Canadian-born Gladys Louise Smith was just 5 years old when her father died, plunging her family into poverty. Gladys’ mother, Charlotte, a classic stage mother of the day, pushed her young children– Lottie, Jack, and “Baby Gladys” — into the theatre in hopes of making money. Gladys soon caught the eye of Broadway impresario, David Belasco, who quickly changed her name to Mary Pickford, and landed her a small role in William de Mille’s, The Warrens of Virginia.
Petite Pickford (she was just under 5 feet tall) entered into the more lucrative film industry by walking into many production offices and simply asking to be cast in motion pictures. She was soon discovered by David W. Griffith, film producer for the Biograph Company, who directed her in the short, Her First Biscuits. ”At the time but three or four days were required to make a film…Salaries ranged from $10 a day to $30 a week,” Pickford wrote. Filmgoers knew her as “The Girl with the Curls” (in the early days of the film industry, actors’ names were not always known) and she acquired many additional nicknames in the newspapers in her remarkable career: Little Mary, The Biograph Girl, Queen of the Movies, and America’s Sweetheart.
Pickford leveraged her personality and talent to become the first female film superstar and one of the most memorable silent movie stars in the 1910s and 1920s. She even had a syndicated daily newspaper column entitled Daily Talks by Mary Pickford. Check out some of her published columns here, here, here, and here.
After signing with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Player’s Film Company in 1913, she starred in Tess of the Storm Country, and in 1916, she began producing her own films such as Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm through Artcraft Pictures. Highly devoted to charity efforts, she along with other big names in the film industry (among them Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks) toured the country during World War I to help sell Liberty bonds to finance the war.
Pickford was unfortunately not immune to the problems of the public’s obsession with celebrity culture and frequently found her name in the papers during her publicized divorce from Moore, whom she married in 1911 after they met on the set of The Violin Maker of Cremona. Undeterred by the negative press; the ardent and business savvy Pickford knew what she wanted and went after it. The production company, United Artists Corporation, was formed in 1919 by the “big four features in filmdom:” Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford in order to protect their interests.
On March 28, 1920, she married fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks and the two formed your average run-of-the-mill Hollywood royalty. Their honeymoon to Europe was anything but private (they were mobbed by international fans) and their Beverly Hills estate, dubbed “Pickfair,” became the gathering place of anyone who was anyone in Hollywood.
Through United Artists, she produced and starred in some of her most famous films: Rosita, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Pollyanna, and Little Lord Fauntleroy, where through the revolutionary use of double exposure she played two roles. As she approached the age of 40 she grew tired of being typecast in juvenile roles and cut off her childlike signature curls. In 1928, she starred in the “talkie” (a talking film), Coquette, a film for which she received an Academy Award for Best Actress.
To this day, the original America’s Sweetheart remains an instrumental figure in the motion picture business. We even have a theater named in her honor that you’re welcome to visit in the Library of Congress’s Madison Building. By the time Pickford’s last film Secrets was released, 25 years after her first film debut, she had starred in over 200 films, many of which are unfortunately lost. Tell us your favorite one in the comments!