Born Gladys Smith in Toronto, Canada, in 1893, Mary Pickford took to the stage early, after her father’s premature death left the Smith family in financial straits. Her immediate success as a child actor prompted the family to move from Toronto to New York in search of better prospects. There, young Gladys managed to get an audience with David Belasco, one of the era’s top Broadway producers. Belasco liked the brash young girl, and found a role for her in The Warrens of Virginia, which proved a hit during the 1907-1908 theatrical season.
It was quite an honor for 14-year-old Gladys Smith to be associated with the likes of Belasco -- his only request was that she find a more appropriate stage name. Rummaging through the Smith family tree, Belasco eventually settled on "Mary" and the last name of her maternal grandmother, "Pickford."
An Introduction to the Movies
Following the close of The Warrens of Virginia, the family again hit hard times, and in 1909 Mary’s mother suggested the young actor try the fledgling motion picture industry, as many of the studios were then located in New York. Pickford was less than enthusiastic; although her siblings loved the movies, she recalled getting motion sickness upon viewing her first film. Worse, professional snobbery dictated that acting in the "flickers" was an embarrassment. She recalled in her autobiography:
"In my secret heart I was disappointed in Mother, permitting a Belasco actress, and her own daughter at that, to go into one of those despised, cheap, loathsome motion picture studios. It was beneath my dignity as an artist, which I most certainly considered myself at the time. Belligerently, I marched up the steps of Biograph" (Pickford, 63, 65).
Not only did Mary Pickford have the good fortune of making the Biograph Studios her destination of choice, where famed director D. W. Griffith was honing his talents, but she also entered the film industry just as it was gaining acceptance as a form of popular entertainment. Mary Pickford quickly became a favorite with motion picture audiences, a mantle she would not relinquish for more than two decades.
Success On Camera and Behind the Scenes
Although she played a variety of roles onscreen, throughout her film career Mary Pickford became closely associated with the spunky young heroines she played in hits such as Tess of the Storm Country (1918, and remade in 1922), Pollyanna (1919) and Sparrows (1926). As film historian Kevin Brownlow has observed:
"The character of Mary Pickford was an endearing little spitfire. She was delightful; she projected warmth and charm, but she had the uncontrollable fire of the Irish. Whenever a situation got out of hand, she would not submit to self-pity. She would storm off and do something about it, often with hilariously disastrous results" (Brownlow, 120).
Pickford was not only a star of the screen, but also proved herself behind the camera. She herself wrote several of her earliest motion pictures, and in 1919 joined forces with Griffith, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form United Artists. Through the years, her extensive involvement in company affairs proved she was not just a popular entertainer, but an astute businesswoman as well.
The coming of sound to motion pictures provided an opportunity to break with her girlish film image, and her first role in a talkie was in the 1929 melodrama Coquette. Not one of her more memorable pictures, her performance nonetheless earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress, given in the ceremony’s second year of existence.
Despite this initial success, however, a career in talking pictures never materialized. Pickford made a pair of sound films after Coquette, but ultimately she did not maintain the audience popularity that had been hers during the silent era.
A Return to the Stage
Even so, Mary Pickford remained a popular figure, even outside the movie industry. One of her best-received performances in the early 1930s was a live radio broadcast of Coquette, which was repeated twice due to overwhelming popular demand -- with particular interest, it seems, coming from listeners in the Pacific Northwest. Based on this positive reaction, Pickford engineered a return to the stage in the same vehicle, and chose Seattle as the opening city on a planned tour of the United States.
Although she was originally to have begun the engagement in January 1935, scheduling difficulties pushed the opening back to May 20, 1935. It was then that the former Gladys Smith arrived at the Metropolitan Theatre for a weeklong engagement, in what appears to have been Pickford’s only visit to Seattle throughout her stage and screen career.
The return of Mary Pickford to the stage was certainly an event -- publicity for Coquette announced it as being of paramount importance to the world of entertainment. Everhardt Armstrong of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer helped set the tone for the engagement with an article appearing eight days prior to the opening, in which he announced Coquette as one of the most important theatrical events ever to take place in Seattle:
"The attention of theatre-conscious America will be focused on Seattle on Monday evening, May 20, when Mary Pickford opens a new chapter in theatrical history by appearing in her first full-length stage play since she was a girl of sixteen, at the dawn of a career without parallel in the annals of acting.
"The phrase 'America's sweetheart' was no mere coinage of an ambitious press agent's brain. It expressed the literal truth. For Mary Pickford, at the height of her screen career, was not only the most popular actress in the United States, but the most popular actress in the world. There have been hundreds of talented and beautiful aristocrats of the screen. There is only one Mary Pickford. And she is still 'America's sweetheart' ...
"Naturally, all Seattle is interested.
"So is all Hollywood.
"So is New York's far-famed Broadway.
"So are London and Paris.
"For Mary Pickford is a world figure; and her return to the footlights is a world event. In selecting Seattle for the 'first night' of the new production of Coquette, the star is not only conferring an honor upon the city, but at the same time is giving recognition to the fact that following her presentation of the same play on the radio, although she was deluged with requests to enact it on the stage, the largest number of letters and telegrams came from Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
After her Seattle engagement, Miss Pickford will tour the other cities of the Pacific Coast, and she is being urged to enact Coquette on Broadway"
("Premiere Focuses Attention").
The company supporting Mary Pickford was for the most part made up of stage and film veterans, including John St. Polis, cast as Pickford's father in the film version of Coquette, who reprised his role for stage tour. One of the show's worst kept secrets was that the cast included a small role for a young woman playing under the stage name of "Ann Kirby," the name of Mary Pickford's grandmother. She was actually Gwynne Pickford, daughter of Lottie Pickford, Mary's sister.
Coquette starred Pickford as Norma Besant, a vivacious Southern belle who turns her attention toward Michael, a young man of questionable reputation. Her father's stern opposition, of course, only increases this attraction. The love affair turns tragic when Norma's father shoots Michael and is tried for murder. Norma's heart is thus torn between her father and her dead lover.
A Triumph, Brilliant and Complete
The opening of Mary Pickford in her first major stage effort in two decades was, as Everhardt Armstrong portrayed it, an intensely watched affair. The actor and her fellow performers arrived in Seattle on May 17, 1935, three days before opening night, and hunkered down in the Metropolitan (located on University Street) for last-minute preparations. At the Olympic Hotel, where Pickford stayed throughout her visit, the activity was no less harried: Hundreds of well-wishers cabled the hotel from all over the world, including Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg, Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, Charles Chaplin, Barbara Stanwyck, Al Jolson, Mr. and Mrs. Harold Lloyd, Eddie Cantor, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, and George M. Cohan.
Pickford rose to the occasion. Both critics and audiences warmly greeted Coquette, and in a manner befitting her celebrity status. She revealed a true talent onstage, not only for light comedy but also for straight drama, and her efforts easily won over the crowd. Everhardt Armstrong's thoughts on Pickford's opening performance were typical:
"A triumph, brilliant and complete, was Mary Pickford's return to the stage, last night at the Metropolitan, in Coquette, a play giving scope to the personal magic that made the petite actress the most dazzling figure in motion picture history.Harry B. Mills of the Star proved a better counter of curtain calls than Armstrong, reporting a full 10. He also asserted that Pickford had lost none of her status as a performing artist -- her potential as a stage actress, in his estimation, would rival her years of motion picture work. Not surprisingly, Richard E. Hays of the Daily Times was also quite enthusiastic about the production, and managed to get backstage with the actor after her opening performance, where she seemed quite overwhelmed by the reception she received from Seattle audiences. "`I thought for a moment I would not be able to find my voice,'" she told Hays in her dressing room, referring to the ovation that greeted her initial entrance. "`They were wonderful. I shall never forget them'" ("Mary Triumphs in Stage Play").
"This magic operated so potently last evening, that during scenes of high emotional tension many members of the audience were moved to tears ...
"The star's superb acting in the poignant climax stirred her audience to such a pitch of enthusiasm that I lost track of the curtain calls; and the massed Mary Pickford enthusiasts would not leave the theatre until their idol made a gracefully phrased speech, in which she told of her happiness in being able to meet face to face the playgoers who through the years had expressed their liking for her work in pictures" ("Mary Pickford Triumphs").
Following her debut at the Metropolitan, Mary Pickford utilized a splendid Friday morning during her Seattle engagement to take in some city views via bicycle. Together with 16 members of the Coquette company, the group started by pedaling around Woodland Park and Greenlake, although Pickford, according to a reporter along for the haul, insisted on extending the trip in light of the good weather. With three cars running behind to pick up stragglers and their bicycles, Pickford and her crew rode from Greenlake to the University of Washington, through campus, across the Montlake Bridge and onto Lake Washington Boulevard, where they continued along the shoreline to Seward Park, a distance of about 16 miles. "Seattle certainly has a delightful climate and beautiful scenery," Pickford proclaimed after the trip. "I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The sunshine was glorious, the breeze was grand and everything along the route so fresh and clean" ("Noted Actress Seen Awheel").
The Career That Wasn’t to Be
Despite her apparent success in Seattle, however, Mary Pickford's stage tour in Coquette did little to extend her career outside of Hollywood; in her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, published in 1955, she makes no mention of the tour at all. Following her divorce from actor Douglas Fairbanks in 1935 and subsequent marriage to Charles "Buddy" Rogers in 1937, Mary Pickford effectively retired from the entertainment industry, save for her involvement in business matters affecting United Artists, where she continued to be active well into the 1950s.
Although her public appearances dwindled over the last two decades of her life, Mary Pickford was given an honorary Oscar at the 1976 ceremonies for her achievements in the industry. She passed away in 1979.