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OG Leading Ladies

Updated on October 1, 2018

Talent, beauty and lengthy, successful careers, are some things Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish had in common. Despite their different styles, these women used their brains, as well as their beauty, to become the legends they are today.

Mary Pickford was born Gladys Smith on April 8, 1892 in Toronto, Canada. She began acting as a baby. She changed her name at age fourteen when she worked with David Belasco in Broadway shows. At age fifteen she traveled and soon began working with D.W. Griffith at Biograph Pictures. Not only did she act, but also wrote pieces that she sold to Griffith for $25 each. Pickford also worked on more than thirty productions with the IMP Company before returning to work on projects with Belasco and Griffith.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

She became “America’s Sweetheart, who personified the woman as child. She embodied innocence while displaying charm and wit. The furniture and the sets of her movies were usually large and gave the impression of her being even smaller than her petite frame of five feet.

Pickford was not only an actress, she was also a producer and businesswoman. In January 1919, Pickford together with Doug Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and D. W. Griffith, created their own distribution company, United Artists Corporation. This organization was designed to cater to the filmmakers rather than the head studio officials.

From 1908 to 1935, she entertained audiences with 236 films (shorts included). Pickford was the first artist to have her name in marquee lights and the first international star. She was also one of 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Pickford was honored by the organization she had started years earlier with an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1976.


Lillian Gish was born on October 14, 1893 in Springfield, Ohio. When she first appeared in front of an audience she was about six years old. She continued acting on stage, touring and dancing with the Sarah Bernardt production in New York City. Gish's mother Mary and sister Dorothy were also actresses.

It was Pickford who introduced Gish and her sister to D.W. Griffith. She arranged an audition for them, which in turn, impresses him. He immediately cast Gish in her first film. That year she made eleven more films with Griffith. In the next two years she made twenty-five films and became extremely popular in the newly developing industry.

Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish

“A consummate actress, Lillian seemed to take delight in suffering for the art form that became her obsession. In order to experiment, Lillian worked in extreme conditions such as starvation, intense heat and bitter cold. However, despite her characters' apparent weakness, Lillian's performances also let their inner strengths shine through.” (lilliangish.com)

Gish's career lasted for seventy-five years. She completed 119 films and directed one film, “Remodeling Her Husband” (1920), which also starred her sister. Gish also appeared in stage productions and performed on the radio. Starting in 1948, she began to regularly make television appearances.

Both actresses usually played the roles of young girls. Pickford played the part of a playful, bouncy youngster, and Gish as the child in turmoil. Pickford appears to have been more business savvy and took more risks than Gish. Gish, however, dabbled in other mediums of entertainment. They both, however, were very knowledgeable on the other aspects of filmmaking, such as, lighting and behind-the-scenes labor.

They led the way for the Hollywood starlets that arrived in the following years. These talented women had longevity in a business that is both selective and challenging. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish had their differences but they were both gifted in their craft.


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