Pickford came from humble beginnings. Her father disappeared soon after she was born and died three years after his disappearance. To support herself, Mary and her two younger siblings, Pickford's mother Charlotte Smith worked as a seamstress, usually working 18- to 20-hour days for little pay to keep the small family afloat.
At the age of seven, Pickford got a small role in a play at Toronto's Princess Theatre. More followed and she gained popularity as a child actor in the city. Soon she had joined a touring company and was on the road for months, usually alone. Before the age of 10, she was the breadwinner of the family. The independence of travelling at such an age and the responsibility of her work would have crushed most children, but she showed a strength and a business savvy that would serve her for her entire career and began to negotiate her own acting contracts.
At the age of 15, her touring company landed in New York and she immediately set her sites on Broadway. After initial reluctance to hire her, producer David Belasco, one of the most important names on Broadway, hired her in a supporting role in the play The Warrens of Virginia. Belasco is also credited with convincing Gladys Smith to the more glamorous-sounding (to the ears of the time) name, Mary Pickford.
After the play's successful run in 1909, she was without work. She auditioned for DW Griffith's fledgling movie company Biograph and, although movies were considered the lowest of the arts so that she considered them beneath her, she joined the ensemble cast of Biograph.
In their earliest incarnation, movies were short, 15- to 20-minute affairs with simple plots and single wide camera shots showing the entire set and cast, much as if it were simply a rebroadcast of a play. The acting style was the style popular on stage at the time, a highly emotive ensemble of prescribed facial expressions with violent arm movements and stances meant to carry dramatic intensity right to the very last row of the highest balcony of any theatre.
Pickford very quickly realised that cinema presented the potential for a much more intimate relationship with the audience than did a faraway stage and she developed a natural, realistic style that, after many altercations with Griffiths, she was permitted to use onscreen.
Looking at her early Biograph movies, the difference between her and the other actors is astonishing. While the others surpass what would pass as the most exaggerated slapstick by current standards, Pickford exudes warmth and intelligence with her natural facial expressions and straightforward and easy stance. To audiences of the early 1910s, accustomed to the high melodrama and hysterics that trumpeted across stages and screens at the time, it must have seemed almost as if she were sitting in the seat beside them, whispering in their ears. She became immensely popular.
It wasn't long before she took advantage of her popularity and had negotiated a salary double that of the other Biograph actors. But in 1914 she left Biograph to join Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company (which later became Paramount Pictures) with a contract that would make her the most highly-paid actor in Hollywood, the new centre of the movie industry. It was with here that she would catapult to superstardom and earn the nickname, America's Sweetheart.
Zukor saw that movies had a much larger potential than the short, rather silly comedy pieces they had been up until them. He wanted to produce longer, more involved artistic pieces with Famous Players and he had already encountered considerable success in the 2 years of the company's existence before signing Pickford. With the release of Tess of the Storm Country starring Mary Pickford in 1914, he was proven correct. The movie was a critical and audience success that would shape the production of every movie after that time.
Pickford became Hollywood's very first international superstar. She was an audience favourite for her roles as working class melodramatic and comedic heroines. But it was her precocious little children roles that were her most popular. At only 1.5 metres (5 feet) and with her ebullient style (and the imperfect film and lighting of the early industry), she was able to pull off energetic, precocious little girl roles a decade and a half younger than she that resonated with audiences, who swept her into their arms. The grip seemed so tight at times - she was surprised that fans acted towards her as if they were on intimate terms - that she began to resent her public persona, spending most of her time with her mother and forming strong bonds with other emerging stars like Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr, whom she would later marry.
Towards the end of the 1910s she had moved on from Famous Players and was not only the highest paid actor in Hollywood along with Charlie Chaplin, but had complete control over every aspect of her films, from script to casting to staffing to distribution. In 1920 she started United Artists with Chaplin, DW Griffiths, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr, a studio that could not only accommodate the enormous fame and salary demands that both Pickford and Chaplin had earned, but that would also attract producers and artists who wanted to stand out from the normal fair. Though many were sceptical that actors could run a business, the gamble worked and in the first few years of the 20s they had signed up-and-coming notables like producers Samuel Goldwyn and Howard Hughes and actors Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson.
This was success was fuelled partly by Pickford's business sense, and partly by her gigantic star power. This in turn was magnified when she married another of Hollywood's biggest stars, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The two were enormously popular as a power couple - they were mobbed everywhere they went on their European honeymoon, which became more of a string of photo ops - and are the originators of the Brangelinas and Bennifers of today, a dubious distinction for which no one should thank them.
By the mid-20s, her star's lustre was beginning to wear away. As she approached the age of forty, she knew that she would no longer be able to pull off her popular girl child roles and facing competition from a new crop of stars such as Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and another fellow countryman who had completely subsumed her Canadian identity for American stardom, Norma Shearer.
No longer able to play the girl child, she cut her trademark golden ringlets to the popular 1920s bob and tried to do more artistic, dramatic roles. Her audience was unimpressed and her movies began to lose money, something she had never experienced before. As so many Hollywood actresses have found since, audiences like their actresses as onscreen virgins or onscreen whores, and there are very few good roles once no one wants you to be either.
With the advent of talkies, her star would completely plummet. Her first talkie in 1929, Coquette was a commercial success, but most likely only for the novelty of hearing her speak for the first time. She won an Oscar for it, but some say the award was not for her performance in the move itself, but an acknowledgement of her incredible contribution to the movie industry.
She did three more talkies, all of which were dismal failures. Finally in 1933, her mother and closest confidante dead, her marriage to Fairbanks in shambles, branded movie poison, and with a drinking problem in development, she retired.
John Crawford is the only star of silent movies who was able to sustain a career - admittedly with ups and downs - that spanned the decades. Others like Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish were resurrected on occasion as weird relics from a by-gone era. Pickford tried both approaches and was unsuccessful. She had truly been forgotten. As her alcoholism grew, she receded into depression and hid in seclusion, seeing only her third husband Buddy Rogers and friends Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes. When she was presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1976, those few who remembered her found her almost completely unrecognisable. She passed away on May 29, 1979.
Mary Pickford's contribution to Hollywood's industry was enormous. Not only did she set the definition for superstar, but she was instrumental in shaping the types of movies made and they way there were seen, something we may (or may not) thank her for now. But although she was Hollywood's first leading lady, she was also Hollywood's first has been, first train wreck. Her story exemplifies the insidious nature of entertainment industry's fickle star machine, forgetting her except as an antique despite the enormous contribution she made to it. Bright and ambitious, America's sweetheart was left a forgotten artefact with a funny name. No one watches her movies anymore.
More Mary Pickford:
Mary Pickford Foundation
American Experience: Mary Pickford