June 24, 1916: The First Actress with a Million Dollar Contract

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A Brief History

On June 24, 1916, Canadian born Gladys Louise Smith, age 24, became the first Hollywood actor or actress to sign a contract worth at least $1 million when she signed with Adolph Zukor, founder of what would become Paramount Pictures.

Digging Deeper

Better known as Mary Pickford, the actress was by 1916 the most popular actress in the world of film, only barely surpassed by Charlie Chaplin as most popular overall.  (Chaplin got a million dollar contract in 1918 and is sometimes erroneously listed as the first actor to get such a contract.)  Pickford’s contract included $10,000 a week salary and a portion of film receipts, making a minimum of $1,040,000 for 2 years.

Best known for her luxuriously curly long hair, Pickford starred in silent films until her first “talkie” sound film, Coquette, in 1929.  Sadly, that first sound movie was the beginning of the end of her tremendous popularity, as she had cut off her curly locks for a “flapper” type of bobbed hairdo.  Movie fans were shocked and aghast!  The symbol of Pickford’s sweetness and virtue was gone.  The hair cutting made front page news in the New York Times, and despite the shock fans received, Pickford won the Oscar for Best Actress for Coquette.

Mary, born in Toronto, Ontario in 1892, continued acting until 1949, but she was much more than just a star actress.  Pregnant and married to an actor in 1910, she divorced and married film star Douglas Fairbanks in 1920.  In 1929 she was one of only three female founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people), and was also a founding member of United Artists, along with DW Griffiths, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin.

In 1936, Mary divorced Douglas Fairbanks and married her third and last husband, actor/musician Charles “Buddy” Rogers, “America’s Boyfriend.”  Unfortunately, although this marriage lasted until Pickford’s death in 1979, Mary had become an alcoholic after retiring from acting.  Alcoholism ran in Mary’s family, with her father and two siblings were also alcoholic.

Mary Pickford died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1979, but only after she had regained her Canadian citizenship (she had become an American citizen in 1920), so that she could “die a Canadian.”  (Pickford had dual citizenship at the end.)

In 1999, the American Film Institute named Pickford as #24 on the list of Greatest Female Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.   Her star is on the sidewalk on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and her handprints and footprints can be found at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.  Numerous theater related buildings are named in her honor, popular culture has remembered her on film and print, and Canada put her likeness on a postage stamp.  Of course, United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences remain as part of her legacy as well.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Haskell, Molly, Christel Schmidt, et al.  Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies.  University Press of Kentucky, 2012.

The featured image in this article, a lobby card for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.  This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g08145.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.