Mary Pickford was an actress and producer known as “America’s Sweetheart” (despite being Canadian). She was also a founder of United Artists and one of the 36 original members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You know, that cute little operation that gives out the Oscars every year.
Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith (later Gladys Marie Smith after converting to Catholicism) in Toronto, Ontario. She performed in traveling stage shows from the age of 7. In her teens, she moved to New York and made her Broadway debut in The Warrens of Virginia. Pickford soon became a film actress–the money was better–and appeared in so many pictures that moviegoers began to recognize her on sight. As a result, she was one of the first actresses to be billed by name in a film’s credits and promotional material.
When the film industry moved to California in the 1910s, Pickford went with it. She became a world-renowned actress; her diminutive height and cherubic face initially led to her being cast in child roles, even as an adult, but she soon moved on to become a leading lady. Pickford was also a producer, eventually gaining creative control of every film she appeared in. In 1919, she founded United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Speaking of whom: in 1920, Pickford divorced her first husband, actor Owen Moore, to marry Fairbanks. The two became a Hollywood power couple, although they eventually divorced in 1936. In 1927, Pickford helped establish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Talking pictures were introduced in the 1920s, and Pickford’s first “talkie” was Coquette in 1929. The role earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress – the second Best Actress award ever given – but Pickford never quite experienced the same success in talking pictures that she had in silent films. In 1933, Pickford retired from acting, although she continued to produce films for the next few decades.
Pickford became reclusive in the last years of her life, rarely leaving her home in Santa Monica, California. She died in 1979, at age 87. There’s a small museum commemorating her life in Cathedral City’s Pickford Theater in California.