Mary Pickford: The Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood

It’s not such a big deal nowadays for an actress to have her own production company. Drew Barrymore has one; her Flower Films produced Donnie Darko. Demi Moore’s got one, too (Moving Pictures, the company behind the Austin Powers movies), and so does Jodie Foster (Egg Pictures, which produced Nell). Owning a production company is a shrewd move for an actress; it allows creative control, creates a steady stream of work, and extends her all-too-finite shelf life in the notoriously nubility-obsessed culture of Hollywood. Maybe someday one of this new breed of actress/producers will graduate to owning their own studio. Won’t that be a first?

Not quite. Almost 100 years ago, Mary Pickford beat them to it when she became co-creator of United Artists — yes, the United Artists — along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and her future husband Douglas Fairbanks. Newsreel footage from the day the four signed their company into existence shows Fairbanks jubilantly hoisting Chaplin into the air and Pickford grabbing Chaplin’s foot to become the indispensable third corner of their cheerleader triangle. At one point Chaplin takes off his bowler hat, presses a crease down the center, and plops the impromptu fedora on Pickford’s giggling head — a businessman’s garment, implying that she’s now one of the boys.

Pickford was an extraordinary figure, the first modern celebrity of the movie age and the most powerful woman ever in Hollywood (contemporary studio heads Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel would only approach her megatonnage if they were also actresses with a Julia Roberts-sized box office draw). Before her, actors were billed only as nicknamed faces. But Pickford, who started her career as just “America’s Sweetheart”, soon wrested her real name (well, her real professional name, she was born Gladys Smith in Toronto) out of the studio’s control and negotiated a princely sum of one million dollars over two years in a 1916 contract for her Pickford Film Corporation — even convincing now-equal Adolph Zukor to pay her and her mother for the three weeks they spent hammering out the deal.

When she divorced her first husband to marry Fairbanks, the scandal could have killed the career of a lesser star. But Pickford was so unassailable that the fairy-tale merger between two matinee idols did nothing but enhance her popularity. When she and Fairbanks honeymooned in London in ’20, the crowds tore at them with a Beatlemania-sized frenzy. On top of everything else, she was a talented actress whose nuanced performances embodied happiness, gumption, and all-American optimism. So why is her impact forgotten while her contemporary Lillian Gish is so much more well-regarded today?

Lillian Gish

Pickford and Gish’s lives were eerily parallel. Both were the oldest children in families abandoned by alcoholic fathers, both had mothers who reluctantly entered the shadow world of traveling theater to support their families, and both soon became the family breadwinners as child actors in demand on the vaudeville circuit. The Gish and Pickford families even shared rented rooms when their paths crossed while touring, and in addition to recieving clothing hand-me-downs, younger members of each family often took on the theatrical parts the older girls had grown too big to play. And when both women made the jump to film, they did so under the mentorage of D.W. Griffith, who saw in each the winsome, untouched feminine ideal he cherished for his leading ladies.

Pickford rocketed to fame quickly, spurred by her own unquenchable ambition and unerring business sense, while Gish slogged along — certainly not underpaid by any standard, but not making the astronomical sums that allowed Pickford to finance the construction of Pickfair, the palatial family homestead in San Ysidro Canyon. Pickford learned from the powerful men around her and eventually directed, produced, and distributed her own films while the less-emulous Gish continued to submit to whatever victim scenarios the semi-sadistic Griffith conjured up — floating downstream on a real ice floe with her hair and hand trailing in the frigid water for Way Down East (1920), carried away “gorilla fashion” (Gish’s description) by evil mulatto Silas Lynch in The Birth Of A Nation (1914), or barricading herself helplessly in a closet in Broken Blossoms (1919) — all roles that showcased her tremendous gifts as a tragedienne and earned her a fair amount of fame.

Pickford, though not Gish’s acting equal, was blessed with greater range and subtlety than the public gave her credit. But the public wanted an unending string of the spunky, sweet, perpetually pre-pubescent child she embodied so well, complete with an old-fashioned shock of unbobbed golden curls. For the same reason that Doris Day never had the allure of Grace Kelly, or Ben Affleck will never draw the eye like Christian Bale, Pickford was too accessible, too willing to give her audience every ounce of herself on screen. Gish, who by the mid-20’s looked equally atavistic with her long Victorian locks and quirky, saintly face, also gave her performances her all, but one always had the sense she kept some deep and private reservoir of feeling just for herself, hovering beneath the surface where the masses couldn’t touch.

Gish was made of tougher stuff, too. Despite her frail looks, she was no fool. She knew what she wanted (a life in the arts, the company of her mother and actress sister Dorothy, loving friendships with many women, including Pickford) and what she didn’t (marriage and motherhood). She was a person of unassailable confidence who loved her work and didn’t care for fame. Pickford, for all her business acumen and exterior toughness, was more vulnerable. She needed the crowds, the money, and the security she felt from controlling her own fate. And she needed her mother Charlotte’s love. In her autobiography Sunshine and Shadow, Pickford recalled an episode when, at their lowest financial state, Charlotte almost allowed a local doctor to adopt young Mary and take her away. “Mama,” the adult Pickford remembered pleading, “don’t you want me any more?” Lack of money was what threatened to separate them, and money became the secret charm Pickford pursued for the rest of her life, the talisman that warded off abandonment. Pickford’s financial skill supported not only her mother but her wastrel siblings Lottie and Jack in equally tremendous luxury, but the motivation behind her financial expertise was laced with desperation.

When Gish’s mother suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1926, Gish rallied to her care and provided for her until she succumbed 22 years later. But when Pickford’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1925, Pickford was devastated. And when her mother died three years later, something went unhinged in Mary. Upon hearing the words “She’s gone” she fell into a hallucinatory state so hysterical even her he-man husband was afraid to approach her. Several other tragedies followed in quick succession, including the drug and alcohol-related deaths of her brother and sister and the grisly death of her sister-in-law, Olive Thomas (she mistook a bottle of Jack Pickford’s syphilis cure for a water flask and accidentally downed a corrosive stomachful of bichloride of mercury). Her idyllic marriage to Douglas Fairbanks dissolved. Her drinking accelerated. And the film industry switched nearly overnight from silents to sound.

Both Pickford and Gish came from theater, so weathering the transition to talkies should have been easy for them. But the problem wasn’t their ability to project, it was the public’s willingness to accept “old” stars like them in the new, modern idiom of sound. Pickford tried once again to shake off her little girl image by bobbing her hair and trying new adult roles in productions like The Taming Of The Shrew (1929), but the audience didn’t bite. They wanted the emotionally shattered, now-pushing-40 Pickford to keep playing sunny little girls. Pickford made several ill-received attempts at breakout films but slunk away in humiliation after her final film Secrets (1933) bombed. Gish, rather than scramble to stay on top of the film game as Pickford did, shrugged her shoulders and went back to theater. She didn’t mind doing dramatics on TV, and before long she was back in pictures with plum roles in films like Night of The Hunter (1955). Meanwhile, in 1956 Pickford sold her shares in United Artists, the last of the three founders to do so, and irrevocably removed herself from the modern studio system she’d helped to create. She shut the doors to Pickfair and withered away in agoraphobic, alcoholic splendor until her death in 1979.

The founders of United Artists: Douglas Fairbanks,

Mary Pickford, D. W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin.

In 1997 writer Cullen Murphy facetiously proposed the creation of a “warhol”, a metric unit of measurement used to quantify fame. One warhol would be worth, of course, 15 minutes, so the fame of movie stars like Pickford would be calculated in fractions of megawarhols, 15 million minutes equaling close to 30 years. But the warhol doesn’t take into account how cleanly a person’s fame burns, whether it lights the world at a steady pace like Gish’s (whose final film was 1987’s The Whales of August and who lived six more lucid and respected years before passing away at the triumphant age of 99) or whether it flares up in a fireball and sputters away like Pickford’s. Warhol per warhol, Pickford and Gish’s careers expounded the same amount of light, heat, and energy, but today, when United Artists is owned by Sony via MGM and the most powerful woman who ever lived in Hollywood is a sadly forgotten anachronism, it’s heartbreaking to admit the truth. Does anyone have a favorite Mary Pickford movie anymore?