Pickford’s Million

Canadian native Mary Pickford, born on April
8, 1892, in Toronto, Ontario began her career in 1909 working for the Biograph film company
in New York City under the direction of pioneering director D.W. Griffith. She joined Famous Players in 1913, which later
became Paramount Pictures. During this period, Pickford began to make
feature-length films, and by 1916 she was making $2,000 a week plus a $10,000 bonus
for each complete film. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but when
adjusting for inflation the totals were about $47,000 per week and about a $235,000 bonus
per movie in today’s dollars. Even still, Pickford knew her worth and understood
that, while she was making great money, the studio was paying her a pittance compared
to what they were raking in from her pictures. No-one at that time was playing the poor but
principled heroine with the same approachability and believability as Mary Pickford, and she
knew it. America’s Sweetheart, as she was fondly
known by the movie going public, was also an astute business woman. And after a lot of negotiating, on June 24,
1916, Mary Pickford signed a two-year million dollar contract (about $43 million today)
as an independent producer with Paramount Pictures. The deal also entitled her to a cut of the
profits from her films. Mary not only acted in her movies, but also
had a hand in the production and the distribution. It was the first million dollar contract in
Hollywood history, and made Pickford Tinseltown’s highest paid star. But Mary was just warming up. She was the only female co-founder of United
Artists, the film distribution company she started with (future husband) Douglas Fairbanks,
Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in 1919. This move gave Pickford even more artistic
control and a bigger share of the enormous profits her films generated. By 1921, Mary controlled almost every aspect
of her finished films. She was also in the enviable position of having
to complete only one picture a year – a luxury almost unheard of for any other actor. In the late 1920s, the movie business was
undergoing a huge metamorphosis with the arrival of sound and Pickford made her last silent
film in 1927. Mary’s sweet, demure image was at odds with
the newly popular party girl flapper, and her movies gradually became less popular. Pickford made her last film in 1933. Beyond the aforementioned accomplishments,
Pickford was also instrumental in organizing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
and the inaugural Oscar awards that took place that year. (See: Why the Oscars are Called the Oscars)
In 1929, she took home the statuette for best actress for her role in “Coquette.” Pickford also notably received a lifetime
achievement award from Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1976. She continued producing films for United Artists
until the mid-1950s until both she and Charlie Chaplin sold their shares. Mary’s take was worth $3 million (about
$29 million today). After her retirement, she lived a mostly reclusive
life at her home Pickfair with her third husband, Buddy Rogers. She died at her home on May 29, 1979 of a
stroke at the age of 87.

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