' Skip To Content
Mary Pickford | Article

Women on Screen


Soon after the turn of twentieth century, Mary Pickford became "America's Sweetheart." In these interview excerpts, film historians explain her appeal, talk about her roles, and describe what it was like to work as an actress in film's early years.

Was acting a respected profession?
Jeanine Basinger: One of the stories that people of the day most knew and responded to was the story of the Stanford White muder, where a young girl who had been an actress was the subject of a murder between two jealous men... And this confirmed for people the idea that a girl working in theater or movies was the object of desire of men in an unwholesome way, that this would not be where you wanted a young girl to be. They based a film on it, people saw it, people read the newspapers; this was huge sensational news coverage.

So, the fact that Mary and her mother, Charlotte, decided, "But this is okay for us; we're going to do it," is a significant issue, because it begins a point in which they break with society's attitudes. They begin to pioneer new thinking about women, women's roles, in a very specific way... "By choice... I can go make my living in theater and movies. The scandal will not touch me."

It's amazing to realize that within five years of all this trauma about "Is it a decent thing for a girl to do? Are we making a mistake? Your reputation," etc., etc., that suddenly movie stars are the objects of everyone's affection, adulation. The whole system shifts, and suddenly these are the kinds and queens, the gods and goddesses of America.

What was the secret of Pickford's appeal?
Scott Eyman: [Pickford] was the perfect incarnation of an archetype that had already existed before she came along. I think that archetype goes all the way back to Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a sweet but strong-minded and strong-willed young girl that goes through great trials and tribulations. In some stories, the sweet young girl doesn't survive. Most stories, the sweet young girl does survive, because that's what audiences want to see.

But it goes back to the Civil War, really, that archetype. And it had been filled by various people over the years in the theater -- most prominently Maude Adams, who became famous for playing Peter Pan... I suspect that Mary filled the niche that Maude Adams had filled in the theater: beautiful, very strong actress, smart, dominant, not a dishrag by anybody's estimation. I think it could be fairly said that she incarnated to perfection an archetype that existed long before she actually came along.

Why did Pickford stand out as an actress?
Kevin Brownlow: I remember [Pickford] telling me that she couldn't bear the way [D. W. Griffith] directed adolescent girls. She said, "Oh, he directed them so they ran around like a chicken with its head cut off. And I would not do that sort of thing..." She already saw that naturalism was terribly important, even more than Griffith did. And on the other hand, she acknowledged his mastery. For instance, in The New York Hat, she just threw her clothes on the bed when she came in, and he stopped the camera (which was very unusual) and said, "A young girl like you does not do that with her clothes. You're to straighten them out and place them on the bed properly." Every gesture had significance in one of his films. And she learnt that from him.

Who went to see Pickford's movies?
Jeanine Basinger: These movies connected to women, women of poverty or women in the working class audience... They put their money down for Mary Pickford in a way that they didn't for others. So there had to be identification. Women who were working class -- as well as men and children, of course -- but women of working class who didn't have much, came in and saw a role model, saw someone feisty, cheerful, upbeat about it, facing tragedy, doom -- hilariously, and always with the attitude, "Well, I can win this. I can get over this." She offered hope and humor, and she was an amazing figure. She would also then perhaps turn out later in the movie looking perfectly feminine and beautiful. So this is a real connecting point to the whole audience, but specifically to the women of the day.

What kinds of roles did Pickford play?
Eileen Whitfield: In Tess of the Storm Country, the audience is constantly rooting for [Pickford]. She will not accept the situation that she is probably going to have a lifetime of being homeless and in rags... When you look at Tess, the sense of goodness in the character is almost palpable. You can almost touch it. Something heavenly about it. But at the same time, she is a bat out of hell. She's uncontrollable...

One of my favorite Mary Pickford moments is in that movie, when a man kisses her and she doesn't want to be kissed. She's standing on the sand. This guy kisses her. She responds by picking up a dead fish from the sand and striking him in the mouth with it. That's an ultimate Mary Pickford moment.

This was the turn of the century... The world was changing very fast. And Mary Pickford was playing women who were saying, "I can define myself any way I want to. And I am just as strong as I decide I'm going to be." In Mary Pickford's case, she decided she was going to be very strong.

In general, what roles were available for women?
Kathryn Fuller: What I like about films of the teens -- it's not so much [that Pickford's] a girl as an active young person. She is heroine in every sense of the word. And to me, in those roles she's actually quite comparable to the serial heroines. And the serial heroines of that era of the teens are not just the "Save me, save me," asking the hero to come in and do things, but they do things themselves. They leap off of trains. They knock down doors. They ride wild horses.

Films like Tess of the Storm Country play on what else is going on in Hollywood films of the time: all these active young women taking charge of things, facing danger, saving children and little old ladies and dogs, and running away from villains, and just being so in charge of their own destinies. It's such a fabulous period... [I] wish we could have built on that to have even more active, courageous heroines... of course, fashions changed and Hollywood films changed.

How varied were Pickford's roles?Eileen Whitfield: In 1909, in the "flickers," and then later on in the teens, in features, the most popular female icon was a woman who was not defined by her sexuality. She wasn't an outlaw because she did rebellious sexual things. She was an outlaw because she spoke her mind, because she said (and this is a quote from Mary Pickford), "I don't think the brain has any sex." But she was working at a time when people tended to think that it did.

She played incredibly nuanced, tender, loving, and yet violent, bossy, touching and yet hilariously funny, young and yet old characters. This was the woman on screen that the public embraced. We don't have images of women like that very much anymore. We don't have anything like the variety of women that Mary Pickford played. You would need to take 50 Hollywood actresses and put them together to get an image as rich and as nuanced as Mary Pickford had.

Did roles for women evolve through the 1920s?
Scott Eyman:
The world changed around Mary. By 1927-28, you had stars like Clara Bow. You had stars like Greta Garbo. You had stars that were overtly sexually aggressive on screen. Now, Mary, whatever she was off screen, was sexually demure on screen. But the twenties brought, besides all the cliches about the jazz age, you had serious cultural things going on (the novels of Hemingway, the novels of Fitzgerald) that all spoke to very different generational expectations about sex and the relationship between men and women. Now, how is a woman like Mary Pickford -- who is moreover now in her mid-thirties, and has been a movie star for 20 years, and is, to a younger audience, old news -- how is she to compete with sexually aggressive presences like a Clara Bow, like a Greta Garbo? Even looking at it objectively from 70 years later, you can see the problems... with an actress who's a known quantity, and to whom the audience is, "Oh, okay. I grew up with Mary Pickford. What else?"

How does Pickford compare to movie stars today?
Eileen Whitfield: [Pickford] ran Hollywood, in a certain way, because she was so powerful at the box office. No other woman has ever been that powerful. Somewhere along the line, women lost a lot of their power in Hollywood. And though we do have female producers today, and we have a lot of extraordinary actresses, we don't have anyone who really is a maverick...This woman managed to encapsulate practically the whole social experiment of the United States on screen, through her roles and through her participation in the industry... She was a natural born feminist. She couldn't be anything else.

She presented to the public... what a woman might be, both on screen and off screen. She was a woman who took charge. She was not always playing children, even though some people insist on believing that ludicrous mis-impression. She played disenfranchised people who said, "I'm not getting a fair deal. I'm going to get one." She went and got a very good one for herself in real life, and she did it on screen as well.

Is Hollywood unfair to aging actresses?
Scott Eyman: In 1929, when [Pickford] made Coquette, she's 37 years old. Thirty-seven in 1929 is like 45 or 50 now. Suddenly you start playing mothers. You know? It's the problem Michelle Pfeiffer's having, when you're no longer the girl, when you're no longer the love object...There's a transition that's always been easier for male movie stars to make. A 50-year-old actor can play a love scene with a 25-year-old actress. The reverse is not the case — then and now.

How was Pickford a role model for women?
Eileen Whitfield: When a woman went to see Mary Pickford in a movie, they usually saw a woman on screen who took control. This had to have influenced them in their own lives. When a man went and saw Mary Pickford on screen, he saw a woman who demanded respect, and who wasn't defined solely by her sexuality. There's nothing wrong with being defined and having an extraordinary sexual presence, as many actresses have had. But that can be very limiting as well. I think that some men did [condescend to] Mary Pickford... I'm a small woman, myself. I know that a man will say to you, "You're such a small person and you use such big words." Well, I'm not Mary Pickford. I can't think up a good retort, but Mary Pickford would have.

Support Provided by: Learn More