The First Movie Star
By Bill Dobbins
In the earliest days of Hollywood, actresses and actors in films were not named in the credits. They were called things like “The Biograph” girl. Not allowing them to have a fan base was, at least in part, a way of keeping them from demanding too much money. But as fan interest increased the Hollywood moguls realized there was a lot to be gained in public response (and ticket sales) by publicizing the identity of women and men featured on the silver screen and the idea of “movie stars” was born.
One of the first of these stars, and pretty much the most famous of her time, was Mary Pickford. Pickford was known in her prime as “America’s Sweetheart”and the “girl with the curls”. She was one of the Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood and a significant figure in the development of film acting. Pickford was one of the earliest stars to be billed under her own name, and was one of the most popular actresses of the 1910s and 1920s, earning the nickname “Queen of the Movies”.
Her fame increased when she married Douglas Fairbanks, himself one of the major stars of the day. This union is reminiscent of couples we have seen min modern times like “Branelina,” “Beniffer” and “TomKat.” In fact, Pickford and Fairbanks created a version of this kind of thing by naming their estate “Pickfair.”
She also not only helped found United Artists, along with Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, but became a producer and collected a percentage of the box office receipts of films – a practice which not become common in Hollywood until the 1950s and 1960s.
Pickford was born Gladys Louise Smith (April 8, 1892 – May 29, 1979), and was a co-founder of both the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio (along with Douglas Fairbanks) and, later, the United Artists film studio (with Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith), and one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who present the yearly “Oscar” award ceremony.[
Pickford’s success was not meteoric. She had to do a lot of work to get noticed. “I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities,” she was quoted as saying. “I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.”
She appeared in 51 films in 1909 – almost one a week.
Eventually, due to public appreciation and the grosses of the movies she appeared in, she became a major star. Pickford starred in 52 major features throughout her career. On June 24, 1916, Pickford signed a new contract with Adolph Zukor that granted her full authority over production of the films in which she starred, and a record-breaking salary of $10,000 a week. In addition, Pickford’s compensation was half of a film’s profits, with a guarantee of $1,040,000 (US$ 17,700,000 in 2018). She was awarded the second ever Academy Award for Best Actress for her first sound-film role in Coquette (1929) and also received an honorary Academy Award in 1976. In consideration of her contributions to American cinema, the American Film Institute ranked Pickford as 24th in its 1999 list of greatest female stars of classic Hollywood Cinema.
Part of Mary Pickford’s success came as the result of the attention she got from movie fan magazines – and still photos – such as Photoplay, found in Chicago in 1911 by Macfadden Publications. Photoplay, as one of the first and most popular fan magazines, is credited as the originator of celebrity media. Photoplay was published from 1911 until 1980, at several points merging with other publications. This was a time before television and when the whole country went to the movies on a regular basis. A lot of American towns had at least one movie theater and ticket prices were cheap. So the majority of Americans went to see the movies at least once a week. The movie industry became a big business. People might not know the names of politicians and government officials, but they knew the names of every leading actor and actress.
Stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin played the same role their day in selling movie tickets as today’s movie stars do in modern times.
Pickford’s career did not survive the arrival of sound movies. She resisted the addition of sound to movies, thinking it detracted from the pure art of film acting. That plus the fact that she was getting older an no longer able to carry off as easily the role of the innocent ingénue that had made her famous, eventually lead to her retirement.
But she remains one of the most important figures in the history of early movies.
Bill Dobbins is a is a veteran photographer and videographer, based in Los Angeles, who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries, and published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
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