Born the demurely named Gladys Louise Smith, Mary Pickford transcended from “America’s sweetheart” and “the girl with the curls” to one of the foremost producers in Hollywood, co-founding Pickford-Fairbanks Studios with Douglas Fairbanks and, ultimately, United Artists. But before building a self-controlled empire, Pickford paid her dues as an actress, taking on roles of every variety in order to be recognized as quickly as possible and gain the fame that no other actress before her ever had.
With a background in theater thanks to her family’s ties to it, Pickford found herself on Broadway in New York City. But when the work ran out there, she turned to the new medium of cinema. Discovered by D.W. Griffith after being screen tested for a part in Pippa Passes, Pickford went on to take the silent film world by storm, being the first actress to have her name featured in the credits and above the title of the picture on theater marquees.
Her trailblazing ways as a powerful woman in the industry hit a crescendo in 1916, when she signed a contract with Paramount founder Adolph Zukor that bequeathed her with an unheard of form of power: the ability to choose and control which features she wanted to be in–not to mention a then princely salary of $10,000 a week. It was when her contract expired in 1918 that she joined forces with Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin to retain full autonomy over her career and the roles she selected for herself.
Tragically, the advent of the talkies cursed her with the same fate that befell her contemporaries, like Gloria Swanson and Norma Talmadge. To compound matters, sound in film arrived as Pickford was in her late 30s, not an ideal time for a woman known primarily for playing innocent waifs and little girls to reinvent herself using a voice that sounded far from child-like. But, at the very least, before her screen demise, Pickford snagged an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in 1929’s Coquette. It was this performance that innovated the concept that changing one’s hair can change a girl’s life–and her reputation.
Though she remained active in other ways within the film community, primarily through her production company, Pickford inevitably turned to alcohol for comfort–foreshadowing in so many ways the inspiration for Norma Desmond, the living ghost existence of silent movie stars relegated to a world of sound. And yet, no matter how Pickford aged, she always had the screen to tell her otherwise, once commenting to a courtroom at 67 that she was “21 going on 20.”
An icon who would have been 125 today, Pickford consistently proved herself to be constantly more than 125 years ahead of her time in a business that prided itself on chauvinism and narrow-mindedness. And, as far as her celluloid self is concerned, she’ll forever be young and alive.