15 June 2011

The Entertainers: Mary Pickford

by Lorelie Brown

Last time I was here, I talked about Clara Bow, so I figured with this month’s topic I pretty much had to do Mary Pickford. After all if Clara was the It Girl who dripped sex appeal, Mary Pickford was her exact opposite.

But then something nearly miraculous happened. She did a screen test for director DW Griffith, of the Biopic Company. She must have been some hot stuff because she was promptly signed at Biopic for $10 a day, which was double what most people got. And then she went on and proceeded to rip her way through first the New York studios--making 51 different films in 1909--and then heading out to fledgling Hollywood. She hopped around various production companies, including what would eventually become Universal Pictures.Born in Canada (an import!) in 1892 as Gladys Marie Smith, Pickford got her first taste of the stage at seven. Pretty much her entire family decided this acting gig was a fabulous thing and they all trooped down to New York to make their name on Broadway. It didn’t really work. After quite a few years, Pickford had only nailed a couple Broadway roles (one of which was the impetuous for changing her name.) and she was considering returning to Canada.
And everywhere she went, she made money. Big money. Pickford became one of the first box office draws on the basis of her name alone. She played all sorts of characters, but she was mostly known for her sweetness and scrappiness. If she were a romance heroine, she’d have probably been called “spunky.” Pickford kept up the ingénue image for a long time and was known as “The girl with the curls” and “America’s sweetheart.”
But the funny part was that Pickford wasn’t much of a squishy-faced roll over or anything. She became her own producer almost from the beginning. In 1919, along with DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin (yeah, that Chaplin), and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford founded United Artists. UA still exists to this day (Tom Cruise is involved. No comment.) and in the 1920s it was a powerhouse.
In fact, Pickford’s relationship with Douglas Fairbanks is another noteworthy topic. Though Mary Pickford was originally married to an Owen Moore in 1911. But the marriage quickly soured and they divorced on March 2, 1920. On March 28th Pickford married Fairbanks. (Yes. The 28th of the same year. Uh-huh. Who’s sweetheart do you really think she was?) Fairbanks was a powerful man in his own right, as a producer and actor known for swashbuckling-type roles. Fairbanks and Pickford bought a giant mansion in Beverley Hills. (Srsly. Giant. By the time it was finally deemed complete, we’re talking 25,000 square feet.) They named it Pickfair and it was where the Hollywood elite gathered and partied. Luminaries the world over all vied for an invitation.

I’m fairly sure Clara Bow wasn’t one of the chosen ones to be allowed in.

Unfortunately Pickford and Fairbanks didn’t last forever. As their individual stardom faded, their dramatic love affair seemed to as well. They divorced in 1936 and a year later she married Charles Rogers. Known as Buddy, he was twelve years younger than Pickford, but that seems appropriate for a woman who spent most of her career playing young girls. They were married 42 years, until her death in 1979.

Lorelie Brown's first book, JAZZ BABY, is currently available from Samhain Publishing in both e-book and paperback formats. CATCH ME, an 1880s-set western, will be published by Carina Press on 18 July.