Before the rise of “talkies”, silent films were all the rage thanks to the film industry’s technological developments in the 1920s. Silent films would be accompanied by a live orchestra that played alongside film viewings with title cards to display character dialogue. During this revolutionary cinematic era, a number of prominent stars hit the spotlight, including Mary Pickford.
A Canadian-American actress and producer, her career spanned five decades, and she was one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. She was considered America’s sweetheart during the silent film era and was a significant figure in the development of film acting. Here’s a look at the early life, career and legacy of Mary Pickford.
Born in 1892 in Toronto as Gladys Louise Smith, Pickford became her family’s main breadwinner after her father was killed in an accident when she was seven years old. Her mother had started taking in boarders, one of whom was a theatrical stage manager who suggested that young Gladys be given two theatrical roles. She went on to act in many melodramas in Toronto’s Valentine Stock Company, including a significant child role in The Silver King.
In the early 1990s, her entire family worked in theatre and toured the US, performing for third-rate companies. Pickford gave herself one last chance to land a spot on Broadway, and she and her siblings supported singer Chauncey Olcott on Broadway in 1906 before Pickford went on to land a supporting role in 1907 in The Warrens of Virginia. It was the producer David Belasco who insisted that Gladys take the stage name Mary Pickford.
Pickford was first screen tested in 1909 for a role in the film Pippa Passes. The part was not given to her, but the director was so taken with her he signed her to his company Biograph. He agreed to pay her $10 a day for her acting work, while most actors at that studio at the time were earning just $5 a day.
Pickford played both bit parts and leading roles at Biograph, appearing in 51 films in 1909. Her first starring role was in The Violin Maker of Cremona, where she acted opposite her future husband, Owen Moore. Actors in Biograph were not listed in the credits. Still, audiences immediately recognised Pickford, and she became known as “the Girl with the Golden Curls” and “Blondilocks”, which is how exhibitors would advertise films she featured in.
She made her last Biograph picture in 1912 and returned to Broadway but discovered how much she missed film acting and decided to work exclusively in film. Between 1912 and 1919, she jumped between studios, increasing her paycheque each time until she joined Douglas Fairbanks (her soon to be second husband), D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin to form United Artists.
United Artists broke from the tradition of Hollywood studios producing films and forming chains of theatres to show the company’s productions. UA was solely a distribution company that offered independent filmmakers access to screens and the rental of un-booked cinemas owned by other companies. As co-founder and a producer and star of her own films, Pickford was the most powerful woman working in Hollywood at the time.
By 1930 she mostly retired from acting but continued to produce films for UA, eventually selling her shares in the company in 1956 for $3 million.
Pickford not only founded the Academy but became the second winner of the best actress award for her 1929 film Coquette – which was actually the first talkie to take the best actress Oscar. Initially Pickford didn’t see the point of talkies but adapted when it became clear that they were the future of cinema.
She remarried a third time in 1937 to actor Buddy Rogers. Her final years were spent on business and charitable activities, her last film being released when she was just 40. She won an honorary Oscar in 1976 for her considerable contributions to film, which she received at her home.
After the silent film era ended, Pickford became a recluse inside the lavish estate she had built with Fairbanks, only receiving visitors by telephone. She died in Santa Monica, California hospital in 1979 from a cerebral haemorrhage and was interred in the Garden of Memory of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Today you can find Mary Pickford on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and there is a theatre named in her honour at the Library of Congress. She forged a path for many other film stars to come after her and was an important figure in the world of filmmaking.
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