MARY PICKFORD'S FIRST TRIP TO HOLLYWOOD:
Gladys Smith was born in Toronto, Canada, on April 8, 1892. Her father died when she was very young, and by the time she was eight, “Little Gladys” was a stage actress and the primary breadwinner for her mother and younger siblings, Lottie and Jack. Gladys taught herself to read during train rides with touring companies and found Broadway success at fifteen in The Warrens of Virginia, written by William de Mille and produced by David Belasco. It was Belasco who decided Gladys needed a new name, and once she had become Mary Pickford, the rest of her family, already so dependent on her and confident of her success, adopted Pickford as well. Theaters closed in the summer then because there was no air conditioning, and the family needed to be supported year-round, so in 1909, Mary Pickford found her way to Biograph Studios, located in a brownstone at 11 East 14th Street in New York City, and was hired by D. W. Griffith at ten dollars a week. She had been at Biograph for a few months when she made her first trip to California.
Our film caravan arrived like a band of hardy pioneers in the thinly populated village of Los Angeles with its eucalyptus palms and heady orange blossoms.
Our studio consisted of an acre of ground, fenced in, and a large wooden platform, hung with cotton shades that were pulled on wires overhead. On a windy day, our clothes and curtains on the set would flap loudly in the breeze. Studios were all on open lots—roofless and without walls, which explains the origin of the term “on the lot.” Dressing rooms being a nonexistent luxury, we donned our costumes every morning at the hotel. Our rehearsal room was improvised from a loft which Mr. Griffith rented in a decrepit old building on Main Street. A kitchen table and three chairs were all there was of furniture. Mr. Griffith occupied one of the chairs, the others being reserved for the elderly members of the cast. The rest of us sat on the floor. Surveying his squatters one day, Mr. Griffith announced he needed a split or half reel.
“Anybody got a story in mind?” he asked.
Three or four of us dashed for paper and pencil and were soon scribbling like mad. During my first weeks at Biograph I had quite unashamedly sold Mr. Griffith an outline of the opera Thais for $10. This time I ventured a plot of my own, and to the great annoyance of the men he bought it. It was called “May and December,” and I received a check for fifteen dollars. When Mr. Griffith, shortly after that, rejected a thousand-foot story and a split-reel comedy of mine, Jack and I rented horses and went out to see Mr. Spoor of Essanay.1 Mr. Spoor gave me a check for forty dollars for the two stories. My greatest competition in this literary sideline was Mack Sennett, who used to claim, teasingly, that my scripts were sold “on the length of my blond curls.”
“Let me put your name on my stories,” he offered, “and for every one we sell I’ll give you five dollars commission on the split reels and eight dollars on the features.”
“That’s a deal,” I said, “but on one condition—I’ll have to read and approve of the stories before lending my name to them.”
Mack Sennett agreed. A few days later he brought me a story which I heartily disliked. It was overrun with policemen engaged in grossly undignified behavior.
“If you want me to put my name to that story,” I said, “you’ll have to change all those policemen into private detectives. Their behavior is scandalous!”
He refused indignantly, and that was the end of our collaboration, and the beginning, of course, of the Keystone Cop series.
What with my growing outside earnings Jack and I were soon nursing visions of fabulous wealth. My salary remained forty dollars a week, augmented by a liberal stipend of fourteen dollars for expenses. And it wasn’t very long before Jack was working six days a week too, at the standard pay of five dollars a day. The poor little fellow had to fall off horses and out of windows as a double for all the young girls in the company. By spring we had accumulated the unbelievable hoard of $1200. I suddenly could not wait to get back East to see Mother and surprise her with our savings.
In April, 1910, Jack and I arrived in New York only to find that Mother and Lottie had not returned yet from an engagement on the road in Custer’s Last Stand. I promptly went to the cashier of the Biograph Company and asked her to change my hoard into twenty-four new, crisp fifty-dollar bills. Jack and I then bought Mother a handsome black handbag into which we tucked the bills. The moment Mother stepped into the house we presented her with the bag. She was delighted, but it was agony for us to wait till she opened it. Instead of the astonishment we expected when she looked inside all we saw was a pleasant smile.
“Oh, stage money,” she said simply.
Mother had never seen a real fifty-dollar bill in her life, and neither had the rest of us. When Jack and I assured her that this was the real business, she counted the bills in a voice of mounting excitement. No sooner had she finished than that rascally brother of mine pounced on them and began throwing them in the air. Mother started chasing Jack around the room, and Lottie and I joined in the pursuit, till we got all the bills away from him. That was the beginning of affluence for the Pickford family.
Mary Pickford left Biograph in 1912, married fellow actor Owen Moore, and began jumping between studios, increasing her salary substantially with each move. By late 1914, her marriage was already unraveling, but she was making one thousand dollars a week with Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky’s Famous Players. After playing waifs, Indians, and young wives, Pickford became “America’s Sweetheart” with films such as Poor Little Rich Girl, The Little Princess, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, in roles written for the screen by her best friend, Frances Marion. In 1919, Pickford joined her soon-to-be husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith in forming their own company, United Artists. With their marriage in 1920, she and Fairbanks became Hollywood royalty, ruling from their Beverly Hills home, Pickfair. Pickford was a pioneering actress, producer, studio owner, and philanthropist, as well as a founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She won an Academy Award for her first talkie, Coquette, in 1930 and was awarded an Honorary Oscar for “her unique contributions to the film industry” in 1976. She died in Los Angeles on May 29, 1979, at the age of eighty-seven.
1George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson (better known as Broncho Billy Anderson) formed their Essanay (S and A) film company in 1907. Their home studio was in Chicago, but they, like Biograph, traveled west during the winter in search of sun.