Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mary Pickford! America's Freakin' Sweetheart!!

The following look at the most classic of all classic Hollywood stars, the beautiful and talented icon of icons, is my humble contribution to the Mary Pickford Blogathon going on over at Classic Movies June 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

Let's just power right past the fact that the girl known as America's Sweetheart was Canadian-born.  In such a day and age without the constant, omnipotent media we know in these modern times, it was easy for the studio's publicists to control what we did know and what we did not know about the burgeoning community of celebrity that was rising in the latter nineteen teens.  Of course just because the adorable Miss Pickford was born in the Great White North most certainly does not mean that she is ineligible for the title of America's Sweetheart.  At the time of her height of popularity, between 1919 and 1927, she was not only one of the highest paid people in Hollywood (second probably only to good friend Charlie Chaplin) but very possibly, aside from royalty, the highest paid women in the world.  So what I am trying to say is, if America wanted to adopt this beautiful and talented Canuck as their very own sweetheart - so be it.  She actually became a US citizen upon her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1920, though she did die with dual citizenship.  The girl born Gladys Marie Smith in 1892 Toronto had every right to be America's Freakin' Sweetheart.  And she did it the old-fashioned way - she earned it.  Just take a look at these interesting tidbits.

  • Going by the monicker of "Baby Gladys Smith", Mary began her stage career at the age of six.

  • Reputedly, Mary was the subject of the very first close-up in film history in the 1912 film Friends.

  • She and husband Douglas Fairbanks Sr, became the first stars to put their hand prints in the cement outside of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Pickford and second husband Fairbanks, along with Charlie Chaplin, were not only the biggest stars of their day, but their fame is what created the entire lore of Hollywood.  These were the first movie stars.  Before Mary and Doug and Charlie, there was no celebrity in Hollywood.  Actually there was really no Hollywood before them.  They ushered in the age of the movie star.  What was nothing more than a struggling new artistic and technical medium when Mary began her Hollywood career at Biograph in 1909 (cinema itself was barely pubescent itself just fourteen years after its debut) was a thriving top art form and beyond huge moneymaking, icon-creating, force to be reckoned with upon her early retirement just twenty-four years later.  Basically, Mary Pickford was one of, if not the most integral part in creating what would be known as the Golden Age of Hollywood.  But still, it was not always something Mary was happy about.

The thing that made Mary a star was playing little girls.  The girl with the curls, Mary found herself pigeon-holed in such roles for must of her career.  The actress, much to her own chagrin, was still playing barely pubescent girls well into her thirties.   She did play adult roles on occasion but her bread and butter was most certainly the teen and sub-teen roles.  In a slew of films from Pride of the Clan to Poor Little Rich Girl to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms to M'Liss to Daddy-Long-Legs to Heart o' the Hills to Pollyanna to Little Lord Fauntleroy to Tess of the Storm Country, Mary would make a super-successful career (some would even say one of the most successful careers in Hollywood history) out of playing girls fifteen to twenty to even twenty-five years younger than she.  Famously, in a long ago precursor to Keri Russell's own modern day surprise shorning, Mary cut all her famous curls off and, stemming from the quote, "I'm sick of Cinderella parts, of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover," put herself in the role of an adult and a lover for her first sound film, Coquette.

The change shocked everyone but it won the actress her only competitive Oscar.  Granted, the Oscar was most likely an award much more to Pickford herself, and much less to the performance.  That and she was one of the founding members of the Academy the year before her victory.  But still, even the Oscar would not help things as her new found freedom of expression was not something her fans wanted.  As the 1930's came around, the fans wanted the now forty year old actress to keep playing eleven and twelve year olds.  They wanted the old, or should I say young, Mary back.   They wanted America's Sweetheart back.  Mary did not want to do this.  Mary Pickford was a strong, independent woman who took a back seat to no man, actor, director, husband, publicist or studio boss.  This being the case, the actress was not about to just go back to something that made her a star but also something that was now much decidedly so in her past.  Mary Pickford would officially retire from acting in 1933, just three films after her Oscar winning performance in Coquette. Although she would always love her fans, she would no longer play the game of being America's Freakin' Sweetheart.

  • Mary is a member of both the Hollywood and Canadian Walks of Fame.

  • In a possible comeback position, Mary turned down an offer to play Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd.

  • She had intended to have all of her films destroyed after her death, fearing that no one would care about them. Lucky for all we film fans, she was convinced not to do such a thing.

But it wasn't just acting where Mary left her mark.  In 1919, Mary, along with soon-to-be hubby Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and friends Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, the latter of which gave Pickford her first job in Hollywood, formed United Artists, a distribution company that can be considered the first ever independent movie company.   United Artists was a successful movie distribution house until its eventual demise and sale to Transamerica (and eventually MGM) in 1967.  For Mary and her friends, it was a fun investment.  Mary said of the company, "We maniacs had fun and made good pictures and a lot of money. In the early years United Artists was a private golf club for the four of us."  In a more modern day piece of trivia, Georgian-born, Irish and English-raised singer/songwriter Katie Melua actually wrote a song on Mary Pickford and the formation of UA.  It is called "Mary Pickford Used to Eat Roses" and you can watch the video on YouTube.  Pickford and Fairbanks were once the epitome of what it meant to be a Hollywood star, a movie industry power couple.  Throwing lavish parties at their appropriately named Pickfair estate in the Hollywood Hills, they were th everything of stardom.  Eventually though, Mary would be mostly forgotten by her fans and would spend the rest of her life, from the mid 1930's until her death in 1979, as a recluse in her beloved Pickfair.  Just a little thing (5 feet and one half inch - the exact same height as my own lovely wifey) Pickford was a powerhouse in the land of Hollywood - both as an actress and as the shrewdest of businesswomen.  She will certainly not be forgotten by this admirer of classic Hollywood.  I will leave you with a few of my favourite Mary Pickford quotes, followed by, for no other reason than it's sheer unlikely adorability, a picture of Mary washing a baby bear (!?).

  • "Adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo."

  • On her second husband: "In his private life Douglas always faced a situation in the only way he knew, by running away from it."

  • In her old age: "I saw Hollywood born and I've seen it die."


FlickChick said...

I can't think of a single person who surpasses Mary in importance in Hollywood history. I love this quote from her: “I think Oscar Wilde wrote a poem about a robin who loved a white rose. He loved it so much that he pierced his breast and let his heart's blood turn the white rose red. Maybe this sounds very sentimental, but for anybody who has loved a career as much as I've loved mine, there can be no short cuts.”

Kevyn Knox said...

What a great quote.

Yes, you are right - she started it all.

Page said...

I'm a big fan of Mary's, especially her early shorts so I really enjoyed your profile on her.

The only small thing that used to annoy me was the fact that she played a kid well into her late 20's but I've since gotten over it! Ha Ha

A nice contribution to the Blogathon.

Kevyn Knox said...

Granted, Mary did not look her age, but still, when she was thirtysomething and playing a twelve year old...

Still though, she played them wonderfully.

I am currently reading a great bio called Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield. Good stuff.

KC said...

I've never seen that picture with the bear. Dang, that is really cute. I love that you mentioned the teen/sub-teen roles, because I get tired of the whole "she only played little girls seven times" thing. Whether they were 10 or 17, most of her characters fit into that girlish image that she couldn't escape. The fact that she would sometimes mature enough over the course of the movie to marry her leading man in the end doesn't change that! I love the quote about Fairbanks. I have the feeling that marriage wouldn't have even worked for 10 years if Pickford hadn't understood her man so well. Thanks for the great post. I'm really glad you could participate!

Kevyn Knox said...

KC - Thank YOU for hosting such a deserved event as this. Pickford was and is an undeniably important part of film history and anything we as cinephiles do to keep that image alive into this modern day world of forgettable celebrity is important as well.

Natalie said...

You know, I've never seen a Mary Pickford movie...How sad is that? But your article was great (as always) and I want to find one now! Love that picture of her and the bear - and that quote about her having seen Hollywood die may or may not be a new favorite quote of mine.

Katie said...

Ohhh Canada, baby!

Ollie T said...

Want another quote? "I don't see why everyone's so crazy about her. I think she's effected." (Mack Sennett 1911).Who was it that said in their autobiography that Jack and Lottie Pickford were better actors than her. Mary Pickford!