Forging Her Own Path: United Artists Co-Founder Mary Pickford Is Much More Than ‘The Girl with the Curls’

America’s Sweetheart. The Girl with the Curls. The Biograph Girl. None of the nicknames commonly given to Mary Pickford, one of the most popular stars of the silent era, really conveys the most fundamental fact about her: Mary Pickford was one hell of a savvy businesswoman.

Born in 1892 in Toronto, Canada, Pickford became a film star in an era when there was no template for Hollywood superstardom—where “Hollywood” didn’t exist, film wasn’t taken seriously as an industry, and actors often weren’t even credited by name. In 1912 Pickford was on the first-ever cover of the first-ever fan magazine, Photoplay. Throughout the teens, films like Hearts Adrift, Tess of the Storm Country, The Poor Little Rich Girl, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm cemented her fan following—and her value to studios. Unwilling to let studio executives rack up big paychecks without paying her her worth, Pickford would routinely switch between studios, accruing better deals for herself along the way. 

“In the late teens, when Mary finally had the ability to hire her own directors and her own writers, she hired Frances Marion as her exclusive screenwriter,” says film historian Cari Beauchamp, who works with The Mary Pickford Foundation. “Mary and Frances worked hand in hand in creating the characters the Girl with the Curls, Pollyanna, Poor Little Rich Girl, and oftentimes adapting popular books.” Another key woman in Pickford’s life was her mother/business manager, Charlotte. Beauchamp recounts an anecdote involving Pickford’s fellow silent-screen star Gloria Swanson, who supposedly once said that “Charlotte Pickford could count heads in a theater audience quicker than anyone else in the business.”

Pickford eventually landed at Famous Players-Lasky, which later became Paramount Pictures. Its founder, Adolph Zukor, favored the process of block booking. If a theater wanted the latest from Pickford or her future spouse and fellow superstar, Douglas Fairbanks, they would also have to pony up for all the studio’s other films, which were inevitably of (putting it politely) variable quality. “When Mary and Doug and Charlie [Chaplin] traveled the country selling war bonds, that was when it really hit them: They were bringing out thousands and thousands of people to see them. ‘Wow: We really have power here. Why are we carrying all these other people along with us?’” Beauchamp says. 

Independent theaters banded together and created a cooperative—later a studio—called First National, with Pickford the first major name to sign. First National was short-lived, but Pickford’s desire to have full creative control over her projects was not. In 1919, Pickford—along with Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith—formed United Artists. It was, notes Beauchamp, very definitely a risk. “They were very careful, but there’s no question they were risking their stardom. There was another actress, Clara Kimball Young, a huge star in the late teens and early ’20s. She formed her own company, and within a year and a half she was bankrupt.”

The risk was especially real for Pickford. “There was no other actress who parlayed her success into producing, creating United Artists. It was not just to maximize the income, but it was also to protect her ability to control her own product. One of the things that happened to some of these women actresses in the teens, they were typecast so quickly. Once the profits were maximized,” the studios would move onto the next actress. As a part of UA, Pickford would control not just her image but other aspects of the films she produced. Beauchamp tells a story about an assistant director at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios laying out the difference between Pickford and her husband: “Doug would just say, ‘Oh, get the best lighting people you can get!’ And Mary would come along and say, ‘Wait, you have three electricians working today. Wouldn’t we make do with two?’”

Mary Pickford made her final film in 1933: Secrets, a Frank Borzage talkie with Leslie Howard. Popular wisdom would have it that Pickford, no longer the “modern woman” that audiences wanted to see on the silver screen, slid gracefully into retirement. That, Beauchanp emphasizes, is decidedly not the case. She stayed active with United Artists well into the 1950s, “bringing in people or advising people and choosing films and how much to spend on them.” She has a separate production arm with Jesse Lasky, with whom she produced several films. Those films “had nothing to do with her. But she would read the script, help choose the directors, etc. She was very active in that,” explains Beauchamp.

Pickford was an integral part of the wider film industry, as well. She was one of the 36 original members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, founded in 1927. She was an early proponent of an Academy Museum. She was a co-founder and very active member of what is today the Motion Picture Television Fund, a charitable organization built to help film professionals in dire financial straits. Pickford, in fact, devoted much of her time and resources to philanthropy, donating her famous Pickfair—the mansion she shared with Fairbanks when they were married—for “dozens of events each year,” says Beauchamp. This was a place thought of as the “Western White House,” the “Buckingham Palace of America”—but instead of selling it after her divorce, she would regularly donate it as a site for parties for blind veterans. “Sometimes she’d be there, sometimes she wouldn’t. But she’d open it up. She’d pay for the catering. She would take care of different things, because she knew the cachet of having a charity event at Pickfair was immeasurable,” says Beauchamp.

“The more I learn about Mary, the more respect I have for her, because of the wide array of hats she wore and what she was able to pull off, very much at a certain points alone, and certainly oftentimes the only female voice in the room,” says Beauchamp. “One of the things I really admire about her is that she never forgot the poverty of her early years. The Motion Picture Television Fund was started by her putting out buckets on the set—‘Hey, give me spare pennies! We have to take care of our own.’ In the minutes of [a] United Artists [meeting], somebody said, ‘Well, we can cut back here. We can cut back there.’ And Mary says, ‘Wait a minute. These are employees who have been working with us for at least a decade, if not more. They are counting on us. These are our people. I love them. We have to protect them.”

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