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Mary Pickford and the Changing Role of the Actress in America

Mary Pickford (1892-1979) was amazing. It is incredible to me that I was totally unaware of her until I moved to Bellingham, Washington and found the small independent movie house Pickford Film Center, which I grew to love and later learned was named for this dynamo of stage and screen. Recently, I wanted to find out more about her and discovered her almost prototypical life story that seems to perfectly reflect society's changing view of women actors.

1316 Bay Street. The current location of the right halfof the Pickford Film Center in Downtown, Bellingham, WA. The Racket was a dry goods, furnishing goods and notions store owned by L.C. Countryman that appears in the City Directories from 1909-1912. Courtesy of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies

She was born in Toronto, where her family was abandoned by an alcoholic father when she was a toddler, which left her mother scrambling to make enough to feed her three young children. After taking on a theatrical manager as a boarder, her mother was encouraged to put Mary on the stage. Soon the whole family was traveling together as performers, and after 6 impoverished years, Mary landed a gig on Broadway in the play Edmund Burke at the age of 14. At 17 she filmed her first nickelodeon Pippa Passes (1909) and from there her career skyrocketed until she became arguably the most powerful woman to work in Hollywood to date. At the age of 24, she was the first woman in Hollywood to earn over a million dollars a year! She wanted creative control of the films she was in but no studio would grant it to her so she, along with her actor friends D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplain, and husband Douglas Fairbanks, formed United Artists and became a producer, a screenwriter and an advocate for artists.

Song Book Cover from Sweetheart of Mine. What a babe. 

Pickford's stage debut coincides with a cultural shift in post-Victorian America. The idea of female purity in the Victorian Era (1830s-1900s) was inextricably connected with domesticity and the home; women who lived a public or nomadic life were by their very nature suspect. But after Queen Victoria's death in 1901 a gradual relaxation of rules about where women should be seen and heard took place. Eventually we would get to flappers and birth control and Amelia Earhart, but when Pickford was traveling with her family and performing at two-bit theaters she, her siblings and her mother would have been the object of some speculation and pity...

What terrible lives these women and girls lead! Why can’t they just be content at home with their families? Do they think they are better than other women? Do they want to be more like men than like women? Do they think they are better than men!?

Actresses are a prime example of women rejecting a life of domesticity. Most Victorian actresses were forced to travel, with only a rare minority able to make a living practicing their craft in a big city like New York or Chicago Therefore, they couldn’t obtain the domestic and sedentary ideal of the broader culture. While on tour, many actresses were admired for their talents and naturally became the objects of sexual desire. They likely encouraged this admiration because it increased ticket sales. Due to the transient nature of their lives, actresses would have been freer to engage in premarital or casual sex than their stationary counterparts. By the time rumors started to affect your reputation, you would be packing to go to the next performance in the next town. How perfect! Some women who worked as actresses were known to supplement their incomes by having sex for money. They would have their pick of the men in the audience and really no woman was expected to engage in casual sex without some sort of reciprocity at the turn of the previous century. Dinner, gifts or even cash would have been standard compensation for an evening well spent.

When you are as big of an amazing badass as Mary Pickford, sometimes Thomas Edison sends you letters and calls you "The sweetheart of the Americans."

The tendency for some actresses to take control of their sexuality lead to a general distrust of anyone engaging in the profession. Like all stereotypes, this may have been born of some kernel of truth or trend but did not represent all or most of the acting female population.

It isn't until the cultural phenomenon of the movie star that the perception of the actress as mostly bad begins to ease. Movies and Hollywood made it possible for women to be famous actors on a national level while living in one location. This facilitated their becoming wives and mothers while maintaining their careers. Careful role selection could help one develop a good-girl image and mass media helped maintain it.

Actresses as famous as Mary Pickford-- who would eventually become a producer and co-founder United Artists production company--  helped to change the cultural perception of what type of girl became an actress. She had been forced into acting due to the abandonment of an alcoholic brute of a father. Acting was a survival technique for her family but her immense talent couldn't be denied. Her origin story would help build her image as an American (cough) Canadian sweetheart and would be one voice in a choir of others, backed by studios interested in reaping the financial success of approachable, honest starlets in a nation that was increasingly concerned with the respectability of female public figures. So, while very few women gained a level of stardom or power that even grazes that of Pickford, the profession itself was now revered rather than reviled.

This respectability would be helpful when complete control over a star’s public image would slip away and many actresses, including Pickford, would suffer personal hardships such as divorce which would inevitably become fodder for American newspapers. Now that actresses were good girls, they could make mistakes, be the victim of alcoholic husbands. Before they were being punished for a life of vice and frivolity, now they were honest hard-working Americans who were occasionally down on their luck. Such massive shifts in public opinion are possible but it takes a lot of work.