Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mary Pickford (1892-1979)

"The little girl made me. I wasn't waiting for the little girl to kill me."

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford was an Academy Award winning Canadian born actress. She was the first motion picture movie star, introduced with many nicknames such as "The Girl With the Golden Curls", "Little Mary" (she was only 1.54 m tall), and most famous - "America's Sweetheart".
She was a co-founder of the film studio United Artists (together with Charlie Chaplin, husband Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith), and also one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.
In all, she was not only the first movie star, but also a business woman and one of the greatest pioneers in film history.

Jack and Mary Pickford with silent western film actor William S. Hart.

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto, Canada 1892. She had two younger siblings, Jack and Lottie Pickford, who also became actors. Her father was an alcoholic who left his family in 1895 and three years later died from cerebral hemorrhage. Her mother started renting out rooms to boarders, and it was one of those house guests who introduced 7-year old Gladys to the Princess Theatre in Toronto.
In the early 1900's the family began touring the United States as actors by rail. In 1907 Gladys got a supporting role at a Broadway play, written by William C. DeMille (brother to the then unknown Cecil B. DeMille, who also acted in the play). It was at that time the producer of the play gave Gladys the stage name Mary Pickford.

Later in 1909 director D. W. Griffith at the Biograph Company saw a screentest with Mary Pickford and immediately became interested in her. After only one day of shooting she got twice as much money as other actresses ($10 a day with a guarantee for $40 a week). She however began her career by playing the same kind of roles as others: rejecting women, slaves, prostitutes etc.
Even though her roles from the beginning wasn't credited, the audiences recognized her. Movie theatres soon advertised the films shown by writing out that the films featured "The Girl With The Golden Curls", "Goldielocks" or "The Biograph Girl".
In 1912 her career started to blossom, and she gave some of her greatest performances in D. W. Griffith films like The Mender of Nets (also featuring a young Mabel Normand), Just Like a Woman and Friends (with Lionel Barrymore). Pickford also introduced her friends Dorothy and Lillian Gish to Griffith, which proved successful for their careers.

Film clip: Lillian and Dorothy Gish with Mary Pickford and her mother, ca 1927.

Mary Pickford and Frances Marion on set.

United Artists was founded in 1919.
Left to right: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The fourth founder, D. W. Griffith, is not in the picture.

In 1913 Mary Pickford took a chance on Broadway again. That experience lead her to the realization that she really wanted to be a motion picture star. She returned to film making and joined Adolph Zukor's group of famous players in his newly started company Famous Players Film Company (later Famous Players-Lasky, and even more later Paramount Pictures). Their she made, among other films, the comedy Hearts Adrift (directed by Edwin S. Porter 1914, the director of the film history milestone The Great Train Robbery from 1903), which brought in so much money that Pickford, the first time of many to come, a pay raise. That film was also the first one to put Pickford's name above the the title on the movie marquees. After a few films more, she was the most popular actress in America, if not in the world. Only Charlie Chaplin could compete with her.
During the 1910's and 1920's Pickford was believed to be the most famous woman in the world, or as a silent-film journalist said:

"the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history."

In 1916 she signed a contract with Adolph Zukor that granted her full authority over the production of the films she starred in. Her salary was now record-high $10 000 a week. Two years later she broke with Famous Players ans started producing her own films, and in 1919 she founded the independent film production company United Artists, alongside Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith.

"We were pioneers in a brand-new medium. Everything's fun when you're young."

Her first film as an independent producer and distributor at United Artists was Daddy-Long-Legs (1919). Mary Pickford was the first actress to receive more than $1 000 000 dollars a year.

Scene: Mary Pickford as orphan Judy Abbott in Daddy-Long-Legs (1919).

Mary Pickford behind the camera.

Little Mary needs a stool to reach the camera!

Mary Pickford was married three times. Her first husband was Irish-born silent actor Owen Moore, whom she was married to 1911-1920. That marriage is believed to have been scattered because of Moore's alcoholism, violence and shame to live in the shadow of Pickford's success. The couple lived separately for years, and Pickford became romantically involved with Douglas Fairbanks.
Pickford and Moore divorced in early 1920. 26 days later Pickford was married to Fairbanks. Douglas Fairbanks became an international success after starring in movies like The Mark of Zorro (1920), so both parties of the couple were extremely popular. The couple was referred to as "Hollywood royalty" and their Beverly Hills mansion was popularly called "Pickfair".

The Pickfair mansion in the 1920's.

Celebrity dinners were often held at the Pickfair mansion. Among many others, people like authors George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elinor Glyn and Helen Keller, physicist Albert Einstein, Lord Mountbatten, aviator Amelia Earhart and Sir Harry Lauder dined there. Lauder's nephew actually taught Fairbanks how to play golf.
Pickford and Fairbanks were the first movie stars to leave their handprints in the cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre (Pickford also left her footprints), 1927.

Mary Pickford made the step from silent pictures to talking without problems, and so did Fairbanks. 1929 Pickford played the reckless socialite Norma Besant in Coquette. Before the film Pickford had cut her long, curly hair (in connection to the loss of her mother the year before) into a 1920's bob hair cut. That move covered front pages in all the world.
Although Pickford won an Academy Award for the part in Coquette, the audience didn't like the film as much. Probably because of the difference between the part of seducing Norma Besant and the more cute film parts the audience was used to Pickford playing.
Pickford felt however that the cute girl parts were over. She made her last motion picture in 1933 called Secrets, and then never returned to the screen again.

"I'm sick of Cindrella parts, of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover."

The marriage with Fairbanks ended in 1936, after many years of struggling to have time for each other between film making and producing and world touring. Pickford had had enough when Fairbanks had an affair with English model Sylvia Ashley, which became big news. Fairbanks' son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, stated later that both Pickford and Fairbanks regretted not trying to fix their relationship.

Mary Pickford with her future husband Charles "Buddy" Rogers in The Best Girl (1927).

However, Pickford married a third time, and that marriage would last until her death in 1979. Her last spouse was actor Charles "Buddy" Rogers (male lead in Wings, 1927, with Clara Bow), with whom she had acted with in The Best Girl (1927).

In the 1930's many people around Pickford died, which changed her persona radically. In 1933 her brother Jack died because of "progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centers". Three years later Lottie died of a heart attack, possibly due to large amounts of alcohol during the years. 1939 Douglas Fairbanks also suffered a heart attack and died.
Upon the hearing of Fairbanks' death it is reported that Pickford had burst into tears in front of her new husband Rogers and stated that "My darling is gone". According to Pickford herself, though, she had held her tears back, afraid to hurt her husband, and didn't allowe herself to cry until she was alone on a train.
These deaths, the divorce from Fairbanks and the end of her film career left Pickford in a great depression.

Pickford and Rogers adopted two children in 1943 and 1944. According to several documentaries and the children's own words she wasn't the greatest mother, often remarcing their physical imperfections. The children left Pickfair at a young age, but they later in life stated that they had loved their mother, even though she wasn't very maternal.

Mary Pickford in Rosita (1923), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Pickford at a Bing Crosby performance at the Coconut Grove nightclub, 1934.

During her life, Mary Pickford used her social position for many political causes. During WWI she, her then soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and Canadian actress Marie Dressler promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds by giving public speeches, kicking off in Washington DC 1918. Five days later Pickford gave a speech at Wall Street to a crowd estimated to 50 000 people. She also posed for cameras kissing the American flag and auctioning one of her golden curls, bringing in $15 000.
In the end of WWI Pickford co-created the Motion Picture Relief Fund for financially needy actors, together with the usual gang of Chaplin, Fairbanks, Griffith, but also other movie people.

Douglas Fairbanks making a speech to a great crowd in New York City, April 1918.

Mary Pickford gives President Herbert Hoover a ticket for a film industry benefit for the unemployed, 1931.

In addition to re-shaping the motion picture art (at the time when Pickford entered the movie business the film industry was all concentrated on film adaptions of Broadway plays and nothing else), Pickford proceeded with producing films even after her retirement as an actress in 1933. She and Chaplin remained partners in United Artists for decades. In 1955 Chaplin left the company, and the next year Pickford followed his example. She sold her remaining shares of the company for $3 000 000.

News 1956: Mary Pickford sells United Artists... and a little commercial for Camel cigarettes.

Pickford with her Honorary Oscar, 1976.

In her later years Pickford developed alcoholism, following the footsteps of her father, mother, two younger siblings and her ex-husband Owen Moore. The more the years went, the more isolated Pickford became. Soon she only allowed visits from old friend Lillian Gish and stepson Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and later on only communicated via her bed room phone.
Husband Charles Rogers often gave guests tours of the Pickfair, one of the attractions being a genuine western bar Pickford once bought to Fairbanks.
In 1976 Pickford received an Honorary Academy Award for life time achievement, in addition to the one for Best Actress she received in 1930 for Coquette.

Mary Pickford died of cerebral hemorrhage in 1979, aged 87. She was buried in the Garden of Memory of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetary in Glendale, California. Alongside her lies her mother, her sister Lottie and brother Jack buried.

The American Film Institute named Pickford 24th among the greatest female stars of all time.
Edward Norton, Richard Dreyfuss and Marlee Matlin talks about the greatness of Mary Pickford.

Personal quotes:

We maniacs had fun and made good pictures and a lot of money. In the early years United Artists was a private golf club for the four of us.

If you have made mistakes . . . and there is always another chance for you. . . . you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down but the staying down.

I never liked one of my pictures in its entirety.

Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.

[on Douglas Fairbanks] In his private life Douglas always faced a situation in the only way he knew, by running away from it.

[on Charles Chaplin] That obstinate, suspicious, egocentric, maddening and lovable genius of a problem child.

Hollywood royalty, and the ideal couple of Hollywood history -
Pickford and Fairbanks.


Kate Gabrielle said...

wonderful post!! I love Mary Pickford, my two favorites are Amarilly of Clothesline Alley & Secrets, which I only saw recently. I love the videos you included, thanks :)

Lolita said...

Kate Gabrielle:
You're too sweet! Thank you. I liked the news about the trial! And thank you for the film tips!

Sebina said...

It's a long time since I've enjoyed a post SO MUCH. There clearly went a lot of love, from your part, into this post.

Robby Cress said...

Fantastic post on an incredible woman. There really isn't any woman in todays Hollywood that is quite as accomplished as she was.

Lolita said...

How happy you make me! You're right - a lot of love, and maybe some mania. Haha. But I didn't want to exclude anything, which I, of course, did anyway. Perhaps the fact that she couldn't have children due to a miscarriage. Well well!

Robby Cress:
I agree with you, totally. There doesn't seem to be that glow, that passion, in Hollywood women today. Yes, there was Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis etc, but they're gone now. Who's the next hurricane in Hollywood, do you think?

Sarah said...

Thanks for the info-filled post! I've always wanted to know more about Mary, and thanks for including the vids!

Lolita said...

I'm glad I can do something for you movie freaks out there! Mary was sure an amazing woman.

Vanessa Grandberry said...

It is so sad that Mary Pickford is forgotten. I contacted Hugh Munroe Neely at the Mary Picford Foundation to contact Robert Tonner about making a doll in her likeness; I don't believe he did and I don't know that Tonner would have been interested. Perhaps if enough of us fans make a stink, he (Tonner) will make one.