She was gentle and beautiful, with glistening gold curls and a face like a porcelain doll. She was photographed in big frilly hats and white dresses, cradling puppies and kittens. An innocent damsel, star of countless melodramas. A delicate Edwardian valentine of sweetness and light, endearingly old-fashioned.
And if you had told me all of the above, I would reply: “Well, the physical description is sure familiar, and that does sound very much like a stereotype of an early film heroine…remind me to discuss that with you sometime…but that ain’t the real Mary Pickford.”
Don’t get me wrong, Pickford was a beautiful actress with hair that famously fell in perfect curls, who was sometimes photographed cuddling cute animals (even a baby bunny or two). But the popular idea of Pickford–at least to those who’ve heard her name but have seen little of her films–is of a meek heroine indistinguishable from the damsels of certain Victorians melodramas. (I sometimes wonder if it’s partly because of that old-fashioned sounding name). But “meek heroine” wasn’t the persona people across the globe fell in love with. (Also, her curls were technically light brown.)
No, if you described Pickford’s characters with one word it would be: spunk. And if you needed another, it would be spirit. And I would add one more, class. She had all of those qualities, as well as being energetic, endearing, trustworthy, youthful, funny, and even saucy. And she was a phenomenon.
She was one of the world’s first global superstars, perhaps the first. And a more fitting individual to cope with that kind of stardom might not ever exist again. She understood the potential of the cinema early on, encouraging the growth of subtle film acting. She oversaw every aspect of her beautifully-produced films and negotiated confidently with business moguls twice her age. Charlie Chaplin’s fame is fairly well known, but if power is added to the mix then no star was bigger than Pickford. Her marriage to fellow megastar Douglas Fairbanks made them the King and Queen of Hollywood, their home Pickfair the U.S. version of Buckingham Palace. And she achieved all of this before turning 30.
Robert Cushman, a curator and administrator of the Margaret Herrick library, described the irresistible pull she had for audiences of every age and background back in those Edwardian days:
She was universally known, in every country where films are shown, as simply “Our Mary”…[she] was the only great film star whose popularity was based largely on spiritual love. She projected herself as the kind of person that everyone wanted to meet and fall in love with. She was vibrant; she was sincere. She was good. She was also disarmingly charming and had a wonderful sense of humor. The whole world wanted to put its arms around her and, in a way, it did. She had a definite sexuality, but of the kind that one anticipates experiencing only after having fallen deeply and idealistically in love. She was truly the ideal girl of the American Dream.
Who was this ideal girl? Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892, in Toronto, the eldest of the three Smith children (the other two being Lottie and Jack, also destined for the screen). She came from a line of strong matriarchs–her grandmother had been a veritable warrior of an Irish Catholic, said to have strode into brothels urging prostitutes to repent, and her mother Charlotte was an equally strong-willed woman who would be essential to Mary’s film career. Mary’s father John Charles Smith, likely an alcoholic, abandoned the family and then died of a brain hemorrhage in 1898. The Smith children grew very close to the widowed Charlotte, and sensitive Mary never forgot the pain of her family being broken and impoverished: “A determination was born in me…that nothing could crush: I must try to take my father’s place in some mysterious way, and prevent anything from breaking up my family.”
Mary contributed to her family’s tiny income very swiftly. Charlotte started taking in boarders, one of whom was a stage manager who persuaded her that acting could be perfectly respectable (people often thought the opposite in those days.) Thus, Mary began acting on the stage at age 7, with Lottie and Jack to follow.
“The theater,” she later said, “was my playhouse. It was my nursery. It was my school.” A love of acting, as well as a steely desire for financial security, drove the one-time “Baby Gladys Smith” to work her way up from touring in various ramshackle productions across the U.S. to finally working for the great theater producer David Belasco (himself). Belasco (himself!) would have her change her name to the elegant “Mary Pickford.”
And it was as “Mary Pickford” that she would one day present herself to director D.W. Griffith of the Biograph studio, hoping film work–that novelty!–would tide her over until the next big play came along (it was apparently Charlotte’s idea). Films were even less respectable than the stage, but Pickford took to them swiftly, using subtle performances. She became known as “the Girl with the Curls” and “the Biograph girl.” She returned to the theater briefly in 1912, but realized that her heart now lay in films.
She joined Famous Players in Famous Plays (one day to be called Paramount Pictures), owned by mogul Adolf Zukor. Most people were terrified of Zukor, but Pickford could happily twist him around her little finger. Films like Caprice (1913) Hearts Adrift (1914) and Tess of the Storm Country (1914) made her a star–and able to negotiate for pay raises and increased control over her films. Charlotte, also an adept businesswoman, worked closely with Pickford to ensure that her daughter’s career kept trending upward. In 1916 they worked out a deal with Zukor to have full control over her work–and an eye-popping salary of $10,000 a week.
Classic films such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Stella Maris, and Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley solidified her massive stature in Hollywood. The public also began to associate her strongly with “little girl” roles like Pollyanna, which she played amazingly well–although she technically played mature roles more often.
Pickford also helped found the company United Artists, along with fellow giants Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin. Around this same time Pickford and Fairbanks fell in love. Although both were already married–Pickford to the abusive Biograph costar Owen Moore–their subsequent divorces and marriage in 1920 hardly raised an eyebrow among the adoring public, which was an achievement in and of itself. They bought a mansion that they dubbed “Pickfair,” and were practically regarded as royalty.
In public Pickford was demure, in tasteful outfits with her curls done up. She didn’t like herself to be seen dancing or swimming, feeling it wasn’t proper. On the lot, referred to as “Doug and Mary’s,” she was busy all day long, not only acting but okaying costumes and sets, discussing story lines, and generally overseeing all aspects of her pictures. New actors were sometimes intimidated by her, but generally her studio was a happy place where she was respected. In the evenings she and Doug entertained everyone from fellow actors to dukes and duchesses visiting from foreign countries. She was often involved in charitable work, selling Liberty bonds during WWI and forming the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She and Doug filled in any spare time by appearing in parades, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and other public events.
In 1928, after the death of beloved Charlotte, Pickford cut her famous curls and assumed a fashionable bob. Fans were shocked; it was the end of an era. While Pickford acted in several talkies–and even won an Oscar for her role in Coquette–she was unhappy about the coming of sound, and retired from acting in 1933. That same year her brother Jack died of neuritis; Lottie would die of a heart attack in 1936. Pickford’s marriage with Fairbanks also came to an end. Her third and final marriage would be to actor Buddy Rogers.
Pickford would continue producing over the years, but grew increasingly reclusive, turning more and more to alcohol (something the Pickfords struggled with in general). In her old age few visitors were allowed within the walls of Pickfair, two of them being Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lillian Gish. She passed away in 1979 of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage, at age 87.
She left behind her a stunning legacy: Hollywood. Pickford had been one of its pioneers, one of its greatest actresses, and one of the very first people to experience world-wide celebrity through film. It is said that in one day more people went to see a Pickford film than ever saw Eleanora Duse or Sarah Bernhardt in their entire, venerable stage careers.
In 1931 critic C.A. Lejeune touched upon her great talent and almost spiritual relationship with the public:
…She is at once a myth and a surety, a legend and a pledge…It is a rather curious corollary…that Mary Pickford, a woman of steely sense and practicality, should have become the cinema’s great sentimentality, the concrete expression of our ideals and memories…She sends us away from the picture-house absurdly generous, ridiculously touched, so that we want to stop the first grubby urchin in the street and surprise it with a five-pound note, buy an orphanage, adopt a township of homeless dogs, or sell all we have and give it to the poor.
Pickford herself had this to say about her legendary career:
People have asked why audiences have loved me, and I can only say that it must be because I love them. I always have…I went on stage before I was five, but long before that I can remember praying to God to make people love me. I just had to have people’s love…Love seeks response in love. Nothing is more pathetic than half a love affair.
Brownlow, Kevin. Mary Pickford Rediscovered. New York: Harry
N. Adams, Incorporated, 1999.
Goessel, Tracey. The First King of Hollywood: The Life of
Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood.
Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.