The Film 100: Mary Pickford, no. 4


Born: April 9, 1893, Toronto, Canada
Died: May 28, 1979, Santa Monica, CA

She was the only member of her sex to become the focal point for an entire industry.
—Benjamin Hampton

Mary Pickford’s legendary audacity might have been chalked up to youthful impetuousness had it not been for a lasting career that proved her savvy in a ruthless business. At the height of her fame, she was one of the richest women in the world, the first person in history to become a millionaire from the craft of acting and reigning queen of the box office for more than twenty years. There exists a debate over claims that she was the first movie star, but there is no question that she was the first megastar. The industry term “star system” was coined to describe the efforts to capitalize on her meteoric rise. Pickford was not the result of a star system, she was its genesis.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien
76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

As a self-styled, self-determined, self-confident girl of fifteen, playing small parts on Broadway, she heard that jobs in moving pictures were paying well. She arranged a trip to the Biograph studio for a spring day in 1909, where she flirted with director D.W. Griffith and begged him for work as an extra. He gave her a role in The Lonely Villa, her first film. The studio scale was five dollars a day; but when asked by Griffith to return the following day, Mary insisted on ten. Griffith laughed her off, but when Mary stormed off the set, Griffith stopped laughing. She was back the next morning.

Pickford’s naturalistic acting gave Griffith’s melodramatic films a much-needed believability. Early Pickford one-reelers like The Little Darling (1909) captivated audiences and brought Biograph healthy returns. Sensing her growing importance at each step, she continued to demand incremental raises. By 1911, Pickford had turned away all stage offers to concentrate solely on her screen career. Her mother, a poor widow, came to count on income from Mary’s acting and took an active role in her financial affairs. Mary arranged auditions for friends Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who became Griffith’s most frequent collaborators. Often the three willful women were above direction, telling their Biograph directors, including the prestigious Edwin S. Porter, how they preferred a take.

Signs of Pickford’s international status were manifested in the illegal distribution of her films throughout Europe. Biograph also discovered that distributors in Russia had systematically copied nearly 130 of Mary’s films. Despite the loss of income to the studio, the piracy of her Biograph films made Pickford a world-famous celebrity.


By 1913, Mary was the first actress to rise above the stock company of Biograph players and command films and salaries on her own terms. Tired of being overshadowed by messages in Griffith’s work, she accepted an offer to join Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company. Zukor, an arrogant and tough-minded businessman, was in constant negotiation with Mary and her mother. Using the salaries of the period’s leading men as a personal benchmark, she insisted on always outearning them. Jokingly, Zukor once commented that Pickford’s films took less time to put together than her contracts. In 1916, an agreement was reached between the two that gave Pickford $10,000 weekly, plus a $30,000 signing bonus and a healthy share of all profits from her films. In addition, Pickford would have choice of directors and cameramen, as well as an unconditional exit clause in case she felt her salary needed to be adjusted to meet market value. She would honor the agreement for less than a year before moving to even greener pastures.

To ensure his payments to Pickford were justified, Zukor forced theater owners to commit to showing the films by signing a contract in advance. In addition, a premium charge to display Pickford films was expected for each new release. Fearful of losing Mary’s followers to crosstown rivals, most theater owners agreed to the strong-arm tactic. The “star system” had been officially born.

With an innate sense of her charms, Mary began creating the image of “America’s Sweetheart,” which would prove an enduring and sometimes restricting screen persona, reinforced in such films as Tess of the Storm Country (1914), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) and Poor Little Rich Girl (1917). The golden curls of Pickford never lost their spring. Millions of people who had never seen a “star” thrilled at a chance to watch a Pickford movie. Practically producing every film herself, she courted the best directors and technicians to her projects, supervised the details of scripts and tiptoed through precious childlike roles until, at the age of twenty-four, she was not only a millionaire, but Hollywood’s first.

Now that Mary was in effect an entire international industry by herself, studios could no longer afford her, and she was not willing to accept anything less than full market value. The only option left was to finance her own films, a prospect that did not intimidate Pickford at all. She knew virtually everything there was to know about the business. Mary discovered that her contemporary Charlie Chaplin, whose financial success she had once used to gauge her own salary demands, was in the same boat. The two came together in 1919, with Griffith, and formed the United Artists Corporation.  As a formality, Douglas Fairbanks was included: Pickford had recently married the swashbuckler. The handsome couple, with their massive Pickfair estate in Beverly Hills, achieved a mythic status hitherto reserved only for royalty.

But Pickford, and the rest of Hollywood, would soon learn a valuable lesson about the movie business; she could not shake her girlish image. By Pollyanna (1920), Mary was nearly twenty-seven and still playing twelve-year-olds. Longing for more mature, challenging roles outside the stereotype, she defiantly chopped her golden curls into a bob and began searching for new directors and new parts. She lured German director Ernst Lubitsch to America for Rosita (1923), but her fierce battles on the set resulted in an uneven effort: the film was disastrous. Unfortunately, so was The Taming of the Shrew (1929), another costly failure. The public would not surrender the notion of her innocence.

But Pickford was now too old to take Cinderella roles. Her natural beauty and restrained expressions still drew audience attention, and even her more sedate performances in later years would reap profit. An adaptation of the Broadway play Coquette (1929) afforded the aging screen queen a “serious” role as a mature flapper pressured to give false witness. Her performance was extremely popular and was rewarded with the Oscar. Ironically, the silent screen’s greatest star became the first person to receive an Oscar for a talkie.

After her marriage to Fairbanks dissolved in 1935, Pickford bought out her partners and sold United Artists for a substantial profit. Mary remained at Pickfair until her death in 1979. She was honored with a special Academy Award in 1976, long after audiences could comprehend the immense hold she once had on Hollywood and the entire world. A product of her own determination, Mary Pickford was a superstar of rare proportion; her reign in Hollywood has never been matched by any other woman, and, with the sole exception of Chaplin’s Little Tramp, no screen persona was ever more beloved.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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