Saturday, April 08, 2006

America's Sweetheart, Vintage 1918


Guess who: a little girl from the Great Lakes region loses a parent early; dreams about and immerses herself in a show business career in her youth; goes to New York and seizes upon a fledgling medium, calculatingly making it her own, carefully controlling her public persona and using her uncanny business sense to become the dominant woman, if not the dominant person, in her industry, known to hundreds of millions of fans the world over.

And the answer is . . . Madonna? In this case, no; Madonna was a wannabe -- Mary Pickford was the original. As the rock-solid Pickford herself said: "My career was planned. There was never anything accidental about it. It was planned, it was painful, it was purposeful."

Silent film star Mary Pickford was born Gladys Smith on this date in 1892 (not 1893) in Toronto. Her laborer-father died in a work-related accident when Gladys was 6, and like the plucky heroines she would later essay on screen, she immediately went to work herself, using her charm and wits to support the family (her penniless mother, sister Lottie and brother Jack) by acting on stage in Toronto. By the time she was 9, "Baby Gladys" was touring North America in The Little Red Schoolhouse.

At 14, the regionally-celebrated Gladys Smith barged her way into David Belasco's office and demanded a role in his upcoming Broadway show -- desiring better pay and a home base for her family. Out of sheer persistence she won him over, on the condition that she change her name to "Mary Pickford." She was a success on Broadway, but stage acting was only a three-season job (theaters, without air-conditioning, were too oppressive in the summer), so in 1909 she took a streetcar to the Biograph Studios, where she met and conquered D.W. Griffith, convincing him to hire her at twice the rates he paid his other players since she was a "Belasco actress."

She was soon the queen of Biograph's stock company, gaining notice across the country as "the little girl with the golden curls." The following year, she leveraged her growing fame to sign with Laemmle at IMP for $175 a week; she traded up again in 1911, signing a contract with Majestic Pictures for $275 a week; and finally she returned to work with Griffith. Although the outlines of Pickford's indelible image -- as a radiant and ringleted adolescent, who faces adversity without self-pity, but rather with winning doses of moral courage, moxie, perseverance and tomboyish cheekiness -- were beginning to take shape, she also experimented with a number of other types of roles, playing everything from elegant middle-aged ladies to a prostitute (Friends, 1912) to a murderous proto-Barbara Stanwyck seductress (Female of the Species, 1912).

When she switched to Famous Players in 1913 (for $500 a week, eventually renegotiating for a $10,000 a week contract with a $300,000 bonus), she played to her strengths in character films, showcasing a naturalistic, highly accessible acting style which focused on behavior rather than performance in films such as Mistress Nell (1915), Rags (1915), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1916) and Stella Maris (1918), and earning the title of "America's Sweetheart."

In 1918, she left Famous Players for an arrangement with First National that offered her complete control over her work (and $350,000 per picture), and in 1920 married film star Douglas Fairbanks (her second husband). Together, at their legendary Beverly Hills estate "Pickfair," Pickford and Fairbanks reigned as Hollywood's definitive power couple, the pinnacle of Hollywood royalty who hobnobbed with the 1920s international society blue-book. They traveled around the world and were mobbed everywhere they visited; the frenzy of admiration that greeted Mary in the far corners of the globe became the central joke of a Russian movie, A Kiss From Mary Pickford (1927), which was literally built around "stolen" footage of an impromptu bit of clowning between Mary and a Russian comedian during her visit to Russia.

She famously joined forces with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Griffith and (briefly) William S. Hart to form an independent studio, United Artists, and quickly revealed herself to be the best business mind of the bunch, the lioness of the board room, even as she was voted Hollywood's top star by readers of Photoplay for 15 of 21 years. Although she continued to enjoy success after success playing young girls (Suds, 1920; Tess of the Storm Country, 1922; Sparrows, 1926), she grew increasingly frustrated with her limiting public persona, and in 1929 she rebelled by cutting off her golden locks and starring in her first talking picture as a carefree flapper (Coquette, best actress Oscar). Unable to return to the old roles, she and Fairbanks tried their hand, disastrously, at Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew (1929), and after two more films, Pickford retired from the cinema and the limelight at age 41.

Her marriage to Fairbanks disintegrated just as she was making her last film, and although she admitted loving him until the end, she married a minor male lead, Buddy Rogers, and stuck with him for over 40 years until her death.

"I left the screen," she said, "because I didn't want what happened to Chaplin to happen to me. When he discarded the little tramp, the little tramp turned around and killed him. The little girl made me. I wasn't waiting for the little girl to kill me." She monitored the film industry closely, though, and as tastes changed she began to believe that her work had become permanently irrelevant; she bought out the rights to most of early films with the intention of having all of them destroyed upon her death. Before the end, however, she changed her mind and donated many of them to the American Film Institute. In 1975, she made a final public appearance to accept a lifetime achievement Oscar, a little mystified by why anyone would care. She died on May 29, 1979 in Santa Monica, California. Her best work, if one has the patience to look beyond the sentimental tastes of her times, still captivates us for its suppleness and irrepressible charisma.

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