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Mary Pickford: More Than the Girl With the Curls

Getty Images / Universal Images Group / Universal History Archive

Mary Pickford: More Than the Girl With the Curls

Women in Hollywood have walked a long, hard road to get to where they are today. For many years, the movie business was a man's world: Women appeared on screen (though rarely in roles that would pass the Bechdel Test), but how often did they find success behind the camera? If you answered "hardly ever," you're right on the mark. In 87 years of Academy Awards, only one woman has won best director (Kathryn Bigelow in 2009, for The Hurt Locker), and she's one of only four women even nominated for the award. Same goes for best visual effects – just one woman has won, Suzanne Benson, part of the Aliens effects team. Best cinematography? Zero female nominees in Academy history.

Female producers have fared a little better, with six taking home shared best picture wins in the past 40 years. It's these occasional successes that make us think Hollywood is getting better for women. Recent blockbuster movies like Bridesmaids and Mad Max: Fury Road prove that women can carry a film, even in the traditionally masculine genres of R-rated action and comedy. Angelina Jolie is one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and commands attention as a director and producer as well. Contemporary stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can almost guarantee a project's success when they get involved. We're on the right track, to be sure, and no women in Hollywood history have been as powerful as these new actress-producers are today. Right?

Only if you don't know about Mary Pickford

You're partially excused if you don't, since her acting career ended more than 80 years ago. But Pickford was the Jolie of her day – and much more. She was perhaps the most powerful woman ever to work in Hollywood, with a hand in all aspects of movie making and a worldwide fame to rival that of any movie star today. On the anniversary of her May 29, 1979, death, learn how Pickford shaped Hollywood with her massive power and influence.

Everybody wanted to know her name

When Pickford started out in movies, movies themselves were still new. It was 1909, and Pickford, a Toronto, Canada, native and Broadway actress, recognized the potential to earn more – much more – in Hollywood. In her first year as a movie actress, she appeared in an amazing 51 movies. And though she wasn't always the star of these films, audiences began to notice her. She was hard to miss – in addition to her natural ease in front of the camera, fans loved her striking looks. Her cute smile and rounded features made her look like the picture of pretty youth, and her blond ringlets were so distinctive that fans began calling her the Girl With the Curls.

The nickname wasn't just for fun – it was used because moviegoers literally had no idea who that girl with the blond ringlets was. In the early days of movies, many studios – including Pickford's studio, Biograph – didn't bother to include the actors' names in the credits. People didn't know Pickford's name but wanted to see more of her, so theaters began posting signs at the box office, advertising the fact that Pickford was starring in the film showing inside – and referring to her as the Girl With the Curls, or the Biograph Girl or Blondilocks.

Within a few years, fans had learned her name – and by 1914, Pickford received top billing on marquees, above the movie title. "MARY PICKFORD in Hearts Adrift" brought people into the theaters in droves. That power to bring in audiences allowed Pickford to ask for a raise – a huge raise – and secure even more control over her films.

 A Mary Pickford Production

That raise we mentioned? It brought her salary to $10,000. A week. In 1916 dollars.

It was a pretty impressive wage for the time (and would be today as well – adjusted for inflation, that's about $227,000 weekly in 2015). Just five years earlier, Pickford had been earning $40 a week.

And to top it off, Pickford's new deal also included 50 percent of the profits of each of her movies. Pickford was so incredibly famous by this point – one of the first international stars, worshipped by moviegoers everywhere – that the salary and profit share were easy to justify. But it wasn't all Pickford sought and won as part of her contract.

In those early days of Hollywood, actors were usually just actors. They didn't dabble in directing or pop behind the camera to frame a shot. Except, of course, for Mary Pickford. As her fame exploded, she negotiated a contract that gave her control of all aspects of her films. She was able to sign off on the script and approve the director. She hired crew members and chose actors. She took part in screenplay editing. And just for her, the Mary Pickford Corp. was formed, making her the producer of her own films. A Mary Pickford film was much more than a film in which Mary Pickford starred – it was a film she created and controlled practically single-handedly.

Giving control to the actors

In 1919, Pickford took it a step further, offering the control she enjoyed to other actors. Along with fellow superstars Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, she founded United Artists. This revolutionary production company allowed the stars to bypass the tight control that the movie studios exerted over their stars. Although the new venture wasn't always entirely successful, it was an important step toward modern Hollywood, in which actors control their own careers rather than being pulled along by studios that hold their contracts.

The first Hollywood power couple

Brangelina may seem to rule Hollywood today, but Pickford was part of a Hollywood power couple that rivaled and even eclipsed their fame and influence. In 1918, she became involved with Fairbanks, the swashbuckling action star who would become her partner in United Artists. Both Pickford and Fairbanks were married when their relationship began, but they obtained divorces and married each other in 1920.

Pickford and Fairbanks quickly became the toast of Hollywood society, close to royalty. Their estate, named Pickfair, was practically the center of the universe, the site of magnificent dinner parties and the place most requested for visits by foreign dignitaries who came to the U.S. in their diplomatic travels. The 18-acre estate was described by Life magazine as "a gathering place only slightly less important than the White House, and much more fun."

Creating the Oscars – and then winning one

In 1927, studio head Louis B. Mayer conceived the idea of forming the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an organization that was at the time mostly dedicated to managing labor issues. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Pickford and Fairbanks were among the group of 36 luminaries involved in founding the Academy, two of just seven actors who were chosen as founders. Fairbanks became its first president, and Pickford became the second winner of the best actress award, for her 1929 film Coquette.

Pickford's win is especially notable because Coquette was a talkie – the first to take a best actress Oscar. Pickford got her start and made her fame as a silent-film actress, and she didn't actually think talkies were such a good idea. The skills needed for silents and talkies were quite different – silents required lots of facial emotion and pantomime, while talkies could rely on dialogue to advance the plot. Pickford initially thought talkies were kind of pointless, famously stating that "adding sound to movies would be like putting lipstick on the Venus de Milo." Of course, when it became clear that sound in movies was the future, Pickford adapted – and, unsurprisingly, she prevailed, winning an actress's highest honor when she made the transition.

Pickford retired from the screen in 1933 – she was just 40 when her final film was released. She continued to produce films for others via United Artists, forging a path for other actors – mostly men, for many years after her example – who made a move behind the camera after establishing themselves as acting superstars. Today, it's a path that more and more women are following, and when they do, we hope they remember how the Girl With the Curls helped make it possible.

Written by Linnea Crowther. Find her on Google+.