Behind her “Girl with the Golden Curls” persona, Mary Pickford was a visionary who helped shape the Hollywood we know today.
Despite being America’s original “sweetheart,” Mary Pickford was actually born in Canada in 1892 as Gladys Marie Smith. After a childhood of performing on stage, and a name change, Pickford landed her first contract, with D. W. Griffith’s Biograph Company. Over the years, she made such hits as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Pollyanna (1920), and The Love Light (1921). She retired from acting in the early ’30s, but continued to produce. Before her death in 1979, she lived as a recluse in Pickfair, the home she had built with former husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
1. She Brought Lillian and Dorothy Gish to the Silver Screen.
The Gish sisters were childhood friends of Mary’s, having also been brought up on the stage. After seeing Mary in the movies, the Gishes went to Biograph to talk to her. Mary introduced them to D.W. Griffith; he then hired the sisters and they went on to become major stars of the Silent Era.
Right: Lillian Gish. Left: Dorothy Gish
2. Her Fame Led to Higher Wages for Film Actors
When Mary Pickford first started in movies, it was still common practice for studios to not give on-screen credit to actors. This was done in an effort to keep their fame, and thus their salaries, low. But, when people like Mary captivated audiences and became recognizable through nicknames like “the Biograph Girl” or “the Girl with the Curls,” studios knew things were about change. In 1914, due to her negotiating power, Pickford became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, a title she would hold frequently during her career.
3. She Held Unprecedented Power Over Her Work
In 1916, after a string of successful films and being named “Queen of the Movies,” Pickford and Adolph Zukor, head of the Famous Players Company, renegotiated her contract. Mary now had the abilities to pick her own projects as well as the writers and directors who would work on them.
4. She Was the First Actor to Have Her Own Production Company
Likely a result of her new-found creative freedom, she formed Mary Pickford Film Corporation in August 1916. The company dealt only with her films distributed by Famous Players-Lasky.
5. She Helped Demonstrate the Influence Movie Stars Held Over the Public
With America’s entry into World War I, the U.S. government began selling war bonds. Celebrities Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and a few others toured the country convincing Americans to buy these “Liberty Bonds.” This use of star power was so successful, it was repeated during WWII. And looking at all the celebrity endorsements of today, it seems that stardom still casts a spell on audience’s wallets.
Douglas Fairbanks (standing), Mary Pickford, and Charles Chaplin while on tour
6. She Helped Found United Artists
Mary Pickford, husband Douglas Fairbanks, friend Charles Chaplin, and director D. W. Griffith were all worried about studio control. As artists, they wanted freedom in their work, but would still need the funds to make projects happen. Combining the worth of all their reputations and any savings could help them get just what they wanted. So, in 1919 they formed the United Artists Corporation, which still exists today (though it is owned by MGM).
7. She Helped Care for Others in the Film Industry
Mary helped create the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1921. What had started as boxes/cans for spare change around studios was now an incorporated charity for film workers fallen on hard times. Mary also advocated for well-paid stars to donate just one-half percent of their earnings for the cause. This organization has undergone change, but also still exists today.
8. She and Douglas Fairbanks Were the First to Step in Grauman’s Concrete
Some sources say Mary Pickford came up with the idea for actors to leave their hand- and footprints outside Sid Grauman’s new Chinese Theater as a publicity stunt. Others say it was all Grauman’s doing. Either way, she and the hubby, Douglas Fairbanks, were the first to perform the act, which led to the theater becoming a major tourist attraction and the footprints becoming an honor for those who leave them.
Mary Pickford, Sid Grauman, and Douglas Fairbanks outside the Chinese Theater
9. She Was the First First Lady of the Academy
Along with thirty-four others, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fairbanks was elected as the first president. Two years later, the organization held the first Oscars Cermony. Of course, this tradition has also lasted though the decades.
10. Even After Her Death, Mary Makes New Strides
The Mary Pickford Foundation, created after her death and based on her 1950s Mary Pickford Charitable Trust, provides scholarships, encourages the study of film history, and works to restore some of many damaged silent films.
Though she is most famous for playing “little girl” roles, the woman Mary Pickford was an intelligent and ambitious visionary. It is because of her foresight we enjoy the Hollywood of today. In her professional life, Mary made even more contributions than these few. In her personal life, she also improved the world around her through her countless acts of charity. When asked whom I admire, Mary Pickford often springs to mind, and because of this glimpse into her life, I think you can understand why.