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Mary Pickford – Biography

Mary Pickford
This photo by K.O.Rahmn of Mary Pickford at home was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.

It is difficult to imagine the magnitude of Mary Pickford’s fame when looking back from the vantage point of today’s modern media. We live in an age where the star system is entrenched, supported by press agents, PR firms, imagemakers, and driven by an invisible network of media outlets that circle the globe. Radio, television and magazines all feed a seemingly insatiable public demand for information about our modern-day icons. The world was very different at the dawn of the movie age. The film business was virtually brand new, and everyone in it was, essentially, making things up as they went along. Hardly anyone was known because in the early days of filmmaking no one had thought of giving actors a credit. That’s how Hamilton’s Florence Lawrence came to be known by her legion of fans simply as “The Biograph Girl” long before Mary Pickford came to work at the same studio. But Mary Pickford was without question Hollywood’s first superstar. Often called “America’s Sweetheart,” she was also known as “The World’s Sweetheart” because her fame exploded across the screen just as the movie industry itself became global. No matter where in the world she went, including a famous trip to Moscow, traffic came to a standstill because of the hoards of people wanting to get a glimpse of this charming star from Canada.

Mary Pickford, postcard,
This image of Mary Pickford’s Toronto home was scanned from an original source in the Northernstars Collection.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8 1893, in Toronto, Ontario, but the home she knew is no longer there. If you visit Toronto, look for the Sick Kids Hospital on the corner of University Avenue and Gerrard Street West. There you’ll find a small historical plaque marking her birthplace. When Pickford heard her childhood home would be torn down to make way for the hospital, she had a number of bricks wrapped and shipped to her Hollywood estate, Pickfair. Here at northernstars.ca, we would like to know what became of those bricks after Pickford died and Pickfair was sold. But we do have a rare postcard of her home on University Avenue.

Mary Pickford, actress, young,
This image of Mary Pickford was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
Pickford started in show biz at an early age. Her father died in February 1898 when he was only 30 years old, leaving his wife and three children in a state of near-destitution. In addition to taking in boarders, her mother, Charlotte, also did any number of odd jobs. One was as a seamstress, and it was while working on costumes for the Cummings Stock Company that the stage manger noticed the cute little Gladys and suggested she might be perfect for a part in a play they were getting ready to cast.

In September 1898 the future Mary Pickford made her debut with the Cummings Stock Company at The Princess Theatre in a production titled The Silver King. She was just five years old and appeared as both a little girl and a little boy. She even had a line, “Don’t speak to her, girls; her father killed a man.” The image of a very young Mary Pickford at the left is scanned from an article titled The True Story of Mary Pickford’s Beginning in the July 1923 issue of Photoplay magazine. The entire magazine is part of the Northernstars Collection.

Pickford’s mother quickly adopted the role of stage mother and manager, and oversaw all of her daughter`s early career. By 1902, they were in New York City looking for work. And work she did, touring for a number of years with a series of road companies under the billing “Baby Gladys.” However, when she landed a role in Broadway’s The Warrens of Virginia, she was 14 years old. It was producer David Belasco who asked the right questions about her background that led both of them to the name Mary Pickford. The name Pickford, by the way, comes from her grandfather on her mother’s side. His name was John Pickford Hennessey. It was 1908, and just one year later Pickford flirted her way into appearing as an extra on the D.W. Griffith film The Lonely Villa. After earning five dollars for her day of work, Griffith asked her to return the next day. She said she would, but only if she was paid $10 a day. She was back on the set the next day and quickly emerged as one of the key players at Biograph. The Lonely Villa, by the way, is the third film in our filmography because it lists Pickford`s films in the order they were released. Filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was a bustling film production centre when Hollywood was just a collection of orange groves, The Lonely Villa is important because it was the first film to embody D. W. Griffith’s sophisticated use of the technique of “cross cutting,” or the cut-back, to build tension in the story. It short, it advanced the art of storytelling using moving images and set a new standard for other directors.

Mary Pickford,
This glass advertising slide was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
Known to the public as “Little Mary” or “The Girl With Golden Hair,” she starred in dozens of Biograph Studios films, eventually leaving the theatre completely behind to focus on her career in the movies. As her stature and fame grew, she took more and more control over her career, often dictating the terms of her productions, including who would direct her and who would play her leading man. One of her directors in those early years was fellow Canadian Allan Dwan. Many people think that illegal duplication is a recent problem, but it goes back, at least in the film business, almost to the very first films. Many of Pickford’s earliest were systematically copied in Russia and distributed throughout the European underground market. Although the loss of income suffered by Biograph was enormous, the piracy of her work made Pickford an international superstar. Pickford’s massive popularity made her the motion picture industry’s first real icon, and she parlayed her success into more and more lucrative financial rewards.

Although Pickford, with help from the ever-present Charlotte, had negotiated almost total control of her work at Biograph – Mary was just 20 years old at the time – she had a deep belief her work was being overshadowed by the powerful messages of Griffith’s work, and in 1916 she signed with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company. The contract was unprecedented. Not only did she sign for an astounding $10,000 a week, but she also netted a $30,000 signing bonus, as well as a significant share of all profits from her films. As good as it was, Pickford honoured the deal for less than a year before moving on to an even bigger payday – a staggering agreement of $350,000 per movie – and by 24 she was Hollywood’s first millionaire.

Douglas Fairbanks - Mary Pickford
This image was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.

Within three short, incredible years, Pickford’s fame was such that no studio could hope to afford her salary and accommodate her demands. Charlie Chaplin, who got his start in films thanks to Mack Sennett, was the only other star of a similar magnitude, and when he found himself in the same situation, they decided to join forces and form their own studio. United Artists was born in 1919, and also included among its founders swashbuckling actor Douglas Fairbanks who became Pickford’s second husband, and the man who had started it all, D.W. Griffith. Oddly, many of Pickford’s best films were already behind her. She had played what was essentially the same role in film after film, the role of “America`s Sweetheart” a winsome image perpetuated across films like 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country, 1917’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and 1917’s Poor Little Rich Girl. It was a role that had brought her fame, fortune and more power than most men enjoyed at that time in Hollywood, but she also knew that she couldn’t go on being a “little girl” much longer. In 1920 she starred in Pollyanna, a film that called for the 27-year-old Pickford to play a girl of just 12 years of age. There wasn’t much future for the “little girl,” and by 1922’s remake of Tess of the Storm Country, directed by John S. Robertson, she knew it was time to put an end to the nonsense. She cut her long, angelic curls into a short bob and set about updating her image once and for all.

Mary Pickford, Coquete, actress,
Mary Pickford in an publicity still for Coquette scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
To help craft the new Mary Pickford, she brought director Ernst Lubitsch from Germany to the U.S. to helm 1923’s Rosita, which is a stunning film even by today’s standards and was at the time the most physically beautiful film of the entire silent era. It features huge, vaulted sets in an outdoors reconstruction of old Seville in Spain. Lubitsch hired thousands of extras to populate the scenes. In addition to excellent reviews after it opened in September of 1923, the film also helped Pickford achieve her personal goal. Photoplay magazine wrote, “there is no actress today who could portray the gay, graceful, coquettish little street singer of Seville as she does.” The article concluded with the words, “Don’t worry about Mary Pickford growing up.”

The new Mary Pickford went on to make a number of films throughout the 1920s, and by 1929`s Coquette (pictured above), for which she won an Academy Award, her transformation was complete. No one could have foretold that within three years it would all be over. In October 1929, The Taming of the Shrew, the only film in which she co-starred with Fairbanks, was released. It was a good film, and The New York Times called it “one of the ten best pictures of the year.” But within days of its release, the stock market crashed, and although the film went on to make twice its production cost, it wasn’t enough to make it a hit. Pickford’s stardom began to wane, and after releasing only three more films, Forever Yours in 1930, Kiki in 1931 and Secrets in 1933, her career as an actress was over. But she kept busy.

Mary Pickford, NBC
This photo of Mary Pickford with an NBC microphone was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
Pickford maintained her share of United Artists, and she turned to writing and radio. She made her radio debut on the NBC-WEAF network in 1934, heading a cast of stock players in radio versions of outstanding plays. The program was sponsored by Royal Desserts and was heard each Wednesday at 8 p.m. According to the press blurb accompanying the photo, “Miss Pickford believes radio to be the greatest entertainment medium in the world.” In 1935, she published a novel titled The Demi-Widow. That year was important for another reason. Her almost fairy-tale romance and marriage to Douglas Fairbanks came to an end. Knowing it would make work at the studio impossible, Pickford joined with Chaplin, and together they bought out their partners in United Artists. They would maintain control of the company right into the 1950s. Chaplin had sold off some shares years earlier, but in 1955 dumped his remaining 25 per cent share in the company he had co-founded for slightly more than $1.1 million. By then he was living in Switzerland, an outcast from Hollywood and the United States. Pickford hung on to her shares until February 1956, when she sold her interest for $3 million. A year earlier she had published her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow.

Mary Pickford remained a prominent member of the Hollywood community, and Pickfair remained an important Hollywood address for years to come. The estate was home to Pickford and her third husband, actor Charles “Buddy” Rogers whom she had married in 1937. From this stronghold, she launched many of her most important endeavours, including the formation of the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital, which aided former film-industry figures left without insurance and retirement benefits in times of dire financial need and illness. Upon retiring from the screen, Pickford bought up many of her early silent films with the aim of having them destroyed upon her death, believing that their artistic value had diminished in the years following their initial release. She later recanted and donated them to the American Film Institute. But by keeping her films out of circulation for decade after decade, it is thought by many that she greatly damaged her legacy. With her movies hidden away and deteriorating, and therefore inaccessible for revival and restoration, her stature among subsequent generations of movie scholars and fans was eclipsed, as one writer put it, “by stars of lesser talent and celebrity.”

Mary Pickford with Oscar
This image of Mary Pickford with her Oscar® was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
In late September, 2013, it was learned that a long lost Pickford film, Their First Misunderstanding (1911) had been found by a carpenter restoring an old New Hampshire barn. What made the find important is this is the film for which Pickford was first given credit in the advertising materials. The 10-minute comedy-drama stars Pickford and her first husband, Owen Moore, as newlyweds having their first argument. The couple may have been playing true to life as they had married that year. The first minute or so was destroyed, but the remainder was saved thanks to funding from the U.S. Library of Congress.

One of the highlights of her last years was the announcement that she would be given an honourary Oscar at the 1976 Academy Awards, which created a brief flurry of interest in this icon of another era. It was around this time that she began to be concerned about her citizenship. She had made a number of trips back to Canada over the years, and was aware that she had lost her Canadian citizenship when she married Owen Moore in New York. Pickford acted quickly and almost desperately to regain her Canadian citizenship and in November 1978, Canada’s Secretary of State, John Roberts issued her a letter welcoming her back as a Canadian citizen. She was quoted at the time as saying, “I wanted to be a Canadian again because of my mother and father.”

One year later, on May 28 1979, Mary Pickford died in Santa Monica, California. John Roberts wrote to Buddy Rogers on behalf of the Canadian government, “I hope that it is of some consolation to you in your moment of grief to know that I, and all Canadians, mourn her loss with you. The joy Miss Pickford brought to millions upon millions during her career…is a source of great pride to her fellow Canadians, in whose hearts her memory, her legend, will long live.”

Read about the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio
Listen to Mary Pickford
Also see: Jack Pickford
Also see: Lottie Pickford
Also see: Mary Pickford’s Filmography

Northernstars logo imageAll of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection. This biography is Copyright © 2013 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. Click here for more information about copyright.