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For all of her many gender-defying achievements, Mary Pickford is often forgotten during discourse about Hollywood’s early days. Most discussion seems to revolve around the talent of Charlie Chaplin, the controversy that cloaks D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and the swashbuckling fervor of Douglas Fairbanks. She is but a footnote, a woman whose achievements rest outside the public consciousness. Jennifer DeLia’s upcoming biopic, The First, might change that – a film striving to follow the actress’ life from a poor Canadian child to a rich American phenomenon.
As the writer-director develops the film, she talked with IndieWire as part of its “Will You See This Movie?” series. The piece is a double-edged sword, one side kicking off a new discussion about Pickford’s achievements, and one side seeming to question the film’s existence. This is a series that generally covers niche interests and quirky twists. A biopic about Linda Lovelace is the only project that would be recognizable to the casual movie news reader, yet here sits Pickford. It speaks volumes that a picture about a woman whose fame helped create the Hollywood system we know today is considered a project needing to ask: “Will you see this?”
It might be an understandable question in terms of her diminished recognition, but the fact that her work is so very important to the culture many of us write about makes it our responsibility to not marginalize her achievements, but celebrate them. I, therefore, would like to offer you a glimpse into her life – why her impact is so important, and the many, many cinematic moments of her 87 years – a life that could fuel multiple films and return recognition to “America’s Sweetheart.”
Rags to Riches
Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Upon her father’s death, the family struggled to make ends meet, ultimately turning to acting to make a meager living until Gladys landed a role on Broadway in 1907 for $25 per week and became Mary Pickford. In two years, she joined Biograph Studios to earn $100 a week as a film actress. By 1913 she earned $500 a week for Famous Players, becoming the highest-paid actress in the world. In another three years, she broke records by earning $10,000 per week. After retiring from the biz, she lived in the grand Hollywood mansion “Pickfair” until her death in 1979.
From her first tastes of success, Pickford actively sought it: “I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities... I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I'd become known, and there would be a demand for my work." The actress took on countless roles, and openly demanded to be compensated appropriately, fighting for pay raises based on the critical and box office reception of her work. She was never victim of the studio system, moving from studio to studio as her career interests deemed fit. The public loved her and Pickford became the leading female star of Hollywood with repeated hits and critical success that culminated in an Oscar for 1929’s Coquette. Her influence, however, wasn’t relegated solely to her acting fame. Pickford’s popularity helped shaped how Hollywood was conceived, moving them away from a “canned theater” model to its own distinct system.
Pickford’s ability to fight and achieve notable pay hikes was just the tip of her success, as Pickford was a businesswoman as much as an actress. Within a few years of feature work, she became her own producer, overseeing every aspect of the process, from development to distribution. She controlled her image, keeping Famous Players from “block-booking” (forcing theaters to show bad films in order to get access to her films). Six years after becoming a feature actress, she formed United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks – a studio that challenged Hollywood’s vertically integrated status quo. She would also join Fairbanks as an original founder of the Academy.
While many biopics like to reduce an artist down to their romantic exploits, hers were intertwined with her success. After a rocky first marriage to actor Owen Moore, she wed Douglas Fairbanks and truly merged romance with work – both on camera and behind the scenes with UA and the Academy. They were “Hollywood Royalty,” an international phenomenon long before Tracy and Hepburn or Jolie and Pitt. The couple’s names were combined well before the likes of Bennifer or Brangelina. They were the first big Hollywood couple, a pair whose relationship rose and fell on the shoulders of fame.
Pickford would marry once more – to younger actor Buddy Rogers – a romance that wasn’t as public, but would last until her death.
Our love-hate relationship with cinematic fame began with Pickford. 1911 saw the start of fan culture with publications like the Motion Picture Story Magazine and Photoplay. In the latter mag, she earned “Number One Actress of the Year” a whopping 15 times. Her ability to endear herself to her audience brought Pickford her monetary and professional success, and though she was “America’s Sweetheart,” her fame wasn’t relegated to one border. Long before the Beatles turned American girls into fainting fanatics, Pickford and Fairbanks were “mobbed” (in the words of the New York Times) by eager Europeans grasping at their clothes, forcing them to retreat to country estates. And long before the Felicity hair drama, Pickford cut off her own curly locks in front of journalists as both an act of mourning her mother’s death and an attempt to reframe her celebrity.
Social Circles and Political Impact
Pickford’s notoriety grew not only with her audience, but within a dynamic social circle. LIFE magazine deemed Pickfair a meeting place “only slightly less important than the White House.” On top of closer friends like Charlie Chaplin, Pickfair hosted hordes of historical figures including Greta Garbo, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, F.D.R and Eleanor Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells and Joan Crawford.
Pickford used her celebrity for a myriad of social causes as well as Hollywood-specific interests. Most notably, she heavily promoted Liberty Bonds during World War I, travelling across the U.S. in the effort, even going so far as to auction some of her hair. Additionally, she conceived of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, and kicked off a payroll program for studio workers, which led to the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital.
Drama and Professional Demise
For all of her success, Pickford also suffered much pain, the type of emotional anguish Hollywood loves to rip into. Life wasn’t easy; her professional prowess failed to help her successful transition into talkies, even though her first earned her an Oscar. She disliked the form, comparing talking films to “putting lip rouge on the Venus de Milo.” The youthful typecasting that brought her success couldn’t survive in a system increasingly eager for sexier cinema, she was in what the New York Times described as a “gilded cage.” Perhaps Sunset Boulevard could have helped her – a role she considered before it went to Gloria Swanson – though it likely hit too close to home.
Pickford’s personal life also took its toll on her work. Her first marriage was wrought with alcoholism and domestic violence. As her career started to wane, she was hit with many blows – the death of her mother, followed by her brother and sister, the end of her marriage to Fairbanks, and then his death as well. The star struggled with alcoholism herself, had a troubled relationship with her adopted children, and became a recluse refusing most visitors until she shocked Oscar audiences in 1976 by accepting an Honorary Oscar just three years before her death.
At every turn, Pickford’s multifaceted life reads like modern-day movie news, from the notable wow factor as she jumped into active roles behind the scenes, to the way the media erupted when she cut her hair – an image that not only brings to mind Keri Russell, but also Britney Spears. What we see today is the slightest evolution of what happened yesterday, and here we have this compelling, wildly cinematic figure who can not only teach us about Hollywood’s creation, but also resonate with modern concerns.
I can only hope that The First helps everyone realize that.
Sources for the above, and further reading:
PBS’ Detailed Account of Mary Pickford’s Life
IMDb Profile | Wikipedia Entry
Video: Fairbanks & Pickford Hit Europe | Report of London Fan Mob
Pickfair | LIFE Magazine visits Pickfair
Original Founders of the Academy
Casting Sunset Boulevard
Mary Pickford Rediscovered Book Review
Mary Pickford receiving Honorary Oscar