By Nicole Ackman
Earlier this year, “Miss Americana” (2020) was released on Netflix. The documentary delves into Taylor Swift’s status as “America’s sweetheart” and the pressures it puts on her. What it also shows is how this perception of her sometimes masks what a brilliant businesswoman she is and how she’s built her own empire from the ground up. But Swift isn’t the first curly-haired blonde to be called “America’s sweetheart” and whose impressive business acumen is often overlooked.
Mary Pickford might be best known as the original ingénue and the “girl with the curls,” but she was also a founder of the United Artists film studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was one of the most powerful figures in the early days of Hollywood and achieved so much in her eighty-seven years. Not only beautiful and talented, she learned to negotiate pay raises for herself to reflect her wild popularity and became a producer of both her own and other films.
When Pickford was born in Toronto, Canada in 1892, her parents named her Gladys Louise Smith. Her father died when she was young and her mother, Charlotte Smith, took in boarders to help support the family. One of them was a stage manager who recommended that she and her two younger siblings (who would become known as Lottie Pickford and Jack Pickford) be put into shows on stage to earn the family money. Soon Smith and her three children were travelling the United States with theatre troupes and while all four acted, it was clear that it was young Gladys who could become a star.
“Pickford quickly became a favourite of the American people and was one of the most popular actresses of the 1910s and 1920s…She made forty-three short films for Biograph in 1909 alone.”
In 1907, Gladys finally achieved her goal of booking a Broadway show: “The Warrens of Virginia” produced by David Belasco. The producer told Gladys to take the stage name, Mary Pickford, as she has been known since then. In between theatre roles, she did a screen test for D.W. Griffith, who signed her onto Biograph Company where she played a wide variety of roles. She made forty-three short films for Biograph in 1909 alone.
Pickford quickly became a favourite of the American people and was one of the most popular actresses of the 1910s and 1920s. She left Biograph after a couple of years and made films for several different studios, eventually landing with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company. With “Hearts Adrift” (1914), her name began appearing above the title on marquees, an impressive feat considering actors weren’t even credited in films only a few years before. Pickford was known for playing ingénues and child roles, like in “The Poor Little Rich Girl” (1917) and “Pollyanna” (1920). During this period, Pickford broke records for actors’ salaries, always making sure that she was receiving the financial benefit of the name she brought to a film.
During World War I, Pickford promoted Liberty Bonds to raise money for the war effort alongside several fellow actors. She became a symbol of American patriotism during the war despite her Candian roots. After the war, she helped create the Motion Picture Relief Fund. She would remain involved with philanthropy for the rest of her life.
“Pickford was one of the first to carry the title of “America’s Sweetheart” and to know the limitations that it can place on a woman, to understand how it can lead the public to forget about a brilliant business mind and she certainly won’t be the last.”
When Pickford was twenty-seven years old in 1919, she moved beyond the role of an actress when she founded United Artists film studio alongside D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and her future husband Douglas Fairbanks. This allowed her to choose and produce the films she acted in. Even as her popularity waned as silent films faded into “talkies,” she continued producing films. In 1927, she was one of the original thirty-six founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Two years later, she won the second ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her first speaking role in “Coquette.”
Growing too old to play the child roles that her fans adored and unsuited to make the move into the new wave of “talkies,” Pickford retired from acting in 1933. She had spent over two decades as the most important woman in Hollywood and she remained involved in United Artists until the late 1950s. Pickford had been less fortunate in her personal life with two unhappy marriages and a strained relationship with the two children she adopted with her third husband, Charles “Buddy” Rogers. She also developed alcoholism, the same problem that had contributed to the deaths of both her siblings and her father.
By the time Pickford was awarded her Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1976, she was a recluse. The woman who had one day made front-page news for cutting her hair died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1979. It seems hard to believe that a film hasn’t been made about this talented actress and business mogul who helped shape the Hollywood that we know today. Pickford was one of the first to carry the title of “America’s Sweetheart” and to know the limitations that it can place on a woman, to understand how it can lead the public to forget about a brilliant business mind and she certainly won’t be the last.