Mary Pickford, the first queen of the movies

On June 24, 1916, film star Mary Pickford became the first movie actress to negotiate a million-dollar contract. Though often forgotten outside of film buff circles, Pickford was one of the most powerful figures in the early film industry, wielding an extraordinary amount of control over her career and enjoying a worldwide popularity rivaled by few other modern celebrities. While not the very first movie star by any means, she was arguably the biggest movie star of the silent film era, only rivaled by comedian Charlie Chaplin.

Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, she started a stage career in childhood, working to help support her widowed mother and two younger siblings. She toured Canada and then the United States in various productions. By 1907, she took up the stage name Mary Pickford. She was not initially keen on appearing in movies, which were seen as low-brow entertainment in their earliest years. However, she was ultimately lured to the fledgling industry in 1909 by the promise of extra income after the popular melodrama The Warrens of Virginia closed, leaving her out of work. Though actors were not credited in early films, audiences were still astute at picking out their favorites. Pickford’s expressive face and blonde curls singled her out. Before being credited onscreen, she was known as "the Girl with the Curls" to the public.

By 1913, she was committed to a film career and joined the Famous Players Film Company (which would eventually become Paramount Pictures). Adept at both drama and comedy, Pickford quickly amassed an even larger following. Her screen persona was a blend of feminine charm, fiery spunk, and keen intelligence that audiences ate right up. While she was later most associated with taking on child or adolescent characters in movies like Pollyanna or The Poor Little Rich Girl, she played a variety of characters throughout her career, though they rarely lacked for pluckiness. At the midpoint of the 1910s, she was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart.” International audiences called her "Our Mary." By 1916, she collected a salary of $10,000 a week, plus fifty-percent of the box office take of her films.

At the height of her celebrity in the 1920s, Pickford enjoyed enormous authority over her career. Highly knowledgeable about the entire filmmaking process and what her public wanted, Pickford had her pick of directors, cinematographers, and co-stars. She was also a formidable businesswoman. In 1919, she and three other industry heavyweights—fellow movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and director DW Griffith—formed United Artists, a joint venture company that would allow creatives in the film industry more control over their output independent of the influence of the major commercial studios.

Pickford’s fame was massive, comparable to that of the Beatles or Taylor Swift in later decades. Crowds would go into a frenzy whenever she made a public appearance. Invitations to dinners at Pickfair, the lavish Beverly Hills estate she shared with superstar husband Douglas Fairbanks, were coveted by visiting dignitaries and foreign royalty, sometimes even more than an invitation to the White House. Among Pickfair’s famous guests were Amelia Earhart, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Pickford’s acting career declined by the early 1930s, coinciding with the adoption of sound technology and the demise of silent film in Hollywood. Pickford's waning popularity had less to do with her voice than with changing popular tastes. Her curls strongly associated with a more "innocent" earlier time, Pickford had them cut in 1928, hoping a flapper bob and saucier roles would allow her to better adapt to the times. Instead, she found herself in a catch-22 situation: the public wasn’t interested in her spunky ingenue characters any longer, but they also wouldn’t accept her as anything else. They even reacted to the shearing of her curls with horror and rage. Pickford received many indignant letters from her fans.

After making her last film in 1933, Pickford briefly returned to stage work and made appearances on radio programs. She and Walt Disney briefly considered collaborating on an Alice in Wonderland live-action/animation hybrid but the project never advanced past a short Technicolor screen test. By 1936, she became vice president of United Artists and worked in the industry as a producer through the 1940s.

Unfortunately, Pickford’s later years were marked by alcoholism, the disease that claimed the lives of both her siblings by the 1930s. She continued to participate in charitable activities, though she became increasingly reluctant to venture outside the walls of Pickfair. She planned on destroying all her films upon her death, terrified they were only going to be laughed at by younger generations. Luckily for film history, Pickford was talked out of it by close friend and fellow silent film star Lillian Gish. Instead, she donated many of her films to the Museum of Modern Art. She received an Academy Honorary Award in 1976, three years before her death at age 87.

You can learn more about Mary Pickford through our Credo Reference database, which features entries on Pickford from the Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, The Britannica Guide to the World's Most Influential People, The American Women's Almanac: 500 Years of Making History, and the A to Z of Women: American Women in the Performing Arts. Below are materials related to Pickford or her early Hollywood milieu you can check out from St. Tammany Parish Library.

Mary Pickford, the first queen of the movies

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Movie star Mary Pickford (1892-1979) was arguably the most famous woman in the world during the 1910s and 1920s. More than a popular celebrity, she wielded great power over her career and was a force to be reckoned with within the fledgling film industry.

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