The Girl With the Curls

Pioneer of early cinema and founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Mary Pickford became the most powerful woman in Hollywood at a time when there was no path to follow. 

Born Gladys Louise Smith, “America’s Sweetheart” Pickford starred in fifty-two motion pictures. Pickford traveled promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds during World War I and co-founded United Artists as an actor’s rights advocate. Pickford was not only a successful actress but also an intelligent businesswoman who was the first woman in Hollywood to earn a million dollars a year.

Famously known as “America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford was actually born in Toronto, Canada. In 1905 Mary – then known as “Baby Gladys” – debuted at Toronto’s Princess Theatre at the age of six. She made her first Broadway appearance two years later and landed her first minor film role with the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in 1909. Under the direction of legendary D.W. Griffth, Pickford made over one hundred silent short films between 1909 and 1912. In a time when actors were not yet credited by name, Pickford gained international acclaim as “the girl with the curls” and “the Biograph girl.” She was one of the first stars to be billed under her own name and considered one of the greatest actresses of the classic Hollywood era, is credited as having defined the ingénue archetype in cinema. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, she was believed to be the most famous woman in the world, or, as one journalist described her, “the best-known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history”

440px-Mary_Pickford_with_camera2.jpgAs her fame grew, so did her authority. Pickford demanded unprecedented pay increases and dictated provisions of her productions. Her contract with Zukor in 1916 granted her a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week and half the film’s profits. She became a power not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. As a producer of her own films, she oversaw every aspect of the making of her films, from hiring talent and crew to overseeing the script, the shooting, the editing, to the final release and promotion of each project. In 1919  Pickford co-founded the independent film production company United Artists (UA) with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and her soon-to-be second husband Douglas Fairbanks. UA allowed filmmakers to produce pictures without creative interference from studio bosses.

Portrait_photograph_of_Mary_Pickford,_1921.jpgPickford used her star power to promote various causes. During World War I, she promoted the sale of Liberty Bonds, traveling around the country conducting fundraising speeches, she even auctioned off one of her world-famous curls for $15,000. She was named an honorary colonel and the Army named two canons after her in honor of all the funds she helped raise. At the end of the war, Mary created the Motion Picture Relief Fund. a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries with limited or no resources.

In 1927 Mary was one of the 36 original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that host the Oscars.

Mary struggled to transform her sweetheart image while producing movies such as
Pollyanna and Coquette, her first “talkie,” for which she won an Oscar in 1930. After
Pickford retired from acting in 1933 she continued to play a crucial role in
Hollywood, producing numerous UA films. The American Film Institute
ranked Pickford among the greatest female stars of all time and in 1976 the
Academy presented her a lifetime achievement award for contributions as a
performer and producer.


The Women’s Museum of California supports women in the film industry by hosting the Women’s Film Festival San Diego. The WFFSD strives to educate and inspire future generations about the experiences and contributions of women through the art of film.  This summer the Festival is hosting its first summer series with the 3 screenings of women directed documentaries in July. Learn more about the series and purchase your tickets here


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