In 1912, David Belasco the larger than life theater producer and impresario convinced Mary Pickford to return to the stage. For roughly three and a half years Pickford had been dedicating herself to the still fledgling movie industry. It was a world removed from Broadway but nevertheless more than a few performers were being drawn to it. Still Pickford took her old friend up on his offer.
The play was a modest success but the theater was no longer where her heart was. While she herself was a product of the footlights and remained good friends with people like Belasco her passion lay elsewhere. From now on Mary Pickford was exclusively a movie actor.
That personal career decision would have a huge impact on the cinema. Within one year of going back in front of the cameras Pickford’s name would appear above the title. Movies like Caprice and Hearts Adrift caught the attention of audiences but it was Tess of The Storm Country that absolutely bowled them over. The girl with the golden locks was off and running and there would be no looking back.
Mary Pickford would become the movies’ first mega star and a phenomenon unlike anyone that had come before her. The adulation she received from her adoring fans across the globe made the success of many celebrities that followed her pale in comparison. No one could get enough of The Most Famous Woman In The World.
There were a number of factors which of course catapulted her to this level. For one there was her striking beauty. Pickford definitely did not look like anyone else working in film at that time. Her incredible head of hair and almost hypnotic eyes did not hurt either.
Her absolute belief in cinema was one of them. Movies were still looked down upon in 1913 by “respectable folk.” There was no Birth of a Nation around to show people what this medium was capable of. Pickford didn’t care. She saw plenty of opportunity to do good work and didn’t hesitate to take the chance.
Another was her craft. While much of the acting for stage and screen in the early nineteen hundreds was still quite stylized in the melodramatic vain, Pickford’s had a more natural quality to it. She could heighten her acting when she found it necessary but was also capable of great subtlety. She seemed to realize early on that when it came to acting in front of the camera less was better.
Surprisingly Pickford had developed this style long before appearing in the movies. As she told one interviewer, “This is my mother’s training. She said if you feel something very very much, your hands your feet every part of your being will respond to that thought.” That statement was and remains the very essence of great motion picture acting. Indeed it was around this time that she came to realize that no one could direct Mary Pickford except Mary Pickford.
Then there was her business acumen. Pickford was as shrewd as a J.P. Morgan when it came to marketing herself as well as her films. Having the public clamor for more Mary Pickford while being smart enough not to overexpose the product.
While there was no TV, internet or even radio for that matter, the printed word in the form of the daily newspapers, movie magazines (which were just coming into their own) and nickelodeons in many ways made up for it. Pickford could give an interview or make a movie then step back and watch the publicity snowball get rolling virtually guaranteeing whatever film she made would be a box office smash.
Yet that acumen didn’t stop there. As a matter of fact it would go so far beyond as to transform the way the film industry and it’s newest capitol Hollywood did business in general. Before Pickford, motion picture execs had a stranglehold on film. If you wanted to enter the film industry then the message was a simple one: Play by their rules or go look for another line of work.
Mary Pickford was one the driving forces to change all of that. Along with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart (who was replaced by D.W. Griffith) the idea was to wrestle at least some control away from the moguls and take charge of their own product. Thus United Artist was born.
Yet even before this Pickford had gone a long way to becoming a true independent filmmaker demanding and getting almost total authority when it came to her productions. In this regard she ranks to this day as the one of the most successful moviemakers in history.
Shrewd, tough and determined Mary Pickford put Hollywood on the map and kept it there.
Here’s a podcast from Eloise Batic discussing in more detail about Pickford’s life and career and also why she is such an inspiration.