Thursday 18 July 2013

The Scandal of Mary Pickford’s Curls

Nicknamed, “The Girl with the Curls”, silent actress Mary Pickford had made her living through her spunky, confident persona and iconic matching long, golden curls. By early 1928, Pickford’s life and career was still at its peak. She was married to the equally legendary actor Douglas Fairbanks, just completed what would be her last silent film ‘My Best Girl’ (released October 1927) and had co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – along with the Academy Awards – only a year before. However, a few months later in March 1928, her life would take a dramatic twist with the death of her greatest support and ally, her mother, Charlotte Pickford, from breast cancer. Mrs Pickford had introduced her daughter to acting and had advised her during most of her career.

A few months later and still intensely grieving her mother’s loss, Mary Pickford made what would become a major and controversial decision, to bob her famous curls. They had been her attraction since her early stage years and a symbol of her youthful innocence. But Pickford, now aged 36, wanted desperately to graduate from the child-like roles that had shaped the stardom of her silent years and move on to the more adult and sophisticated parts that were on offer as the talkies arrived. Instead of seclusion, Pickford invited a journalist and had the event filmed and photographed.
Although, Pickford aimed at receiving some publicity she could not predict what was to follow. On 22 June 1928, it had become front page news. Titles like, “Famous Golden Curls Go” and “Mary Pickford Cuts Her Hair”, were plastered over the front pages of almost every major newspaper in America. It had become a national scandal.

Pickford quickly issued interviews and statements regarding the controversial haircut. “I’ve cut my hair,” she said, printed in the New York Times 23 June 1928. She continued:  

“Oh, I still have them. They’re all wrapped up ready to be pinned on if I ever need them. They were such a nuisance, you know, hanging down below my waist. So many women in New York were wearing long hair, I can’t see why any woman would want it long. It was a shock to Doug, of course; he almost wept when he saw it cut short. I had to have it done because I’m not going to be a little girl any more. No slums or curls in my next picture. I’ve always been a girls’ girl and now I’m going after the boys.”  
Her comments continued the publicity and interest in her new ‘do’, also being featured on the cover of a 1928 edition of Photoplay magazine.

But, the big question was yet to be answered. How would this snip affect the career of an actress who seemed to be created by her iconic curls? The result was initially mixed, her next film and the first with Pickford featured, curl-less, in a more adult and sophisticated role was ‘Coquette’ (1929) where she played a flirtatious society girl. It was well received by audiences and critics and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. However, after her initial talkie success, Pickford’s career faded as audiences failed to respond to her in similar roles. She appeared in three more films before her retirement from acting in 1933.

Although, Pickford’s career was not reliant on her hair style and retirement could have been due to many other factors, such as, her age, the introduction of sound and altering acting styles and the new female ‘ideal’, it is interesting to note the impact of hair on an actor’s career.  This topic was featured in an article in ‘Troy Sunday Budget’ published a few years before in 1925. (This was taken a post on the wonderful Nitrateville website).
"The vogue of bobbed hair gave the employers of movie stars many worries and in a number of cases caused them heavy financial loss. Too late they discovered how much a few ill-considered snips of the hairdresser's shears could impair the value of an actress. In drawing a contract with a woman star nowadays the length of her hair and the manner of dressing it are carefully considered.”

"Jobyna Ralston is a member of the Hollywood sisterhood of unshorn tresses. Harold Lloyd, whose leading lady she is, thinks Miss Ralston is of much greater worth to him in his pictures as the modest, demure little miss with long curls, than as the bob-haired flapper type. Consequently in a contract recently signed she agrees to shun the barber's shears.

"On the other hand, Betty Bronson had to agree to cut off the beautiful long hair of which she was so proud before she would be given a contract. Only a boyish bob would do for the role of Peter Pan for which she had been selected by Sir James Barrie."

Also, interestingly, according to the Mary Pickford Foundation, Pickford later wrote about her decision to cut her famous tresses, “Were the choice given to me again, I am positive I would not do it.”


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