The silent and early sound eras of film were golden ages for women in the industry. Almost 25% of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women and between 1911 and 1925 half of all copyrighted films were written by women. Women’s involvement in early cinema wasn’t limited to writers, there were also many female directors and producers working in the industry. Not only were there more women involved in film behind the scenes, they were also among some of the highest paid and influential players in early film, particularly in Hollywood. Women were a big part of developing the filmic art form and shaping the industry that exists today, but for the most part these women have been relegated to the footnotes of history or ignored entierly.
To remedy this, each month Cinefilles will profile an influential woman from the silent and early sound eras before women were reduced to supporting players as cinema became a big money maker and therefore a respectable profession for a man to have. This month we look at Mary Pickford, one of the silent era’s biggest stars and one of the major architects of Hollywood.
Her Story: Born 1892 in Toronto as Gladys Louise Smith, Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart and was one of the biggest stars of the silent era – she was also one of the most powerful individuals in early Hollywood. At the height of her fame she eared $10,000 a week making her the highest paid actor in the business and giving her massive amounts of control over her career with the ability to pick her own projects, writers and directors. She was also one of the first Hollywood stars to recognize that her star power had commercial clout and put it to use selling Liberty Bonds during the First World War. She was the first actress to maintain and then increase her popularity after divorcing her first husband Owen Moore in 1920. On camera and off, Pickford helped to define the template for the female film star with may actresses such as Joan Crawford modeling their careers on her success.
Pickford began acting at the age of 8 at the Princess Theatre in Toronto before moving on to Broadway, and then Hollywood. From her mid-teens she was the primary breadwinner for her family, supporting her mother and two siblings. Her stage name comes from her maternal grandfather and was adopted by the entire family after she became a star. In 1914, she became good friends with Francis Marion, the most influential screenwriter of the silent era. Together they would craft some of Pickford’s best known and well received films.
Mary Pickford was a was a huge star in front of the camera, but more importantly she was a force to be reckoned with behind it. She was one of the first film stars, male or female, to head her own production company and until Marilyn Monroe in 1954, the only actress to do so. With her production company and as one of the founders of the United Artists distribution company, Pickford was able to have complete control over the films that she made. It didn’t hurt either that her films were some of the highest grossing at the time, with Pollyanna (1920) earning over $1 million, a massive amount for the period. One of the founding members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (or as we now know them The Oscars), Pickford was also the first vice-president of the Motion Picture Relief Fund for those in the film industry. In 1941, she was one of the founders of the Society of Independent Motion Pictures Producers and was also one of the first to advocate for the preservation of old films.
Mary Pickford was one of the architects of the American a film industry, helping to pave the way to the cultural juggernaught it is today. To quote journalist Herbert Howe “No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.”
Films You Should See: Stella Maris from 1918. Written by Francis Marion, Stella Maris features Pickford playing multiple roles, is completely female driven and was a major critical success upon its release.
Coquette from 1929 was Pickford’s first sound films and one of her final big successes. She produced and stared in the film, earning an Academy Award for best actress.
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Images via The Mary Pickford Foundation