Mary Pickford: Sample
Sampled below are excerpts from Mary Pickford: Hollywood and the New Woman by Kathleen A. Feeley.
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Table of Contents
SERIES EDITOR’S FOREWORD ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
- From Gladys Smith to Mary Pickford: A Childhood on Stage and at Work, 1892–1909
- Pickford and the Moving Pictures: Creating the Art and Business of Film, 1909–1913
- A Star and a Producer Are Born, 1913–1916
- America’s Sweetheart and American Empire in the Age of the Great War, 1917–1920
- Mary and Doug: American Royalty, Hollywood Style, 1920–1926
- Weathering Personal, Industrial, and Economic Crises, 1927–1936
- Studio Executive and Philanthropist: A Life Beyond Performing, 1936–1979
STUDY QUESTIONS NOTES BIBLIOGRAPHY INDEX
Series Editor's Forward
Mary Pickford was one of America’s first true modern celebrities. She began life as Gladys Smith, one of three children of a mother left impoverished when her husband deserted the family. Before she was ten years old, Gladys had become the main support of the Smith family, working as a child actress in towns and cities across North America. As a teenager she began a career in the newest form of entertainment— silent film—and she rose to stardom in both silent films and “talkies” as Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart.” Beautiful and petite, with blond curls, she became the symbol of demure, white, middle-class, American girlhood. She became one of the highest-paid movie stars of her era, with a salary matched only by Charlie Chaplin and her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks. If she is remembered today at all, it is as the fresh-faced, charming girl who won filmgoers’ hearts.
Yet, as Kathy Feeley so ably shows us, the real Mary Pickford was something quite different: ambitious, talented, and intelligent, a woman moving outside the traditional boundaries set for her gender to become part of a vanguard of independent female entrepreneurs who took full advantage of a new industry that had captured the imagination of the public: Hollywood movies. Behind rather than in front of the camera, she became a screenwriter and a film producer. Her intense desire to control her own career led her to create her own production company. Many of her movies captured the new spirit of womanhood that her real life embodied; the young girls she played were daring and resourceful, and they broke the gender rules more of- ten than they adhered to them. If, in the end, these movie characters were rewarded for their triumph over adversity and poverty by marriage to an honorable man, this did not diminish the resourcefulness and independence that carried them to this happy ending.
Pickford was, in fact, a prime example of the “rags to riches” story made possible by industrialization and urbanization and by the rise of leisure time among the working- and middle-class Americans who supported the entertainment industries. Throughout her life, she carefully nurtured and maintained the image of herself as a loveable, non-threatening sweetheart, a strategy that allowed her to marry and divorce twice without diminishing her popularity. When she retired from the screen, she became an active figure in philanthropy, and she continued to wield influence as a studio executive.
As Feeley shows us, Pickford’s life spans eight decades of remark- able and varied transformations in American society. Through her life we can examine the results of many of the most important changes taking place in the first half of the twentieth century. Pickford’s career demonstrates not only the rise of a new entertainment industry but also the role that technological innovation and corporate consolidation played in expanding, structuring, and restructuring the movie industry. Her careful protection of her public image as a traditional American woman even as she broke many gender barriers gives us in- sight into the persistence of a nineteenth-century gender ideology of separate spheres for men and women even as that separation began to dissolve in modern America. Through her active participation in sup- port of America’s entry into World War I, we can see the impact of the rise of United States as a world power on the lives of all Americans. It was this historical context of rapid social, economic, and technological change that allowed Mary Pickford to realize the potential of her talent, her intelligence, and her ambition.
Actor, producer, writer, and philanthropist Mary Pickford, America’s first Sweetheart, was born in Toronto, Canada, as Gladys Louise Smith in 1892 into a poor, female-headed household. Pickford’s passion for and success at work made her a much-ballyhooed female role model, one of the world’s first major film stars, a respected producer and studio head, one-half of Hollywood’s first international superstar couple, a pioneering film preservationist, and an influential philanthropist over the first six decades of the twentieth century.
A child performer (and family breadwinner) on the North American stage, Pickford transitioned in 1909 to film, where she triumphed as a silent film performer and producer, a savvy business executive, and an international cultural icon as the US film industry and nation came of age. A prodigious filmmaker, she worked on an estimated 224 films from 1909 to 1948. Pickford’s socioeconomic mobility, professional acumen, and emerging celebrity placed her in the rarefied company of male business leaders like Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison, whose “rags to riches” narratives were familiar to most Americans.
Mary Pickford: Hollywood and the New Woman examines Pickford’s life story and career in order to explore the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in the midst of the industrialization, urbanization, and immigration that transformed life across North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Pickford captured a mass audience because she addressed as an actress, writer, and producer a central conundrum for American women: how to reconcile private, domestic duties and concerns with public, professional aspirations and work. She combined the traditional with the modern in both her on- and offscreen personas. Pickford was part of a generation of women who shaped modern feminism in the early 1900s, by making new claims to the public sphere and performing new kinds of public and private selves. She fought for women’s suffrage and then the Equal Rights Amendment as a member of the National Women’s Party. Her most notable legacy was her insistence that women had the right to well- paid, meaningful labor. As she argued in 1915, actresses “are not beset by temptations and our life in the studios does not have a tendency to warp our growth. In fact, we are broadened by it. There is little danger where there is healthy work.”1
Her work was in the dramatically growing, early twentieth- century realm of mass entertainment and its celebrity culture. Beginning as an impoverished child actor on the popular stage, she found fame and fortune in the silent film industry and helped to decisively shape the craft and business of film across three pivotal decades from 1909 to 1933—and beyond. In 1915, America’s first Sweetheart was promoted as “The Highest Paid Artist Who Ever Lived—a claim that was both accurate and audacious.”2With a salary of $2,000 a week in addition to half her film’s profits, she was among the most highly compensated employees in the industry and nation: in 1915, the average annual salary for a man was $687, for a woman half that. And the following year her salary would skyrocket to $10,000 a week as she also secured her own production company. Calling Pickford an artist was a bold attempt to reframe what many considered inconsequential, problematic moving pictures into a new creative powerhouse and art form. Her urban migrations for work—from her hometown of Toronto to New York City and finally to Los Angeles—illuminate broader social trends: by 1920, a majority of Americans lived in urban centers. By 1920, Pickford had permanently relocated to Los Angeles, where she helped shape the emergence of Hollywood as the US film production center and mythic symbol of American consumer culture and American empire.
FROM CHILD ACTOR TO SELF-MADE WOMAN AND HOLLYWOOD LEADER
In 1900, one-fifth of all American children were in the workforce even as a new conception of childhood became normative: that children should be protected, educated, and entertained rather than treated as small adults and put to work. This new understanding of childhood inspired a flood of cultural products. On the page, stage, and film, very young protagonists and performers proved most popular, especially as women and children also became important consumers for mass amusements. Child performers, like Pickford and her two siblings, constituted a significant percentage of the 20,000 working actors on the North American stage in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Ironically, the Pickford children often enacted on stage the idealized, white, middle- and upper-class childhood denied them. Like other poor and working-class children, their labor helped make such a childhood a reality for more affluent families.
From the age of seven to sixteen, Pickford performed for the second- and third-rate touring stock companies that proliferated throughout North America at the turn of the twentieth century. Such work shared most of the characteristics of child labor in more conventional settings like urban factories: lack of access to formal schooling, lack of adult supervision, inadequate wages, dangerous and exploitative working conditions. This itinerant lifestyle meant erratic employment, constant travel, and a disrupted domestic life. Pickford remembered spending long stretches of time on the road, sometimes with her mother and siblings, but most often on her own or with her younger sister. Pickford’s early circumstances epitomized the “problem of the children” that concerned social reformers, observers, activists, and politicians in the period, including muckrakers like Jacob Riis, author of How the Other Half Lives (1890). Like many of the young workers described in Riis’s famous study, an absent father and an impoverished family forced the swift emergence of the eldest and most talented and diligent child as primary breadwinner. Yet, unlike most child laborers, Pickford triumphed over her humble beginnings and became highly successful—both professionally and financially. Her trajectory began with desperation, followed by long years of toil—from 1900 to 1909—in a dramatically growing world of popular theater. Beginning in 1909, she found steady work and then national and international success in the new “moving picture” industry.
Pickford personified the classic myth of the self-made American— hard working, noble, humble, yet also exceptional. (And throughout her life and career, the media and press publicized and understood her as American despite the fact that this Canadian did not become a US citizen until her 1920 marriage to actor and producer Douglas Fairbanks.) Though her conflicted ordinary/extraordinary persona reflected many of the characteristics of the “self-made man,” Pickford was most notably a woman. Pickford had a keen understanding that her gender made it all the more imperative that she maintain her respectability even as she promoted an adventurous and sometimes transgressive (but fundamentally conventional) persona. Cut from her narrative was her father’s alcoholism, desertion of his family, and anonymous death likely from a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a fall. Instead, her mother Charlotte created the fiction that her husband died in the bosom of his loving family, a family left bereft and also penniless. This tragic family fiction became the official, public story used to justify Mary’s engagement with the public sphere—to balance this blurring of the line between the public, masculine realm and the private, feminine sphere of influence. Pickford’s life and work reflect wider changes in the arrangement of work and play that challenged gender norms and ideals; as such, her example offers an ideal blueprint for understanding life in an industrializing America.
Indeed, Pickford’s professional success and personal fortune were rooted in industrial capitalism’s urban, mass consumer culture. Her filmmaking career began in the era of the nickelodeon (1905–1915) with silent, short films exhibited in often makeshift and repurposed spaces in immigrant, urban neighborhoods as well as rural and small-town Main Streets for the price of a nickel. By 1910, about 10,000 nickelodeons were operating throughout the United States. Pickford’s stardom by the mid-1910s was a product of the development of multireel film, the “movie palace,” and the movie star persona and system. Indeed, she was the fi t to establish the persona of “America’s Sweetheart.” She also helped to pioneer and refine fundamental components of US celebrity culture: how to manage media coverage, how to work across multiple media platforms (including a newspaper column, radio broadcast, self-help books, and a novel), how to manage a celebrity coupling, how to perform whiteness.
From the mid-1900s to the early 1920s, a cohort of creative and ambitious women like Pickford found much and varied employment in film. When the industry was new and the scale of business and profits was relatively modest, women worked as writers, producers, directors, agents, editors, publicity directors. Many collaborated with Pickford, most notably screenwriter Frances Marion and journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. Like Pickford, many actresses formed their own production companies in the 1910s, including Olga Petrova and Marie Dressler. So her story helps to illuminate a period of opportunity for this subset of professional women who decisively shaped the industry. But the organizational climate changed as film became one of the nation’s leading industries and exports. Across the 1920s, the oligopoly known as the classical Hollywood studio system came into being: eight large-scale, vertically and horizontally integrated corporations organized to control more than 90 percent of US film production, distribution, and exhibition. As the film industry became a big business, its workplaces also became more deeply gender segregated, with women largely relegated to acting and low-level, offscreen work. Professional opportunities for women precipitously narrowed and declined because of changes in business structure, practice, and culture.
Yet Pickford was one of the women—like Marion, director Dorothy Arzner, and journalist Louella Parsons—who retained significant power, influence, and control. She had the acting skills, production skills, business acumen, and strategic partnerships to sustain her through the 1920s and into the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. As she remembered, “Pictures were my whole life. . . . I had to assume the business role, in order to protect the thing I loved, my work.”3And so she did. She secured three key assets: (1) United Artists, the Hollywood studio and distribution unit she cofounded with Fairbanks, actor- director Charlie Chaplin, and director David Wark (D. W.) Griffith in 1919; (2) the Pickford Film Corporation (1916–1933), her own production company; and (3) the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio (later renamed the United Artists Studio), her own production facility and a valuable piece of real estate.
“LITTLE MARY” PICKFORD AND THE “NEW WOMAN”
Onscreen and off, Pickford personified the “New Woman” of the late 1800s and early 1900s as American women entered the paid work- force, the professions, and higher education in record numbers and campaigned for the right to vote. Pickford worked to legitimize American empire and its voracious consumer culture in her professional work and in her private life. Her work granted her considerable cultural and economic power, but it came at a price: Pickford might challenge some gender norms and ideals, but with a sharp eye ever on her public perception as fundamentally virtuous and respectable. As she remembered, “I never did anything that was in any way suggestive, or even slightly naughty”—at least not for public consumption.4Her two divorces were carefully stage-managed to minimize any negative fallout. Even as her success in the public sphere and extraordinary socioeconomic mobility was celebrated, her power was tempered by her “Little Mary” persona as a dutiful, obedient daughter and later wife who was grateful and humble.
The first film actress heralded as “America’s Sweetheart,” Pickford was not the last to find this nickname as much a curse as a blessing for a career and a life. Her gender, her youthful persona, and her mass appeal have diminished her legacy as compared to that of male peers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. The result has been an underassessment of the quality, range, and significance of her work—not just an actress but also as a filmmaker. Pickford played a wide range of roles over her career—son, daughter, sister, mother, sex worker, domestic servant, factory worker, shop clerk, femme fatale, aristocrat. Her most enduring and important roles were as independent, aggressive, resourceful, upwardly mobile, young girls and women. Most, though not all, such characters were contained within the marriage plot by film’s end, thereby upholding a more traditional status quo. But the “happily ever after” was a coda; the focus of the films was upon these girls and women fighting, working, often subverting the status quo, masquerading as boys, questioning authority. These “rough diamonds” were complex and dynamic in their struggles; time and again, their transgressions of the status quo drove the film’s narrative.5As was said admiringly of her eponymous character in Little Annie Rooney (1925): “She ain’t no girl—she’s a wildcat!”6
Pickford’s filmography as actress, producer, director (though never credited as such), and distributor is best characterized as a study in gender and class tensions and ambivalence, as exemplified by a vast number of her short films and some of her best feature films: Tess of the Storm Country (1914 and 1922), Stella Maris (1918), Suds (1920), and Sparrows (1926). Her finest and most resonant films explore the profound dislocations, changes, and opportunities that came with the rise of industrial capitalism in late 1800s and early 1900s America. Her work is emblematic of the output of American silent cinema, which simultaneously challenged and supported existing gender, class, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. Her silent films, like many, addressed the dangers of business leaders and employers (also absentee fathers) “living high on the monies gleaned from the miseries of others,” including the resulting class conflict.7She exposed the plight of child laborers and called for a more professional social welfare system to re- place the old orphanage system. Her films critiqued indebtedness and conspicuous consumption. A World War I propaganda short admonished Americans: “What we earn in six days, we spend in two hours.”8 Her films also underscored the importance of education and dignified, meaningful, and well-compensated labor for women. She helped audiences make sense of life in changing circumstances and ultimately to adjust to a new corporate capitalist order. For there was joy to be found in a well-made hat and other remarkable, new consumer goods available to the American public.9 Consuming was good; overconsumption was not.
Her onscreen success was predicated, in part, upon her willing- ness and ability to play the ingénue (sometimes a very young girl) well into middle age. In 1928, “Little Mary” decided to bob her hair (at the age of thirty-six), declare her independence, and fully embrace mature onscreen roles. Unfortunately, she aged out of ingénue roles in the midst of the rise of the so-called talkies, as sound came to film in the late 1920s and early 1930s with the onset of the Great Depression. Many factors were at work in her ultimate failure to create and sustain a mature onscreen persona. Pickford was not the only silent film star whose acting career failed to survive the transition to sound. Silent film and sound film were very different art forms with different work- places and styles of acting. Jobs got cut, as did production schedules, as the industry weathered the economic crisis of the Great Depression. In the midst of a perfect storm of challenges, she also faced an all-too-common dilemma for women in the mass media: how to sustain a career built upon a girlish persona that ultimately proves confining and ill suited for a mature female professional or performer.
During both world wars, Pickford became a symbol of American womanhood worth fighting for. Especially during World War I, her propaganda films and considerable voluntary activities made her a key figure in a campaign of cultural imperialism as the United States emerged as a world power. In the postwar world, Hollywood as place and metaphor came into being. And Pickford reigned as its first lady alongside her second husband, Douglas Fairbanks, from their Beverly Hills mansion known as Pickfair and also on their seven well-documented international trips. Mary and Doug, as they were known, became international superstars at a time when US films accounted for an estimated 80 percent of the global box office. So, she was an ambassador, selling American mass culture, selling American empire. She and Fairbanks also served as agents of cultural imperialism, at home and abroad, through the oft-told, romanticized, and inspirational tales of their companionate marriage and upward mobility as evidence of American promise and power.
Though she starred in her final feature film in 1933, her career was not over. She continued to work steadily for more than two de- cades: as an owner/partner/producer at United Artists; on the stage, in radio, and on television; in cosmetics; as a columnist, novelist, and self-help writer; and for film preservation and study. She also remarried, adopted two young children, and traveled widely. In her final quarter century, she shifted her considerable focus and resources to philanthropy, at which she was a resounding success by any measure. From the beginning, Pickford understood the personal and political advantages of good works. She never forgot her impoverished beginnings and understood the social need for and value of philanthropy— as well as the power it gave her. Charitable work also enhanced her reputation and the reputation of the film industry, especially in the early years when all were seeking mainstream legitimacy and respect- ability. She was the only female founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and the second recipient of its Best Actress award at the 1930 Oscars. Civic activities also deflected potential criticism of Pickford as a wealthy, powerful woman and helped her to shape the landscape of early Los Angeles.
Pickford was perhaps the most well known and celebrated of the handful of America’s self-made, female business moguls in the early twentieth century: the other two—African American beauty culturist Madame C. J. Walker and the Canadian-born Elizabeth Arden— operated in the fledgling beauty culture and industry. Like Pickford, they made their fortunes and reputations in the increasingly feminized sphere of consumer culture. Yet all three defied the cultural dictates and norms that encouraged women to be passive mass consumers, not mass producers. With a major Hollywood studio, production company, and production facility under her control, Pickford championed motion pictures as art and worked to preserve America’s silent film heritage. In so doing, she achieved the kind of professional control and therefore longevity that few performers, male or female, have enjoyed. And she stands as a symbol of the possibilities and problems of life in an industrializing America, as a symbol of a rising American empire and its voracious consumer and popular culture.