Friday, April 8, 2016

Mary Pickford: Star, Producer, Mogul, Independent Film Legend, Born on This Day in 1892


Mary Pickford was born on this date as Gladys Louise Smith in Toronto in 1892. When her father was killed in a workplace accident, her mother was compelled to take in boarders to make ends meet. One of these boarders was a theatrical producer who saw potential in 9-year-old Gladys and cast her in a stage part. Success followed upon success and soon the whole family was in the theatrical business, touring Canada and the States for several years. Along the way, Gladys was compelled by one producer to change her name to Mary Pickford and it stuck.

After completing a run on Broadway in 1909, teenaged Mary was given a screen-test by the great D.W. Griffith, who at this time was making his early Biograph shorts. Soon she became one of Griffith's regular players, appearing in an average of a film per week.

In those days before the star system no performers were credited but Mary had made such an impression that exhibitors began advertising films starring "The Girl With The Curls" or simply "The Biograph Girl." She had become a movie star without any publicity and other producers took notice.


After a return foray on Broadway, Pickford swore off stage acting for good and returned to Hollywood where she was signed by Adolph Zukor for the company that was later to become Paramount Pictures. She starred in many films there and with the release of 1914's TESS OF THE STORM COUNTRY she was officially the biggest star in movies.

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Curator Robert Cushman has attempted to explain her immense appeal, saying, "The whole world wanted to put its arms around her, and in a way it did." She appealed to people of all ages and both genders equally. She was also a fine performer. Director George Cukor said she invented screen acting - and Method acting. She understood the camera and took charge of her image as producer on all her own films. She was, in fact, one of the finest producers in the industry, even in her early '20s.

She also took charge of her finances. Unlike other performers, content to take what was offered, Pickford monitored her grosses and publicity and made subsequent demands for raises as her star rose to previously unimagined heights. By 1919, she decided to eliminate the middleman entirely and, with her partners, actor Douglas Fairbanks (also soon to become her husband), her mentor D.W. Griffith, and fellow star Charles Chaplin, she formed United Artists, a distributor that, for the first time, gave creatives access to theaters without interference from the studios. This was to prove a major step forward for the industry, allowing independent films to flourish and find markets.


By the '20s Pickford wielded more power, as star, producer and United Artists principal, than any woman in film history ever had before - or since. Even with the coming of sound, which coincided with the end of Pickford's youth, she remained active in Hollywood, producing films and administering United Artists and managing her many other business interests.

She was given an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1976. She died in 1979.


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