Mary Pickford (April 8, 1892 – May 29, 1979) was an Academy Award-winning Canadian motion picture star, as well as a co-founder of the film studio United Artists and one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Known as "America's Sweetheart," "Little Mary" and "The girl with the curls," she was one of the first Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood and one of film's greatest pioneers. Her influence in the development of film acting was enormous. Because her international fame was triggered by moving images, she is a watershed figure in the history of modern celebrity. And as one of silent film's most important performers and producers, her contract demands were central to shaping the Hollywood industry. In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute named Pickford 24th among the greatest female stars of all time.
On April 19, 1909, the Biograph Company director D. W. Griffith screen-tested her at the company's New York studio for a role in the nickelodeon film Pippa Passes. The role went to someone else, but Griffith was immediately taken with Pickford, who instinctively grasped that movie acting was simpler and more intimate than the stylized stage acting of the day. Most Biograph actors earned $5 a day, but after a single day in the studio, Griffith agreed to pay Pickford $10 a day against a guarantee of $40 a week. Like everyone at Biograph, Pickford played both bit parts and leading roles, playing mothers, ingenues, spurned women, spitfires, slaves, native Americans, and a prostitute. As Pickford said of her whirlwind success at Biograph: "I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities... I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I'd become known, and there would be a demand for my work." In 1909, Pickford appeared in 51 films — almost one a week. She also introduced her friend Florence La Badie to D. W. Griffith, which launched La Badie's very successful film acting career.
In January 1910 she traveled with a Biograph crew to Los Angeles. Many other companies wintered on the West Coast, escaping the weak light and short days that hampered winter shooting in the East. Pickford added to her 1909 Biographs (Sweet and Twenty, They Would Elope, and To Save Her Soul, to name a few) with films from California. Like the other players in Griffith's company, her name was not listed in the credits, but Pickford had been noticed by audiences within weeks of her first film appearance. In turn, exhibitors capitalized on her popularity by advertising on sandwich boards outside their nickelodeons that a film featuring "The Girl with the Golden Curls," "Blondilocks" or "The Biograph Girl" was inside. Pickford left Biograph in December 1910, and spent 1911 with the Independent Motion Picture Company (later Universal Studios) and Majestic. Unhappy with their creative standards, she returned to work with Griffith in 1912, and gave some of her greatest performances in films such as "Friends," "The Mender of Nets," "Just Like a Woman" and "The Female of the Species." That year, Pickford also introduced Dorothy and Lillian Gish (both friends from her days touring melodrama) to Griffith. Both became major silent stars, in comedy and tragedy respectively.
In late 1912, Pickford made her last Biograph, The New York Hat, in order to return to Broadway in the David Belasco production of A Good Little Devil. The experience was the major turning point in her career; Pickford, who had always hoped to conquer the Broadway stage, discovered how deeply she missed film acting. In 1913 she decided to turn her energies exclusively toward film. In the same year, Adolph Zukor formed Famous Players in Famous Plays (later Paramount), one of the first American feature film companies, and Pickford left the stage to join his roster of stars.
Zukor based his company on the theory that feature film's potential lay in recording theatrical players in replicas of their most famous stage roles and productions. Accordingly, Zukor first filmed Pickford in a silent version of "A Good Little Devil." The film, produced in 1913, showed the play's Broadway actors reciting every line of dialogue, resulting in a stiff film that Pickford later called "one of the worst [features] I ever made...it was deadly." (Whitfield, Eileen. "Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood," page 376). Zukor agreed; in fact, he held the film back from distribution for a year. By that time, Pickford's work in material written for the camera (not the stage) had attracted a fanatical following. Comedy-dramas like "In the Bishop's Carriage (1913, "Caprice, (1913) and especially "Hearts Adrift" (1914) made her irresistible to moviegoers. In fact, "Hearts Adrift" was so popular that Pickford asked for the first of her many celebrated pay raises based on the profits and reviews.(Kevin Brownlow: Mary Pickford Rediscovered, p. 86) The film also marked the first time Pickford’s name was put above the title on movie marquees. (Kevin Brownlow: Mary Pickford Rediscovered, p. 86) “Tess of the Storm Country” was released five weeks later. Brownlow observes that the movie “sent her career into orbit and made her the most popular actress in America, if not the world.” (Kevin Brownlow: Mary Pickford Rediscovered, page 93.) Her appeal was summed up two years later by the February, 1916, issue of "Photoplay" as "luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity". Only Charlie Chaplin-who reportedly sligthly surpassed Pickford's popularity in 1916- had a similarly spellbinding pull with critics and the audience. In retrospect, there is no way to measure which star was more popular; box-office records were unreliable in those days, and popularity polls were often fictions created by the studios or magazines. Certainly, each enjoyed a level of fame that far outstripped that of other actors. Throughout the 1910s and '20s, Pickford was believed to be the most famous woman in the world, or, as a silent-film journalist described her, "the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history." (Whitfield, Eileen: Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, p.131.)
Pickford earned the right not only to act in her own movies, but to produce them and (through the creation of United Artists) control their distribution. She was also the first actress to receive more than a million dollars per year. Throughout her career, Pickford starred in 52 features. In 1916, Pickford would also sign a new contract with Zukor that granted her full authority over the production of the films she starred in, and also a record breaking salary of $10,000.00 a week. Occasionally, she played a child, in films like "The Poor Little Rich Girl," (1917) "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," (1917) and "Daddy Long-Legs."(1919) These "Little Girl" roles are superbly done, and some Pickford's fans were devoted to them. But the roles aren't typical of her career, nor did Pickford (as some people believe) appear exclusively as children in silent film. (Whitfield, Eileen: Pickford, the Woman Who Made Hollywood, page 300.)
In 1918, Pickford broke with Paramount and became an independent producer; Pickford also now distributed her films through First National Pictures. In 1919, Pickford-along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks- would form the independent film production company United Artists. Pickford earned the right not only to act in her own movies, but to produce them and (through the creation of United Artists) control their distribution; her first film as an independent film producer, as well as distributor, at United Artists would be Daddy Long Legs. She was also the first actress to receive more than a million dollars per year.
In 1920, Pickford's film Pollyanna would gross around $1,100,000.00. The following year, Pickford's film Little Lord Fauntleroy would also be a success. In 1923, Pickford's film Rosita would also gross over $1,000,000.00 as well
The arrival of sound was her undoing. She played a reckless socialite in Coquette (1929), a role where she no longer had her famous curls, but rather a 1920s bob; Pickford had cut her hair in the wake of her mother's death in 1928, and her fans were shocked at the transformation. Pickford's hair had become a symbol of female virtue, and cutting it was front-page news in The New York Times and other papers. Unfortunately, though Coquette was a success and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, the public failed to respond to these more sophisticated roles. Like most movie stars of the silent era, Pickford's career faded as talkies became more popular among audiences . Her next film after Coquette, The Taming of The Shrew--which was also her husband Douglas Fairbanks' first sound film--was a disaster at the box office. By then in her late thirties, Pickford was unable to play the children, teenage spitfires and feisty young women so adored by her fans; nor could she play the soigné heroines of early sound.
Pickford and Fairbanks' romance was well along by the time they toured the U.S. in 1918 in support of Liberty Bond sales for the World War I effort, and the phrase "by the clock" became a secret message of their love. (Once during their courtship, Fairbanks was discussing his mother's recent death as the couple was driving. When he finished the story, the car clock stopped. The pair took this as a signal that Fairbanks' late mother approved of their relationship.)
Pickford divorced Moore on March 2, 1920, and married Fairbanks on March 28 of the same year. The tone of their European honeymoon was set by a riot in London as fans tried to touch Pickford's hair and clothes (she was dragged from her car and badly trampled). In Paris, a similar riot erupted at an outdoor market, with Pickford locked in a meat cage for her own protection, then pulled to safety through an open window. The couple's triumphant return to Hollywood was witnessed by vast crowds who turned out to hail them at railway stations across the United States.
The Mark of Zorro (1920) and a series of other swashbucklers gave the popular Fairbanks a more romantic, heroic image, and Pickford continued to epitomize the virtuous but fiery girl next door. Even at private parties, people instinctively stood up when Pickford entered a room; she and her husband were often referred to as "Hollywood royalty." Their international acclaim was so vast that foreign heads of state and dignitaries who visited the White House usually asked if they could also visit Pickfair, the couple's mansion in Beverly Hills.
Dinners at Pickfair were legendary. Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks' best friend, was often present. Other guests included George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Elinor Glyn, Helen Keller, H. G. Wells, Lord Mountbatten, Fritz Kreisler, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, Max Reinhardt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Austen Chamberlain, and Sir Harry Lauder. Lauder's nephew, Matt Lauder, Jr., a professional golfer who owned a property at Eagle Rock, near Pasadena, California, taught Fairbanks to play golf. Pickford and Fairbanks were the first actors to leave their handprints in the courtyard cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre (Pickford also left her footprints). Nonetheless, the public nature of Pickford's second marriage strained it to the breaking point. Both she and Fairbanks had little time off from producing and acting in their films. When they weren't acting or attending to United Artists, they were constantly on display as America's unofficial ambassadors to the world—leading parades, cutting ribbons, making speeches.
The pressures increased when their film careers both began to founder at the end of the silent era. Fairbanks' restless nature found an outlet in almost-constant overseas travel (something which Pickford did not enjoy). The relationship was irrepairably damaged when Fairbanks' romance with Lady Sylvia Ashley became public in the early 1930s. This led to a long separation and a final divorce on January 10, 1936. Fairbanks' son by his first wife, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., claimed that his father and Pickford regretted their inability to reconcile for the rest of their lives.
On June 24, 1937, Pickford married her last husband, actor and band leader Charles 'Buddy' Rogers. They adopted two children: Roxanne (born 1944, adopted 1944) and Ronald Charles (born 1937, adopted 1943, a.k.a. Ron Pickford Rogers). As a PBS American Experience documentary noted, Pickford's relationship with her children was tense, and she eventually criticized their physical imperfections, including Ronnie's small stature and Roxanne's crooked teeth. Both children would later remark that their mother was too self-absorbed to provide real maternal love. In 2003, Ronnie recalled that "Things didn't work out that much. You know. But I'll never forget her. I think that she was a good woman."
In March 1928, her mother Charlotte died of breast cancer, followed by her brother Jack in 1933 and sister Lottie in 1936. Fairbanks, meanwhile, died of a heart attack in 1939. Upon hearing of his death, she reportedly began to weep in front of her new husband Rogers, saying "My darling is gone." But according to Pickford, she held her tears back for fear of hurting Rogers, and only allowed herself to weep when she found herself alone on a train. [Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, page 313.] Still, as her marriage to Rogers wore on, Pickford often rhapsodized about Fairbanks, and from time to time mistakenly addressed Buddy Rogers as "Douglas." [Pickford, The Woman Who Made Hollywood, page 350.]
Ronald and Roxanne each left Pickfair at a young age. Pickford and Rogers stayed together for over four decades until Pickford's death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 87.
At the end of World War I, Pickford conceived of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization to help financially needy actors. Leftover funds from her work selling Liberty Bonds were put toward its creation, and in 1921, the Motion Picture Relief Fund (MPRF) was officially incorporated, with Joseph Schenck voted its first president and Mary Pickford as its vice president. In 1932, Pickford spearheaded the "Payroll Pledge Program," a payroll-deduction plan for studio workers who gave one half of one percent of their earnings to the MPRF. As a result, in 1940 the Fund was able to purchase the land and build the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.
But Pickford's most profound influence (beyond her acting) was to help reshape the film industry itself. When she entered features, Hollywood believed that the movies' future lay in reproducing Broadway plays for a mass audience. Pickford, who entered feature film with two Broadway credits but a far greater following among fans of nickelodeon flickers, became the world's most popular actor in a matter of months. In response to her astonishing popularity, Hollywood rethought its vision of features as "canned theatre," and focused instead on actors and material that were uniquely suited to film, not the footlights.
An astute businesswoman, Pickford became her own producer within three years of her start in features. According to her Foundation, "she oversaw every aspect of the making of her films, from hiring talent and crew to overseeing the script, the shooting, the editing, to the final release and promotion of each project." Pickford first demanded (and received) these powers in 1916, when she was under contract to Adolph Zukor's Famous Players In Famous Plays (later Paramount). He also acquiesced to her refusal to participate in block-booking, the widespread practice of forcing an exhibitor to show a bad film of the studio's choosing in order to also show a Pickford film. In 1916, Pickford's films were distributed, singly, through a special distribution unit called Artcraft.
In 1919, she increased her power by co-founding United Artists (UA) with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and her soon-to-be husband, Douglas Fairbanks. Before UA's creation, Hollywood studios were vertically integrated, not only producing films but forming chains of theaters. Distributors (also part of the studios) then arranged for company productions to be shown in the company's movie venues. Filmmakers relied on the studios for bookings; in return they put up with what many considered creative interference. United Artists broke from this tradition. It was solely a distribution company, offering independent film producers access to its own screens as well as the rental of temporarily unbooked cinemas owned by other companies. Pickford and Fairbanks produced and shot their films after 1920 at the jointly owned Pickford-Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. The producers who signed with UA were true independents, producing, creating and controlling their work to an unprecedented degree. As a co-founder, as well as the producer and star of her own films, Pickford became the most powerful woman who has ever worked in Hollywood. By 1930, Pickford's career as an actress had greatly faded .
When she retired from acting in 1933, Pickford continued to produce films for United Artists, and she and Chaplin remained partners in the company for decades. Chaplin left the company in 1955, and Pickford followed suit in 1956, selling her remaining shares for three million dollars.
After retiring from the screen, Pickford developed alcoholism, the addiction that had afflicted her father. Other alcoholics in the family included her first husband Owen Moore, her mother Charlotte, and her younger siblings Lottie and Jack. Charlotte died of cancer in March 1928. Within a few years, Lottie and Jack died of alcohol-related causes. These deaths, her divorce from Fairbanks, and the end of silent films left Pickford deeply depressed. Her relationship to her adopted children, Roxanne and Ronald, was turbulent at best. Gradually, Pickford became a recluse, remaining almost entirely at Pickfair, allowing visits only from Lillian Gish, her stepson Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and a few select others. In the mid-1960s, she often received visitors only by telephone, speaking to them from her bedroom. Buddy Rogers often gave guests tours of Pickfair, including views of a genuine western bar she had bought for Douglas Fairbanks, and a portrait of Pickford in the drawing room. Painted at the height of her fame, it emphasizes her girlish beauty and spun-gold curls. A print of this image now hangs in the Library of Congress.
In addition to her Oscar as best actress for Coquette (1929), Mary Pickford received an Academy Honorary Award for a lifetime of achievements in 1976. The Academy sent a TV crew to her house to record her short statement of thanks upon acceptance of the award. Her frail, doll-like appearance and her nearly unintelligible speech shocked viewers, some of whom still remembered the vital, take-charge character Pickford played in silent features.
Before her death, Pickford began to worry that she had lost her Canadian citizenship through her marriages to three U.S. citizens. She then petitioned the Canadian government to restore her Canadian citizenship. Due to the immigration laws in place at the time of each marriage, the Canadian government wasn't sure Pickford had ever lost her Canadian citizenship. They officially declared her to be a Canadian, and she became a dual citizen. She died of cerebral hemorrhage on May 29, 1979, at the age of 87, and was buried in the Garden of Memory of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California. Buried alongside her in the Pickford private family plot are her mother Charlotte, her siblings Lottie and Jack Pickford, and the family of Elizabeth Watson, Charlotte's sister, who had helped raise Mary in Toronto.
There is a first-run movie theatre in Cathedral City, California, called "The Mary Pickford Theatre". The theater is a grand one with several screens and is built in the shape of an Spanish Cathedral, complete with bell tower and three-story lobby. The lobby contains a historic display with original artifacts belonging to Ms. Pickford and Buddy Rogers, her last husband. Among them are a rare and spectacular beaded gown she wore in the film "Dorothy Vernon at Haddon Hall" (1924) designed by Mitchell Leisen, her special Oscar and jewelry box.
Mary Pickford received a posthumous star on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto in 1999. In 2006, along with fellow deceased Canadian stars Fay Wray, Lorne Greene and John Candy, Pickford was featured on a Canadian postage stamp. In 2007, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has sued the estate of the deceased Buddy Rogers' second wife, the late Beverly Rogers, in order to stop the public sale of one of Pickford's Oscars. She was the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree from Iowa Wesleyan College, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.
Mary Pickford Auditorium at Claremont McKenna College is named in her honor.