Article abstract: Early in the history of the film industry, Pickford established herself as the first name box-office draw, and hence the first star, of American cinema. While the attraction of her name and image shaped the economics of motion pictures for decades, Pickford also became an early role model for independent women who took charge of their own destinies.
The actress known as Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892, in Toronto, Canada. Poverty and early widowhood led Gladys’ mother, Charlotte Hennessey Smith, to place her children on the stage. In 1898, at the age of six, Gladys appeared in The Silver King at Toronto’s Princess Theatre. Her early success on the stage, and her mother’s example, soon made the little girl the principal source of income for her family, a burden, she wrote later, that she felt keenly at an early age. This sense of fiscal responsibility led to an early maturity in which the young performer fought aggressively for salary increments and contract rights.
Gladys’ theater career began in earnest when she appeared with the Valentine Stock Company’s production of The Little Red Schoolhouse in April of 1901; her performance earned for her a part in the touring version of that play, which went on the road in November of 1901. During the next four years, Gladys went on tour—usually accompanied by her mother Charlotte—with several plays. Touring companies in those days followed a hard schedule, frequently playing one night and then moving on, staying in cheap hotels. Gladys endured, however, even though she never had time for more than six months of formal education, because even as a child she was determined to keep her family out of poverty. She educated herself on the road and somehow learned to read.
Sometimes her success led to parts for her mother or her brother and sister, Jack and Lottie, but it was Gladys’ ability and determination that enabled the family to stay together. Devoted to her career, Gladys worked hard, observing the work of established performers whenever possible. By the age of about twelve, she decided that she would try to become a “success” by the age of twenty.
In fact, Gladys did not need to wait that long. Although she was suffering from exhaustion in 1907, a successful audition with David Belasco, a famous Broadway producer, brought her a part in The Warrens of Virginia. Belasco also urged Gladys to find a more appealing stage name. In those days, a part with Belasco was a sign that an actress had “arrived,” and this association was to be a launching pad for the Belasco actress now known as Mary Pickford.
In 1909, when Pickford found herself temporarily out of work, her mother urged her to talk to the director D. W. Griffith, who had begun making “flickers” for Biograph studios in New York. Although Pickford was reluctant—stage actors considered work in films to be a sign of failure—she was not only able to find work with Griffith at a salary higher than that she had earned with Belasco, but she was also able to dictate her own terms to Griffith, who was more than pleased to have a Belasco veteran in his company. Pickford’s determination at age sixteen to have some control over her work was to be a hallmark of the rest of her career.
Griffith did not allow his players to be known by name, fearing that prominence would lead them to demand more money, but Mary Pickford, known to audiences as “Little Mary” (the name of one of her screen characters) or “The Girl with the Golden Curls,” soon became popular anyway. Her fame during this period came partially from her appearances in child roles, which, because of her slight physical stature and youthful looks, she was able to play until well into her thirties.
In 1911, Pickford left Biograph for IMP pictures, but she returned in 1912; shortly thereafter, she left to join Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players, where she established herself as the industry’s first individual box-office draw, or “star.” Pickford demanded and got from Zukor the unprecedented salary of five hundred dollars a week; moreover, her growing popularity led to a series of raises, and by 1916 she was earning ten thousand dollars a week plus bonuses. In 1917, Zukor created Artcraft Pictures Corporation, a division of Famous Players-Lasky, to produce Mary Pickford films exclusively. By now, Pickford was making feature-length films (as opposed to shorts) that were commercial as well as artistic successes; Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) was the first of these films.
Poor Little Rich Girl was one of many period melodramas that appealed to the values of middle and...
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