Dame in the Game: Mary Pickford—“Queen of the Movies”

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“America’s Sweetheart;” “Queen of the Movies;” “Little Mary”—this month’s Dame in the Game was known by many monikers, but they often obscured the contributions of one of the biggest power players working in early Hollywood.

Mary Pickford is arguably the most well known star of the silent era, but the roles she played often obscure her groundbreaking off-screen contributions.

The first screen star to be known as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford was famous for her portrayal of children and young virginal women. Her long, golden curls, a symbol of innocence, were so iconic that in 1928 when she cut them off to model a more modish bob, it made the front page of the New York Times. For years, feminists overlooked Pickford for infantilizing women with her onscreen performances.

Yet, Pickford was a mighty force in early Hollywood, driving and shaping the film industry in its nascent stages. She was the “Queen of the Movies” in box office might, but also behind the scenes. Pickford started acting at the age of seven and quickly became the breadwinner for the family, supporting her mother and siblings through performing after their alcoholic father abandoned them.

When she entered the movie business, it was with some reluctance, considering it a step down from her theatrical performances, but she needed the money. Pickford was to discover a fledging industry that inspired her (and indeed, she would believe so strongly in film’s role as an art form that she would advocate tirelessly and loudly for a Hollywood museum in her later years).

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After only a year in films, Pickford would assume the mantle of Florence Lawrence’s title “The Biograph Girl.” And, in an era, when silent stars were known for their faces and their studio, not by name, the public would come to know her as “Little Mary.” She was, in effect, the first real movie star. But though the public was coming to know her as the first “named” star, Pickford was using her early years in the industry to gather as much knowledge about this new format as possible. Working under the direction of D.W. Griffith, one of the pioneers of early film, Pickford stayed on set after her scenes were finished to absorb as much information as possible. She later wrote she was “a sponge for experience.”

Pickford would use this knowledge and all she absorbed to continually provide input on her films and characters – from wardrobe to script to make-up, she would work to insure her work was of the highest quality in every respect. She would also use this industry savvy to continually renegotiate contracts, doubling her salary and receiving half of the profits from her films beginning in 1915.

Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn would later write about her, “There was no detail of film production, which she, this girl, still in her early twenties, had not grasped more thoroughly than any man to whom I ever talked. She knew pictures not only from the standpoint of the studio, but from that of the box office. Back of those lovely brown eyes, disguised by that lyric profile, is the mind of a captain of industry.”

Pickford would channel that shrewd mind into eventual artistic independence. In 1916, she renegotiated her contract with Adolph Zukor and Famous Players to become the first film actress to produce her own work. She took over her own production unit, the Pickford Film Corporation, which would produce all her films—now limited to six a year to ensure their quality. With her own production unit, Pickford could decline roles she disliked, choose the director for each of her films, and have a say in the final cut of each picture, as well as the advertising and marketing. At a time when the average movie star was making between $1,000 and $5,000 per week, Pickford was granted fifty percent of her film’s profits, earning her a minimum of a million dollars in two years.

Understanding that studios were selling cut-rate films on the back of her movies, Pickford negotiated to ensure her films were not distributed through block-booking (a common practice at the studios, in which a studio would sell a group or “block” of films to theaters to group less desirable product around a prestige picture, such as the ones Pickford starred in).

Upon successfully securing this contract, Pickford told the press, “I admire most in the world the girls who earn their own living. I am proud to be one of them.” She was just twenty-four at the time and virtually running her own production company.

Yet, Pickford would not settle for this unprecedented control and access to creative input – in 1918, she would leave Famous Players for First National for the privilege of complete artistic independence as an actress and producer. And when the rumored merger of First National and Paramount threatened this independence, Pickford jumped ship again to co-found United Artists (U.A.) in 1919 alongside her future husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith.

Pickford signing the UA Contract with her co-founders

Pickford signing the UA Contract with her co-founders

U.A. would act as a distribution company for artists’ independently made productions. Though the initial costs were high, if United Artists was successful it would guarantee Pickford earned one hundred percent of her profits while maintaining complete creative control over her work. The industry met this unprecedented step with outrage, with the president of Metro Pictures, declaring “the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.” Though U.A. would struggle throughout its existence, Pickford would remain devoted to it, being the last original partner to sell her stock in 1956.

Married to early silent star and heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford was also half of the first famous Hollywood marriage. She and Fairbanks were stars in their own right before they met, and throughout their marriage, they remained true partners and in charge of their own independent destiny. Three years after they signed on to United Artists together, they co-founded the Pickford-Fairbanks studio on a ten-acre lot, where they would make movies side-by-side. However, on this lot, they maintained their own independent production companies, sharing advice and inspiration, but always keeping track of their own interests.

Pickford was also an ardent supporter of women’s rights and business interests, as well a champion of many charities and causes. She was a member of the National Women’s Party and supported the equal rights amendment in the 1930s (a right women are still fighting for today). Speaking at the Women’s National Press Club, she declared “until women citizens share [in democracy]to the same extent men enjoy it, our democracy is not complete.”

Throughout World War I, she was an impassioned supporter of peace and was one of the first movie stars to lead a bond tour in support of the war effort (something numerous starlets would do during the second world war). After the war, she used leftover funds she had raised for the Red Cross Ambulance Fund to found the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which still exists today to provide relief, healthcare, and assistance to members of the entertainment industry with limited resources.

Furthermore, she cared deeply about Hollywood’s internal functions and its history, believing passionately in film history. She helped found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927 as a concrete space to preserve the memories and efforts of the pioneers and artists of the industry.

Embarrassed by the rudimentary nature of much of her early work as film technology progressed, Pickford initially hid her work away in vaults and even burned some negatives. But in 1945, she finally gave cans of her negatives to the Library of Congress to help insure her work would be preserved for future generations. And she campaigned tirelessly for the Academy to found and open a Hollywood museum, which only now is coming to fruition fittingly aided by the Mary Pickford Foundation.

Often reduced to her golden curls and her childish roles, Mary Pickford was a force to be reckoned with who deserves to have her full legacy recognized. She was the “Queen of Hollywood” in so many ways, and a true Dame in the Game.

Two books were integral in my research for this column: Eileen Whitfield’s “Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood” and “Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies” edited by Christel Schmidt.

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Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.