Happy Birthday Mary Pickford

America's Sweetheart

By the time Gladys Marie Smith made her film debut in the 1909 Biograph film Her First Biscuits, she was a seasoned veteran of the stage. She'd played the hard circuit of the "ten-twenty-thirts" of one night stands criss-crossing the country and also starred on Broadway in David Belasco's production, The Warrens of Virginia. The trip to Biograph for work in 1909 was one out of necessity and it was also a bit of a comedown for a player on the legitimate stage.

Within a short period of time, Mary Pickford was a force to be reckoned with in the film business. She was one of the first "name" stars of the silent era. She was one of the first stars to earn a million dollars at a time when the average salary of the working man was less than $100 a month. She was also one of the first stars to have her own production company. By 1919 she was pioneering further with the founding of a new studio with her partners, D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and her partner in life, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

Mary Pickford was, for a time, the biggest star of the movies. Known in the early years as "The Girl with the Curls," (this was before name billing), she was later identified as "Little Mary." A sign bearing the legend "Little Mary Here Today" was enough to bring crowds in to the nickelodeon.

Mary Pickford is best remembered and stereotyped as playing little girl characters. There is no mistake, she made many films playing an adolescent. She was capable of and did so much more than that. In the early Biograph years, she played a wide variety of roles, indian squaws, married women, artists and everything in between. In films that she produced, she played mischevious children, teenagers and mature women. She did this very well, the spunky hoydenish girl, the tough street kid, a young boy (and his mother), the daughter of a beloved cop on the beat and the orphan mother to a brood of younger children. Pickford could, and did, do it all. She was a skilled actress and one who was mature well beyond her young age. Pickford showed great poise, enormous depth and an economy of gestures uncommon in the early days of film. She honed her craft with a keen eye and a sense of pride in doing the absolute best she could, for herself and her fans. Fans, one might add, that numbered in the millions. She had fans from every country across the globe.

As a producer, she took great care with her productions, always aware and economical with a dollar due to the crushing poverty of her early years as the main family breadwinner (a role she never stopped playing), her film productions were oppulant and beautifully staged. She was a pioneer and able businesswoman, she crossed swords with the best and worst of the producers and film moguls, and usually won.

In the end and late in life, Pickford misjudged thinking her films would not hold up and would be silly and antique to future generations. She was intent on burning them and destroying the negatives. Happily, her good friend Lillian Gish talked her out of this drastic deed. Through the aegis of the Mary Pickford Foundation and their partnership with Milestone Film and Video, many of Mary Pickford's films can be seen by the home viewer on DVD. To those lucky enough to attend film festivals around the world, her pictures are regularly shown. Thanks to the hard work of film preservationists, Pickford's charm will never be lost. She was a pioneer, she was a fine actress and artist, she was a leading figure in the film community, she was studio mogul, and a very astute businesswoman. In the end, she will remain, Little Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart.

Happy Birthday Mary Pickford, you're still one of the greatest stars.

Here is one of Mary's finest early performances, posted here previously, the 1912 film The New York Hat.


Tinky said…
Thanks, Donna, for this great summation of Pickford's signficance. Next year I'll try to come up with a recipe. I'm sure I can find something suitable in one of her films!
Tennis Girl said…
Nice post on one of the greatest silent film stars. I am new to your site. I will follow and return.

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