How an On-Screen Legend Became an Off-Screen Titan

How an On-Screen Legend Became an Off-Screen Titan
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Why you should care

Because for millions of early American filmgoers, there was just something about Mary.

The Hollywood studio system may have been in its infancy, but show business’ titans were already moving to consolidate their power over the burgeoning silent-film industry, its creative decisions and its stars’ growing salaries. And so, in 1919, four of the biggest names in the business, including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, decided to become their own bosses, taking leave of the major studios and founding the United Artists Corporation. As one studio head lamented, “The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

The fourth member of that bold group of lunatics, and likely the most beloved woman on the planet, was 26-year-old Mary Pickford, known as America’s Sweetheart, whose silent but expressive film performances had endeared her to millions. But the greatest role for “the girl with the curls” would arguably come when she dared to take on the business side of Hollywood, a move that would make her one of the most influential women in the history of film.

Pickford, a petite, 5-foot beauty with melancholy eyes, was born Gladys Smith of Toronto. By age 6, she was already performing in plays and vaudeville productions across Canada, and touring the U.S., eventually landing on Broadway. In 1909, Pickford began acting in short, silent motion pictures known as “flickers” screened in nickelodeon theaters across the country. She would eventually appear in more than 175 movies, playing everything from a convent girl to a temptress to a mother to a murderess.

Pickford would … become Hollywood’s first female mogul.

In some ways, silent films were more suited to female performers, who could be objects of adoration and whose faces the camera could linger on to tease out subtle emotions and tensions. And Pickford’s instinctual gift, much like Chaplin’s, for expressing through gestures what could not be said aloud, helped, along with her frequent portrayal of the honest poor girl, make her a kind of cinematic everywoman. As Hollywood icon Cecil B. DeMille once put it, “she typified, more than anyone else in motion pictures has ever typified, the kind of person we all want to love.” Many go so far as to credit Pickford with having invented screen acting. “[S]he changed the nature of acting,” Eileen Whitfield writes in Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, “deserting the grand, artificial style of turn-of-the-century theater for a simple, direct connection to the camera.”

Pickford’s talents also made her rich, and by the time she risked it all to jump ship for United Artists, she could pretty much name her price. And it was not just because of her on-screen charms. Pickford was a shrewd businesswoman, adept at negotiating her own lucrative contracts, and took with her to UA, as Whitfield puts it, “a financial acumen that stunned male colleagues.” At UA, Pickford would produce most of her own films, becoming Hollywood’s first female mogul in the process. But there were many obstacles facing the new venture: The key players, including Pickford, lacked experience in piloting a corporation, and the young, underfinanced studio often had to cover its own production costs since banks were unwilling to risk a loan. Eventually, thanks to Pickford hits like Little Lord Fauntleroy, swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks fare like Robin Hood and the addition of Sam Goldwyn, UA turned its first significant profit in 1927.

Pickford took another enormous career risk just a year after forming UA — divorcing her husband and marrying Fairbanks, her business partner and fellow star. Divorce of any kind was frowned upon in 1920, and from a revered, quasi-virginal star like Pickford, it seemed unthinkable. “Will my people ever forgive me?” she wondered of her fans’ approval, but ultimately she determined that rather than be “America’s sweetheart, I want to be one man’s sweetheart.” Forgive her the fans did, and then some: The newly married couple quickly became “the King and Queen of Hollywood,” and in true Brangelina style, their storybook house in Beverly Hills was dubbed Pickfair.

Times were changing, though, and movies were getting louder. When 1927’s Jazz Singer ushered in a new generation of “talkies,” stars like Pickford, who insisted that adding words to silent film art was “like putting lip rouge on the Venus de Milo,” faced potential obsolescence. But the ever-canny Pickford quickly adjusted, picking up an Academy Award for her role as a (talking) Southern flirt in Coquette (1929), which she also produced. The fact that there even were Academy Awards to be won was also largely Pickford’s doing. Inspired to establish what she labeled “the League of Nations of motion pictures,” she helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, partly to address the ruthless infighting between studios that plagued the growing industry.

Pickford’s next talking features did not fare so well, and neither did her royal relationship with Fairbanks, and by the mid-1930s, her acting career and her marriage were over. Pickford hosted an ill-fated radio show in 1936 but could never recover the public’s fickle affections. She remained involved on the board of UA, which she called her “pride and joy and also, at times, my despair,” before selling her remaining shares in 1956.

In her final years, America’s sweetheart became a recluse — one who rarely left Pickfair until her death in 1979 — but no one would forget the girl with the curls who was just crazy enough to change the Hollywood asylum.

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