A Cinema Pioneer Who Made Movies on Her Own Terms

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood

By Eileen Whitfield

University Press of Kentucky

375 pp., $25

The story of Mary Pickford's life is also the story of the rise of motion pictures. And the movies she made also help paint the portrait of a nation, for she was "America's sweetheart," the best-known citizen almost from the beginning of her career right through the silent-film era (1910-1929).

Even by today's celebrity-worshiping standards, "Little Mary" was a phenomenon. Her films reflected American idealism in a way no contemporary actress's could. But what few realize is that Pickford was also a bright woman who made a fortune on her own terms while helping to build the motion-picture industry.

Eileen Whitfield's gripping biography, "Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood," demonstrates just how important Pickford was to the formation of the great 20th-century art form.

Well-researched and highly informative, the book tries to be scrupulously balanced, projecting the image of a complex, often troubled woman in three dimensions. Though so much attention to minute detail has its drawbacks, the book is generally well-written, carefully constructed, and absorbing, especially to anyone who wants to understand the texture of the period.

It is a tribute to the art of silent film as much as to the actress who dazzled an adoring public with her magnificent head of hair and vastly expressive eyes. In most of her best films she played children or young adolescents with perfect comic timing, innocence, and strength. She stirred hearts.

The eldest of three children, Gladys Louise Smith, christened Gladys Marie Smith, was born in Toronto the same year that Thomas Edison's assistant, William Dickson, invented the Kinetoscope (1892), forerunner of the movie camera. Her alcoholic father died when she was just 6, and the bond that formed between Gladys and her mother, Charlotte, was strong as steel and lifelong.

Just like one of Mary's latter heroines, little Gladys went to work at 8 as a stage actor to help her poor mother earn a living. Soon the entire family was caught up in the rigors of the theater - a difficult, dreary life at the turn of the century, but one that completely captivated young Gladys.

As she grew into adolescence, she developed a strength of character, a puritanical work ethic, and a fortitude unusual in young girls of her time. She made her own breaks - including getting in to see Broadway director David Belasco, whose obsession with realistic detail foreshadowed the movies' own. It was Belasco who renamed Gladys "Mary Pickford."

Times got tough again, however, and her mother gently persuaded Pickford to swallow her theatrical pride and go work in motion pictures. The teen was an almost instant success. She worked with many of the most important early directors, from D.W. Griffith (who virtually created the language of film) to Cecil B. DeMille, and Adolf Zukor - all of their careers described in fascinating detail.

Pickford was the first great film celebrity. Whitfield takes us through her various leaps from studio to studio, her disastrous marriage to actor Owen Moore, her organization of United Artists with husband Douglas Fairbanks and friends Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, by which she could retain control of her pictures.

Anecdotes from friends and family help create a balanced portrait - demonstrating Pickford's generous spirit, humor, and vitality - and, sadly, a dark side unleashed by alcohol.

Whitfield concentrates heavily on Pickford's first 20 years in the business. Sometimes the prose can be gossipy as we learn about her unhappy marriages. But the author is restrained when she writes of her neglectful mothering, and even-handed when she writes of her excesses or her generosity.

The book makes clear that the price of so much adulation was too great. And yet Whitfield's own love for silent film is palpable, and her defense of it graceful and true.

* M.S. Mason is a Monitor staff writer based in Denver.

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