The Woman Who Made Hollywood

by Eileen Whitfield,
456 pages,
ISBN: 1551990172

Post Your Opinion
Brief Reviews
by Phil Surguy

In April 1909, Gladys Louise Smith, aged seventeen, walked into D. W. Griffith's Biograph studio in Manhattan. She had been on the stage since she was eight, first in her native Toronto, then with her mother, brother, and sister in mediocre road companies, where she had learned to sleep standing up on crowded trains. The director David Belasco had renamed her Mary Pickford, when she appeared in one of his plays. For a Belasco actress to seek work in the movies was shameful, but as always, her family needed money and Biograph paid $5 a day.

Seven years later, Mary was negotiating toe-to-toe with Adolph Zukor, the shark-like founder of Famous Players, and signing for a guaranteed $10,000 a week against half the profits from her films, plus her own production company, with full control of it. She was now the most famous person in the world, the movies' first megastar, inspiring devotion that no actor has since come close to matching. Only Chaplin rivalled her fame, though her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, was hugely popular, too, and in Hollywood in the twenties and early thirties, other stars stood when the couple entered a room.

In Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 441 pages, $32.95 cloth), Eileen Whitfield gives a superb account of how the skill, instincts, and sheer radiance with which Mary connected so directly with her audience evolved. Her main vehicles were poignant comedies about indomitable underdog girls and adolescents, to which she brought what a critic of the day called "luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity".

Whitfield's often lyrical renderings of Mary's performances confirm this. Her descriptions of the immigrant culture that spawned the film industry, the emergence of the art, the intrigues of the people who soon controlled it, and the advent of sound, in 1927, are equally adept.

Mary never adjusted to sound, largely because she couldn't find a way to transcend the young woman she had played for nearly two decades, and her main role for the next fifty years was that of an extremely rich alcoholic. In the late forties, Billy Wilder asked her to play Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Mary wanted to, but requested that her part be made even greater at the expense of the Joe Gillis role, so Wilder asked Pola Negri, then Gloria Swanson.

The trauma and hype that accompanied the birth of sound movies obliterated the silent era, and many of its greatest artists, Mary among them, died thinking that even their masterworks were pathetic jokes. As Whitfield puts it, "Silent films may well be the only art form to be discovered, developed, and rejected by a single generation." Mary's last visit to Toronto was in 1963, for an appearance on Front Page Challenge.

Phil Surguy


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us