When most people think about the silent era, a mere handful of once-famous names linger in the memory – mostly male comedians. You’ve got your Charlie Chaplin, your Harold Lloyd, your Buster Keaton. Maybe director DW Griffith and his fragile beauties, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. But Mary Pickford, once termed “America’s Sweetheart,” is often overlooked by all but silent film enthusiasts. Like so many other actors from her era, she wasn’t able to successfully make the jump into sound, but her legacy in cinema goes far beyond her acting career. As a shrewd businesswoman and a major figure in the burgeoning Hollywood community of the 1920s and 1930s, she had more control over her own career than any other actress of her time – maybe ever.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith into a struggling Toronto family that took to the stage to make ends meet. In 1909, she began working with DW Griffith, one of the most respected directors in a medium that still wasn’t quite being taken seriously. Through her work with Griffith, her career grew rapidly. With long, curly hair and an impish smile, she is perhaps best known today for the films that saw her take on the role of a child.
Although she certainly, in her long and prolific career, played plenty of adult women, it’s these films with her as a little girl or teenager – Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), A Little Princess (1917), The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Little Annie Rooney (1925), and Sparrows (1926), to name just a few – that are best remembered. Although the latest of these films were made when Pickford was in her mid-30s, audiences were happy to suspend their disbelief, so convincingly did she adopt the persona of a much younger girl. By the late 1910s, she was one of the biggest stars in America, essentially neck-and-neck with Charlie Chaplin, with whom she had a professional friendship for decades.
Throughout the 1920s, her star only rose further. When she married Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, their romance swept American moviegoers into a frenzy, and they were dubbed the king and queen of Hollywood. She had a series of box office successes throughout the early part of the decade, with Pollyanna, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Little Annie Rooney and Rosita all earning over $1 million at the box office. Pickford was so adored that an invitation to Pickfair, the estate she shared with Douglas Fairbanks (and arguably one of the earliest examples of a celebrity portmanteau), was about as sought after as one to the White House.
Still, everything comes to an end, and for Mary Pickford, it was around the time that the sound era began in earnest. She was fatally slow to warm to the new technology, not believing that it would end up as ubiquitous as it ultimately became. But there was also the natural issue of the aging process – Pickford was in her mid-to-late 30s when silent films began to die out, and she was approaching the time when she would no longer be believable in the ingenue roles that audiences so fervently loved. When she cut her hair into a more fashionable (and much more mature) bob as seen in one of her only sound film appearances, Coquette, audiences were shocked. Film historian Scott Eyman described the reaction by remarking, “You would have thought she’d murdered the American eagle.” And although she ultimately won an Academy Award for her work in the film, she would retire from acting just four years later. She lived out the rest of her life at Pickfair (even though she and Fairbanks divorced in 1936), growing increasingly reclusive over the years and reportedly maintaining strained relations with family and friends.
But if that’s the end of her story as an actress, it doesn’t begin to tap into everything else she managed to do during her career in Hollywood. From her introduction to fame, Pickford seemed to intuitively understand the true power of celebrity in a way that others did not. As one of the biggest stars of the 1910s, she knew her worth, and demanded to be treated as the valuable commodity she was. She accomplished this not with petty demands for larger dressing rooms or increasingly extensive riders on her contract, but with perhaps the most important thing for a young actress to have: control and influence over her own career.
In 1916, she negotiated a contract with Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount Pictures, that would give her complete authority over the films that she starred in. This was practically unheard of at the time and extremely rare throughout the entire classical era of Hollywood, where studios owned a roster of stars and the actors had little say over their film assignments, public image, and even life choices. She created the Mary Pickford Film Corporation, and by 1917, she was producing nearly every film she appeared in. Among other things, this new contract would make her the first actress to earn $1 million a year.
Her business acumen extended well beyond her own career, and into matters that would ultimately shape Hollywood. In 1919, alongside Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, and her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford formed United Artists as a means to protect independent producers from losing control to the burgeoning studio system. Before antitrust legislation, Hollywood operated on a vertical integration system, with one studio controlling the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. This, among other things, made it difficult for filmmakers who weren’t part of a studio to get their work shown in movie theaters around the United States. United Artists was designed to give filmmakers, especially those like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin who starred in their own productions, greater control over their work.
She was also a key figure in the 1916 creation of the Hollywood Studio Club, a dormitory that would house young women who were trying to break into the film industry. This would not only provide these aspiring actresses with room and board, but support for them to develop their craft and, perhaps most importantly, protection from exploitation. When single girls would move to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a movie star, there were frequently unsavory characters waiting in the wings to take advantage of them, and one of the goals of the Hollywood Studio Club was to offer a sense of stability that would keep these young women safe.
Just a few years later, she would help develop the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which would provide financial aid to members of the film community. This would grow enormously over the years, especially during the 1930s, when a combination of the Great Depression, personal scandals, and the career instability of the transition between the silent and sound eras resulted in several high profile actors dying in poverty, including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Florence Lawrence. During the 1940s, a hospital and retirement community were built to support workers in film (and later television) with limited resources, none of which would have been possible without Mary Pickford’s continued involvement in the project.
The indomitable Mary Pickford deserves credit for her acting career, which captivated audiences throughout the silent era and made her one of the most beloved figures of her time. But beyond that, she serves as a template for the type of Hollywood career that feels entirely modern: a savvy businesswoman who took control of her own image and creative output at a time when the studio system was eager to assert their dominance over the actors they “owned.” Her work as both a cheery, mischievous young actress and a trailblazing member of Hollywood society make her one of the most significant figures of early cinema.