Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

The following is an article written by Christel Schmidt of the Library’s Publishing Office, who has edited a book on Mary Pickford, for the March-April 2013 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

Mary Pickford with a movie camera in 1916. Prints and Photographs Division

It has been 100 years since Mary Pickford was first dubbed the Queen of the Movies. At the time, the phrase simply noted her popularity in the huge field of actors who appeared in short films shown at nickelodeons. Though it was a gratifying compliment, the title had inherently ignoble associations. After all, most people considered the movies to be a low form of entertainment. Pickford winced at the label, but it was remarkably prophetic of her future triumphs.

As the movies expanded to feature length, Pickford’s skyrocketing fame created box-office gold; meanwhile, her widely heralded acting prowess advanced the medium’s quest for respectability. In 1915 Pickford formed her own corporation and began hardball negotiations with her studio, Famous Players. This led to a landmark film contract the following year, in which Pickford received her own production unit, a strong creative voice in the making of her movies, and a salary rivaled only by that of Charlie Chaplin. Just two years later, she left Famous Players for First National in a deal that gave her complete creative control and more money. Then, with the ink barely dry on her contract, she became involved in plans to form a new company, United Artists, which she cofounded with Chaplin, actor Douglas Fairbanks, and director D. W. Griffith in 1919.

From 1910 to 1920, the fervor of Pickford’s massive fan base never wavered. In fact, the craze amplified, especially when the Queen of the Movies—a title that now defined her position as both an industry leader and a superstar—married Fairbanks. As Hollywood’s most popular leading man, Fairbanks was a king in his own right, and he shared Pickford’s passion for filmmaking. The pair became the first celebrity supercouple; their movies spread American culture and values around the world and made them the nation’s unofficial ambassadors. During their international travels, they were coveted guests of royalty, presidents, and prime ministers. At home, they ruled Hollywood from Pickfair, their Beverly Hills mansion, which became a social center for the cultural elite.

Promotional flyer for “The Hoodlum” (1919). Prints and Photographs Collection

By the mid-1920s, newer and younger stars were challenging Pickford’s box-office supremacy. Several—including Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, and Gloria Swanson—temporarily won the mantle of movie queen, but Pickford remained an enduring favorite. Then, suddenly, the industry underwent a radical change: silent film was out and the talkies were in. Within a few years, most of the era’s great stars had toppled from their lofty positions, and Pickford’s acting career and marriage faltered. During the Depression, she sought refuge in new ventures—forming a cosmetics company, performing on radio and writing books. These projects met with varying success, but none captured her soul as the movies had. Though she continued to work with United Artists and occasionally produced films for other people, nothing matched the thrill of creating her own. A decade of professional disappointment was matched by profound personal losses; her mother, Charlotte, died in 1928, followed by her younger siblings, Jack and Lottie, in 1933 and 1936, respectively. Fairbanks died in 1939. These painful events exacerbated a growing struggle with alcohol that plagued her until the end of her life.

Meanwhile, Pickford’s on- and off-screen achievements were fading from memory. Silent film, an art form she had helped pioneer and later dominated, was considered archaic. Fearing ridicule, Pickford did not allow her work to be exhibited in the rare revival screenings of silent films. Unfortunately, this lack of access prevented generations of moviegoers from discovering her work and allowed a distorted view of her movies to take hold.

The centenary in 2009 of Pickford’s first movie appearance prompted the publication of “Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies”—a celebration of one of early cinema’s key figures. In a series of insightful essays, Pickford scholars (past and present) delve into her onscreen persona, her impact on modern celebrity culture, and her transformation from popular actress to national icon. Her frequent turns in nonwhite roles and as teenagers are explored, as is the glorification of the Pickford curls and her companionate marriage to Fairbanks. Other pieces examine her role as a Hollywood philanthropist and her interest in the fledging archival film movement and the preservation of her film legacy.

A scene from Mary Pickford’s “Tess of the Storm Country” (1922). Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Pickford’s life and career are illuminated by the presentation in the book of more than 235 images and illustrations. Most are from the personal collections of films and photographs she donated to the Library of Congress and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, respectively. Her collection of costumes and other memorabilia, housed at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, is also showcased. Together, these magnificent images and revealing essays offer a fascinating portrait of a brilliant woman whose influence on the film industry remains unmatched.

MORE INFORMATION
Audio-Visual Conservation at the Library of Congress 

A download of  the March-April issue of the LCM is available here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.

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