Long before Jennifer Aniston burst onto the scene in the 1990s as Hollywood’s favorite “it” girl, America had another sweetheart: Mary Pickford. With her lush blond curls and sweet smile, she captivated the hearts of many American moviegoers with her convincing portrayals of innocence on the silver screen.
Mary Pickford was born Gladys Smith in 1892, in Toronto, Canada. After the death of her father, Pickford became an actress at age six to help support her family while her mother took in boarders and sewing work. Over the next nine years, Pickford acted in vaudeville sketches, melodramas, and road show productions throughout the United States, escorted by her family. Through her own ambition and hard work, in 1907, at the age of fifteen, Pickford impressed one of Broadway’s most famous producers, David Belasco, and acted in his play The Warrens of Virginia. It was Belasco who suggested she change her name from Gladys Smith to Mary Pickford.
In 1909, Pickford switched from plays to acting in motion pictures. At the time, they were referred to as “flickers,” and the typical film was only eight to twelve minutes long. The films were shown in “Nickelodeon” theaters, where a person could see an average of five “flickers” for the cost of a nickel. Although most people at American Biograph Company, the production company with which she signed, received five dollars a day for acting in such films, Pickford demanded ten dollars, and received it. In the first year, Pickford appeared in over forty of the flickers, garnering raises and attention, but not fame. Actors were never named and the director D.W. Griffith received all of the credit.
After making eighty films with Biograph, Pickford made thirty-five films with Carl Laemmie’s IMP Company, during which time she was named in the credits of her films and gained great fame.
She returned to Biograph, earning more money than ever and gained the freedom to collaborate with D.W. Griffith on the script and direction of the films. Pickford excelled at a role that showed a character’s progression from adolescence to budding romance, an idealized first love.
Check out a clip from Mary’s 1920 film Pollyanna:
Between 1913 and 1916, Pickford made twenty-one feature films for Adolph Zukor and his Famous Players Film Company. By early 1916, she was making $2,000 a week, plus a $10,000 bonus for each finished picture. On average, Pickford made $150,000 a year; this was quite a large fortune at a time when the average family income was under $2,000 annually. By this time she was recognized as the most famous and popular woman in America and the world. In the longer films produced at this time, Pickford often played the role of a poor girl who married into a wealthy family but always stayed true to her roots. This friendly, modest, honest persona compounded with her beauty made her an international favorite of women and men alike and she was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” in the popular media.
In 1916, Pickford signed a contract with Zukor to become his partner. Pickford’s films were from then on produced by the Pickford Film Corporation and released under Artcraft Pictures. Pickford dictated that she make a minimum of one million dollars across the two-year contract.
In 1919, Pickford co-founded United Artists with her future husband Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin to distribute the films they produced. This organization gave actors more artistic control and a share in the enormous profits.
By 1921, Pickford was virtually in control of the finished product of her films. She acted in, helped direct and produced an average of one film per year. In 1927, she acted in her last silent film.
Pickford spearheaded the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and the Oscar awards that same year. In 1929, Pickford received an Oscar for best actress in the category that was set up for “talkies” for her role in “Coquette.” Although her first two talking pictures did well, the next few did not, and in 1933, Pickford acted in her last film.
For many years, Pickford continued to stay active on the Board of the United Artists and produced several films. In 1937, she married her third husband to whom she remained married to for the rest of her life. In 1943, they adopted two children and Pickford spent more time at home. In 1956, she sold her shares in United Artists and turned to charitable work, establishing the Mary Pickford Foundation.
In 1976, she received an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She died in 1979 at 87.