Most have probably never heard of Canadia Gladys Marie Smith. Had she not tried acting when she was young, most probably would never know who she was.
It probably helped that she changed her name to Mary Pickford.
Pickford, the film star from the silent era, was in more than 100 movies, and is once again in the spotlight as AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring is running its Silent Cinema Showcase. The event runs through May 4.
At 7:30 p.m. today, AFI Silver will show “Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall,” a Pickford film shot in 1924. On hand will be Library of Congress historian Christel Schmidt, who will discuss her new book, ‘Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies.’ Schmidt spoke with A&E about Pickford’s life, from acting to working for the U.S. government.
A&E: What is it about Mary Pickford that drove you to her?
Schmidt: What drove me to her was probably what drove millions of people to her. She’s got a lot of charisma. She’s fun and she’s funny. She was very tough and that was unexpected. I think something different about me from the millions of people who loved her at the time was that she was rather unexpected from everything I had ever heard about her. For the most part, what was said about her was rather disparaging about what she was doing on screen, that she was playing kind of infantile characters. Actually, she was quite different. I found her to be somewhat of an action hero, like in a film like “Sparrows,” which we showed at the AFI last week. She was a tough cookie and that surprised me. It drew me in.
A&E: How important, do you feel, are silent film showcases like this one at AFI Silver?
Schmidt: It’s very important because there’s not that much opportunity to see silent film as they were shown at the time. You can see them on television, but it isn’t quite the same. There was no television; there was no radio when a lot of these films were made. That kind of consumption just wasn’t even thought about. So to see them on a big screen in a beautiful theater like the AFI has with a live musician is a real treat.
A&E: Did you have any problems putting together the book, or would you say it was a labor of love?
Schmidt: This was a labor of love. It had its problems, I’m not going to say that it didn’t because it was still a labor, as I like to say. I’ve been working on Mary Pickford for about 15 years on and off and I had the chance to do a book and I was able to kind of put everything that I had into it – mostly with images – because I had traveled to archives around the world and I had seen a lot of Pickford stuff and I really wanted to share it with people. Then I wanted to write about subjects that were not either discussed or really delved into in any detail, so I hired some really good writers like Kevin Brownlow, the film historian, the Pickford biographer – a woman who I think has written the definitive Pickford biography – which is Eileen Whitfield … and we had a feminist film critic Molly Haskell, among others, to come in and kind of talk about Pickford for audiences today. So kind of talking about her in the past and her achievements … what things people might know about her, like her work as an actress or a producer. But we wanted to talk about things that people don’t know as much about, like her work for the U.S. government during World War I, her – what I thought was a very modern - marriage with Douglas Fairbanks, and her work in the film preservation movement. She also had a lifelong commitment to philanthropy. I think any of these things could have made her worthy of a book, but combined I think she’s quite a remarkable figure.
A&E: How impressive is it looking back at what she did when women didn’t have the rights and freedoms they do now?
Schmidt: It’s very impressive. I mean, in 1916, when she signed what was a revolutionary film contract for an actor, she was 24 years old and women didn’t even have the right to vote. It made her one of the richest women in the world, one of the richest women in America and it gave her an incredible amount of power over her creative work. Three years later, she’s cofounding her own film company. She was her own producer. It’s really amazing. There are only three women who have ever owned a studio, and that is Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball and Mary Pickford. It’s very hard to achieve and she achieved it in a time when it was even more difficult for women. With film, it was such a cottage industry, still she was able to kind of achieve things that a decade later would have been harder for women to achieve. I look at Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland who fought with Warner Bros. It was much more difficult for actors to get the upper hand. When Pickford co-founded United Artists with [Charlie] Chaplin and Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, it really helped her avoid what was the burgeoning studio system and allow her to keep control over her work and also make as much money from it as she could. It’s astounding because this is a woman who had no formal education – she’d been working since she was 7 years old.
A&E: What is something that surprised you when you were putting the book together?
Schmidt: The thing is … when I was working on [the book] there were a lot of little things I knew – I knew she had worked for the government during the war, but I didn’t understand the detail of what it meant. She had traveled to all of these cities, she had done this work for the government in 1918 and she had gone to these various cities promoting war bonds. In the ’50s, the government came to her again and asked her to go out and promote … bonds and she’s a 60-year-old woman. She gets on a plane, she flies all around the country and she meets people and raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for the government all over again. I just realized she was such a tireless person. She seems to achieve so much throughout her life – I wish I could achieve that much! It’s really amazing and it was interesting to me because, especially during the war years, she’s got a career, she’s a businesswoman, she’s doing this work for the government and she’s having an affair with Fairbanks – I don’t know when she got the time. I don’t know if she had a clone … I always joke how did she always have time to accomplish so much? She’s a remarkably accomplished woman for any era.
A&E: For people who may not know about her, what is the one big thing you think people should take away from Mary Pickford?
Schmidt: That’s a great question … you know, I think that her story is a story that you can do anything that you really set your mind to. Maybe that sounds cliché. She came to this country as an immigrant in poverty and working as a child. And she is one of the most important figures of the pioneering era of movies. She was a hugely influential figure. She pretty much achieved this on her own. She had her mother in her corner, but she was a hard worker and she really had goals for herself. She said her mom told her to aim high or not at all and I think she lived her life that way. Because of that, she achieved incredible things. It’s really a Horatio Alger story. You can pick yourself up and achieve great things if you want to. I think she brought that into her movies because her movies for the most part are very optimistic. Her characters usually face a lot of very difficult situations. People felt she was sweet and very Pollyanna and her films are actually rather dark. But they’re always about overcoming and that’s what she did in real life. She overcame a lot of adversity to become the person that she was.