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Forgotten Hollywood: Trailblazing Mary Pickford

Such was her fame that on March 31, 1920, the Los Angeles Times devoted a banner headline across the top of its front page to the nuptials of ‘America’s sweetheart’ Mary Pickford to her paramour Douglas Fairbanks. “Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are Secretly Married Here,” it proclaimed. After vehemently denying the romance for two years at which time she was still married to her first husband Owen Moore, Pickford succumbed to Fairbanks’ ultimatum, stopped worrying about alienating her fans, and decided “I only want to be one man’s sweetheart.” According to marypickford.org, Moore was paid off ($100,000), and a quickie divorce was granted in Nevada where Pickford appeared in court dressed in a black veil and sobbed to the judge that her health had broken down because of Moore’s drunkenness. The wedding took place on March 28, and the couple took off for their honeymoon in New York and Europe, besieged by excited fans everywhere.


According to writer Gary Hooever, “Doug did a handstand on the roof of their New York hotel. Arriving in Europe, no relaxation was to be found. As their ship approached Southampton in England, airplanes dropped tiny parachutes on them, each carrying bags of letters or garlands of roses. The mayor greeted them, with a scroll signed by four thousand fans. In London, the traffic jam stretched for miles in each direction around The Ritz where they were staying; King George V’s limousine was held up for twenty minutes. Crowds surrounded them day and night. As always, they played to the crowd, appearing on their hotel balcony, Doug doing his usual acrobatics. When they attended the theater, Doug gave a speech before the play, eliciting a ten-minute standing ovation.

In 1928, Pickford again made the front pages of newspapers everywhere. Desperate to stop playing 14-year-olds in her 30s, Pickford cut off her hair. The New York Times headline was “Mary Pickford Secretly Has Her Curls Shorn; Forsakes Little-Girl Roles to be ‘Grown-Up.’ The criticism for this move came from all corners. Their beloved ‘Blondilocks’ had cut off her hair and the fans were not pleased. Twenty thousand Photoplay readers disagreed with her in a survey, and her career slowly declined.

On December 9, 1933, this headline appeared in the New York Times front page: “Divorce is Asked by Mary Pickford; She Charges Neglect.” The fairytale marriage had crumbled, Fairbanks was carrying on an affair with a British woman that he subsequently married, and Pickford got Pickfair, their storied home in Los Angeles where they had hosted royalty, heads of state and celebrities of every stripe such as George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, the King of Spain.

At the height of her success a hundred years ago, Mary Pickford was the best-known woman in the world, her pictures seen by 12 million people around the world every day. She was the wealthiest woman in the US, had one of the longest careers of any actor, produced her own movies, owned her own studio and was a notable philanthropist.

Pickford was born Gladys Smith in Canada to an alcoholic father who ran out on his family only to die three days later. His widow put her three children on stage, traveling with theater troupes, until 15-year-old Gladys inveigled an interview with theater impresario David Belasco who cast her in his Broadway play The Warrens of Virginia and changed her name to Mary Pickford. She was paid $25 a week. Then Gladys set her sights on a film studio, Biograph, which was run by D.W. Griffith. This move was a gamble as the nickelodeons were considered disreputable, but Pickford saw the future. Griffith hired her for $10 a day. She became popular with the public as ‘the girl with the golden curls’ or ‘the Biograph girl’ as actors were not given screen credit. With her burgeoning fame, Griffith sent Pickford to California to shoot in 1910. She left Biograph shortly after returning to New York, but after a brief stint at Carl Laemmle’s studio, Pickford returned to work with Griffith and made 103 films with him, often one a week. She instinctively knew that film acting was different from the declamatory style used by actors on stage and perfected the art of playing to the camera in subtle ways in a variety of roles. “I made a film in which I was the mother of several children, the eldest of whom was five years younger than I,” she told a reporter. “I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nations. I noticed rather early that Mr. Griffith seemed to favor me in the roles of Mexican and Indian women.”

In 1911, Pickford, just 19, secretly married Moore, an actor whose fame did not match his wife’s. He was an abusive alcoholic, and the marriage was not a happy one. The following year she left Biograph after a fight with Griffith to return to Broadway in A Good Little Devil and The New York Hat, a tremendous hit, and then joined Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players studio (which subsequently would become Paramount Pictures) at a salary of $500 a week ($13,000 today). Zukor was making longer films with proper stories, not just short scenarios on film. At this point Pickford became a megastar. In the Bishop’s Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913), Hearts Adrift (1914), based on Pickford’s own script for which she got $100), Tess of the Storm Country (1914) and Rags (1915) cemented her image of the ingenue with the curls who saves the day. She was now officially ‘America’s sweetheart.’


Zukor gave Pickford a new contract in 1916 that allowed her complete control over her films’ production with a salary of $10,000 a week and half the films’ profits, with a million dollar a year guarantee (more than $18 million in 2021). She and Charlie Chaplin were the most famous film stars in the world at the time. One film journalist had this to say about her: “the best-known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.”

Her stardom was put to good use during WWI by promoting Liberty Bonds on tour, a tour on which she was joined by Fairbanks. (The two had already started their affair though she vehemently denied it to the press and pretended all was well with Moore at home.) She was photographed kissing the American flag. She raised $3 million at a parade in Washington. She auctioned off one of her curls for $15,000 in Chicago. Soldiers carried her picture into war. The army named two cannons after her.

The Pickford-Fairbanks Studio was set up in 1919. It was an 18-acre lot on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue where Pickford had control of all her movies from casting and crewing to the writing and production. Among the films shot there were Pickford’s Pollyanna (1920), Rosita (1923), and Coquette (1929), her first talkie which won her an Oscar, Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and 1929s The Taming of the Shrew starring them both. The studio is now called The Lot and is still in use today.



And in 1919, along with Fairbanks, Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, Pickford created a new studio, United Artists, to give more creative control to artists and do away with the ‘block booking’ system where studios forced theaters to buy a package of films that contained both hits and flops, thereby forcing them to subsidize the flops. Griffith’s film Broken Blossoms was the first picture released by UA that same year. UA’s office was downtown; it’s now an Ace hotel. The theater next door, a true movie place decorated by Pickford, was where they screened their movies.

But though Fairbanks and Pickford made successful films, there was not enough product for UA to be successful. Outside executives were brought in to increase profitability like Joseph Schenk who would go on to run Twentieth Century studios and Samuel Goldwyn who founded MGM. The Great Depression of 1929 caused audience attendance to plummet from 80 million a week to 50 million, and several studios filed for bankruptcy, including Paramount and Universal. But Pickford stayed with the company until she sold her interest for $3 million in 1956.

Pickford’s acting career continued to great success until 1925, especially in the silent roles where she played children. The Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Lord Fauntleroy, all had the 5-foot Pickford play 14-year-old urchins, working-class brawlers, or rich kids with golden hearts, all ready to stand up for themselves with sharp elbows and quick wits. By that time, she was making $250,000 a film.


The advent of talkies was not kind to Pickford, even though her first role in Coquette in 1929 won her an Oscar for her performance as a southern belle. Four years later she stopped acting but kept herself busy by making public appearances, doing radio shows, producing movies, writing a book and her philanthropy. By then she had founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund for indigent actors and was one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Fairbanks was its first president.

After her divorce from Fairbanks, Pickford married her co-star from her last silent film My Best Girl, Buddy Rogers. They adopted two children. In her later years, she became an alcoholic but managed to put on a brave face when she was given an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1976, appearing on camera at Pickfair, the audience given a rare inside look at the mansion. She died three years later at the age of 87 of a stroke.