The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
couple in Hollywood, and their new estate, labelled PickFair, was the place to
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.
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.
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, her
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.
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
Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at
email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Mary Pickford Pages:
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
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.