Women of the Silent Film Era: Mary Pickford

By Sherri Rabinowitz:

Mary Pickford

I loved my grandma’s stories—especially the one she told about Mary Pickford in the early days of silent films. Ms. Pickford, along with her mother, would come into my great grandfather’s shop to buy material for her films. Grandma worked there and actually made a few of those gowns when the film industry was still in New York—before it was chased away by the Edison Company. So, as you can imagine, Mary Pickford has always fascinated and intrigued me—and I knew that she had great taste because she hired my Grandma!


With a career spanning fifty years, Mary Pickford, along with many of her female contemporaries, did everything in film. She acted, did her own stunts, directed, wrote scripts, and even worked behind the camera. On top of that, she became a producer—the first female Studio Executive and the co-founder of Pickford–Fairbanks Studio along with Douglas Fairbanks. Later, she became an executive at United Artists along with Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith.


Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892. She was known in her prime as "America's Sweetheart" and the "girl with the curls." She was one of the Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood and a significant figure in the development of film acting. Pickford was the first star to be billed under her own name because the fans demanded to know the name of the girl with the curls. There was even a letter-writing campaign to find out who she was. Because of that, Pickford is considered the first movie star. She was one of the most popular actresses of the 1910s and 1920s, earning the nickname "Queen of the Movies,” and she’s credited as having defined the ingénue archetype in cinema. All in all, Pickford starred in fifty-two features throughout her career.

On June 24, 1916, Pickford signed a new contract with Adolph Zukor that granted her full authority over production of the films in which she starred and a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week! In addition, Pickford's compensation was half of a film's profits, with a guarantee of $1,040,000—in today’s terms that would be $18,500,000.


Mary Pickford, Gary Cooper & Marion Davies', 1933

A petite 5’1” with a natural acting ability, Pickford could easily play a child. Pickford’s fans were devoted to her “little girl” roles in film such as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Daddy Long Legs (1919), and Pollyanna (1920). This “little girl” act was convincing enough that upon first meeting a young Douglas Fairbanks Jr., he assumed she was a new playmate for him and asked her to come and play trains with him—which she obligingly did.


In August 1918, Pickford's contract expired and, when refusing Zukor's terms for a renewal, he offered her $250,000 to buy her out of the contract. She declined and went to First National Pictures, which agreed to her terms. After forming the independent film production company United Artists, she continued to produce and perform in her own movies and could distribute them as she chose. During this period, all her films made over $100,000 per film.

Even though her movie My Best Girl (1927)—a romantic comedy featuring her future husband Buddy Rogers—was quite successful, the arrival of sound was Pickford’s ultimate undoing. She underestimated the value of adding sound to movies, claiming that, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus De Milo.” A rare, poor judgement on her part.

Oscar for Mary Pickford - Coquette (1929)

She played a reckless socialite in Coquette (1929), a role for which her famous ringlets were cut into a 1920s bob. Pickford had already cut her hair in the wake of her mother's death in 1928, but fans were shocked at the transformation. Pickford's hair had become a symbol of female virtue. Though she looked lovely in the bob, it was as scandal. Audiences felt betrayed. This was not the Mary Pickford they had come to love. Even though Coquette was a success and won her an Oscar for Best Actress, the public failed to respond to Pickford’s more sophisticated roles. Like most movie stars of the silent era, Pickford found her career fading as the talkies became more popular.

Only woman in the room! Mary Pickford, founding member of the AMPAS

Pickford was one of the original thirty-six founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and along with her Oscar for Coquette, she also received an honorary Academy Award in 1976 in consideration of her contributions to American cinema.


She died on May 29, 1979, in a hospital in Santa Monica of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage that she had suffered the week before. She was interred in the Garden of Memory of the world-famous Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery.


The American Film Institute ranked Pickford as 24th in its 1999 list of greatest female stars of classic Hollywood Cinema.

Mary Pickford, Sid Grauman, Douglas Fairbanks, 1st hand-and-footprint at the Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, 1927

Read Sherri Rabinowitz's first post: "Women of the Silent Film Era: Lillian Gish"

Inspired by Ray Bradbury and Agatha Christie, Sherri Rabinowitz has been writing since she was a small child. She has always loved writing but has made a living as an actress, travel agent, and in several forms of customer service. However, her passion has always been reading and writing fan fiction. Her book, Different is Beautiful, won Gold in the The Global Ebook Awards.


Sherri's book are available on Amazon.com

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