Pickford Reigns as “America’s Sweetheart” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mary Pickford rose from anonymity to become “America’s Sweetheart,” Hollywood’s most famous and influential female star of the silent-film era.

Summary of Event

Mary Pickford’s meteoric rise to the position of “America’s Sweetheart” is one of the great sagas of the freewheeling boom years of the silent-film era. Although a relatively brief period, spanning the years 1896 to 1927, this tumultuous time witnessed the rapid rise of the motion picture from the lowly status of a flickering, vaudeville novelty to a position at the center of a major American industry. America’s Sweetheart (Mary Pickford)[Americas Sweetheart] Motion pictures;Mary Pickford[Pickford] Actors;Mary Pickford[Pickford] [kw]Pickford Reigns as “America’s Sweetheart” (1909-1929) [kw]"America’s Sweetheart," Pickford Reigns as (1909-1929)[Americas Sweetheart, Pickford Reigns as (1909 1929)] America’s Sweetheart (Mary Pickford)[Americas Sweetheart] Motion pictures;Mary Pickford[Pickford] Actors;Mary Pickford[Pickford] [g]United States;1909-1929: Pickford Reigns as “America’s Sweetheart”[02340] [c]Motion pictures;1909-1929: Pickford Reigns as “America’s Sweetheart”[02340] Pickford, Mary Belasco, David Chaplin, Charles Fairbanks, Douglas, Sr. Griffith, D. W. Zukor, Adolph

The baby girl the world would soon know as Mary Pickford was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 8, 1892, as Gladys Louise Smith. Young Gladys became her family’s principal breadwinner at the age of five, when an acquaintance of Charlotte Smith, the girl’s widowed twenty-four-year-old mother, suggested putting Gladys, her younger sister, Lottie, and her younger brother, Jack, on stage as a means of staving off poverty. In spite of the young mother’s initial concerns about the theater’s unsavory reputation, desperation drove her to take Gladys to an audition.

On September 19, 1898, the diminutive Gladys made her theatrical debut with the Cummings Stock Company at Toronto’s Princess Theatre. Her compensation, eight dollars a week for six evening performances and two matinees, was sufficient to turn Charlotte into one of the era’s most calculating stage mothers and young Gladys into an ambitious, stagestruck child actor. During the next decade, the Smiths barnstormed through North America in a variety of traveling theatrical troupes. For Gladys, the Smiths’ main source of support, Broadway loomed as the big prize, the goal that, once achieved, would bring unqualified professional and economic success.

After the Smiths spent the summer of 1906 trying to arrange an interview with David Belasco, then Broadway’s most flamboyant and prestigious entrepreneur, Belasco finally consented to hear Gladys read. The fourteen-year-old’s straightforward yet winsome manner won over the impresario, who hired her. Belasco found the name Gladys Louise Smith unappealing, however; so, too, did Gladys. Belasco, after hearing the youngster run through a list of family names, selected Pickford; when they got to first names, Gladys offered Marie, which she had wanted to use in place of Louise. The master showman quickly changed Marie to Mary, and Mary Pickford was born. After her rechristening, the excited girl sent a telegram to her mother in Toronto: “Gladys smith now mary pickford engaged by david belasco to appear on broadway this fall.”

In 1909, at the age of sixteen, Pickford sought to supplement her stage earnings with a bit of film work. Although motion pictures were regarded as an artistically inferior medium, they nevertheless offered a bit of easy money for an actor. Therefore, when Pickford auditioned for D. W. Griffith, the principal director at Biograph Studios, Biograph Studios it was essentially a matter of financial necessity rather than artistic compulsion. Indeed, at the time, Griffith still harbored dreams of becoming a successful playwright. That these two cinematic pioneers linked up at the beginnings of their respective film careers, just as the motion picture was about to catapult into the front ranks of the entertainment industry, remains one of the great strokes of happy coincidence in show business history.

Pickford, with her petite frame, blond curls, and youthful vigor, as well as her aura of virginal purity and natural Irish spunk, was a perfect fit for Griffith’s Victorian paradigm of idealized feminine beauty. It is not surprising, then, that Pickford’s earliest work for Griffith, such as her portrayal of the oldest of three sisters in The Lonely Villa (1909) and her starring role in The New York Hat (1912), still resonates with freshness and dramatic power.

Although Biograph, like the other pioneering film companies, did not identify actors by name, fearing that such publicity would fuel actors’ demands for higher wages, Pickford’s golden curls made her readily identifiable to film fans. Indeed, theater managers, sensing a new strategy for attracting audiences, began promoting her Biograph films by advertising the “Girl with the Golden Hair.” Pickford was also known to nickelodeon audiences as “Little Mary,” an appellation derived from the name of a character she played in one of her earliest Biograph films.

By 1916, Pickford, now a bona fide star and international celebrity, was making more than a million dollars a year for Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company. Riding the waves of the rapidly evolving star system and applying her negotiating skills as well as those of her mother, Pickford was well positioned to continue her reign as Hollywood’s most influential female star and producer throughout the duration of the silent-film era.


Mary Pickford’s career provides a salutary example of an extremely bright and talented woman who fought assiduously to maintain economic and artistic control of her various enterprises. Quite simply, she was a woman well ahead of her time. Indeed, Pickford’s fierce quest for independence, while most obvious in her business dealings, also manifested itself in quite palpable form in the roles she undertook in her some two hundred films.

Mary Pickford.

(Library of Congress)

Pickford was ambitious, and as the industry’s moguls came to rely more and more heavily on the star system’s capacity to guarantee box-office returns, the “Little Girl with the Curls” instinctively knew her worth. Her ambition was further fueled by a strong sense of competitiveness; in her negotiations with Zukor, she made it a point to underscore the latest contract coup of actor Charles Chaplin as a wedge to boost her own income and control.

In 1916, Pickford was earning a handsome guaranteed salary. Zukor had also been compelled to set Pickford up as her own producer, a move formalized with the establishment of Pickford’s own company, Artcraft Pictures. Artcraft Pictures Pickford commanded both a salary of ten thousand dollars per week and a 50 percent take of her films’ profits. As historian Richard Koszarski has pointed out, Pickford was, in effect, Zukor’s partner, but, given that everyone involved was making money, and lots of it, no one really complained.

A majority of critics now agree that Pickford’s most enduring work was created during her several years at Artcraft, a productive period that yielded twelve full-length releases. In the 1920’s, when Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., presided over Hollywood’s social life from Pickfair, their Beverly Hills estate, Pickford’s output had slowed to only one release per year. Although more time and higher budgets were lavished on production values in Pickford’s films of the 1920’s, these films tend to betray a sense of self-importance that is entirely missing from the more hastily produced and streamlined Artcraft features.

The Artcraft films benefited from the substantive contributions of directors such as Maurice Tourneur (The Poor Little Rich Girl, 1917), Cecil B. DeMille (The Little American, 1917), and Marshall Neilan (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, 1917). Walter Stradling and Charles Rosher were among Pickford’s favorite cameramen, and scripts tailored to the Pickford persona were carefully crafted by Frances Marion and Jeanie Macpherson. Pickford’s films also enjoyed the production values derived from the services of Ben Carré and Wilfred Buckland, two of Hollywood’s best art directors.

By late 1918, the success of Pickford’s Artcraft releases led to an even bigger contract and greater creative control, but at First National rather than with Zukor. In 1919, Pickford helped to mastermind the organization of United Artists United Artists with her erstwhile rival Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith (her former boss at Biograph), and her soon-to-be husband and fellow screen idol, Douglas Fairbanks. United Artists would be the corporate shelter under which Pickford would operate for the duration of an eminent acting career that concluded with the desultory sound film Secrets (1933).

In assessing Pickford’s impact as a businesswoman, it is fair to state, as Scott Eyman does in his masterful Pickford biography, that “Mary Pickford, in fact, was the first female movie mogul.” The most important consequence of her keen yet always straightforward dealings was the solidification of her capacity to maintain the kind of creative control she felt necessary to her artistic as well as her commercial success. Her greatest challenge, however, involved coping with the perception that the public would be satisfied only with seeing her play variations of her seminal role as “America’s Sweetheart.” Indeed, Pickford’s love-hate relationship with the composite character of “Little Mary” gives retrospective examinations of her career a mordantly bittersweet, if not tragic, touch.

Pickford did make attempts to alter her persona by taking on more mature roles, such as those of the title characters in Rosita (1923) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1924); these were, however, less than successful. Pickford had become an icon of American popular culture, an idealized embodiment of the cute, lovable, feisty girl-woman. This was what Pickford’s public had come to expect, even in the jangling Jazz Age. Indeed, the charming, even naïve innocence of her roles in such films as My Best Girl (1927), by invoking the values of a rapidly fading yet still significant Victorian sensibility, helped to provide a reassuring emotional and psychological refuge for those seeking at least momentary relief from the moral ambiguities of the Roaring Twenties.

Pickford’s “America’s Sweetheart” was much more than a mere two-dimensional caricature. Indeed, Pickford’s films almost always included working-class issues and perspectives, Dickensian qualities that were still prominent in such later works as My Best Girl. Although Pollyannaish elements were present in her roles, these were countered by an aggressive, spunky determination to right wrongs and get ahead. Indeed, as film critic Molly Haskell has noted, Pickford was “no American Cinderella or Snow White”; rather, she was a rebel who “championed the poor against the rich, the scruffy orphans against the prissy rich kids.” America’s Sweetheart (Mary Pickford)[Americas Sweetheart] Motion pictures;Mary Pickford[Pickford] Actors;Mary Pickford[Pickford]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brownlow, Kevin. “Mary Pickford.” In The Parade’s Gone By . . . . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. Argues that Pickford’s appeal was based essentially on her talents as a comic actor. An interview includes discussion of Pickford’s professional relationships with D. W. Griffith, David Belasco, Adolph Zukor, Edwin S. Porter, Cecil B. DeMille, and Ernst Lubitsch.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. Comprehensive volume brings together more than two hundred black-and-white photos and motion-picture stills of Pickford with text that reviews her career in chronological order. Includes synopses of her films and material from interviews with Pickford and other actors of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1990. Definitive and superbly written biography successfully plumbs the psychological as well as the artistic and business dimensions of Pickford’s tough yet vulnerable persona, revealing an individual driven by insecurities born of childhood tragedy. Includes bibliography, filmography, and poignant photos culled from the Pickford archives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Provides a refreshingly lucid and readable account of the roles of women in film.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herdon, Booton. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks: The Most Popular Couple the World Has Ever Known. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. Lively and carefully researched work includes a useful bibliography and a variety of revealing photographs and production stills.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History. 1939. Reprint. New York: Teachers College Press, 1968. Masterful chronicle includes repeated references to Pickford, including a compelling argument for appreciating Pickford as the primary personification of the era’s “Pollyanna philosophy.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koszarski, Richard. “Mary Pickford.” In An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990. Argues that Pickford’s composite character, while radiating sweetness and light, also provided a role model for ambitious young women. Also includes discussion of Pickford’s business attainments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Niver, Kemp R. Mary Pickford, Comedienne. Edited by Bebe Bergsten. Los Angeles: Locare Research Group, 1969. A revealing chronicle of Pickford’s apprenticeship under the tutelage of D. W. Griffith, with an emphasis on her comedic roles. Includes a careful selection of frame enlargements, a synopsis for each film, and reprints of promotional handbills sent to theater owners.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pickford, Mary. Sunshine and Shadow. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955. A surprisingly limited account of Pickford’s motion-picture experiences. Reflecting her growing postretirement conservatism and self-imposed exile at Pickfair, Pickford complains about such troublesome aspects of post-World War II society as unions, communism, and immorality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Detailed biography traces Pickford’s life from her childhood in poverty to her reign as “America’s Sweetheart” and beyond. Discusses the importance of her position as the first major female film studio executive. Includes bibliography, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Windeler, Robert. Sweetheart: The Story of Mary Pickford. New York: Praeger, 1974. Candid and carefully researched biography remains an invaluable and indispensable resource. Includes a number of illuminating photographs and a complete filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zukor, Adolph. The Public Is Never Wrong: The Autobiography of Adolph Zukor. Edited by Dale Kramer. London: Cassell, 1954. Zukor’s warm recollections of Pickford’s contributions to the motion-picture industry reveal a deep respect for her business achievements as well as her artistic ones.

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