Oscar Actors: Pickford, Mary–Background, Career, Awards

Dec 31, 2020
Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: mother seamstress

Family: father died when she was 6

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Screen Image: character actor

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Retirement: retired from acting in 1933; aged 41

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Vet silent actress Mary Pickford won her first and only Best Actress Oscar for her first talkie, “Coquette,” a film version of the Helen Hayes Broadway vehicle. 

In this melodrama, directed by Sam Taylor, Pickford plays an ill-tempered southern belle whose affair with a man beneath her class enrages her father, leading to a disaster.

The Academy probably voted for Pickford out of sentimental reasons, honoring her distinguished career as a silent star.  Nonetheless, it’s one of the weakest female performances to have ever won the Oscar.

“Coquette” was not commercially successful, and Pickford’s effort to change her established screen image into a more modern one failed.  Neither was Pickford’s next film, co-starring husband Douglas Fairbanks, “The Taming of the Shrew.”  The latter is an interesting curiosity because the screenplay is credited to William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor. The cast includes John Mack Brown, Matt Moore, John Sainpolis, William Janney, Henry Kolker, George Irving, and Louise Beavers.

Oscar Nominations: 1

 Actress: Mary Pickford

 Oscar Award: 1

 Actress

Oscar Context:

The other contestants in the Best Actress category were Ruth Chatterton in “Madame X,” Betty Compson in “The Barker,” Jeanne Eagles in “The Letter,” Corinne Griffith in “The Divine Lady,” and Bessie Love in “Broadway Melody, which won Best Picture.

In 1975, four years before her death, Mary Pickford received an Honorary Oscar “in recognition of her unique contribution to the film industry and the development of film as an artistic medium.”

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her father John Charles Smith was the son of English Methodist immigrants, and worked a variety of odd jobs. Her mother, Charlotte Hennessey, was of Irish Catholic descent and worked as a seamstress. She had two younger siblings, Charlotte, called “Lottie” (born 1893), and John Charles, called “Jack” (born 1896), who also became actors.

John Charles Smith, an alcoholic, abandoned the family and died in 1898 from fatal blood clot caused by workplace accident, when he was a purser with Niagara Steamship.

After being widowed in 1899, Charlotte Smith began taking in boarders, including Mr. Murphy, the theatrical stage manager for Cummings Stock Company, who suggested that Gladys, then 7, and Lottie, then 6, be given small roles in the company’s production of The Silver King at Toronto’s Princess Theatre.

Pickford subsequently acted in melodramas with Toronto’s Valentine Stock Company, finally playing the major child role in its version of The Silver King. She had the starring role of Little Eva in the Valentine production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, adapted from the 1852 novel.

Pickford starred in 52 features throughout her career. In 1916, Pickford signed a new contract with Zukor that granted her full authority over production of the films in which she starred, and a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week. In addition, Pickford’s compensation was half of a film’s profits, with a guarantee of $1,040,000, making her the first actress to sign a million dollar contract. She also became vice-president of Pickford Film Corporation.

Occasionally, she played a child, in films such as The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) and Pollyanna (1920). Pickford’s fans were devoted to her “little girl” roles, but they were not typical of her career. Due to lack of a normal childhood, she enjoyed making these pictures. Given how small she was at under five feet, and her naturalistic acting abilities, she was successful in these roles. Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who first met her as a boy, assumed she was a boy.

In August 1918, Pickford’s contract expired and, when refusing Zukor’s terms for a renewal, she was offered $250,000 to leave the business. She declined, and went to First National Pictures, which agreed to her terms.

In 1919, Pickford, along with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed the independent company United Artists. Through UA, Pickford continued to produce and perform in her own movies. In 1920, Pickford’s film Pollyanna grossed around $1,100,000. Pickford’s film Little Lord Fauntleroy was also a success, and in 1923, Rosita grossed over $1,000,000 as well. During this period, she also made Little Annie Rooney (1925), playing a child, Sparrows (1926), which blended the Dickensian with newly minted German expressionist style, and My Best Girl (1927), a romantic comedy featuring future husband Buddy Rogers.

The arrival of sound was her undoing. Pickford underestimated the value of adding sound to movies, claiming that “adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo.”

She played a reckless socialite in Coquette (1929), her first talkie, a role for which her famous ringlets were cut into a 1920s’ bob. Pickford had already cut her hair after her mother’s death in 1928. Fans were shocked: Pickford’s hair had become a symbol of female virtue.  Her haircut it made front-page news in The New York Times and other papers. Coquette was a success and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress, although this was highly controversial.

The public failed to respond to her more sophisticated roles. Like most movie stars of the silent era, Pickford found her career fading as talkies became more popular among audiences.

Her next film, The Taming of The Shrew, made with husband Douglas Fairbanks, was not a box office flop.

On March 29, 1928, The Dodge Brothers Hour was broadcast from Pickford’s bungalow, featuring Fairbanks, Chaplin, Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson, John Barrymore, D.W. Griffith, and Dolores del Río, who spoke on the radio show in order to prove that they could meet the challenge of talking movies.

In her late thirties, Pickford no longer able to play children, teenage spitfires, and feisty young women, and was not suited for the glamorous and vampish heroines of early sound.

In 1933, she underwent a Technicolor screen test for an animated-live action version of Alice in Wonderland, but Disney discarded the project when Paramount released its own version.

She retired from film acting in 1933 after three failures; her last film was Secrets.

She appeared on stage in Chicago in 1934 in The Church Mouse and went on tour in 1935 with the stage version of Coquette. She also appeared in radio plays for NBC in 1935 and CBS in 1936.

In 1936, she became vice-president of United Artists (UA) and continued to produce films, including One Rainy Afternoon (1936), The Gay Desperado (1936), Sleep, My Love (1948; with Claudette Colbert) and Love Happy (1949), with the Marx Brothers.