Skip to main content

Feature

America's Savvy Sweetheart

Mary Pickford

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, January/February 2005 | Volume 26, Number 1

In the rough-and-tumble world of America's early film industry, movie moguls met their match in Mary Pickford.

"She had no education, and yet she hit the top of the pile. She did it all--act, direct, produce--and she was good at it all in a way that no one could be today," says film producer Kathryn Dietz. Pickford, the tiny, doe-eyed actress known as America's sweetheart, ruled the nation's movie houses during the silent film era.

No mere beauty, Pickford also cofounded United Artists and controlled her business dealings, image, and creative direction in ways that few actors since have ever managed.

Pickford's impact on American film is explored in Mary Pickford, a documentary by Ambrica Productions. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ninety-minute film will air on the PBS American Experience series in April.

"For me, doing the film was a study in celebrity," says Sue Williams, who wrote and directed the documentary and produced it with Kathryn Dietz.

The 1920s footage of Pickford and actor Douglas Fairbanks traveling through London and Paris on their honeymoon gives a glimpse of the unprecedented popularity of Hollywood's famous couple, says Williams. "Crowds gathered and people swarmed them. It was like the Beatles coming to America."

Pickford's journey to superstardom had modest beginnings. Pickford was born Gladys Smith, in Toronto, Canada, on April 8, 1892, the eldest of three children. She came into the world just as the precursor to the modern movie projector, the kinetoscope, was invented. When her father, a steamship purser, died in 1898, the family was impoverished.

The situation was so desperate that Pickford's mother, Charlotte, considered giving her up for adoption to the family doctor. Pickford refused to go--and by the time she was twelve she had become the family's chief breadwinner. Charlotte took her to work at Toronto's Princess Theatre, which needed children for a stage production of The Silver King, a Victorian melodrama. "Charlotte naturally hesitated, because first of all Gladys was a child," says Jeanine Basinger, a film historian at Wesleyan University, who served as a consultant on the documentary. "And secondly, in those days there was this puritanical attitude toward the stage, theater people, actresses. It wasn't socially respectable. It was almost considered a slight step above prostitution."

Pickford's first run began in January 1900. At age seven, she brought home eight dollars a week for playing a minor part. According to Eileen Whitfield, Pickford's biographer, the next year she convinced the manager to give her a leading role that paid fourteen dollars a week.

Soon the family began touring, traveling from town to town by train, living in rooming houses, and performing in dingy theaters such as the Thalia in New York. As her family's chief provider, Pickford aspired to work in better places. She wanted a handsome venue with Tiffany lamps and an audience that was polite and smelled nice.

Pickford haunted the offices of Broadway impressario David Belasco in hopes of a break into respectable theater. After days of waiting and a tantrum in the waiting room, she met with the great man and walked out with a new name and a part in the play. It was The Warrens of Virginia, and although her part was small, there was a certain stature that came with being a Belasco actress, and some added income.

Even with the improved financial picture, Pickford needed to earn money year-round and theaters were closed in the summer. Charlotte suggested an alternative: to act in films.

The new medium appealed to immigrants and the working classes, who would plop down five cents at the nickelodeon for a bit of escapist entertainment. But for respectable people, going to the movies was unseemly because it meant mixing with the hoi polloi and watching morally questionable material.

Newspapers argued that movies corrupted children, and reformers pushed to ban certain movies. "Film was at the bottom of the entertainment world, and there were always concerns about morality," says Basinger.

Pickford recalls in a 1957 interview, "I was really shocked and horrified at my mother. I thought it was so beneath my dignity or the dignity of anyone in the theater." But ever obedient to her mother, she stifled her doubts and sought work at the Biograph Studios on East 14th Street. There she met film producer D.W. Griffith.

The director hired her on the spot. He also told her to tell no one that she had negotiated the unheard-of salary of ten dollars a day. It was twice the going rate.

To keep the studio profitable, Griffith had to churn out one-reel, fifteen-minute movies at a furious pace. In her first year, Pickford performed in more than sixty films, playing all the stock characters: mothers, virgins, showgirls, and prostitutes.

"She became well known by being with Biograph," says Tino Balio, a film historian at the University of Wisconsin. "Biograph was one of the top producers."

Pickford and Griffith clashed over artistic differences. "She didn't like his directing. He wanted her to simper over bunnies and she refused, knowing that it wasn't natural looking," says Dietz, "but Griffith recognized she had a spark and let her have her way."

Willful Peggy, a 1910 Biograph movie, shows Pickford developing the style that endeared her to her fans. She plays a peasant girl married to an aging aristocrat. To have fun, she disguises herself as a man and runs off to a tavern. When a man in the tavern makes a pass at her, unaware she's a woman, Pickford heartily defends herself. Although she returns to her husband, "she shows she's self-sufficient and no shrinking flower," says Balio.

As her fame as the "Biograph Girl" grew, she and Griffith took other creative risks. Her close-ups became nuanced, a departure from the extravagant expressions that were typical for the time. "She knew how to act to the camera, which was very unlike acting on Broadway," says Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, a Georgia State University film historian. "She grabbed control of this new thing called film and made it her own in the same way that Madonna made music videos her own in the 1980s."

Belasco invited Pickford back to Broadway to play a blind girl whose sight is restored in A Good Little Devil. When Adolph Zukor started making a film version, Pickford snapped at the opportunity to play the lead. She had come to realize that she preferred movies over theater.

After that film, the twenty-one-year-old Pickford signed on with Zukor's Famous Players Film Company for a weekly salary of $500, a sum that represented a year's s pay for many families in 1913 America. Zukor owned a chain of nickelodeons, but he sensed a change in the market. He wanted to draw the middle and upper classes into picture palaces that showed longer films and more complex story lines. To make such films, he created Famous Players and hired well-known performers such as Pickford.

In 1914, a year after signing with the Hungarian-born entrepreneur, Pickford starred in Tess of the Storm Country. The storyline was classic melodrama. Tess, a poor girl, helps a cruel landlord's daughter by taking in her illegitimate child. The rich man's son, who had been in love with Tess, drops her because he thinks the baby is hers. In the dramatic conclusion, Tess takes the ailing baby to church to be baptized before it dies. When the minister refuses, she baptizes the baby herself.

Tess was hugely popular with critics and the general public, as were Rags and Cinderella, two other films she did with Zukor. In these and later movies such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, she often played independent females, who were not overtly sexy.

Pickford's characters fit an archetype, and their stories repeat a favorite nineteenth-century theme, says Fuller-Seeley. "It's the idea that you make good by dint of your personality, not your birthright. It's a useful metaphor that you can be a small scrapper and still succeed. It's part of our American fairy tale."

Although Pickford played an ideal, she also "brought much more energy to her fury and more humor to her everyday activities on the screen than the others, who, given a straight role, played it straight," says Pickford biographer Kevin Brownlow. "And in closeup she just looked more exquisite than anyone else for quite a long time."

The documentary highlights how Pickford parlayed looks, talent, and popularity into profits. With film success came advertising offers. The Pompeiian Manufacturing Company launched a cosmetics campaign with Pickford promoting its skin cream. Her face was printed on decorative art panels that consumers could buy on special offer. "Pickford had a great business head," says Fuller-Seeley.

Pickford continued to drive hard bargains. Although she held a certain affection for "Papa Zukor," she squeezed a contract out of him for $500,000 a year in 1916 after seeing the receipts from Paramount Pictures. Zukor's distribution company had been requiring movie theaters to lease less popular films in order to get the Pickford pictures, a practice called block booking. And Pickford wanted a share of the profits.

"Before Tess, Zukor was nobody," says Williams. "He was pawning his wife's jewelry to make payroll."

In 1918 Pickford got an even better deal from Zukor's competitor, First National Exhibitors Circuit, and the year after that made an unexpected career move. She and the director D.W. Griffith and actors Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin pooled their resources to form their own distribution company, United Artists.

"The idea of the artists taking over distribution was revolutionary," says Brownlow. "It would be like Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and Budd Schulberg setting up a publishing house in the fifties because they were so dissatisfied with the status quo."

Larger companies, including Zukor's, increasingly controlled movie production, distribution, and exhibition. What the founders of United Artists wanted was for films to be sold individually to top exhibitors, says Balio. "These stars had already turned stardom to power and had control over the making of their films, veto power over directors, and control over the number of films they made. What they didn't control was distribution, which was important for managing star power."

It may have been an achievement for artistic independence to form United Artists, but it was also risky. Each partner put in $100,000 to start.

In 1920, Pickford starred in Pollyanna, the first of fifteen films she made for United Artists. She set high production standards and in the next few years, brought in new talent. The arrivals included Ernst Lubitsch, who directed her to critical acclaim in Rosita.

Pickford encouraged new techniques. Little Lord Fauntleroy was among the bigger challenges for Pickford and cameraman Charles Rosher. Pickford played dual roles--a little boy with golden curls and his mother-- with both characters appearing on screen at the same time and the boy kissing his mother on the cheek, a feat that required a groundbreaking double exposure.

Although United Artists made films the public liked, they "did not turn out films as fast as was necessary," says Brownlow. "They began to lose money and had to bring in an old-fashioned kind of producer--Joe Schenck--to take over the business."

In the meantime, Pickford's fame had hit stratospheric levels. Her 1920 marriage to Fairbanks--after each of them divorced their spouses--made them Hollywood's most famous and sought-after couple. At Pickfair, their Beverly Hills estate, they entertained the Duke of Windsor and the aviator Amelia Earhart.

As the decade came to a close, Pickford's starpower diminished. Her fairy-tale marriage to Fairbanks crumbled. Her mother died. And Pickford was growing older.

Ideas about beauty had changed, and Pickford was squeezed between differing views of women. She didn't have the allure of rising actresses such as Clara Bow and Greta Garbo. At the same time, fans wanted her to keep playing girlish characters, a nearly impossible proposition for a woman approaching forty. Pickford cut her hair. The criticism was so strong, Pickford said, "you would have thought I had murdered someone."

The technology was changing as well. Pickford was the first major actress to risk performing in a "talkie." In Coquette, she played against type and received mixed reviews. It won her an Academy Award for Best Actress however.

In 1933, she starred in her last United Artists film. Secrets, the story of a marriage coming undone, lost money, suggesting to Pickford that her star was falling.

Pickford and Fairbanks divorced in 1936. The next year she married again, this time Buddy Rogers, who performed with her in My Best Girl. She retreated from the public eye and spent much of her time in seclusion at Pickfair, often reportedly drinking. She had made 193 films by the time she was forty-one, none that revealed her growing old. Rogers would shield her from visitors. "She's regarded in the movie magazines, in the newspapers as a fading antique," says film historian Scott Eyman. "What do you do? How do you cope with that? She didn't have an education. She didn't have a philosophical bent. So she sought to anesthetize the panic with alcohol."

In 1976, Pickford received a second Academy Award honoring her for creating a unique film literature. When she appeared on-screen receiving the award at her home, the audience was horrified "because she had gotten old," says Williams. "People wanted to hold onto the fantasy of who they thought she was."

Anna Maria Gillis is a writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Filmmakers Collaborative received $705,000 from NEH for the planning and production of Mary Pickford, which airs on the American Experience in April. The grant also contributed to an educational website about Pickford that can be found at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/pickford/.