Saturday, August 20, 2011

Miss Mary Pickford

Are you ready?

I think you are.

As I have explained before, I have held off doing an entry on Mary for so long because she is pretty well known, even by people who aren't huge silent film fans. They at least recognize the name. For that reason, I am not gonna do a HUGE entry about every little second of her life, but just hit the highlights and the good stuff.

Sound good? Groovy.

When we think of Mary Pickford, I am sure the first thing that comes to mind is "America's Sweetheart." We think of the little girl who played child like characters with her long, brown ringlets in heartwarming stories. In real life, Mary was a shrewd business woman and a hard worker. Charlie Chaplin once called her a "bitch," but I don't think she was...maybe just to him...Mabel Normand also once called her a "prissy bitch," but again, I think it just Mabel's opinion because she was more happy go lucky and wild while Mary just wanted to put her nose to the grindstone.

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto, Ontario Canada to Charlotte and John Smith. John Smith, an alcoholic, abandoned his family when Mary was around 3 years old (he died three years later).

Now that Charlotte was alone in raising her three children, she had to find a way to make some good money and quick! She began taking in boarders and also pushing her children into appearing in plays.

In 1907, while appearing on Broadway, she was spotted by producer David Belasco who convinced her to go by the stage name of Mary Pickford.

Two years later she met D.W. Griffith, who was so taken by her that paid her double what the other actors in the studio were making. She played bit parts in tons of films because she figured she would become well known to the public if people saw her often enough. Makes sense.

Interesting note about her early years with the Biograph studio. Mary decided to help a friend of hers out by introducing her to Griffith and getting her parts in pictures. Her friend? Florence Labadie. Sadly, Florence died in 1917 at the height of her fame. But it was thanks to Mary that she got into pictures. What other friends did Mary help get into pictures? Lillian and Dorothy Gish!

In 1910, Mary followed the studio out to the new movie making spot, California! It was around this time that audiences began to point out Mary in pictures. But remember, this was before acting credits, so no one knew who this girl was that they kept seeing on screen. They would call her, "The Girl with the Golden Curls" or "The Biograph Girl" (that nickname was quite popular...Florence Lawrence ring any bells?)

During her stints in acting, she would also occasionally appear on stage and even went touring with Belasco for about a year. But while on the road, she realized how much more she enjoyed acting on film and around 1913, she decided to appear only in movies.

Her most popular characters were little girls (and sometimes boys), most of the times from fairy tales or popular stories. Such films include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Pollyanna (1920), and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921).

When her contract expired, she bounced over to First National Pictures for a little over a year. In 1919, she, Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks made history when they formed United Artists, an independent production company. With the new company, she could perform in what she wanted, make what she wanted, and distribute her movies the way she wanted.

And then came the talkies a few years later. Now, there wasn't anything wrong with Mary's voice but fans saw her getting older and tastes were changing, and Mary had bobbed her hair! *GASP*

Her first talkie, Coquette (1928), won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, but it didn't generate a lot of buzz from her fans who wanted her to just remain a little girl forever.

She officially retired from acting in 1933, but continued working in the film business by producing and helping out with various causes she was involved with.

Sadly, like her father and brother and sister, Mary became an alcoholic later in life. After her mother and siblings died and a bitter divorce, she became a recluse in her home. She only allowed her friend Lillian Gish, step son Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and other close friends to visit her.

In 1976, Mary received an honorary Academy Award for her contributions to the film industry. She did not attend the ceremony, but she gave her thanks on camera.

Mary Pickford passed away on May 29, 1979 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

She was buried in the Pickford family plot at Forest Lawn-Glendale. Side note: I was kinda curious who all was buried in the plot because I saw more than just the four Pickford's names etched in the stone on the Findagrave website and also when I took pictures of it. Come to find out, also buried there is Elizabeth Watson, Charlotte's sister, and her two children (not a 100% sure if it just her children or her husband too but she is for sure there. If you do know, let me know).

Mary was married three times, and all three times were to popular actors of the day. Her first marriage was in 1911 to Owen Moore, brother of Tom and Matt. The couple had a pretty rocky marriage. This was mostly due to Owen being an alcoholic and also being insecure living under his wife's enormous shadow of stardom. There was also whispers about domestic violence. They lived apart for most of the marriage, and eventually divorced in 1920.

Her second marriage was her most famous and also almost a huge scandal. She had been seeing Douglas Fairbanks since they toured together selling war bonds in 1918, when they were both married to other people. They both divorced their spouses and married in 1920. The studios were scared that the extramarital affair and marriage would ruin their careers, but it only made them Hollywood's King and Queen. They even had their own castle called Pickfair which was visited by presidents, foreign leaders, and of course their many movie star friends. They were together for the heights of the careers and also together as the silents were on their way out. Doug was getting restless with movie making and not being able to do what he wanted in film and he would often travel, leaving Mary alone. He was also having an affair with Sylvia Ashley, who he would later marry. Mary and Doug finally divorced in 1936, and he died four years later.

Her third and final marriage was to Charles 'Buddy' Rogers in 1937. She had appeared with him in the 1927 film, My Best Girl. They adopted two children, a son, Ronald and a daughter, Roxanne (Mary had miscarriages and abortions during her first marriage that could have possibly hindered her chances of having her own children). Apparently Mary's took her cue on motherhood from her own mother and was quite strict with her own children, even sometimes condescending. Both her children said she was too self absorbed to really love them, but they did think she was a good woman. Kinda getting into Mommie Dearest territory, eh? Anyways, Mary and Buddy were married until her death. Buddy died 20 years later in 1999.

Mary cutting her hair coincided with her mother's death in 1928. Think she was making a statement? I think so!

Apparently she was screen tested by Disney for a live action version of "Alice in Wonderland" but the idea was scrapped. There is a picture from the screen test floating around, but I have yet to find it.

As stated before, Mary, Fairbanks, and Chaplin toured selling war bonds. Wherever they went, they were greeted by hoards of fans. I mean, the pictures are just incredible! It is estimated that she sold around 5 million worth in war bonds. The Navy even gave her the nickname of "Little Sister." And she wasn't even born in the US, she maintained a dual citizenship.

She also set up the Motion Picture Relief Fund to help down on their luck actors and after a few years they were able to build the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital. This facility eventually became home to such stars as Mary Astor, Evelyn Brent, Billie Dove, Jobyna Ralston, and many others.

Beautiful Pickfair was demolished (like so many other beautiful silent film star's homes) in 1990. Actress Pia Zadora did it. Bitch.

She was another actress who turned down the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. That would have been both surreal and AWESOME to see Mary in that role.

"Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo." ~ Mary Pickford


  1. What a great entry on Mary! I love that picture of her lookign so innocent but holding 2 guns..made me giggle-What a ironic photo. People have no idea today how popular she, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were. It pales in comparison to the most famous today even the useless reality stars that people seem enraptured by...ughh give me a break on them. When i heard Pia Zadora bought Pickfair I thought Oh No I hope she won't redecorate it in trampy style. She did worse by destroying it just because she had the power to do it. Where is she now? I passed by Mary Pickfor's "home"...well there is a marker now since the home has long since gone in Toronto. I also think she was an extremely shrewd business person and Many men like Sam Goldwyn did not want to work with her because she was so great in business and money. people have issues even now with women in high positions, imagine how it was when Mary was around. She had to be one strong cracker! Probably this is one reason some did not care for her because she was so deligent and a bit uncompromising but I think she felt deeply which may be one reason she finally succumbed to the booze. I also remember watching her on the Oscars...I was a kid but I felt bad for her she seemed almost dreamlike. I remembered wanting to cuddle her and tell her everything will be alright and I was just a kid! OH well, great talent and thank God she never destroyed her films!

  2. So informative and wonderful photos! Even she was a bitch, I imagine she would use the modern phrase " say that like it's a bad thing..."

  3. @Birgit- I love that little picture too! I think in the original, her brother Jack is next to her...and I wanna say William Desmond Taylor, but I could be wrong about that part. And I agree about Pia Zadora and Pickfair. How could you destroy such a wonderful piece of Hollywood history? And you call yourself an "actress"? Unbelievable.

    @Ruby and Birgit, I agree with both of you that I don't think Mary was a bitch, just a tough lil woman trying to make it in the man's world of the studio days of Hollywood. She had to have a tough skin to survive.