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Lavish biography offers telling glimpse of early Hollywood royalty

Dennis King Published: February 8, 2013

Not only was she Hollywood’s first female matinee idol and the darling of audiences everywhere (dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”), Mary Pickford was also a savvy and ambitious movie mogul who helped establish motion pictures as a respectable art form and paved the way for future actors, especially women, to control their own careers.

In “Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies” (The University Press of Kentucky, $45), film historian Christel Schmidt has assembled a richly entertaining study of the cinema pioneer who went from blond, curly-locked, silent-film ingénue to powerful star, writer and producer, as well as one of the founders of United Artists.

In 288 pages jam-packed with color and back-and-white photographs from the actresses’ personal collections at the Library of Congress and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the lavish book essays a career that began on stage at age 7 (when Pickford went to work to help her impoverished family) and saw her star in more than 100 silent films by age 20 and seize creative control of her own movies by age 24. Pickford went on to star in some 75 full-length features and to win an acting Oscar for 1929’s “Coquette” before retiring from the screen in 1933.

Schmidt enlists the input of many noted film historians to examine different aspects of Pickford’s life and career. Kevin Brownlow weighs in on her work and influence as a producer, and Beth Werling leads a tour through the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s collection of Pickford costumes and movie artifacts.

Schmidt also looks closely at Pickford’s highly publicized second marriage to Douglas Fairbanks Sr., with whom she lived like Hollywood royalty at their famed Beverly Hills estate, Pickfair. In 1919, she and Fairbanks joined D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin to found their own studio, the aptly named United Artists.

Additionally, Schmidt relates telling details of Pickford’s part in the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of which she was one of 36 original members.

It’s ironic that movies in the early nickelodeons were viewed as entertainment for the unwashed masses, and yet in egalitarian America a class of royalty quickly grew up in early Hollywood. Pickford, by all accounts, was a generous, kindly and lovely queen, but this sumptuous volume of words and pictures leaves no doubt that in her time she was, indeed, “Queen of the Movies.”

- Dennis King