If I told you the first entertainer to sign a one million dollar contract was a woman, would you believe me? On June 24, 1916, at the age of 24, Canadian born Gladys Louise Smith (better known as Mary Pickford), became the first Hollywood actor or actress to sign a contract worth at least $1 million. She signed with Adolph Zukor, founder of what would become Paramount Pictures. 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.
Gladys Mary Smith was born on April 8, 1892, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She began performing at the age of five on the stage and was known for a time as "Baby Gladys." After touring in different shows and productions for more than nine years, she went to New York to conquer Broadway. Taking the stage name, Mary Pickford, she made her Broadway debut in The Warrens of Virginia.
She was just 17 when she switched from the stage to the silver screen, starring in films called “flickers” that were 12 minutes long at most. She appeared in more than 40 movies in 1909 working for D. W. Griffith. While most flicker actors made $5 per day on the set, Pickford felt she was worth $10—and she got it. Her fame grew as “America’s Sweetheart,” and in early 1916, she was making $2,000 per week. To sweeten the pot, producers gave her a $10,000 bonus for every completed movie. This amounted to a salary of roughly $150,000... over $3.5 million by today’s standards.
No longer content with acting in other people’s movies, Pickford signed with Adolph Zukor of Famous Players Films Company (which would eventually become Paramount). The contract specified that Pickford and her company, Pickford Film Corporation, would produce all of her own films.
In 1916, Mary Pickford was the most popular actress in the world of film, only barely surpassed by Charlie Chaplin as most popular overall. Chaplin signed a million dollar contract two years later, in 1918. Pickford was best known for her luxuriously curly long hair and starred in silent films until her first “talkie” sound film, Coquette, in 1929.
The first sound movie was the beginning of the end of her tremendous popularity. She decided to cut her trademark curly locks for a “flapper” type of bobbed hairdo. Movie fans were shocked and the symbol of Pickford’s sweetness and virtue was gone. The hair cutting made front page news in the New York Times, but Pickford went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress for Coquette despite her long-hair-loving shocked fans.
Mary continued acting until 1949, but she was much more than just a star actress, she was also a producer and screenwriter. 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.