a money-losing film which proved her last.
  • 1937: Pickford founded Mary Pickford Cosmetics, a beauty company.
  • 1941: Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Walter Wanger founded the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers.
  • 1949: Pickford and her husband Buddy Rogers formed Pickford-Rogers-Boyd, a radio and television-production company.
  • 1951: Columbia Pictures and producer Stanley Kramer announced that Pickford would star in The Library, her first picture since 1933. She withdrew a month before filming was to begin in 1952. The anti-censorship screenplay was eventually filmed as Storm Center (1956), with Bette Davis in the lead.
  • 1956: Pickford sold her stock interest in United Artists, one-third of the company's shares. By 1951, the company had been losing more than $100,000 a week.
  • 1976: Pickford received an Academy Honorary Award for a lifetime of achievements.
  • Mary Pickford has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6280 Hollywood Boulevard. Her handprints and footprints can be seen in the courtyard of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

In Popular Culture

  • She is portrayed by Maria Pitillo in Chaplin
  • The Mary Pickford cocktail, made with light rum, pineapple juice, maraschino liqueur, grenadine syrup, and maraschino cherry, is a favorite among those who want to honor Mary's work by raising a toast to her.


see: Mary Pickford Filmography


Further reading

  • Whitfield, Eileen Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood University Press of Kentucky (1997) ISBN 0-8131-2045-4

External links


Jump to: Main PageMicropediaMacropediaIconsTime LineHistoryLife LessonsLinksHelp
What links hereReferences and SourceseMail The Wiki StaffContact Info