Silent Film: How They Got Their Start – Mary Pickford

You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down. — Mary Pickford

Mary Pickfprd curly hairIt’s no secret to anyone who knows much about what I have been working on with my current project that I absolutely adore Mary Pickford. A biography on her life that was on Netflix (although not any longer), inspired a passion inside of me that ignited the novel that I’m currently drafting. My husband likes to say that I have a ‘girlcrush’ on Mary Pickford, and I think in some ways he might be right. Instead of just doing a basic rundown of the life of a star, I thought that I might focus on how they came to be a star instead of all the life that came afterwards. Perhaps after learning about their beginnings you will want to learn more about them. Of course, I will probably do more posts on Mary since I love her so. Mary Pickford was a Canadian-American actress born on April 8th, 1892 with the name Gladys Louise Smith. Her life had very humble beginnings in Toronto. Her parents had two other children, Jack and Lottie. And, although reports on the death of her father vary greatly, she lost him in 1898. At the age of five she was the oldest child in the family and immediately felt a sense of desire to protect and care for her mother.

At one point in her childhood, a more affluent couple wanted to adopt little Gladys. Her mother, realizing that she could not give her daughter the life that these other people could, agreed that the adoption could take place if Gladys agreed to it. But upon learning that she couldn’t come back and visit her family she tearfully threw herself into her mother’s arms. But life was difficult for the Smiths. Her mother took in boarders and sewing, but the children turned to stage work to help supplement the meager amount of money that Mrs. Smith made. It was difficult for Mrs. Smith to begin to allow her children into the theatre because of the stigma attached to acting at that time. It was considered low class. The entire family began touring the United States in theatre troupes. They were often third rate. The family was almost destitute besides having jobs in theatre. Gladys did want to be an actress, though, and she was determined to get a position on Broadway. David Belasco, considered the greatest director and producer of his time, was the man she wanted to work for. She would come to his office almost daily and ask to see him. When she was finally granted an audience he asked her if she wanted to become an actress. Her answer was no, she already was an actress. She wanted to be a good actress.


She began working for him in the play The Warrens of Virginia. It was under David Belasco’s suggestion that she changed her name from Gladys Smith to Mary Pickford. But the play ended in 1909, when Mary was seventeen, and the family depended on her to make money to help them survive. Even though moving pictures were considered even far further below stage acting, Mary went to a screen test to try and keep her family from starving. She caught the eye of one of the most influential directors of the silent film era: DW Griffith. He initially told her that she was too short and too fat, but he took her on anyway and in her first year of filming she was in 51 films. Actors weren’t initially listed in the credits. But within weeks of her first releases, Mary became known as ‘The Girl with the Golden Curls’ and she was promoted through that name by the owners of nickelodeons. Her long curls made her the perfect symbol of girlhood. (As a note, she would end up having several fake curls to help during filming… Made with hair bought from a whorehouse).

She was on her way to stardom and would soon be known as America’s Sweetheart. Mary wouldn’t always just be in front of the camera. She became a powerful woman behind it as well.

But the fame and fortune she was lavished with would not always create a sunny life for the incomparable actress. If you’re interested in learning more about Mary, do let me know!

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