Pickford, Mary (1893-1979)

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Pickford, Mary (1893-1979)

Touted as the first female movie mogul, "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford is best remembered for the sticky-sweet Pollyanna image she cultivated in her films of the 1910s and 1920s. The child-like innocence and eternal optimism of her star persona have become somewhat cliche, obscuring the fact that Pickford was one of the most popular international screen icons of her day. Biographer Scott Eyman contends that "she defined her era, roughly 1910-1925, as surely as Marilyn Monroe defined hers."

Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1893, she grew into one of the most powerful figures of early Hollywood. This power was secured in 1919 when she formed the independent studio United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith. Her stature was reinforced a year later when she entered into a highly celebrated marriage with Fairbanks. One of the most salient aspects of Pickford's career is the dichotomy between naive, "Little Mary" and the liberated, sophisticated businesswoman which structured her persona. In later life, the star lamented that her public never allowed her to grow up.

Starting her career as a very little girl indeed, Pickford began acting in 1898 in an effort to help support her mother, Charlotte, and two siblings, Jack and Lottie, after her father's death. She made her broadway debut at the age of 14 in David Belasco's The Warrens of Virginia and signed a film contract with D. W. Griffith's Biograph Studio two years later. By 1914, Pickford had made 74 films including In the Bishop's Carriage (1913), Cinderella (1914), and Rags (1914). Though her name and off-screen personality were unknown to her audiences, she realized that she was one of the major reasons that her films brought in extraordinary box-office receipts and, on that basis, she continually renegotiated for higher salaries through the 1910s. Adolph Zukor, then head of Famous Players Film Company, grumbled that "it often took longer to make one of Mary's contracts than it did to make one of Mary's pictures." With Zukor, Pickford made a number of high-grossing films, including one of her best-remembered silents, Tess of the Storm Country (1914), which the producer later claimed saved Famous Players from bankruptcy.

Pickford's involvement in early Hollywood includes a range of contributions. In addition to being one of the first actors to recognize the economic and social power of film stardom, she achieved many technological "firsts" (albeit some of which are self-proclaimed). For example, Pickford alleged that she conceived of the film "close up" on the set of her picture Friends (1912) when she encouraged cameraman Billy Bitzer to move his camera in toward her face—she re-applied her make-up to further facilitate the innovation. She also helped invent the low-level (hazy) lighting which would become a staple of silent, black-and-white films. Hollywood biographer Cari Beauchamp has argued that Pickford's collaborations with screenwriter Frances Marion significantly shaped the story-telling structures which have become classical tradition and that the contribution of these women to early cinema cannot be overestimated.

In 1916, Pickford gained a great deal of creative autonomy by signing a contract with Zukor which afforded her the Pickford Film Corporation, her own production unit, and allowed her films to be distributed separately through Paramount's Artcraft. Pickford had more power to choose her film roles, and she could now contribute to the process of final cut. With her newfound agency, Pickford starred in some of her more memorable roles, including The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), and Stella Maris (1918). In the latter film, she played both the wealthy, sheltered title character and a working-class, homely orphan, impressing critics with her theatrical talents and wowing audiences with her willingness to dress down for the camera.

A distribution contract with First National in 1917 increased Pickford's power even further by allowing her to produce her films. This deal, unprecedented for a female star, meant that she would choose her own scripts, develop them, and be able to exercise final cut. But it was Pickford's organization of United Artists with Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith in 1919 which cemented her position in film history. These four figures considered themselves artists whose creative potential was being squashed by the studio economy. By forming an independent studio, they could engage in a hands-on approach to the development, production, distribution, and, eventually, the exhibition of their films without interference from "above." Their actions provoked the exasperated proclamation (and now infamous quotation) from the president of Metro Pictures that, "The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum." Despite such skepticism, the founders of United Artists fared quite well for more than a decade with "Little Mary" proving to be one of the company's more capable leaders. Allene Talmey wrote in 1927 that Pickford had a great deal more business sense than her counterpart, Fairbanks, and that she deserved the title "mental arithmetic Mary."

Pollyanna (1920) was one of the star's first United Artists films. The story of an orphan who sees the bright side of every adversity, Pollyanna drew on the most charming and endearing qualities of Pickford's persona. Pickford, however, evidenced some disdain for the blind optimism of this character in her autobiography when she wrote, "If reincarnation should prove to be true, and I had to come back as one of my roles, I suppose some avenging fate would return me to earth as Pollyanna—the 'glad girl."' Her childish naivete seemed particularly well-suited to audiences of her time. As support of this, her films of the 1920s consistently garnered one million dollars at the box office except for those in which she attempted more mature characters (Rosita in 1923 and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall in 1924). Film critic C. A. LeJeune explained the phenomenon in 1931, remarking that the star's films were "made yesterday for today rather than today for tomorrow." In a historical period of great social upheaval related to industrialization, first-wave feminism, and World War I, Mary reassured audiences with her blend of nostalgic sentimentality and an optimistic eye toward the future. Moviegoers of the early part of the century felt strongly that she was "one of them," a regular person who understood life's difficulties and had summoned the strength to triumph over her hardships.

Pickford's 1920 marriage to Douglas Fairbanks has been celebrated as one of the first Hollywood "fairy tale" marriages. The stars had spent a great deal of time together on the Liberty Bond tour during World War I, so much so that fans were asking studios if they would marry even before they had divorced their respective spouses. At the time, Pickford was married to film star Owen Moore, though the two basically had been separated since the honeymoon. In March 1918, newspaper reports nearly led to scandal after they placed Moore at the scene of New York City's Algonquin Hotel lobby waving a gun around and threatening Fairbanks's life. Scandal was averted again somehow in the spring of 1920 when Nevada district attorneys made it public that Pickford had lied under oath about her residency status in order to obtain a divorce from Moore.

But Pickford and Fairbanks's marriage that spring was received warmly by their fans. It seemed only appropriate that "the Glad Girl" and "the Smile Guy" should come together. While the couple enjoyed an international honeymoon, swamped by massive public attention and mob hysteria, Photoplay issued a definitive judgement in a one-page "telegram" that read, "ALL IS FORGIVEN. PLEASE COME HOME." Eventually they did return home to an estate named Pickfair, which boasted fountains, ponds, stables, a swimming pool, a tennis court, a gymnasium, and a home movie theatre. Their estate became a favorite destination for European royalty, and they were often referred to as "American royalty" themselves. Accounts which have emerged since Pickford's death suggest that she suffered from Fairbanks's jealousy and possessiveness, but the precedent they set as Hollywood's premiere star couple is powerful nonetheless.

Pickford won an Academy Award for her performance in Coquette (1929), but her popularity had already begun to slip. Her attempts at adult characters found little success, and her 1928 decision to cut off the long curls which had been her signature earned scorn. For her last film, she chose Secrets (1933), a remake of a Gloria Swanson movie which she had initiated two years earlier. Her discontent with the project had led her to burn the 1931 print, which was one-third complete. In the version which made it to the screen, Pickford played Mary Carlton from early womanhood to retirement. Her character is forced to confront her husband's adultery and try to rebuild her marriage after the ensuing scandal. (At the time, Pick-ford's own marriage was headed for divorce because of Fairbanks's strayings.) Predictably, reviewers admired the star in the early part of the picture, when she played a young Mary, but they disliked her as an older woman. Pickford's last film performed decently in theatres, but it signified a disheartening denouement.

Pickford tried her hand at a producing career; however she lacked the cachet and industry intuition which had proven so beneficial for the early films she had starred in. One Rainy Day Afternoon (1936), The Gay Desperado (1936), and Douglas Sirk's Sleep, My Love (1948) failed to launch her as a producer. In the late 1940s, she came very close to starring as the faded silent screen actress Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. (1950). She and Chaplin sold United Artists in 1953. Sensing that her films would quickly become dated, Pickford made plans to burn all of her original prints, to which she had exclusive rights, but friend and film preservationist Matty Kemp convinced her to create a custodial space for them by forming the Mary Pickford Film Corporation, which eventually led to a retrospective of her work in 1971.

As for her personal life, the "Queen of Hollywood" married My Best Girl (1927) costar Charles "Buddy" Rogers in 1937 and remained his wife until her death in 1979. As her career declined, so did her optimistic outlook. In Pickford's later years, she began to be viewed as a rigid relic of the Victorian era. She became increasingly reclusive, withdrawing into Pickfair and, many say, resorting to alcohol as a salve for her poor spirits. According to her niece Gwynne Ruppe Pickford, the star came home from a Paris retrospective of her films in 1965 and announced that "she had worked hard all her life since she was five … and she would not get up out of bed or leave the house again, except to go to the hospital."

—Christina Lane

Further Reading:

Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Beauchamp, Cari. Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Carey, Gary. Doug and Mary: A Biography of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1977.

DeCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in Early America. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford: America's Sweetheart. New York, Donald I. Fine, 1990.

Herndon, Booten. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Ever Known. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1977.

Pickford, Mary. Sunshine and Shadow: An Autobiography. New York, Doubleday & Company, 1956.

Talmey, Allene. Doug and Mary and Others. New York, Macy-Masius, 1927.

Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1997.

Windeler, Robert. Sweetheart: The Story of Mary Pickford. New York, Praeger, 1973.