Before Edwardian audiences knew her name, they knew the confident, talented young movie actress by a distinct feature: her curls. Long, lustrous and always impeccably arranged, they quickly earned Mary Pickford the nickname of “the Girl with the Curls”–a nickname which has, in one way or another, stuck around ever since.
During the ’20s, when long hair was being lopped off all across the nation in favor of fashionable bobs, Pickford stuck to those curls…for as long as she reasonably could, at least. After all, she was as identified with her hair as Charlie Chaplin was with his mustache. Many youthful actresses had donned curls at one time or another–Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore and Madge Bellamy being three of them–but it was America’s Sweetheart who was so known for that style that it became known as “Mary Pickford curls.”
How did this happen? And why were audiences so enamored with her hair? Let’s glance back at history, and see what Pickford had to say herself.
In the 1900s and 1910s, once you were old enough to be considered a woman you wore your hair up in various loose, voluminous styles designed to fit beneath big hats. Wearing it down was considered immodest. Fancy ringlets were the style for little girls and teenagers, acceptably innocent ages to show off long hair.
Pickford was still a curl-wearing teen when she joined the Biograph company. The style was very becoming to her, and her light brown hair color photographed beautifully on the orthochromatic film. Backlighting formed a halo effect, giving the illusion that she was a natural blonde (in later years she would make her hair authentically “golden” with peroxide). Blondness back then was desirable for a young, pretty actress not far removed from the Victorian era, since it suggested a golden-haired angel. Pickford would wear other hairstyles at Biograph–tangled waves, braids, up dos and more–but the frequent curls were what everyone remembered. It’s possible that her fate was sealed when she wore them in her breakout role as the little hellion in Tess of the Storm Country (1914), the film Pickford referred to as “really the beginning of my career.”
If youthful Mary was now associated with a youthful hairstyle, her fate was sealed for good once she began to play youthful “little girl” roles. This was encouraged by good friend Lillian Gish–after seeing Pickford in The Foundling (1916) she had the most praise for the scenes where the actress played a 12-year-old. Pickford would go on to release The Poor Little Rich Girl, A Little Princess, M’Liss, Daddy-Long-Legs, Pollyanna, and more–although she would play roles closer to her real age, too. When her curls were cut in Poor Little Peppina (1916) so her character could disguise herself as a boy (they were fake for that scene, of course), audiences reportedly gasped.
But Pickford’s hair was a bit more than a visual symbol of innocence–it was sensual, too. After all, hair was a “woman’s glory” in those days. In public, Pickford’s hair was always discreetly worn up, as any other mature woman would have it. But as biographer Eileen Whitfield described, onscreen it was displayed in all its magnificence: “…The tresses inevitably came loose, forming a Pre-Raphaelite mass or the modest, miraculously curling ringlets, arranged like a bouquet around her face…It symbolized her inner self: grown-up and childlike, wild and proper, sensual and pure–the perfect halo.”
Caring for this world-famous style was no easy task. Silent era actresses always had to make sure their hair was very clean, since any grease would show on camera (which may explain why their hair often appeared very soft-looking!). Pickford had to be doubly sure that her hair looked “just so.” Screenwriter and good friend Frances Marion said that she would wash it twice daily and set it in the tried-and-true method of rag curls. Twice was necessary since at the studio her hair would start to slump at about midday.
Most of Pickford’s hair was her own, but she also had 18 false curls at the ready in case her coiffure was looking a bit flat (and doubtless to save time). She acquired these from hairdresser George Westmore in Los Angeles, paying $50 each–a huge sum for the time that today equals to around $600 apiece! Westmore was said to have gotten the hair from the gals at Big Suzy’s French Whorehouse (a rather flamboyant name, if that part of the tale is true). Presumably, as far as Pickford knew or was concerned she was simply acquiring curls from a hairdresser.
As the Jazz Age wore on and “shaved necks” grew common, troubled thoughts began to occur to film fans: Would Mary bob her hair? Pickford addressed the question herself more than once. In an article for Pictorial Review, published April 1927, she shared her honest thoughts on the matter:
In the epidemic of hair-cutting which has swept the country I am one of the few who have escaped…It has been a hard-fought battle, and the problem has occupied many of my waking and sleeping hours. I say “sleeping” because it often intrudes itself into my dreams. Sometimes it comes in a pleasant guise, where I gaze enraptured at the mirrored reflection of my sleek bobbed head, and sometimes it is a dreadful nightmare, when I feel the cold shears at the back of my neck and see my curls fall one by one at my feet, useless, lifeless things to be packed away in tissue-paper with other outworn treasures.
She was obviously growing conflicted. In the ’20s Pickford was growing dissatisfied with her Girl with the Curls image. She knew its shelf life was limited, and she coveted the mature roles other actresses played. Temptation to switch to a bob was strong, but she worried that discarding such a major part of her image would betray her devoted audience.
For a time she had tried to switch to playing adult women, in Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924). But she was uneasy with the characters, and decided to return to form with Little Annie Rooney (1925), a marvelously-acted and convincing “little girl” role…at her real age of thirty-three. But her satisfaction was short-lived, and she decided to ask her fans via a Photoplay interview what role they would like to see her in next.
A floodwave of 20,000 letters cried: Snow White! Anne of Green Gables! Heidi! Fans knew what they wanted from Pickford; namely, for her to “[Confirm] the belief that the sweet, wholesome things in life are worthwhile.” (And how often do you hear anyone talk earnestly of “sweetness” and “wholesomeness” today, might this writer ask?)
So Mary admitted in that Pictorial Revew article:
…My curls have become so identified with me that they have become almost a trademark, and what old-established firm would change its trade-mark without giving considerable thought to the matter? Perhaps I am not quite fair to myself when I say “a trade-mark.” I think they mean more than that—in some strange way they have become a symbol—and I think shorn of them I should become almost as Samson after his unfortunate meeting with Delilah.
It seems, no matter what my desires, that I am dedicated to little-girl roles for the rest of my screen life, and the curls here, of course, are invaluable to me.
Pickford explained that she had practical reasons for keeping longer hair, too, feeling it was more versatile than the bob. She insisted that wigs never looked natural enough in costume pictures. She also wasn’t too keen about one feature of bobbed hair: “I can not confess to any liking for shaved necks. They are dreadful and take away all charm and femininity from the most attractive woman.” Ultimately, perhaps, she felt that husband Doug Fairbanks and mother Charlotte loved her hair too much for her to let it go.
In the end, it was Pickford’s love for Charlotte that caused her to take the scissors to her world-famous curls. In 1925 it was discovered that Charlotte had breast cancer and in 1928, she passed away. Pickford was devastated; her mother had been her world. Her grief was so strong that she remembered seeing Doug Fairbanks’s lips turning white with the shock of seeing her in such an uncontrollable state.
Three months later, Pickford went to the hairdresser on Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. Photographers and journalists surrounded her as one by the one the famous curls fell to the floor. Six of them were carefully saved; Mary put them in her purse. Reportedly, when she returned to her hotel room and Doug saw her newly-bobbed head, tears welled up in his eyes. It was an act that stemmed from both reckless grief and the heady rush of sudden independence.
“You would have thought I had murdered someone,” she later said,”and perhaps I had, but only to give her successor a chance to live.” The haircut was front page news, exclaimed over in magazines and deplored by fans. Pickford herself received an avalanche of grieved, indignant letters.
Now that she was inescapably bobbed, Pickford made her first talkie: Coquette (1929). In it Pickford plays a rich, flirty young Southern woman who falls for a man below her social class. The role would win her an Oscar for Best Actress at the second Academy Awards. It grossed $1.4 million, although it’s possible that a big draw was the opportunity to hear her voice. After all those years of “America’s Sweetheart” roles, there was something jarring about her attempting the more typical modern flappers. One fan said as much–and more–in this frank letter to Picture-Play Magazine:
After a few more talkies, which included the disappointing flapper comedy Kiki (1931), Pickford decided to retire from appearing in films. Her talent was still brilliant no matter what production she was in, but audiences seemed to find it impossible to divorce her from her image as “America’s Sweetheart.” You could say that perhaps those curls really were the Samson-esque key to her success.
The retirement was a prudent decision. After all, Pickford left a magnificent career behind her–and a unique one, at that. To audiences of all ages and backgrounds “Little Mary” had stood for innocent, good-hearted, and spunky adolescence. Her characters had been as courageous as they were virtuous. Her hair had been a visual symbol of all those admirable qualities, a trademark as famous as Harold Lloyd’s glasses or Buster Keaton’s porkpie hat. And it says a great deal that while many young actresses in Hollywood had donned long curls, it would take an actress with the talent and charisma of Pickford to make the style so thoroughly her own.
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