Born John Charles Smith, the younger brother of the girl who would grow up to become Mary Pickford joined the family business, acting, at a very early age. He began on stage in Toronto appearing with his mother and older sisters Lottie and Mary, ably handling child parts in various stock companies. One of his first engagements was with Chauncy Olcott in a play titled The Three of Us.
His stage work, for such a young boy, was almost endless but probably not a chore. There was, for example, no heavy lifting and he got to play indoors. It is impossible to know if his problems in later life began here, but for such a young boy – he began acting when he was six – it was a fairly relentless pace and his early days were full of all the usual vicissitudes incidental to being in a stock company. From this distant vantage point looking back at events over 110 years ago it is easy to assume the young Pickford spent most of his early career with his mother and the rest of his acting family but the truth is he often toured the country alone with neither family nor friends, relying for guidance and companionship on other members in the troupe.
But it was family, his sister Mary to be precise, who gave Jack Pickford his start in movies. He began appearing in Biograph pictures in 1909 when he was just 13 years old. His first screen appearance was as a background performer in the 1909 short (they were all short movies back then) titled The Message. Directed by D.W.Griffith, it is interesting to note that the film also had roles for fellow Canadian Mack Sennett and for Owen Moore, the man who would marry fellow Biograph actor and Jack’s sister, Mary Pickford.
After his time at Biograph, Jack Pickford later switched to Pathé and starred in boy parts in several movies growing up and into juvenile parts as he matured.
By 1916 he had six years of experience behind him and the movies had moved from the east coast to Hollywood. Jack Pickford starred in a number of films for Famous Players including Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen. More importantly, he began to carve a career of his own away from the shadow of his famous sister and he received positive reviews for his role as Pip in the 1917 film, Great Expectations. Any question of his acting ability was erased when he appeared in the title role of Tom Sawyer, also released in 1917. Other Famous Players titles include The Varmint, Bunker Bean and Mile-a-Minute Kendal. He left Famous Players when his contact expired and set up his own company to manage his career and made three pictures as a more-or-less independent player. In the Blue Book of the Screen published in the mid-1920s, Pickford was described as “dark, slight of build, weighing about 135 pounds. He is about five feet seven inches in height.”
He tried producing some films including The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come and The Man Who Had Everything, which oddly could have served as his epitaph. But sadly, more interest was being paid to his off-camera lifestyle. He had picked up gambling, alcohol, and drug addictions. He also met actress and Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas at a beach cafe on the Santa Monica Pier. It is said that Thomas was just as wild as Jack and quite possibly had her own problems with alcohol consumption. Pickford eloped with Thomas on October 25, 1916 in New Jersey.
By most accounts of the time, Olive Thomas was the love of Pickford’s life, yet the marriage was a stormy one due, in no small way, to the fact they both maintained separate careers and were often apart for long stretches of time. In a March 1920 issue of Motion Picture magazine, Thomas said “He’s always sending me something and then I send him something back. You see, we have to bridge the distance in some way.” She would die in August of that same year while on a working vacation together in Paris, France. While there is some debate as to what it was she accidentally drank – some accounts, including one by Pickford himself, stated that she had ingested mercury bichloride in liquid form – Olive Thomas died on September 10th. The young beauty who had that year been captured in a nude portrait by renowned artist Vargas was just 25-years-old.
In a deep depression, Jack Pickford returned to Hollywood and sister Mary tried to get his career going again. She hired her brother to co-direct with Alfred E. Green a picture titled Through the Back Door. Released in 1921, it was a convoluted melodrama about a Belgian child given up for adoption by a rich, selfish mother. When The Great War erupts, she escapes to America and ends up working as a servant in… her mother’s house as she too had left Europe for America. It was a lavish film complete with big sets and beautiful camera work but produced only a modest gross of $774,064.
The death of his first wife haunted Jack Pickford for the rest of his life and some of that can be found in his choices for a new partner. In 1922 he married Marilyn Miller, a celebrated Broadway dancer and, like Olive Thomas, a former Ziegfeld girl. They divorced in 1927. His final marriage was to Mary Mulhern in 1930. Again the marriage ended badly as they had separated, but not divorced, sometime before his death just three years later.
Though his personal life was in constant turmoil through his last decade, he continued to work. One of those films was titled Garrison’s Finish. Mary Pickford’s partnership in United Artists allowed her to lobby for the company tonpick up the film for distribution. Part of that lobbying was to point out to her partners that her own workload would be coming to an end after she completed Little Lord Fauntleroy, and she would have the time and her personal organization to work on her brother’s project. It was the first of three Jack Pickford pictures that United Artists’ subsidiary Allied Producers and Distributors Corporation would release. The other two were The Hill Billy in 1924 and 1925’s Waking Up The Town.
He made only six more films, his last being Gang War in 1928. Over the next five years his health began to rapidly fail him. In her autobiography, Mary Pickford described him as looking ill and emaciated when he visited her Pickfair home in 1932. We have been unable to find a reason why Jack Pickford traveled to Paris, but it was there, in the same hospital where his first wife had died, that Jack Pickford passed away on January 3, 1933. The American Hospital noted the cause of death as “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centers.” On the Mary Pickford organization’s website they state rather directly that he died “in Paris at age 36 due to health problems relating to alcoholism.”
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Jack Pickford was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which can be found at 1523 Vine Street.
All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection. This biography is Copyright © 2012 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. For more information about copyright, click here.