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Biography of Mary Pickford

3665 words (15 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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The enormous, white Hollywood sign which stands atop Mount Lee, looking down the Los Angeles area represents the film industry’s obsession with glamour, profit, and dominance. The film industry continues to remain one of the most influential economic forces through American culture’s desire for entertainment. Hollywood amplified the motion picture industry by nurturing the concept of the ‘movie star,’ influencing the dominance of celebrity culture today. As the use of advertisements was on the rise, film companies began showcasing their actors and actress as a means of differentiation in a competitive market. Utilizing Paul McDonald’s The Star System, I am analyzing the operation of stars in early Hollywood in its accordance with the film industry’s demands. Through the production and consumption processes of films, movie stars are minions to film companies’ labor, fortune, and image (McDonald 2). Carefully analyzing the early history of Hollywood, it is important to examine the lives and accomplishments of actresses employed in the film industry, one central figure being Mary Pickford. Through her role as an actress, writer, businesswoman, Mary Pickford symbolized determination, innovation, and self-confidence to demonstrate that actors have the ability to overcome their exploitation and unrealistic demands of Hollywood’s star system in the twentieth century.

While Pickford impacted the film industry as a writer and producer, her early acting role as Tess in Tess and the Storm Country jumpstarted her fame and fostered her trademark ringlet-curled hairstyle. Thus, Pickford gained recognition as this film was her “first blockbuster…and use[d] ‘America’s Sweetheart’ in its marketing campaign” (Feeley 57). More specifically, fans formed associations of her own persona solely based on her tagline of ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ Also, according to N.Y. Evening Journal, Tess of the Storm Country was viewed as “the high water mark of a star’s career” (Motion Picture News 2627). Moreover, Pickford’s role as Tess transformed her greater sophistication. Pickford’s role as Tess set the precedence for the rest of her acting career as she modeled Tess’ tenacity as a “fighting underdog” (Whitfield 20). This evidence directly shows how Pickford was able to achieve individual success as an actress, despite working against the film industry’s demands. In order to cater to the glamour of stardom, Pickford’s “cult of [blonde, curled] hair” ignited in her role as Tess, and this image permeated throughout her career (Feeley 58). While Hollywood portrayed stars as perfect, glamorous individuals, Pickford valued her individuality as an actress. Just like Tess’ vivacious spirit, Pickford fought for what she desired and worked to maintain her position as a female actress in a male-centric industry that wanted to showcase female glamour.

 Similar to Pickford’s role as Tess, she also plays the challenging role of Gwendolyn in A Poor Little Rich Girl which showed how she surpassed Hollywood’s hierarchical structure of stardom. First, Hollywood was broken down into complex labor system, where actors were required to withstand limitations in rehearsal availability, to learn lines in a time sensitive manner, and to record voice dubbing (McDonald 9-10). This emphasizes the daily difficulties that actors faced in the creation process of films, ultimately highlighting how an actor could not live an average life. Not only did Pickford deal with the daily challenges of this hierarchical labor characterization, but she also challenged herself to portray the adolescent role of Gwendolyn with great optimism as at the age of twenty-five she showed that she could “play a series of convincing juvenile leads” (Feeley 89). This shows Pickford’s endless capabilities as a determined actress to take risks, apart from dealing with the industry’s authority, in her early acting career. On the other hand, the original drama version of The Poor Little Rich showcased a timid Gwendolyn, but the Maurice Tourneur’s adapted film version transformed the timid Gwendolyn into “a hoyden with tomboy proclivities” (Variety Publishing Company 22).  This primary source evidence encapsulates Gwendolyn’s rejection of the stereotypical role of the woman as being passive in the public and the private sphere like a polished trophy in a trophy case. Eileen Whitfield, a Canadian actress, and journalism on silent film, argues that Gwendolyn “asks no more than the pleasures any child enjoys” (3). Comparatively, due to her family’s poor financial stability, Pickford was introduced to the concept of work as an actress and never experienced traditional childhood. As a result, Gwendolyn and Pickford are mirror characters, because their childhoods were associated with individuality and growth of self-confidence. Similarly, Gwendolyn is forced to dress masculine-like but finds that she “enjoys the liberty her male masquerade offers” (Feeley 89). While Gwendolyn defies all odds dressed like a boy, Pickford, too, enters the acting industry with the same masculine liberty as she takes on the responsibility as her ‘family’s breadwinner’. Pickford’s early exposure to the workforce and freedom massively contributed to her ability to tread above the ocean of demands brought upon by directors of major film companies.

 Just as Pickford’s acting role as Gwendolyn portrayed her individuality, Pickford’s role as a writer for Daily Talks showcased her array of talents outside of the industry, allowing her to bridge the gap between herself and her fans. In the star system, stars are “shown as exceptional and somehow apart from society” (McDonald 6).  This is significant to note because stars are seen as ostracized members of society by Hollywood. Contrastingly, Pickford opened up her experience as an actress to provide her fans with a first-hand account of her daily activities. Daily Talks was a popular syndicated column to which Pickford wrote during American industrialization and consumerism in the early 1900s, and she provided sound advice for her fans by her discussion potential job opportunities in the film industry (Feeley 64-65). Daily Talks served as a vehicle for Mary Pickford to establish a more intimate relationship with her fans and others in public. Also, her column was responsible for the transformation of “Little Mary into a vehicle…[to discuss the] professional, financial, and public success and power for women” (Feeley 66). Prior to women’s affirmative actions to enter into the public sphere, women were viewed as domestic sustainers. Pickford certainly challenged the societal expectations of women and radiated optimism towards the pursuit of new careers for women. By inviting them on her daily journey, she valued the opinion and dignity of her fans, as she proclaimed in her Daily Talks in September of 1916, “send a letter to me personally” (Pickford). Despite her high societal status as a famed celebrity, Mary Pickford stood in the shoes of civilization as an advocate for the public, emphasizing that anyone can independently follow their dreams, even if he or she may seem outlandish or unattainable. 

 In the same fashion that Pickford displayed self-confidence and independence, she exhibited self-confidence when also experienced great mistreatment in the workforce as an actress from male figures concerned with profit. Through her collaboration with D.W. Griffith, a male director of some of Biograph’s films, Pickford experienced “verbally aggressive and even abusive” comments, but she was “a force to be reckoned with” from the beginning (Feeley 37).  Dealing with dominant male figures in a highly competitive industry, Pickford transformed into a more courageous actress, advocating for fairness as an actress in the film industry. Whereas, the star’s humanity is stripped away and represents a form of capital through their image, showing the focal point of competition and profitability in the film market (McDonald 14). Working during the rise of the star system, Pickford dealt with the mistreatment frequently and effectively as the actors were like mannequins because they were devalued of their human qualities and were ‘punched’ by industry’s obsession with their external prominence in the international film market.  For example, two emotional male actors receive significant mistreatment by film companies, although “never lift a finger to help correct unwholesome situations” (Film Bulletin Company 1). As a result, the majority of actors during this time period included to these two boys, never had the same level of courage as Pickford to argue for change to figures of authority.

 Just as Pickford had courage when faced with male mistreatment at work, she also displayed courage in her ability to take control in the workforce and combat the star system’s use of the star as a mode for capital. While the star system painted Pickford’s image of innocence and adolescence on the screen, Pickford truly contradicted that image through her professionalism and control in the business side of the film industry. First, Pickford embodied courage as she fought against Hollywood for a salary that matched Charlie Chaplin, arguing that she made more substantial contributions in the film industry (Stamp 9). Through her exceptional efforts to fight for equality in compensation for females, Pickford became the actress with the highest salary in America in 1914 (Judge). This shows that Pickford leveled the playing field for women actresses, by emphasizing that women laborers can attain equality in the workforce through a determined spirit. According to McDonald, stars are viewed as “a form of capital [and] a valuable asset for a production company” in a capitalist system (10). Therefore, this shows that Hollywood’s stars in the twentieth century were slaves to the production company, as the production companies benefit off their labor, while the stars themselves receive little control. The star system gave production company owners the power to secure film prices as well as manipulate film prices where they deemed worthy of an increase (McDonald 11). While Pickford was one of the most well-known stars in the star system, she differentiated herself from the powers of the production company by working towards independent control. First, Pickford’s innovative spirit led her to her creation of the Pickford Film Corporation, a production system characterized within Famous Players that permitted the freedom of her own “voice in selecting her own projects, assigning directors, casting roles, and designing publicity” (Stamp 9). Her creation of the Pickford Film Corporation opened up the door to endless possibilities for Pickford as she finally stepped away from the manipulation of authority in her early career as an actress and moved to greater control. At the same time as Pickford’s rise to fame, the popularity of nickelodeons declined resulted in the transformation into new theaters with new amenities and the rise of the use block booking. Block booking was a system that required theatre owners to purchase the renting rights of popular films, along with the rights of more inferior films (Feeley 72). As a result, one of Pickford’s central motivations to her establishment of the Pickford Film Corporation was in fear of the decline of popularity in her films due to distribution limitations which Pickford shared her anxieties with reporters: “[exhibitors] could not afford my pictures because they had to lease the whole program’” (Feeley 72). Pickford could represent a great model innovator because she translated a problem she saw with the system of distribution of films and transformed her vision into reality. With her emergence of the Pickford Film Corporation, her films attained greater recognition as they were not block booked but shown “exclusively and independently” through Famous Players (Feeley 72). Consequently, this shows Pickford’s ability to fight for greater significance in the realm of distribution and led to her contribution as a fervent founder as a female financer in society. Therefore, her tagline of innocence in the star system as “America’s Sweetheart” could be transformed into a tagline representing her devotion to courageous entrepreneurial efforts: “America’s Advocate for Independence.”

 Similar to the Pickford Film Corporation, Pickford’s establishment of the United Artists Corporation gave her greater freedom to rise above the control of the star system. First, the United Artist Corporation (UA) was an independent film studio that Pickford created in February of 1919, along with Fairbanks, Griffith, and Chaplin, which promoted the independent distribution of the film, apart from corporate control. Pickford’s initial film to be released with the UA was her starring role in Pollyanna (Feeley 95-97). Pickford always looked for ways to improve the film industry and through her determination and innovative spirit, she illustrated that one must courageously act on their internal desires in order to create change in the world. According to Harvard Business Reports, United Artists Corporation adopted the slogan of “Sold individually on their merit’” and between 1919 and 1929 received an “average gross receipts of $15,000,000 per year” on the company’s picture sale (Lewis 286). Thus, United Artists Corporation became a central force acting against the exploitation of films owned by Hollywood’s major production companies. Prior to the establishment of The United Artist Corporation, Pickford’s films and other films featuring “a certain star [in the] leading role were combined…and sold in a single block” (Lewis 282). Ultimately, the films produced by Hollywood’s vertically integrated production systems valued the importance of the company itself, not the accomplishments of the starring actor. Conversely, Pickford showed how she owned her own image labored in capital. More specifically, she epitomized the connection between stars’ establishments of “their own independent production companies” and their ability to “participate in box office earnings” from their own starring films (McDonald 35). Pickford’s entrepreneurial efforts in the creation of The United Artists Corporation revolutionized her own career as a more successful, independent actress as she had control over her box office sales and also allowed her to betray the demands of Hollywood’s capital-hungry production companies.

 Not only did her establishment of United Artist Corporation allow her to break away from the control of production companies, but also Pickford’s cutting off her hair demonstrated her differentiation her image of long curled hair portrayed by Hollywood’s star system. First, Pickford dealt with immense pressure from Hollywood to maintain her stardom image of ringlet curls. Pickford describes her “restriction [by Hollywood]…and the weight of the curls” as being two of the main motivations to cutting her hair (Mary Pickford Foundation). Pickford’s ringlet curls represented her role of innocence and prohibited her from “growing up.” On the other hand, the star system portrayed stars as “exceptional and somehow apart from society” and are also used as tools to “manage audience demand for films” (McDonald 5-6). Stars and celebrities have continued to attain the attention from civilization, as many individuals aspire to have an identical appearance to a star or attain some level of their beauty. As a result, Pickford’s curled hairstyle represented her star image as a symbol of youthful beauty in Hollywood. This hairstyle forced her into an inescapable box where should could not express individuality. She was almost forced to live a life of childhood. It is through immense self-confidence that Mary Pickford cut her hair, in an effort to reconfigure her identity and public image. Due to the attraction of stars in the discussion in the public sphere, Pickford’s hairstyle was unfortunately met with great criticism. Despite public criticism, Pickford desired separation from the societal expectation of female beauty and valued independence from Hollywood. Historically speaking, bobbed hair was tied to twentieth-century feminism as it valued more attention to “what is under the skull instead of on top of it” (St. Johns 36). As a result, this shows the transformation of women into self-confident figures of greater intellect and achievement in society. Additionally, throughout World War I, many women adopted the bobbed hairstyle, including “ambulance drivers and nurses” as it was used as a “hygienic alternative to long, unwieldy tresses” (Schmidt 175). Thus, this shows the shift into greater societal freedoms for females to participate in the workforce as women started to step out of the domestic sphere into the public sphere. Also, the act of Pickford cutting her hair signified her desire for freedom from the unrealistic expectations of maintaining her stardom image. She also demonstrated that self-confidence is the key to triumphing any form of criticism thrown in one’s way.

 While Pickford’s cutting off her hair signified her differentiation from the star system, Pickford’s philanthropic and advocacy work outside of the film industry also demonstrated her surpass of Hollywood’s star system. According to McDonald, stars were expected to contribute promotionally to the film companies through “press interviews….[and appearances] at gala premieres and…television chat shows” (9). While the expectation for stars in Hollywood was to appear in the public sphere as a promotional key for their image and roles in films, Pickford went above and beyond in her role in the public sphere. First, her efforts towards advocacy and philanthropy included her co-vice president position with the Motion Picture War Service Association, her establishment of the Motion Picture Relief Fund, the Payroll Pledge Program, and the Motion Picture Company House and Hospital (Trope 77-83). This shows the wide array of Pickford’s contributions to society and casts a light on her selfless character, through her tireless efforts to impact the lives of those in need. Secondly, Pickford graciously hosted weekly parties, sponsored by the United Service Organizations, at her mansion which provided soldiers the ability to relax and enjoy afternoon amenities (Schmidt 159). Instead of living a secluded life of wealth and stardom, Pickford was determined to help change society. Despite the fact that stardom portrayed actors and actresses as figures of unattainable glamour and wealth, Pickford demonstrated her differentiation from Hollywood’s celebrity culture and valued inclusion of all people in society. She was truly a genuine person in both her appearance and her inner self.  Delight Evans, shares her personal account of Pickford in Photoplay Magazine, as she described her experience with Pickford at a Chicago war bond drive with rainy weather conditions: “I watched her wash her face—and nothing came off on the towel (90). Ultimately, this shows how Pickford’s success of “rubbing off” the demands of the film industry as a star and represent her genuine self, not the image of “fake” glamour illustrated in magazine advertisements. Pickford was a self-confident, empowering figure who displayed a clear separation between her own career as an actress and her own life in the public. Also, she showed that performing good deeds for one community is far more superior to maintain a “perfect” external appearance.

 By displaying that actors have the capability to conquer their manipulation and nonrealistic expectations by the Hollywood star system, Mary Pickford illustrated determination, innovation, and self-confidence throughout her career as an actress, writer, and entrepreneur. While Hollywood’s portrayal of stars placed them on a pedestal in society as an image of beauty and riches, Pickford showcased her genuine, inner beauty to the public through her significant philanthropical and advocacy contributions. Also, Pickford demonstrated that stars can to free themselves from the control of major film corporations. One must understand that Pickford’s stardom was not necessarily defined in glamour, but instead, it was Pickford’s own independent contributions to the film industry and society as a whole. She has truly shaped the world for females today, through her mission to redefine the conventional role of the domestic female. So next time you are sitting in the comfy, red chair, watching a film, remember the lasting impact of Mary Pickford and try to acknowledge the individual accomplishments of actresses, not solely their associations with the industry of Hollywood.

Works Cited

  • “The Crowning Achievement of Mary Pickford’s Career19.” Motion Picture News, vol. 26, no. 19, 25 Nov. 1922, p. 2627. Lantern, lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/motionpicturenew26novd_1104. Accessed 12 Nov. 2018.
  • Evans, Delight. “Mary Pickford, The Girl.” Photoplay Magazine, vol. 14, no. 2, July 1918, p. 90. Lantern, lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/pho1314chic_0692.
  • Feeley, Kathleen. Mary Pickford : Hollywood and the New Woman . Westview Press, 2016.
  • Film Bulletin Company. “Myer’s States Allied Case I.” Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 27, 15 May 1937. Lantern, lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/indepe34film_0395.
  • Judge, Ben. “24 June 1916: Mary Pickford Becomes Hollywood’s First Million-Dollar Actress.” MoneyWeek: The UK’s Best-Selling Financial Magazine, edited by MoneyWeek, 24 June 2015, moneyweek.com/397198/24-june-1916-mary-pickford-becomes-hollywoods-first-million-dollar-actress/.
  • Lewis, Howard T. Harvard Business Reports. Chalmers Publishing Company, 1930. Lantern, lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/harvardbusinessr00howa_0303.
  • Mary Pickford Foundation. “Mary Cuts Her Hair.” Mary Pickford, Mary Pickord Foundation, 2018, marypickford.org/caris-articles/mary-cuts-her-hair/.
  • McDonald, Paul. The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities. WallFlower Press, 2001.
  • Pickford, Mary. “My New Friend.” The McClure Newspaper Syndicate [London], 26 Sept. 1916, Daily Talks by Mary Pickford sec. Internet Archive, archive.org/details/DailyTalksJulToSep1916/page/n1.
  • Schmidt, Christel. “American Idol.” Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, edited by Schmidt, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, pp. 145-60.
  • Stamp, Shelley. “Women and the Silent Screen.” Wiley Online Library, 13 Nov. 2011, people.ucsc.edu/~stamp/research/Shelley_Stamp/Publications_files/W&SS%20Wiley-Blackwell.pdf.
  • St. Johns, Adele Rogers. “Bobbed Hair Has Come to Stay.” Photoplay Magazine, vol. 26, no. 1, June 1924, p. 36. Lantern, lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/pho26chic_0351. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.
  • Trope, Alison. “‘Little Mary’: Formidable Philanthropist.” Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, by Christel Schmidt, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, pp. 73-86.
  • Variety Publishing Company. “A Poor Little Rich Girl.” Variety Film Reviews, vol. 46, no. 2, 9 Mar. 1917, p. 22. Lantern, archive.org/stream/variety46-1917-03#page/n73/mode/2up/search/a+poor+little+rich+girl. Accessed 13 Nov. 2018.
  • Whitfield, Eileen. “The Natural: Transitions in Mary Pickford’s Acting from the Footlights to Her Greatest Role in Film.” Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, edited by Christel Schmidt, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, p. 20.
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