20 Fascinating Facts About Hollywood Pioneer Mary Pickford

Do you know who formed United Artists studios in 1919 with Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith? Even when they were shown a photograph of her, not one trivia-obsessed “Jeopardy!” contestant on a recent episode could come up with her name: Mary Pickford.

As America’s first movie star and the first successful businesswoman in the film industry, Pickford’s contributions do not deserve to be forgotten. In honor of Pickford and Women’s History Month, here are some interesting facts about her. (Full disclosure: This topic is especially near and dear to me because she was a cousin of my maternal grandmother’s.)

1. Pickford was one of the rare child actors who continued having success in adulthood. In 1898, at the age of 6, she made her stage debut in her hometown of Toronto.

2. Pickford, her sister Lottie and brother Jack all acted on the stage to help support their mother after their father left them. Jack Pickford also became a film actor and was known as the “All American Boy Next Door.”

3. Aspiring to become a Broadway actress, Pickford traveled to New York City by herself when she was only 14. She was cast by producer David Belasco in his successful play, “The Warrens of Virginia,” and changed her name from Gladys Louise Smith to Mary Pickford.

4. Her mother convinced her to go to Hollywood and act in the fledgling film industry to help raise money for the family. In 1909, Pickford made her film debut in D.W. Griffiths’ “The Lonely Villa” – after negotiating with Griffiths for a better salary. He originally offered her five dollars a day, but she successfully insisted on 10 dollars a day, with more money for additional work.

5. Films had much shorter running times back then, yet the very prolific Pickford still managed to star in 51 silent movies in 1909, making one movie nearly every week.

6. As Pickford became successful in films, she became known as “America’s Sweetheart.” During the early years of film, PBS notes, she was “its most adored and dynamic star.”

7. When she worked at Zukor Studios in 1916, Pickford had the highest salary of any star, earning a whopping $10,000 a week as well as a percentage of the profits. “It took longer to make one of Mary’s contracts than it did to make one of her pictures,” Samuel Goldwyn once said of the star who never settled for less.

8. Pickford was also the screenwriter of about 30 films.

9. She helped develop film lighting techniques – she insisted on having the same cameraman for each of her movies – as well as film narrative techniques.

Mary Pickford

Photo credit: Library of Congress

10. Although she was a very powerful woman off screen, Pickford continued to play little girls in films well into her twenties. In 1917, at the age of 24, she played a 12-year-old in “The Little Princess.”

11. Pickford was the first woman to be in charge of her own film company, the Mary Pickford Film Corporation, which she formed with her mother in 1918.

12. As mentioned above, a year later she co-founded United Artists, which was the first studio to give actors control over their own careers.

13. She married Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, and they became Hollywood’s first famous couple. They were the first two stars to immortalize their handprints and footprints in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks

Photo credit: Library of Congress

14. Decades before celebrity couple name mash-ups like Kimye, Brangelina and Bennifer, Pickford and Fairbanks lived in a mock-Tudor mansion in Beverly Hills called Pickfair. They hosted many parties there — Life magazine called it “a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House…and much more fun.” Hollywood history buffs were horrified in 1990 when then-owners Pia Zadora (star of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”) and her husband tore down the mansion due to what they claimed was a termite infestation. (Years later, Zadora said she really had the house demolished because she thought it was haunted.)

15. Pickford was a co-founder of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, aka the Academy, which hands out the Oscars every year. Today the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood is the home of several Academy departments, including the Academy Film Archive, which has extensive film preservation programs.

16. Savvy as she was, Pickford was very wrong in predicting that “talkies” would not be successful. In fact, she once said, “Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”

17. Despite her feelings about them, she received a Best Actress Oscar for appearing in a talkie: “Coquette,” in 1929. The film was a box-office smash, earning $1.3 million – the equivalent of about $19 million today. Fans, however, were outraged because she’d cut off her famous blond ringlet curls and had her hair styled in a thoroughly modern bob.

18. Pickford retired from acting at age 40, but continued working as a film producer and a vice president at United Artists.

19. In the 1950s, Pickford was offered but turned down movie parts including the starring role in “Sunset Boulevard,” which was subsequently given to Gloria Swanson.

20. After she died in 1979, film critic Richard Corliss wrote, “Best to remember Mary Pickford as her fans did: part Eve, part angel, total evangelist for the blooming art of cinema.”

Photo credit: Rufus Porter Moody [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

74 comments

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Lisa M8 months ago

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Lisa M8 months ago

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Lisa M8 months ago

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Lisa M8 months ago

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Lisa M8 months ago

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Danuta W
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Kelly S
Past Member about a year ago

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Marie W
Marie W1 years ago

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

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