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Hollywood's Leading Ladies: Mary Pickford

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Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford, NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: TH-43774

Film star Mary Pickford was the first "America’s Sweetheart," captivating early film fans with her expressive face and long golden ringlets. In her heyday, Pickford was recognized worldwide, with people across the globe referring to her "Our Mary". And while she was one of America's first film stars, she was also the first woman to negotiate a million-dollar movie contract, an original partner in the United Artists production company, a creator of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, and one of the first female innovators in Hollywood.

Early Life

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8th, 1892. Her family was not well off, especially after her alcoholic father moved out, but Gladys and her younger brother and sister helped supplement the family income by acting in a local theater. From an early age, Gladys delighted audiences and, by the age of 8, she and her family were traveling around the United States performing on the vaudeville circuit.

Broadway

After much success touring around the country, Gladys and her mother decided to try their luck on the Great White Way. In 1907, at 15 years old, Gladys Smith demanded a meeting with a Broadway producer, who gave Gladys two things that changed her career: a supporting role in the show The Warrens of Virginia and a new name. And thus, Mary Pickford was born. Mary was successful on the Broadway stage and spent her time behind the curtains studying stagecraft and learning the ins and outs of stage production.

The Girl with the Golden Curls

While on Broadway, Pickford attracted the attention of popular film director D.W. Griffith. He offered Mary five dollars a day to work for his New York-based production company, Biograph. Mary said she’d take 10 dollars. Griffith said yes.

In 1909, Mary made 51 films with Griffith. Keep in mind that the movies of the early 1900s are very different than the those of today; they were black-and-white, silent, and ran an average of 15-20 minutes each. They also didn't have credits, so audiences didn't know Mary Pickford’s name. They did, however, know her face—and her curls. She became "The Girl with the Golden Curls", "The Biograph Girl", and "Blondilocks". Audiences kept asking for more.

Over the next few years, Mary continued to make movies. In front of the camera, she played everything from servants to princesses, but she also had a strong voice behind the camera. She was known to not take a direction if she didn't believe in it, and as she moved from studio to studio, she kept negotiating higher salaries.

Tess
Lobby card for Mary Pickford in "Tess of the Storm Country", NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: G98F846_002

Famous Players-Lasky

In 1913, Mary Pickford started working with Adolph Zukor, the head of Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be renamed Paramount Pictures). One of her first feature-length films, Tess of the Storm Country (1914), was widely popular and cemented her status as Hollywood royalty.

Her next few films at Famous Players-Lasky were also box-office hits and, in 1916, Mary Pickford took that success to the negotiating table—she signed a contract with Adolph Zukor to earn a salary of $10,000 a week, 50 percent of all profits from her films, and production approval for all her projects. Between salary and profits, Mary Pickford was guaranteed a record-breaking one million dollars a year.

It is hard to emphasize how unique it was for anyone, especially a woman, to have so much control behind the camera. At a time when studios wielded power over most film industry employees, Mary Pickford, with her knowledge, talent, and fame, was one of the first women to control her fate on both sides of the camera.

United Artists

Overhead photo of Pickfair estate
The "Pickfair" estate, via Wikimedia Commons

After an unsuccessful first marriage, Mary Pickford married Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, and the couple were the two most famous people in Hollywood. The public doted on the union of Hollywood’s reigning king and queen, even though each of them divorced their previous spouses to be together. Fairbanks and Pickford bought a vast ranch house in the Hollywood Hills; nicknamed "Pickfair," their estate became famous for its legendary parties.

Both Fairbanks and Pickford had been making successful films for over a decade. They knew the artistry behind making movies, had a vision for the film industry, and wanted to make the movies they believed in. In 1919, they started their own production company with their friends Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. The company, United Artists, was successful, but it wasn't easy to run, and all four owners worked hard to keep their vision alive.

Mary never directed films for United Artists, but she did just about everything else. And if she did have a vision for one of the films being made by United Artists she had no problem saying what she needed to say. Whether it was lighting a set, approving a script, or hiring a director, Mary made sure her voice was heard. And, because of her professional reputation, she was listened to.

Coquette movie poster
Poster for the 1929 film, Coquette, via Wikimedia Common

Transitions

In 1928, Mary Pickford cut off her famous curls. Fans were shocked, to say the least. Later in life, Mary said, "You would have thought I had murdered someone, and perhaps I had, but only to give her successor a chance to live."

The characters Mary had played over the previous two decades were loved by millions of fans. Movies like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) and Pollyanna (1920) made millions of dollars and, though Mary had slowly been transitioning into more sophisticated roles, she knew she needed to change.

Mary's choice of roles wasn't the only thing changing about the film industry. Synchronized sound had come to the movies, allowing audiences to hear actors' voices on screen for the first time. This was a difficult transition for many silent film actors and directors, and many people in Hollywood thought that sound was just a fad.

Mary said that putting sound in films was like "putting rouge on the Venus de Milo", but audiences felt differently. For her performance in the 1929 movie, Coquette, her first "talkie," Mary won the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress. It was only the second Oscar ever given to a lead actress, and the first ever given to an actress in a sound film. Over the next few years, Mary continued to make movies until officially retiring from the screen in 1933, the same year she and Fairbanks divorced.

After more than 20 years at the top, Mary Pickford stepped out of the limelight. The light, however, still shines on her legacy. Her history as one of the first female leaders in Hollywood, and her talent as an actress and a producer, is impressive and inspirational to women everywhere fighting to tell their stories today.

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