America’s Original Sweetheart & The Girl with the Curls
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What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.
Who was Mary Pickford? In short, she is what is often referred to as Hollywood Royalty because she had great influence on the shaping of the Hollywood industry. Amongst other achievements, she is one of the founders of movie studio United Artists and being a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which we all know are the Oscars.
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Mary Pickford was actually born Gladys Marie Smith on April 8 in probably 1892 in Toronto, Canada. As most actresses, she later claimed other years like 1893 or 1894 to appear younger – and some tried to make themselves older, which was easier back then because there were not as rigorous birth certificates and registers). She had two younger siblings – Lottie and Jack.
When Gladys, because this was still her name back then, was about six years old her father, an alcoholic, died from a fatal blood clot. Her mother then started to take in boarders to up her income as a seamstress. One of these boarders was Mr. Murphy. He was a theatrical stage manager and suggested the three siblings to take on smaller roles in the theatre. So, the three began acting and their mother would plan the organ during the plays.
And that would become their full time job.
Gladys, her two siblings and her mom would tour the US performing with several companies in several plays. Gladys even performed on Broadway at age 13 and played alongside Cecil B Demille in “The Warrens of Virgina” at age 15. During that play, the producer, David Belasco, insisted that Gladys should take on the stage name Mary Pickford, which she did and used from then onwards.
In 1909, when Pickford was 17, she was screen-tested by Biograph Company director D.W. Griffith who was immediately taken with her. She was perfect for the new medium of the movies, because her acting was subtle and not as overexaggerated as for example Theda Bara’s. So, she got a contract to earn double what others would earn in a day – $10 compared to $5, which equals $335 a day compared to $167, which definitely is a huge difference.
So, she was on the payroll of Biograph and started acting in everything – she did leading parts and bit parts, she did ladies and charwomen, she did slaves, Native Americans and prostitutes. All in all, in that year at Biography, she appeared in 51 films – that is one film a week. Her reasoning: The more movies she did, the more recognised she would become.
Particular to Biograph was that actors were not credited in the movies. So, movie goers actually would not know the name of the actors – it didn’t seem important to him back then. Remember, this is the very beginning of the movie industry. But, the audiences were able to identify Mary Pickford early on because of her curls. So, the cinemas would promote her movies as a film that features “the girl with the golden curls” or “Blondilocks” or “The Biograph Girl”.
Pickford eventually left Biograph and joined Paramount Pictures with Adolph Zukor as studio head. There, she made the first movie where her name or any name was featured above the movie title on movie marquees, that movie was “Hearts Adrift” in 1914, when she was 22 years old. This movie an the one that was released five weeks later, “Tess of the Storm Country” catapulted her to stardom. Her biographer said about this time: “This film sent her career into orbit and made her the most popular actress in America, if not the world.” She was the equivalent to Charlie Chaplin who was as successful and renowned like her.
Mary Pickford had reached the Olymp of stardom and was the most successful actress at that time. Her new contract with Paramount granted her full authority over the production of her movies and a salary of $10,000 a week in 1916 – that equals roughly $280,000 today. Additionally, she was guaranteed half of any film’s profit, with a guarantee of $1.04 million, which equal $21,1 million today – and she starred in 52 features throughout her career. So, I guess there was a lot of money coming her way. And, to top it of, she became vice-president of the Pickford Film Corporation.
When this very contract expired two years later, Zukor did not agree to her terms and offered her $250,000 instead if she left the movie business altogether. That was about $7 million to just leave everything behind. Of course she didn’t. When we look at what she made per film with her old contract, that would not have been a good deal. So, instead Pickford went to First National Picture, which happily agreed to her terms.
The best was yet to come though. In 1919, Pickford together with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W Griffith formed the independent film production company United Artists. Through this company, Pickford was able to produce all her own movies, which were solid box office hits, grossing $1 million each.
Mary Pickford was on top of the world, but then the talkies came. Sound changed the movie industry. Pickford actually underestimated its importance and noted “adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo”.
The industry was so shaken up by sound that United Artists gathered Ockford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Dolores del Rio amongst others in Pickford’s bungalow and broadcast them to the radio – proving that their voices carried.
Pickford actually could have made the transition voice-vice. But! For her first role in a talkie, she cut her hair short, which made headlines throughout the nation. Her long curls had been a trademark sign and the short bob was not perceived well. This took away from her performance. Next, Pickford got older. She had played children, teenage spitfires and young feisty women – these were the roles her fans loved to see her in. But, now in her thirties, she was not suitable for these roles anymore and the vamp roles that were so en vogue during the first years of the talkies were no fit either. The sophisticated roles she selected were just box office failures. After several costly failures, Pickford retired from acting altogether when being about 40 years of age. She appeared on stage afterwards as well as in radio plays and would continue producing movies.
Mary Pickford’s impact on the movie industry
Mary Pickford – despite being a woman at under five feet – was a savvy businesswoman and had tremendous impact on how the movie industry would progress and evolve.
Notably, in 1916, together with the wife of Cecil B DeMille, whom she got to know early on on Broadway, she helped found the Hollywood Studio Club, which was actually a house for the young women working in the movies. Also, Pickford founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which helps actors in financial needs. The motivation to do so came from the deaths of several high-profile Hollywood actors who in their final years have battled poverty. She created a campaign around the the fund, which was called the “Payroll Pledge Program” – so, each actor would give 0,5% of their salary or earnings to the fund. This resulted in having enough means to build the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in California. It was a hospital as well as a retirement community. The latter houses still today celebrities and non-celebrities like had notable residents have been Johnny Weissmuller, Louella Parsons, Mae Murray and Ida Lupino. So, actually it was social security for those working in the movie industry. The fund is still active today and even more so than ever. In 1993, it was renamed into the Motion Pictures & Television Fund Foundation with Dreamwork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg as Founding Chairman. There are multiple high-profile charity events each year to raise funds for those in the industry less fortunate. The most well-known is “The Night Before the Oscars”, which raises around $5 million dollar each year.
Pickford early on had complete power over the production of her movies, while still being at Paramount when Zukor agreed to her terms. So, from the actors, the script and the editing to the release and even the promotion of a movie, she had complete control.
With the foundation of United Artists, she increased her power in the industry even further. Because United Artists was not – as the other big studios – vertically integrated. It actually was a distribution company, that offered its screens to independent film makers. Through United Artists, independent movies could now be produced and created that earlier would have not been approved by the studio heads – the medium of movie could be explored further and deeper than ever before. Additionally, Pickford had established the Mary Pickford Company to produce her own movies, which were distributed via United Artists. When marrying Fairbanks, the two founded the Pickford-Fairbanks studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. As the co-founder of United Artists, the head of her own production company and the star of all her movies, Pickford became was is now known as “the most powerful woman who has ever worked in Hollywood”.
Her career was unparalleled. But what about the private life of Mary Pickford, the girl with the golden locks? She was married three times.
First, to Owen Moore, also a silent film actor. But that was not a happy marriage. Apparently, she had either miscarried or aborted a baby which resulted in her inability to have other children. Moore was jealous of her success, suffered from alcoholism and there were also incidents of domestic violence. Nine years later, they divorced. During that time they had lived together on-and-off and during the last year Pickford had already started an affair with husband No. 2, Douglas Fairbanks. She was touring the nation with him selling war bonds – and would marry him mere days after divorcing Moore.
This was the wedding of the century and the two were named “King and Queen of Hollywood” – they were Hollywood royalty. Their mansion in Beverly Hills was named “Pickfair” and became the centre of celebrity events in LA. Charlie Chaplin, who was the best friend of Douglas Fairbanks and together with him and Mary founding member of United Artists was there a great deal of the time. But also George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Elinor Glyn, Helen Keller, H. G. Wells, Lord Mountbatten, Fritz Kreisler, Amelia Earhart, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noël Coward, Max Reinhardt, Baron Nishi, Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Austen Chamberlain, Sir Harry Lauder, and Meher Baba.
Unfortunately, the Fairbanks were so prominent that their marriage suffered. They were always on as the Sweethearts of America and actually had very little time off from producing and acting. Only when both their career slowed down, there was time – but Fairbanks was a restless chap and he took up overseas travel, which Pickford did not enjoy. But that is when Fairbanks started An affair with Sylvia, Lady Ashley – this is when Pickford and Fairbanks separated. So, the match made in heaven was divorced in 1936 – after 16 years.
A mere one year later, Pickford married Charles “Buddy” Rogers and together they adopted two kids. They stayed together for 42 years until her death in 1979, when she was 87 years old.
With all my love!