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Today in Performing Arts History: Mary Pickford's Film Debut, June 7, 1909

On June 7, 1909, Mary Pickford made her screen debut in The Violin Maker of Cremona. She had previously appeared in minor, unnamed roles in two films the month before. She was 16 years old.

Mary Pickford, April 8, 1892 - May 29, 1979
Public Domain

She was born Gladys Louise Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto. At an early age she toured in theatre with her mother and two younger siblings. With little success, she gave herself one more summer to land a role on Broadway. In 1906, she and her siblings earned supporting roles in Edmund Burke with singer Chauncey Olcott. The following year, Mary landed a supporting role in The Warrens of Virginia, written by William C. deMille, the brother of Cecil B. deMille. The producer insisted she change her name to Mary Pickford.

In 1909, Pickford auditioned for a role with Biograph Company. Although she did not get the role, she was hired by the studio. She appeared in 51 films in 1909. From there her career grew. In the 1910s and 1920s she was believed to be the most famous woman in the world, competing in popularity with Charlie Chaplin.

Mary Pickford received the Academy Award for best actress for Coquette in 1929, the first for an actress in a talkie. In 1976 she received a special Academy Honorary Award for a lifetime of a achievements.

Through her career, Pickford appeared in 52 feature films. When she reached her late 30s, Pickford was no longer able to play children or the young women her fans love. But she had been active in other areas of the film industry.

During World War I, Pickford promoeted the sale of Liberty Bonds, becoming a powerful American symbol. After the war she begain the Motion Picture Relief Fund established to help needy actors.

In 1919, along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, who would be come her husband, Pickford co-founded United Artists (UA). While she no longer acted, she continued producing films, along with Chaplin for the next two decades. She sold her share in United Artists in 1956.

Pickford suffered from alcoholism, as had her father. Her younger siblings died of alcohol-related causes and her mother died from breast cancer. Relationships with her family were strainted, and Pickford became a recluse. By the mid-1960s, she was receiving most of her guests only by telephone.

Pickford died from complications of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979. She was 87.

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