While Charlie Chaplin is still considered one of the great
comics of old-time cinema, Mary Pickford isn't as famous
- anymore. But during her heyday, from the early years of
the 20th century until the 1930s, the Toronto-born actor
was the biggest box office star in the United States. In
fact, it's safe to call Pickford the Julia Roberts of her
Pickford's career started early, thanks to her father's
death in 1897, when she was just five. A widowed seamstress
with three kids, her mother could barely make ends meet.
So Mary, then known as Gladys Smith, started acting to earn
money. At 14, she barged into the office of David Belasco,
a big-time Broadway producer, and convinced him to let her
star in his next play. That's when she became Mary Pickford.
Two years later, she persuaded D.W. Griffith, "The
Father of the Motion Picture," to put her in movies,
and a star was born.
But Pickford was more than just a smiling face on the big
screen. She was also a sharp businesswoman, and by 1917,
she was making $350,000 per movie. Two years later, along
with fellow film-types Chaplin, Griffith and the actor Douglas
Fairbanks, Pickford started a movie company, United Artists
Corporation, making her the first female movie mogul. In
1920, she married Fairbanks, one of the most popular actors
of his time.
Pickford's life on-screen started to fall apart around
1930. She'd won an Oscar in 1929 for playing a modern swinger
in her first "talkie," Coquette. But audiences
preferred "America's Sweetheart" in cheeky charmer
roles, and the rest of her films were dismal failures. She
stopped acting in 1933.
That's when Pickford moved to radio, and began writing
books. She continued to work at United Artists, but she
and Chaplin - the sole surviving partners - sold the company
Pickford was given a special Academy Award in 1975 for
her contribution to American film. She died four years later.