Born in 1892, little Gladys Smith of Toronto, Ontario took to the stage to help support her family after the death of her father. Beginning her career as Baby Gladys, by adolescence the young girl had changed her name to Mary Pickford and started working as a film set extra. She was noticed by director D.W. Griffith and soon became one of his principal players. Through her films with Griffith, Mary’s popularity increased and she began to be known as The Girl With The Golden Hair. Winsome yet feisty, with long blonde ringlets, Mary appealed to countless moviegoers and was also called America’s Sweetheart.
Despite her youth and the uncertainty of newly formed Hollywood, Mary Pickford was a pioneer in negotiating salary terms and retaining control over her projects. She was one of the few actresses of her time to be able to tell a director how she felt a role should be played, and not vice versa. Her approach was clearly successful: by 1916 she was earning $10,000 per week, and she was a millionaire before the age of twenty-five.
Pickfair and United Artists
Following an unsuccessful first marriage, Mary wed another major star of the era, the handsome swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks. Their vast estate was known as Pickfair and considered one of Hollywood’s enchanted castles.
At the height of their collective fame, Mary Pickford along with Fairbanks and comedian Charlie Chaplin toured the United States to promote bond buying for World War I, and the trio raised millions. In 1919, Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin teamed up again to form their own production company known as United Artists, another major power play for creative talent as opposed to being at the mercy of studios and directors.
Sunshine and Shadow
While Mary’s success was immense, she was dissatisfied with the girlish roles the public expected her to keep playing, especially as she reached her late twenties and early thirties and wanted to take on more mature material. She bobbed her beloved Goldilocks curls and attempted to change her image, and while she won the 1929 Academy Award for Coquette, fans did not like the new and modern Mary. America and the world still wanted to see adorable, plucky Pickford in films like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Pollyanna, and with the coming of the talkies her popularity began to wane.
A divorce from Fairbanks followed soon after, and while Mary remarried and adopted two children, her life had troubled spells. The title of her 1955 autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow, alluded to the darker side of Mary’s fame. While she rarely performed in public, she remained involved in the film industry and established The Mary Pickford Foundation and The Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, which helped former movie stars to find lodging and healthcare in their final years.
In 1976, Mary Pickford received another Oscar for lifetime achievement. She died in 1979. Her passing did not create major headlines like it surely would have at one time, but Pickford’s independent and pioneering attitude toward artistic control and respect for actors is as great an inspiration as the legacy of her classic films.
Mary Pickford was played by Maria Pitillo in the 1992 film Chaplin. Several of Pickford’s movies have been restored and put on DVD, and PBS’s The American Experience: Mary Pickford offers further biographical detail, excerpts of Mary’s acting, along with several interactive features.