Mary Pickford redefined the way moviegoers viewed the pictures—she starred in the one of the first “moving” pictures, heralding the era of motion pictures and drawing the curtain over theatre in the United States. Pickford would soon establish a massive fan following, bordering on hysteria, becoming easily the most popular movie star—male or female—to step foot in the movie industry.
Beginnings as a child artist
Pickford was born Gladys Smith in 1892 in Toronto, Canada. She found herself acting in theatres at the age of 7, which was supposedly every child’s (and their mother’s) dream. However, the opportunity was not without a heavy cost—Pickford lost her father at the tender age of seven, and chose acting in theatres as a way to support her family than to become a teen sensation. After acting for several years in local theatres, Pickford harboured ambitions to perform at the gold standard of theatres in United States—Broadway, and set sail for New York with her family. Here, she met David Belasco, a well-established writer & producer, and started working for him.
First taste of fame and success
Pickford gained some success at Broadway; however, her family’s financial condition forced her to switch to motion pictures which gave better pay, much against her wishes. In 1909, Pickford signed a contract with Biograph, a motion picture company—it is here she first tasted success. The audience was enamoured by the pretty blonde with golden curls, and she became known as “Moving Picture Mary”.
In 1911, Pickford signed a contract with International Motion Pictures (IMP), switching from Biograph for a considerable increase in pay. This move also marked the beginning of a pattern of jumping ship for Mary, with significant increase in pay and royalties wherever she landed. Not only that, Mary negotiated hard for artistic control over her role, her choice of movies and even her dialogues. This practice of frequently changing jobs is now commonplace in the modern world, especially for the millennials, but Mary figured out its benefits a century ago.
Mary’s stint at IMP was considerably short; despite the hefty pay, the company’s move to relocate their headquarters to Havana in Cuba made Mary uneasy, and she requested an early release from her contract to rejoin Biograph. By that time, Mary’s stock was at its peak, and there was no way Griffith or any other director could refuse to pick Mary in their films. Indeed, “Moving Picture Mary” was now a raging phenomenon bordering on mass hysteria.
In the following years, Mary delivered over hundred films across multiple film companies. She developed a habit of switching companies, showing loyalty only till another company didn’t offer a higher pay. By 1916, Mary was earning well over $10,000 a week, 50% of film profits and had the authority to sign off on any aspect of production, from costume, set to the final edited video. Her golden period was studded with hits such as Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Stella Maris (1918), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), with Mary mostly being cast as an angelic child with her trademark golden curls.
That was not all, for at the age of 27, she became the co-founder of United Artists—a production company founded by herself, Douglas Fairbanks (her future husband) & Charlie Chaplin (her best friend), among others. The company gave a fresh lease of life to upcoming and established theatre actors pining for meatier roles. The management also kept away producers and agents interested only in profits rather than content.
Ascending the throne in Hollywood
If Mary’s popularity hadn’t peaked yet, it certainly shattered all limits after her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, a popular actor and producer. Pickford and Fairbanks were treated as Hollywood royalty, flanked by fans and paparazzi everywhere they went. They entertained luminous personalities from all around the world, including Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and HG Wells.
Even in today’s age and time, equal pay and rights for women is still an unfulfilled dream. Yet, nearly a century ago, Pickford almost always managed to walk out as the winner in her negotiations for pay and artistic control. In her lifetime, she was briefly surpassed by probably just Charlie Chaplin in wages and benefits—the effect, which she neutralised, once they began their collaboration to run United Artists together.
By the end of the 1920s, silent films were on its last legs, and Mary was compelled to try out the new-age “Talkies”. Her first talkie, Coquette (1929), earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress—awarded to her by the Academy she herself helped found.
Mary ruled the silver screen for two decades, appearing in countless movies. Though she lost her father at the age of 7, she did not let that huge blow quell her ambition. Instead, she took responsibility for her entire family, and went on to become the highest paid actor (not actress) for over a decade, earning over million dollars (which amounted to much more in today’s currency back then), and ensured employment for her siblings and mother.
For the her entire legion of fans charmed by her beauty, she was in reality much more—a strong headed girl who didn’t hesitate to ask her fair share and knew her true value. She insisted on getting her dues and was not intimidated by the largely male dominated film industry. Her way of life is an inspiration to many, especially little girls and working women trying to gather courage to assert themselves.
Mary’s biggest contribution to the film industry by far was in developing a concept to recognise efforts of actors. This idea revolved around having an annual awards function to felicitate exception performances. The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, are now recognised as the highest honour for performance in a motion picture. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which she was a founding member, hands out these awards.
Pickford also contributed heavily in setting up relief funds for actors, extras and all those involved with the film industry, should they fall upon hard times. Legendary Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe in a 1924 Photoplay, rightly summed up Mary’s persona—“No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.”
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a Business Intelligence Analyst at KPMG.