Mary Pickford (April 8, 1892 – May 29, 1979) enjoyed a career that spanned five decades. A movie pioneer, she co-founded Pickford-Fairbanks Studios and United Artists. Furthermore, she was one of the thirty-six founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
During her career, Mary Pickford was known as “America’s Sweetheart”, “The Girl with the Curls”, and the “Queen of Movies”. One of the earliest stars to receive a billing under her own name, Mary enjoyed great popularity in the silent movie era of the 1910s and 1920s.
Mary Pickford defined the ingénue role in motion pictures. She received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her first sound movie role as Norma Besant in Coquette, 1929. However, the arrival of the “talkies” signalled a decline in her career.
In 1909, Mary Pickford appeared in fifty-one films, most of them shorts. She starred in fifty-two features throughout her career. However, she didn’t adapt to the arrival of sound. She said of the “talkies” – “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”
Mary Pickford retired from movie acting in 1933. An astute businesswomen and producer throughout her career, she switched her focus to life behind the camera. A co-founder of United Artists, she finally sold her remaining shares in that company in 1956, for $3 million.
Mary Pickford married three times. First, to Owen Moore, a silent film actor, and an alcoholic. Second, and most famously, to Douglas Fairbanks. Their “marriage of the century” took place on March 28, 1920, after a secret relationship. Later, the couple were referred to as the “King and Queen of Hollywood”. And third to actor and band leader Charles “Buddy” Rogers, star of the highly acclaimed 1927 movie Wings.
After a glittering career, the lights dimmed on Mary Pickford later in life. Her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks and the end of the silent film era induced depression. Like her father before her, she turned to alcohol for comfort. Owning the rights to her early silent movies, Mary intended to burn them at her death but, thankfully, she donated them to the American Film Institute instead.
Footnote: A Mary Pickford is a Prohibition Era cocktail made with white rum, fresh pineapple juice, grenadine, and Maraschino liqueur. It is served shaken and chilled, often with a Maraschino cherry. It is said that the drink was created for Mary at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba when she visited Havana with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.
An early photograph of Mary Pickford. For twenty-three years she was the undisputed “Queen of the Screen”. For fourteen of those years she was the most popular woman in the world.
Although Mary was signed to Adolph Zuker’s Paramount, other studios bid for her services. Zucker couldn’t match their offers, so he invited Mary to rest for five years, on a salary of $52,000 per annum. Mary refused. Instead, she made movies for $675,000 per annum.
This ethereal image depicts Mary Pickford’s (centre) first appearance before a movie camera, on April 20, 1909, aged seventeen. The production was a short – Her First Biscuits. This was one of seven shorts Mary filmed in three and a half weeks. Listed number sixteen out of sixteen actors, she played ‘Biscuit Victim’.
Another ‘Biscuit Victim’ was Owen Moore, a regular co-star during this period. In due course, Moore became Mary Pickford’s first husband.
The ‘Big Four’ in 1919 at the time of the formation of United Artists – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, director D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. Chaplin was a regular visitor to the Pickford-Fairbanks mansion, ‘Pickfair’. Chaplin and Mary Pickford were the big earners of the era. When one secured a more favourable contract, the other demanded one too.
Mary Pickford, aged 22, on the cover of Photoplay, September 1914. By the end of 1914, Mary had appeared in 120 movies, mainly shorts, in five years (she was also acting on the stage at this time). Her roles in 1914 included Queen Anna Victoria and Cinderella.
From 1933, Mary Pickford’s final film as an actress, Secrets. I saw this film recently. To me, it seemed to be three films in one: a comedic opening section, a solid melodrama in the middle – the bulk of the film, and a bizarre closing sequence which revealed that the devoted couple of the melodrama hadn’t been that devoted after all. A remake from 1924, and not a success, it showed its roots. By 1933 the art of cinema storytelling had moved on.
Mary Pickford in The Film Daily, 1922. Her first husband, Owen Moore, also an actor, was heavily featured in 1922 issues of The Film Daily.