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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Mary Pickford

#1 Most Popular - 1917

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1916 Mary Pickford St. Louis Globe-Democrat SupplementIt’s hard to know where to begin with Mary Pickford, a name almost synonymous with starlet, Hollywood, and mogul. We could be worse off than to trace the genesis of the movie industry through her life and story alone, though Mary was astonishingly unique in many ways. First of all, she was the first female titan in the business, a force to be reckoned with. Second, she hailed not from New York or even small-town America, but from Canada – undoubtedly the first Canadian star to find fame and fortune South of the border. Last (but not least), she was the first American Sweetheart, and was in fact given the moniker of “America’s Sweetheart,” among others, including “Baby Gladys,” “The Girl With the Golden Hair,” and “The Glad Girl.” Clearly the Hollywood publicity machine has been working for well over a century now!

Mary was, as the above names hint at, born Gladys Marie Smith, on April 8, 1892 in Toronto. (Later claims had her at slightly younger than this year of birth indicates, so her actual age probably can’t be proven.) Her upbringing wasn’t easy; her father had a drinking problem and didn’t work regularly; her parents were also actors, perhaps lending to some more instability in the household. But it was a natural step for young Mary and her siblings to be both interested in and forced into show business at a young age. A legend, in Mary’s case, was about to be born.

Little Mary first tested her skills in the theatre, performing on Broadway as Baby Gladys Smith. It was here that she was given her famous name of Mary Pickford, by one of her producers, David Belasco. She did a lot of stage work – of course, the movies were in their very beginning stages at the time – memorably starring as Dorothy Nicholson in “Mrs. Jones Entertains” in 1909, before finding a rather familiar path onto the big screen. His name was D.W. Griffith. She met him in 1908 in New York, when he was already underway with his Biograph Studios and looking for talent.

It worked out perfectly. She was already great friends with the now-famous Gish sisters – Lillian and Dorothy – and they all got their start together at Biograph. At the time, Griffith was, like most studios at the time, making short one-reel films. Being from Kentucky, Griffith loved the mythical West, and some of the films he made with Mary are exemplary of this locale: In Old Kentucky (1909) and A1917 Mary Pickford Kromo Gravure No Borders Trading Card Feud in the Kentucky Hills (1912) included. She made a staggering 51 films in 1909, and a no less astonishing 49 films the next year. By the time she was 20, in 1911, she had made 176 films.

Griffith, however, had a particular affinity for films about ladies in distress, which the Gishes handled with ease and grace. Maybe too much grace – they were getting so much attention in these early years that Mary felt slighted, and ended her tenure with Biograph. A new and very lucrative chapter in her career was about to begin.

This was 1910, the year Mary learned how to be an entrepreneur. She didn’t want to get locked into another contract that wouldn’t work in her favour (nearly everyone at this time was working through contract), so she decided to go freelance, so to speak. She spent the next few years making films for various studios, largely choosing her projects based on the financial rewards she could reap. Remember, films weren’t so much an art back then as a form of mass entertainment. And her strategy worked; by 1916 she was making around $16,000 a week: a very considerable sum at that time! It was during this period that she also earned the name “America’s Sweetheart.”

Youthful and vibrant-looking, she was often performing as the little girl lost or girl next door, in such films as A Child’s Remorse (1912), Fate (1913), Such a Little Queen (1914), Esmerelda (1915), and Less Than the Dust (1916). She was, though, she was old enough to get married, to a fellow actor, Owen Moore. This marriage was doomed to failure, because she was soon to meet, during a tour in World War I, perhaps the most influential man of her life, in both matters of the heart and career: Mr. Douglas Fairbanks.

Fairbanks, as we know, was the actor about town in those days. If Mary was the first American Sweetheart, Douglas was the first real action star, dazzling the crowds with stunts that are still impressive today. He was also married when he met Mary, but both were soon divorced, and they got hitched themselves in 1920. More than merely the Aniston-Pitt of the day, they were the most famous 1923 Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks Picturegoer Kinema At Homecelebrity couple in Hollywood, and their new estate, labelled PickFair, was the place to be seen.

It wasn’t long before they expanded their joint estate into a thriving business practice. They were very friendly with Charlie Chaplin, and it was the three of them that formed United Artists, with Mary’s former studio head, D.W. Griffith. A more powerful team can hardly be imagined, and it says a lot that this studio is still around today, albeit in altered form; UA thrived for 60 years before being bought out by MGM, still a power player today.

What made United Artists so special was that it was a studio run by artists, for artists. Gone were the days that these actors (and director) had to give in to commercial pressures, and as creative people, they leapt on the opportunity to do things their way; they were to succeed or fail financially, at their own cost. As time would show, their way worked, and they virtually created cinema as we know it, both artistically and commercially. For Mary, a seasoned entrepreneur by now, this was the perfect choice, and she was soon a multi-millionaire.

Throughout the 1920s, they made many films under the United Artists banner, though, now that they were making features and were being so conscientious about the quality of the films being made, the output was far more modest than in the heady, one-reeler days. Highlights include the famed Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Rosita (1923), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), the iconic The Black Pirate (1926, also a landmark film in colour technology), Coquette (1929) and The Taming of the Shrew (1929).

But 1929 was a year of drama and upheaval. Mary won an Oscar for her role in Coquette, but sound had just started to make a big impact on the industry, and not all the studios could afford to keep up. It was also a tumultuous year personally – perhaps the pressures of working together caught up to Mary and Douglas, because they divorced, never to reconcile again.

Though Mary won an Oscar, thus winning the approval of the Academy, her1920's Mary Pickford 5x7 Fan Photo audience was starting to fade. She had become famous playing the sweet, innocent girl (ironically so different from her aggressive, proto-feminist real life personality), and her fans weren’t quite so accepting of her in more adult roles. She would only make three more films: Forever Yours (1930), Kiki (1931) and Secrets (1933). For someone who used to make a film per week, this must have been a very difficult slowing down of her professional life. She married actor and musician  Charles Buddy Rogers a few years later, in 1937, and spent a lot of time doing charity work. Inevitably, her memory as an actress and icon lived on, and she received what many actors feel they receive too late in their lives: Academy Accolades – she got the lifetime achievement award in 1976.

Mary died on May 29, 1979 at the age of 87, of a cerebral haemorrhage. Along with the Gishes, she remains a household name to movie buffs, and can hardly be considered without her partnership to Fairbanks. But Mary Pickford was more than a Canadian girl made good, or a producing/actor partner to the greats. She was a genuine maverick, ahead of her time in so many ways, and an indelible mark on the pages of cinema history.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Mary Pickford Pages:

Denny Jackson's Mary Pickford Page -- America's First True Sweetheart!!
Don't You Know Who I Am? by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com
Mary Pickford--My Best Girl -- This site is dedicated not only to one of the most charming silent movies ever made but also to its leading lady, the First Lady of Hollywood, Mary Pickford.