At the beginning of the film industry’s reign in the silent era, Mary Pickford was one of the most popular film stars in the world. Famously called “America’s Sweetheart” and even the “Queen of Movies,” Pickford was the actor who defined the Hollywood ingénue, and she even rivalled Charlie Chaplin in how well known and how beloved by the public she was.
Born in Toronto, Ontario in 1892 as Gladys Marie Smith, she had been acting since she was a child, sometimes with her siblings who also would grow up to be actors (Lottie Pickford and Jack Pickford). Her earliest roles were in stage plays at Toronto theatre companies, including The Silver King, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other melodramas. By the early part of the 1900s, her whole family left Canada and began touring the United States (her mother was an organ player), although touring didn’t quite pay enough to keep her family out of poverty, so young Gladys Smith tried to get a role on Broadway, planning to quit acting if she didn’t get a lead role. In 1907, she won her first Broadway role, but it was a supporting role in The Warrens of Virginia, a drama set during the American Civil War written by William C. deMille (brother of Cecil B. deMille, who also starred in the play). It was that play’s producer David Belasco who came up with Gladys Marie Smith’s stage name “Mary Pickford.”
In 1909 when director D.W. Griffith was making films for the Biograph Company (which at that time was Hollywood’s most prominent and respected film studio), Griffith was immediately taken with Pickford when he screen-tested her for a role in one of his movies. She didn’t get the part but Griffith kept in touch with her and he decided to cast Pickford as one of his regulars. At Biograph, Pickford played small roles, leading roles, mothers, prostitutes, ingénues, slaves, secretaries and more. Pickford enjoyed the process of acting in films much more than she enjoyed stage acting, finding the film industry a lot simpler and finding the chances of becoming a well-known and in-demand actor a lot higher.
Pickford even helped launch the careers of other actors who became famous after she introduced them to Griffith, including Florence La Badie and the sisters Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish. La Badie became well known for her roles in silent film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lillian Gish became a leading lady in Griffith’s biggest masterpieces, including The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Broken Blossoms.
By the early 1910s, Pickford had starred in many short films by Griffith and Biograph, plus short films from the film companies IMP, Selig and Majestic, her first starring role being Griffith’s The Violin Maker of Cremona (1909). And Pickford was becoming so successful with these film roles that she actually got the chance to go back to Broadway for a leading role, which had always been her dream, but she found that she missed making movies too much so she decided to work exclusively in films in 1913.
When she returned from Broadway, Pickford signed with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company (the studio that would later become Paramount) and finally got to be directed in feature films, including ones by Edwin S. Porter the film pioneer behind The Great Train Robbery. At Famous Players, Pickford became well known by filmgoers for movies like In the Bishop’s Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913) and Hearts Adrift (1914), which was so popular that it led to Pickford getting her name above the title and receiving a pay raise, while the film Tess of the Storm Country (1914) has been credited for launching Pickford into stardom.
Her first official Paramount feature film was The Eagle’s Mate (1914) which was the first of her frequent collaborations with director James Kirkwood, as well as A Girl of Yesterday (1915), which Pickford wrote the scenario for herself, and Madame Butterfly (1915), but Pickford also produced her own films under Paramount’s special division Artcraft, including highly popular films like The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) and Stella Maris (1918), which featured Pickford in dual roles as a bedridden rich girl and an orphan servant.
Audiences loved Pickford and she became a star who studios capitalized on, Biograph advertising her as “The Biograph Girl” and “The Girl with the Golden Curls.” She was nicknamed “America’s Sweetheart” because she was the most well known and most well loved woman in America. At the time her appeal was mostly attributed to her combination of tenderness and tenacity on screen. She often played little girls in her films, which she was able to do well given her short height, and thanks to films like The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, this was how many of her fans saw her, and Pickford admitted that her lack of a normal childhood even made those roles appealing to her in some ways. After she became famous, she earned a record-breaking $10,000 a week in addition to half of her film’s profits, which guaranteed her over a million dollars and made Pickford the first actress in history to sign a million-dollar contract.
In 1918 Pickford left Paramount due to disagreements with Zukor on what was seen as fair payment, and she joined Film National to produce and star in films like Daddy-Long-Legs, The Hoodlum and Heart o’ the Hills, all released in 1919, which was the same year Pickford co-founded the film studio United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, which gave Pickford and her fellow artists even more creative control over the kinds of films they made.
Pickford’s first film for United Artists was Pollyanna (1920), a major hit that grossed over a million dollars with Pickford once again giving the public what they wanted playing a 12-year-old girl, but she also had success at UA with Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) in which she played dual roles as a boy (yes, Mary Pickford played a boy) and his mother. Pickford also had success at UA with Ernst Lubitsch’s costume dramedy Rosita (1923), Little Annie Rooney (1925), Sparrows (1926) which tells the story of a woman who saves a child from being kidnapped and is seen by some film historians as Pickford’s masterpiece, and My Best Girl (1927) which co-starred Pickford’s future husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers.
After the sound era, just like with many silent film actors, Pickford’s career began to fall apart. Pickford’s first talkie was the 1929 drama Coquette, which admittedly was a box office hit that earned Pickford an Oscar, but this was a Mary Pickford that people were not used to (she cut her curls a year earlier and played a flapper girl for the first time), to the point where the film caused a minor controversy, although Pickford had been trying to escape being typecast for years by this point, and when she hit her late thirties, little girl roles were out of the question. She finally retired from film acting in 1933, but she remained active at United Artists and became that studio’s vice president in 1936 while producing the films of others. She finally sold her UA shares in 1956 and left show business altogether, although she received an honorary Academy Award in 1976.
Mary Pickford was one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, and she gained that power because she was very business savvy, quickly learning how to be her own boss and overseeing every aspect of the creation of her films from script to casting to shooting to editing to promotion, and her fame and her beloved public status gave her the power to demand these things. And after co-founding United Artists, the first independent film studio founded by famous stars, she became the most powerful woman in Hollywood.