Mary Pickford (1892-1979)
Country of birth: Canada
Birth name: Gladys Marie Smith
The basics: Mary Pickford became an actress at the age of seven when her mother’s lodger gave her a part in his play. Pickford managed to steal the show even in a bit part. She joined the Biograph film company in 1909. Pickford returned to the stage briefly but soon realized that the movies were her true home. Through a combination of talent, popularity and shrewd bargaining, Pickford was soon one of the richest and most influential performers in the film industry. She was one of the co-founders and United Artists and one of the founding members of AMPAS. She and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were the acknowledged king and queen of Hollywood. Pickford was not keen on sound films but she set to work and earned an Oscar for her role in 1929’s Coquette. Pickford retired from the screen in 1933.
You probably saw her in: Sparrows, My Best Girl, Stella Maris, Daddy-Long-Legs, Tess of the Storm Country
Silent style: If one role shaped Mary Pickford’s career, it was Gwendolyn in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Just shy of 25 in real life, Pickford successfully captured the spirit of a child. The audience responded enthusiastically and demanded more child roles. Pickford spent the rest of her silent career balancing her need to satisfy the public with her desire to create art on film. She often found the balance by starting out playing a child and then having her character grow up. Pickford on screen was spunky, fiery and cute; rough edges with a heart of gold. Her flair for physical comedy combined with a talent for pathos creating memorable role after memorable role.
Sound transition: Pickford had nothing to fear from sound movies as far as her voice was concerned. However, she knew that it would be difficult to leave her best-known screen persona behind. As she put it: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me. I’d already been pigeonholed.” However, age and shifting public tastes meant that the little girl had to go. So Pickford left with her.
What others said:
“She was a unique symbol of of the birth and growth of the only art form that found its origins in the western hemisphere– the motion picture.”
Film historian Kevin Brownlow
If you gotta know more:
Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (autobiography)
Mary Pickford Foundation (official website)
Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (biography)
Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (biography)
Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Cushman (pictorial tribute)
Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies by Christel Schmidt (large format anthology)
If you can only see her in one thing: Tough call but Daddy-Long-Legs shows off Pickford in a child role as well as a romantic role and it is adorable.