[Editor’s Note: Ben Alpers, author of this excellent book, is back. And since I spent yesterday first driving to San Francisco, then getting on a plane at SFO, then flying to Cleveland, and then driving from the Cleveland airport to the East Side, all with two kids in tow, I really appreciate the help — even more than usual, that is.]
On this day in 1916, Mary Pickford signed a contract with the Famous Players Film Company that made her the most highly paid, and powerful, female star in Hollywood. The contract guaranteed her $10,000 per week for two years, thus totaling over $1 million. Just as importantly, it created a separate production unit within the studio, Pickford Film Corporation, over which Pickford, and her mother Charlotte, would have control. This gave the star enormous say over her roles and even the final cut of her films. She was also able to reduce the number of feature films in which she had to appear to six a year, still a very large number by today’s standards.
Pickford’s ability to garner such a deal reflected both her astuteness as a businesswoman and her status as Hollywood’s biggest star. Born Gladys Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto, Canada, Pickford became a child star of the stage in Canada and, in 1907, traveled to New York to pursue a career on Broadway. Two years later, she signed with D.W. Griffith and became part of his Biograph motion picture troupe. Pickford moved with Griffith’s company from New York to Hollywood in 1910. By the time she left Biograph in 1911, she had appeared in seventy of the short, one-reelers that dominated the American, and world, film markets until the rise of the feature film in the middle of the 1910s. Griffith famously did not credit his actors, as he feared that they would become too popular and powerful. But Pickford became the first great female star of American motion pictures while still working for him, “The Biograph Girl with the Curls.”
Pickford easily made the transition to features, appearing in seven feature films in 1917 and eight in 1915. In such movies as Tess of the Storm Country (1914), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) and The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), she created a strong and marketable image. While her beauty was legendary, she usually played plucky, somewhat tomboyish girls, often dramatically younger than the actor’s own age. In The Poor Little Rich Girl, the then-twenty-four-year-old Pickford played a twelve-year-old.
Pickford’s business savvy never left her. In 1919, along with her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and her former employer D.W. Griffith, Pickford founded the United Artists studio, which was designed to give these screen legends total control over the production and distribution of their films.
But Pickford’s screen persona remained remarkably unchanged, and this eventually proved the undoing of her film career. Pickford continued to play adolescents into the mid-1920s (when the star was in her thirties). But as Pickford aged, these roles became less credible. And audience tastes in female stars, too, began to change. Pickford successfully made the transition to sound, winning a best-actress Oscar for her first talkie, Coquette (1929). But her career was already in a downward spiral. Coquette marked by a belated attempt by the actor to remarket herself. She cut her hair, which had been long, into a fashionable bob. And she played a more overtly sexual character closer to her own age. But audiences never warmed to the new Mary Pickford. Pickford retired from the screen in 1933.
A complete Mary Pickford one-reeler, The Dream (1911), as well as clips from two other Pickford silents, Rags (1915) and Little Lord Fountleroy (1921), can be seen here. A clip from Coquette is available here.
“Mary Pickford” (PBS’s The American Experience)
“Biography” from the Mary Pickford Library Website.
Gaylyn Studlar, “Mary Pickford” in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (ed), The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York. 1996, pp. 56-57.