Mary Pickford: First Million Dollar Movie Star

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In the days before women had the right to vote, one of the most powerful players in Hollywood was a diminutive blonde with corkscrew curls.

Mary Pickford began her career appearing in “flickers”, short films shown in Nickelodeons. The actors were considered as hired help. They weren’t given any billing at all and earned next-to-nothing. By 1916, Pickford was not only the first major movie star; she was the most famous woman in the world.

Canadian native Mary Pickford, born on April 8th, 1892, in Toronto, Ontario began her career in 1909 working for the Biograph film company in New York City under the direction of pioneering director D.W. Griffith. She joined Famous Players in 1913, which later became Paramount Pictures.

During this period, Pickford began to make feature-length films, and by 1916 she was making $2,000 a week plus a $10,000 bonus for each complete film. Doesn’t sound like a lot now, but back in the day the average salary was just under two grand a year.

Mary and Charlie Chaplin — Hollywood pioneers. Photo by BERKSHIRE ON STAGE

Even still, Pickford knew her worth and understood the studio was paying her a pittance compared to what they were raking in from her pictures. No-one could play the poor but principled heroine with the same approachability and believability as Mary Pickford, and she knew it.

America’s Sweetheart, as she was fondly known by the movie-going public, was also an astute businesswoman. On June 24, 1916, Mary Pickford signed a two-year million dollar contract as an independent producer with Paramount Pictures. The deal also entitled her to a cut of the profits from her films. Mary not only acted in her movies but also had a hand in the production and the distribution. It was the first million dollar contract in Hollywood history and made Pickford Tinseltown’s highest paid star.

But Mary was just warming up. She was the only female co-founder of United Artists, the film distribution company she started with future husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in 1919. This move gave Pickford even more artistic control and a bigger share of the enormous profits her films generated.

Brangelina WHO? Mary and Douglas Fairbanks wed 1918 Photo by FROMTHE

By 1921, Mary controlled almost every aspect of her finished films. She was in the enviable position of having to complete only one picture a year — a luxury almost unheard of for any other actors.

By the late 1920s, the movie business underwent a huge metamorphosis with the arrival of sound. Mary Pickford made her last silent film in 1927.

Pickford was instrumental in organizing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the inaugural Oscar awards that took place that year. In 1929, she took home the statuette for best actress for her role in “Coquette.” Mary’s sweet, demure image was at odds with the newly popular party girl flapper, and her movies became less popular. Pickford made her last film in 1933.

She continued producing films for United Artists until the mid-1950s until both she and Charlie Chaplin sold their shares. Mary’s take was worth $3 million. After her retirement, she lived as a recluse at her home Pickfair with her third husband, Buddy Rogers. Pickford received a lifetime achievement award from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which owed its very existence to her) in 1976.

She died at her home on May 29, 1979 of a stroke at the age of 87.

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