The Time Mary Pickford Started a Film Studio

Mary Pickford was an actress who is synonymous with silent film and early Hollywood. In 1919, she formed the film studio United Artists alongside other screen legends of the day; Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith. Chaplin had become famous playing the Tramp in comedies and was known internationally. Fairbanks was one of the most sought after male leads of his era and known for doing his own, dangerous stunts. At the time, he was also married to Pickford. Griffith was one of the first great directors. He popularised many common camera techniques and angles that, as a modern audience, we take for granted today. One of the first close-up shots in a Hollywood film featured Pickford in Friends (1912).

Pickford had been acting in plays since an early age to support her family. Her mother, sister and brother – Charlotte, Lottie and Jack – were all vaudeville actors too. Pickford’s father died when she was young. The family never stayed in the same place for long as they went where the work was. They saved what money they could and clocked up many miles on the road.

In 1909, when times were especially hard, Pickford went to the least respected place an actor could go – a film studio. The motion picture camera was invented in the later half of the 19th century and the technology was seen as a novelty. No respected Broadway actress, like Pickford, would ever sink so low. But with only the clothes she had on to her name, Pickford walked through the doors of the Biograph Company. She was noticed by Griffith, who called her fat and little. But her determination stood out and he began casting her in many films. Pickford was now making $10 a day. (No figures in this article have been adjusted for inflation.) Within a few short years, Pickford had become a household name and one of the first international movie stars. The media adopted many nicknames for her: “Queen of the Movies”, “The Girl with the Golden Curls” and “America’s Sweetheart,” even though she was Canadian. Her salary increased with her popularity. By the mid-1910s, she was making tens of thousands of dollars a week, something unheard of for a woman at the time.

The American film industry was expanding at an unprecedented rate. In the ten years Pickford had appeared on screen, movie production had become big business and was now taken seriously. The storytelling had found its own unique style and feature films were becoming the standard. Audiences had developed a hunger and couldn’t get enough of their favourite actors, especially Pickford. Some elite executives and producers felt that the stars had too much power and demanded ludicrously high salaries. Tension was ensuing throughout Hollywood.

Hearing whispers of a new company forming that would effectively block actor’s creativity and stagnate salaries, Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith began talking amongst themselves. They were also joined by Western movie star William S. Hart. Their first act was to hire two private investigators to look into the rumours. The investigators were known as Operator 5 and Operator 8.

The Operators uncovered evidence of a conspiracy. The movie stars had an emergency meeting. It was decided they would start their own production company that would better serve their needs. The group called a press conference and announced they had banded together to form United Artists. The contracts were signed and United Artists officially began business on February 5, 1919. Hart dropped out in favour of a better business venture.
Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith all invested their own money to start United Artists. Each owned 20% of the studio with the remaining 20% being controlled by lawyers. United Artists was unlike any other production company of the time. Where a traditional production company handles all stages of movie making – from script writing to filming to release – United Artists was solely designed as a distribution company. This meant that it only circulated films to theatre chains, both nationally and internationally. In theory, United Artists guaranteed greater profit returns for the actors. Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith already had their own units for the writing, filming and editing processes. At its height, United Artists was the largest independent film production company in the world.

The 1920s was a very successful decade. Pickford’s first release was Pollyanna in 1920. It grossed over $1.1 million. This was followed with other hits – such as Griffith’s Way Down East starring Lillian Gish – and countless awards. Pickford herself won the 1930 Best Actress Academy Award for her role in Coquette. She was the second woman in history to win the award.

Griffith left United Artists in 1924. Fairbanks and Pickford’s marriage fell apart and, sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1939. He was 56-years-old. Pickford retired from acting in the early 1930s, but continued to produce films up until 1949. Chaplin sold his United Artists shares in 1955, with Pickford doing the same the following year.

United Artists is still around today. The studio has made many notable films throughout the years. Some include: Secrets (1933), Of Mice and Men (1939), The Great Dictator (1941), High Noon (1952), 12 Angry Men (1957), West Side Story (1961), It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Rocky (1976). New films are in development.

By: Matthew J. Healy


Star Power: The Creation of United Artists (


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