Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Pickford, Mary
from Encyclopedia of Early Cinema

b. 1892; d. 1979

actor, USA

Mary Pickford began her acting career in Toronto, Canada, when she was eight years old. Working under her real name of Gladys Smith, she, her mother Charlotte, sister Lottie, and brother Jack made their living playing small roles for local theater companies. From 1901 through 1907, she toured Canada and the USA, performing in melodramas including Uncle Tom's Cabin and East Lynne. In 1907, she impressed New York theatrical producer David Belasco and won a role in The Warrens of Virginia. Belasco renamed her Mary Pickford. As an adult, she would become especially well known for her portrayal of children: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Pollyanna (1920).

In 1909, seeking to earn more money, she went to the Biograph studio, in New York City, where D.W.Griffith hired her for five dollars a day. Despite her initial scorn for the movies, she would return to the stage only once, to star in Good Little Devil (1913) for Belasco. Under Griffith's direction, Pickford played a variety of roles, and her talent was quickly recognized and rapidly honed. She first appeared playing a minor part in Two Memories (May 1909); one month later, she played the romantic heroine in The Violin Maker of Cremona. In July 1909, teamed with Billy Quirk, Pickford was the featured player in a series of romantic comedies. By the end of 1909, her acting style had become more natural, devoid of large, melodramatic gestures, and she showed a gift for comedy. Throughout the 1910s, she would exhibit the same versatility in her feature-length film roles as she showed in the repertory environment of Biograph.

Between 1909 when she began her movie career working for Biograph and 1919—when she, Douglas Fairbanks (whom she would marry in 1920, after divorcing Owen Moore), Charlie Chaplin, and Griffith formed United Artists—Pickford acted for Independent Motion Picture or IMP (1911), Majestic (1911-1912), Famous Players-Lasky (1913-1914), Paramount (1914-1916), Artcraft (1916-1919), and First National. Each move granted her both higher salary and greater creative control over her work, evidence of an astute business woman as well as talented actress.

The trade press published articles praising her performances as early as 1910, noting that her fans called her “Little Mary.” By 1912, illustrated magazines such as McClures, as well as newspapers, spread the word of her high salary. Noted for her small size, golden curls, and large expressive eyes, her popularity also was manifested by her appearance in advertisements for Red Cross Shoes and later Pompeian Face Cream (1916). An advice column called “Daily Talks” signed by Pickford was carried in newspapers such as the Cleveland Leader and Philadelphia Telegraph (1916). She was the subject of sheet music, as in “Sweet Little Mary Pickford” (1914). In fact, her sobriquet, “America's Sweetheart,” was coined as early as 1914. In 1915, Ladies World magazine christened Pickford, “The Most Popular Girl in the World.”

See also: acting styles; advertising; fashion; publicity; star system; theater, legitimate; theater, melodrama

Further reading
  • Brownlow, Kevin (1999)Mary Pickford Rediscovered, Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend, New York: Harry N.Abrams, Inc.
  • Whitfield, Eileen (1997) Pickford The Woman Who Made Hollywood, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press.
  • LESLIE MIDKIFF DEBAUCHE
    © 2005 edited by Richard Abel

    Related Articles


    Full text Article Pickford, Mary (1892 Toronto, Canada-1979 Santa Monica, CA)
    Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films: 1895-1930, An

    Courtesy of Silents Are Golden at < SilentsAreGolden.com > Mary Pickford was the most popular film star in the world...

    Full text Article Pickford, Mary Gladys Mary Smith; (1893 - 1979)
    The Macmillan Encyclopedia

    She played the roles of innocent young heroines in early silent films, such as The Little American (1917) and Polyanna ...

    Full text Article Pickford, Mary
    Philip's Encyclopedia

    1893-1979 US film actress, b. Gladys Mary Smith. Her silent films include Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Pollyanna (1919) and Little Lord...

    See more from Credo