Mary Pickford was America’s first sweetheart who appeared in over 160 films and had the same superstar power as Charlie Chaplin in the film industry.
Unlike Charlie who was remembered for his unique comic genius, style and artistry, Mary was embraced for her beauty and girl-next-door charisma.
This comparison reduced Mary’s significance until I discovered this excerpt from a New York Times article, Mary Pickford Is Dead at 86; ‘America’s Sweetheart’ of Films. It changed my fundamental understanding of Mary’s contributions to history and how she was much more than a pretty face:
“Mary was the first movie star to have her name in marquee lights, the first to be paid thousands of dollars a week and one of the first to achieve an international reputation; she embodied the American dream — a person who rose by her own talents from rags to riches, indeed, to very great wealth.”
On the surface, Mary’s success seemed as groundbreaking as Charlie’s. She had an equally grand mass appeal and was more popular than other leading Hollywood women in the 1920’s and 1930’s such as Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. But her reputation and box office success didn’t stop here.
Hindsight in history is a great equalizer. It illustrates the unique persona Mary created in Hollywood and why she won audiences with her talent, work ethic and philanthropic endeavors. Mary helped to co-found the Academy of Motion Pictures in 1927 and would later win two Oscars: best female performer in “Coquette” and lifetime achievement Oscar in 1976.
Born Gladys Mary Smith in 1892, Gladys took the stage name Mary Pickford after landing her first Broadway role in “The Warrens of Virginia” in 1908.
Mary’s career started when she was just 6 years old after a manager who was renting a room from her mother needed stage extras for the Canadian Opera company. Gladys got her first break and took to the road with her mother to find more work.
America’s first sweetheart was actually Canadian, and her pretty baby-face and penchant for memorizing lines earned her the nickname, “the girl with the curls”. Because she was small in stature,she was usually cast in Cinderella rags-to-riches stories. This made it difficult later in life for Mary to feel like she was taken seriously, which is why she continued to play young teenage roles even into her early 30’s.
But when Mary was thirteen, she caught the attention of Cecil B DeMille and D.W. Griffith, two very influential directors. This lead to a screen test in 1909 and joining an acting company which cast her in more than 75 short films where she made $10 a day (huge sum back then) from the American Biography Company. There she met her first husband Owen Moore but divorced him a year later.
Knowing actors names were not published in these film shorts, Mary decided to act in as many of them as she could so people would begin to recognize her. She was right. They did and audiences started calling her the “Biograph Girl”. This lead to more offers for work by other studios and great films like The Female of the Species and Just Like a Woman.
Mary gained notoriety and bigger paychecks in films like Daddy Long Legs, Pollyanna, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and My Best Girl. But she also started to feel creatively stifled from playing “the invincible and good screen hero when scoundrels sought to ruin her.” It became tiresome and frustrating even though she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood.
In 1919, United Artists Productions was formed by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith.
This risky but calculated move paid off for Mary who was only 27 years old and the only female owner. Charlie and Douglas were friends, having met overseas at a rally to promote the sale of war bonds, and Mary and Douglas had married in 1920.
The marriage was a box office risk for Mary since divorce was not very accepted but the fans were overjoyed and made Mary and Douglas the first Hollywood royalty. Their popularity soared despite the divorce and United Artists was making more than $1 million dollar annually in profits in just a few years ($18 million in today’s figures). People loved Mary and Douglas and their rags to riches story. They were the American Dream.
Mary’s successes impacted women in the film industry who benefited from the opportunities she made for other women willing to hard work and pivot career paths. She was a shrewd business woman, negotiating a percentage from box office tickets, and risk-taker who helped to co-found the Academy of Motion Pictures.
In 1929, Mary won her first Oscar for the film Coquette and received a second Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1976. For years, as a fellow native Torontonian, I passed a tribute plaque to Mary on my University of Toronto campus without ever understanding Mary’s contributions to women and film.