The Pickford Waif

Mary Pickford in The School Teacher and The Waif (1912)With a screen career that spanned nearly three decades, Mary Pickford is known today for playing a variety of character types: ingénues, lovers, wives, mischievous girls with curls, and even a little boy. But there is one type nearly forgotten today: the Pickford Waif.

As evidenced by MPF Scrapbook #1 – a book made by Mary’s personal friend Edna Wright between the years 1911 and 1915 – and Scrapbook #1 from the AMPAS collection, the Pickford Waif was arguably the most popular type of character that Mary ever played onscreen, and certainly the role that first brought her international stardom.

Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country (1914)Sometimes known as the urchin, the harum-scarum or the hoyden, the Pickford Waif was a wild, unkempt young woman without money, social ties or education who dwelled either in the city slums or the rural backwoods. She was usually tough, free-spirited and honest in the face of hypocrisy or adversity. Although an early prototype appeared in the 1909 Biograph short The Mountaineer’s Honor (in which she played a character called Harum-Scarum), the Pickford Waif was first introduced in the 1912 short The School Teacher and the Waif. A variation of the type appeared again in the lost feature Hearts Adrift (1914) in which Mary played an island castaway. But it was Mary’s portrayal of Tess in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country that truly solidified the waif archetype.

During a time when women in films were often either victims or vamps, the strong-willed Tess touched the filmgoing public like no celluloid character had before. Barefoot and clad in rags, Pickford’s Tess was a poor but feisty angel with a dirty face whose unvarnished integrity saves both her father’s life and the soul of the town curmudgeon.

Mary Pickford in Fanchon the Cricket (1915)“When I played Tess, my whole heart and soul were in my work,” Pickford once said. “And I might add that it moved me out of class B into class A.” It also singlehandedly saved Famous Players studio from bankruptcy, earned Mary the nickname America’s Sweetheart, and made her the world’s highest paid actress. In 1914, the Pickford Waif was becoming an international icon.

Mary Pickford in The Dawn of a Tomorrow (1915)Mary-as-waif next appeared in Fanchon the Cricket, romping through the woods in tattered clothes while the town’s more refined citizens looked down their noses. Fanchon was followed by Glad in The Dawn of a Tomorrow, a character described by author Frances Hodgson Burnett as “a little rat of the gutter” with “a cheerful spirit.” According to a scrapbook clipping from 1915, The Dawn of a Tomorrow drew “record-breaking crowds” into theaters and scored another smash hit for the Pickford Waif.

Mary Pickford in Rags (1915)By the time Rags was released in 1915, The Moving Picture World observed that Mary Pickford had “attained the greatest of her screen triumphs clad in rags,” and it was true. The public loved to see Mary as a spunky ragamuffin, and she gave them ample opportunity during the years 1914 through 1919 as she played a ragged orphan in The Foundling (1916), a “waif of the slums” in Poor Little Peppina (1916), a “crippled waif of the orphanage” in Stella Maris (1918) and spirited country tomboys in M’liss (1918) and Heart o’ the Hills (1919).

Mary Pickford in Tess of the Storm Country (1922)Then came the crowning achievement of the Pickford Waif, the acclaimed remake of Tess of the Storm Country in 1922, described years later by Picture-Play Magazine as “that most glorified waif of all.” After this, Mary tried unsuccessfully to put the rags behind her in the costume drama Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, but her fans demanded a waif encore. Motion Picture magazine announced in 1925, “Mary Pickford has decided to become again the rags and tatters heroine you adore so deeply,” and in Little Annie Rooney, she did not disappoint.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney (1925)Though it had been thirteen years since The School Teacher and the Waif and Pickford was well into her thirties, her next waif role was a triumph at the box office and a critical success. Written by, produced by and starring Pickford, Little Annie Rooney featured Mary as a tough Brooklyn kid beating up the neighborhood boys and risking her life to save an innocent man. It was vintage Pickford Waif.
Mary Pickford in Sparrows (1926)

But there would be one final film before Mary put the waif behind her for good. In Sparrows (1926), Pickford portrayed a loyal orphan determined to save the younger inhabitants of a baby farm. In the words of Ralph Flint of The Christian Science Monitor, Pickford “drops her sweet maturity and becomes the little waif of a dozen years, battling her way through a hard world with strong right arm and ready right foot, and with an abiding faith in ultimate reward for services honestly rendered.”

Perhaps the public responded so favorably to Mary in waif roles because, although she had become one of the planet’s wealthiest women, America’s Sweetheart spent the first 16 years of her life struggling in poverty. Something about her portrayal of shabby urchins rang true with movie fans, who at that time were largely from middle and lower-class homes.

Mary Pickford the WaifAs the classic film world celebrates 2014 as the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, early Mary Pickford scrapbooks trace the birth of another noteworthy silent icon also created 100 years ago: the Pickford Waif. A 1915 clipping from The Moving Picture World defines the archetype as “a spirited, loyal little creature, always ready to fight in defense of those she loves.” In over a dozen films, Mary Pickford embodied this creature.

Sources include MPF scrapbook #1, Mary Pickford scrapbook #1 at the Margaret Herrick Library, various publications from the Media History Digital Library and The Christian Science Monitor issue dated June 9, 1926.