April 8, 2011

Celebrating silent movie star Mary Pickford's birthday

Day 98 of Vintage 365


Though she was widely known as American's Sweetheart during the early years of the 20th century, gifted - and charmingly beautiful - actress Mary Pickford (whose real name was Gladys Marie Smith) was in fact born on Canadian soil, in 1892, just miles from where I live in Toronto.

To call Mary an early pioneer of stage and screen would be an understatement. By the tender age of seven she had already earned herself a large part in a production of The Silver King (which was preformed at Toronto's famed Princess Theater, not be confused by the similar sounding modern day Princess of Wales Theater), and would go on to star in other plays including landing the role of Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Though Broadway was at first rather unkind to the "girl with the curls" (as she was affectionately known by many of her fans), in 1907, a role in The Warrens of Virginia helped propel Mary's career (it was the director of that play actually, who insisted Gladys Smith change her name to Mary Pickford). By 1909, Mary had begun to catch the eye of the rapidly expanding silent film industry, when in that year alone, she appeared in a staggering 51 films.

As the early years of the twentieth century rolled into the teens, Mary went on to do film after film, eventually starting in a total of 52 feature films. By 1916 Mary was one the biggest players in Tinsel Town - and one of the most beloved actresses in the world - which allowed her to earn (at the time) a very impressive $500 a week working from the Zukor label, to which she was signed at the time.

{One of Mary Pickford's most defining looks was here cherub-like tendrils, as seen in this graceful image of the famed silent screen star during the height of her popularity. Vintage photo via All Posters.}


As the decade strolled along, Mary's star only continued to shine brighter. In 1919 she partnered with such notable names as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks to form the United Artists film production company, which allowed Pickford to act in and produce many of her own movies. Two films that Mary stared in during the early 1920s (Little Lord Fauntleroy and Rosita) both grossed above a million dollars, which was immensely impressive for movies at the time.

Though Mary remained a major Hollywood player right through the 20s, as the silent film era began to give way to the world of talkies, her career started to lose momentum, as (like many of her silent film coworkers) she simply wasn't able to parlay her success over into the world of talking pictures. In 1933, Pickford officially retired from the world of acting, though she continued to produce films for several years afterwards.

Like many in the glaring limelight of Hollywood, Mary's personal life wasn't always as sweet or beautiful as the diverse female roles she played on screen. Married three times (including most famously to fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks), Pickford was unable to conceive children (however, she did adopt two children, Roxanne and Ronald, with her third husband, actor Charles Rogers).

The late 20s and 30s (which were already hard enough for the world as a whole) were fraught with loss for Mary, who saw several people who were close to her pass away (including her ex-husband, Douglas Fairbanks, who passed away from a heart attack in 1939), though she managed to keep her head up through those challenging days (despite battling depression), Mary would later go on to become an alcoholic.

Pickford saw a vast array of teetering highs (including a Best Actress Oscar in 1929 for her role in Coquette) and very dark lows in her 87 year life, and there's no skirting around the fact that things were certainly not always as rosy for her many of her fans might have guessed at based on her captivating characters she portrayed. However it was those very roles that allowed Mary to bring a tremendous amount of happiness to the millions of viewers who flocked to the theater for the nearly two and a half decades that she shone from the screen.

Today Mary Pickford is remembered and honoured both in Hollywood and her native Toronto, where a historical plaque and bust now mark her birthplace (she was also bestowed with a posthumous star in 1999 on Canada's Walk of Fame).

For anyone with an interest in this wonderful silent film star's life, who happens to be in the Toronto area, there is actually an exhibit pertaining to her life on display at the Canadian Film Gallery's TIFF Bell Lightbox Building until July 3, 2011.

Mary was one of the most formidable and skilled actresses of her time. She had the ability to play everything from children to older women, timid young gals to worldly vixen with graceful ease. Her gorgeous looks, engaging smile, and talent on screen earned a place in the hearts of countless movie goes during the 20th century, and to this day she remains a beloved favourite of many who enjoy the marvelous world of vintage silent films.

Join with me today, on this her birthday, in spending a moment to think about Mary Pickford. Pop a film of hers in, should you have one available, and celebrate the life and legacy of one of the greatest silent film stars of all time.


  1. I was flipping around the channels this morning and found a movie called "Sparrows." I think it was on Turner Classic Movies. It was a silent film with Mary Pickford, who rescues a gang of orphans from an evil farmer and saves a kidnapped baby as well. I only saw the last half-hour but it was all it took as a reminder of what a remarkable actress she was. I didn't even have to know the whole story to get teary-eyed. Happy Birthday to a lovely lady!

  2. Great post, enjoyed it very much!

  3. Oh I have one of her movies DVRed...now I really want to watch it. Thanks for the info.


  4. I love when awesome people turn out to be Canadian!