Read an Excerpt
The purpose of this book is to celebrate a group of silent film stars who are somehow forgotten, misunderstood, or underappreciated. They are all important stars, not minor figures -- actors and actresses who made a major impact in their own time. I wanted to watch their movies and consider what was significant about them then and what they seem like now. My primary interest lay in sharing the experience of viewing their work, since their movies are mostly not readily available to audiences today. Although I wanted to present an overview of each star's life and career, I didn't plan to write detailed biographies. And in no way would I be writing a history of silent cinema.
The stars I selected are not a representative group, and someone else might have made a somewhat different list. (When I told a friend I was embarking on this book, he immediately said, "You absolutely have to do Harry Carey." Well, I didn't do Harry Carey, even though I think he's first-rate. No doubt my friend will be disappointed.) My choices were not whimsical, but they were personal. I began by considering everyone, including names I had barely heard of, and names I knew, but had limited experience with. For instance, anyone with a nodding acquaintance of silent film has seen Constance Talmadge as the Mountain Girl in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, but who knows her as the title character in The Duchess of Buffalo or Venus of Venice? And there were so many stars then! Soon I had lists of the well-known, the lesser-known, the unknown, and the known-then-but-not-now -- many names, many faces. As it turned out, the greatest stars were by far the most interesting, and many of them were very different from what I had expected. I had assumed that the really big names would not fit into the categories of "forgotten, misunderstood, or underappreciated," but to my surprise, many of them did qualify. Even though they still have loyal fans, or excellent books written about them, or revivals and tributes mounted, or have written their autobiographies, there was very little detail available about their actual films, particularly the more obscure ones. The more movies I watched, the more I kept coming back to the actors I liked best, those who piqued my curiosity or made me laugh or captured my heart. In the end, I followed my moviegoer's instincts, and chose the ones I wanted to know more about. Thus, my final choices were influenced by pleasure, by surprise and delight, and by a new awareness of how these stars defined their times. I was, of course, indirectly influenced by the availability of titles to watch, since I wanted to see as many movies starring the same person as possible. Marguerite Clark sounded intriguing and looked very pretty in still photographs and, for a while, reviews called her "a rival to Pickford." But since apparently the only one of her films to survive is 1916's Snow White, she had to go.
My first two choices were Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Obviously, they are not forgotten, but most people have an oversimplified idea of them, so that despite their continuing fame, they really are underappreciated. In addition they represent the birth of superstar celebrity; their success, their talent, and their marriage to each other made them the first King and Queen of Hollywood, and they have never been superseded. Next I chose Valentino. He, too, isn't forgotten, but he is badly misunderstood, locked into an effeminate image that is only one aspect of his persona and that ignores his considerable charm and humor. A similar misunderstanding plagues Gloria Swanson, who has become Norma Desmond, her comedy skills and decidedly undemented grasp of reality totally unknown, and Pola Negri, a superb actress who is remembered now -- if remembered at all -- as something of a nut who walked around with two Russian wolfhounds and flung herself on Valentino's grave. Colleen Moore was once the definitive 1920s flapper, the essential emblem of her decade, but she has never been given her rightful place in film history. The underappreciated Marion Davies and Clara Bow suffer from misunderstandings: for Davies, that she had no talent and that her career was manufactured by her wealthy lover, and for Bow, that hers consisted mainly of sex scandals. John Gilbert is a slave to his legend, that of the prototypical silent actor ruined by the coming of sound, while Lon Chaney is still admired, but his marvelous roster of unique characters has been reduced to two major roles, the phantom of the opera and the hunchback of Notre Dame. William S. Hart and Tom Mix are "cowboys," which inevitably means underappreciated, and Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops, surreal comedy artists, are lumped together as part of Mack Sennett's slapstick. As to the Talmadge sisters, Norma and Constance, once envied and worshipped by their fans -- well, they are just forgotten. And finally there's Rin-Tin-Tin. He's become a minor-league Lassie instead of the mortgage-lifting canine star he really was.
Eliminating names was sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. Earle Williams and Elliott Dexter were popular leading men in the years 1910-19. Both were handsome. Both were good actors. Both appeared in major films opposite important female stars. But what reason was there to include them? I couldn't find one. It wasn't hard to give up Carol Dempster, a Griffith favorite, or Charles Ray, a celebrated "country boy," but it was hard not to grieve over a beauty like Dolores Del Rio, or Theda Bara, the original movie vamp, or Pearl White, the intrepid serial queen, or the darkly handsome Richard Barthelmess, or the deliciously hilarious comic Raymond Griffith. It was especially difficult to give up such important names as Wallace Reid and Blanche Sweet.
Wallace Reid was a particularly good-looking man who died unexpectedly of drug addiction at a young age and at the top of his fame. He was the supreme example of the "all-American" or "Arrow Collar ad" type. On-screen, he exuded self-confidence and cheerful good health, and his charm and acting ability were such that he carried his movies, most of which were slight vehicles designed to showcase his stardom. He was one of the most successful of the popular leading men of the teens and early twenties, who were expected to be strong physically, exceptionally handsome, youthful, and excellent actors in the theatrical tradition. Reid fit the bill, but he was almost too perfect, with no particular quirks or individual characteristics. Unlike Fairbanks and Valentino, he is generic -- only a type. There was no pressing need to write about him.
Blanche Sweet was a major figure, a top star in the first two decades of film history, being especially important in the early days of 1910 to 1914. She was a fine actress, emoting from deep inside herself, predating modern acting techniques by speaking directly to her audience through the camera. She was unique, quite unlike the girlish little heroines of her day, and Adela Rogers St. Johns said she had "a personality so stimulating, so intriguing, so full of interesting vibration . . . [that] she'd certainly never, never bore you." Sweet's role in such landmark movies as The Lonedale Operator, Judith of Bethulia, and the 1923 version of Anna Christie ensure her place in film history. But even though she was an important pioneering actress, her career was marred by inexplicable absences from the screen. Film historian Anthony Slide concluded that "she did not handle her professional life successfully," although she was "capable of fine and subtle emotional performances." And because she was so talented, she was less the movie star and more the actress, and didn't develop one distinct persona to analyze. (Her work was remarkably varied over the years.)
It was difficult deciding not to include Sweet and Reid and some of the others -- Betty Bronson, Mae Marsh, Thomas Meighan, Ben Turpin, Mae Murray, Dorothy Gish. It wasn't difficult eliminating such giants as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, and even Louise Brooks, a minor figure in her own time. They have defied the odds against silent film stars and are all still "alive" today. Furthermore, their films have been extensively analyzed. Although I love every one of them, they didn't seem to be in need of reexamination.
As I sifted through the names and watched the movies, I became increasingly aware of the incredible influence silent stars had on their audiences. This was especially true of the people I finally did choose, the Valentinos and Pickfords and Swansons. The fame they achieved was dizzying, a level of adulation that simply had not existed before movies were invented. And it all happened so fast! (And ended so swiftly. From the time the fan magazines first began promoting movie stars in 1911 to the end of the silent era in 1927 was only sixteen years.) Of course there had been stars before the movies were born -- in theatre, opera, ballet, burlesque, sports, and vaudeville -- but there had never been a stardom like theirs. Their fans felt they knew them, understood them, owned them. Their audience believed in them. These stars appeared in close-up on gigantic screens, and their movies were distributed to their audiences, into every small town; they came often, and stayed long; and they could be watched over and over again, performing the same role in exactly the same way, never flubbing a line, never changing, never failing. They offered intimacy, a secret and intense relationship that was one-on-one in the comfort of a cozy darkness. Because title cards could easily be translated into other languages, their stardom was international, knowing no boundaries of politics or culture. And it wasn't snobbish, because anyone could afford a ticket.
Silent stars bonded with their audiences. Between them and the men and women in the seats was a strong connection forged in a quiet world of dreams and imagination. Sometimes they played ordinary people like their fans and sometimes they played fantasy figures who were rich and royal; but always they connected. And as the fan magazines promoted them, the myth was born that they were special, yes, but also just like the audience. The implication was clear: You, too, could be a star. With no education, no experience, not much brains and a minimum of talent, you yourself might leave the gas station, the ten-cent store, the barber shop, or the manicure table and become a tremendous success. Like your heroes, you could become class -- or pseudoclass -- because if you acquired money and status by just being yourself on-screen, in America that meant you were royalty. (As Elizabeth Taylor summed it up decades later, "There's no deodorant like success.")
None of that notion of democracy was true. Stars were unique, not ordinary, and they worked hard for their success and even harder to maintain it. But for the first time, everyone seemed to have easy access to stardom: you could see it on the screen, and dream of its possibility in your own life. Silent film stars were doubly powerful, both as objects of desire and as role models.
The first star (although it's dangerous to use the word "first" in film history) is reputed to have been the softly beautiful Florence Lawrence, who emerged around 1908. When Lawrence first appeared in movies for Biograph, she wasn't identified by name, and when audiences started asking exhibitors, "Who is that girl?," Biograph was unwilling to answer -- their policy was not to allow players to become known, since billing identity might give actors bargaining power in salary negotiations. The public was not deterred, however; they merely called Lawrence the "Biograph girl," bestowing on her a popularity that catapulted her into stardom and soon enough into oblivion. (Lawrence represents movie stardom in all its horror. In 1938, she committed suicide by eating ant paste.) When Lawrence left Biograph in 1909, Mary Pickford was just making her film debut. The fickle public fell even more in love with her, and soon she became the "Biograph girl," and then "America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford," the person who deserves the official title of "first real star" in motion picture history.
In the beginning, the public found its own favorites and singled them out as they had Lawrence and Pickford. Once businessmen discovered that popular players with recognized names helped to sell tickets, they changed their policy about allowing billing for actors. Soon, with the help of fan magazines, they began actively promoting -- and creating -- movie stars.
These magazines understood their purpose, and didn't shrink from it. Their excesses of prose and attitude are often both hilarious and inexplicable. Consider, for instance, an article on an alleged invention of Gloria Swanson's, the "Stop-Go Hat." Underneath a photograph of Swanson wearing her creation is a caption that identifies it as "a very useful, in fact, indispensable article for motoring." A fur structure atop the hat conceals a periscope that enables a driver to see where "he" is going and where "he's" been: "For night driving, the periscope is equipped with a red and green light making the driver practically [his] own traffic cop."
Writers automatically employed flowery descriptions, as in a full-page layout from Motion Picture of October 1918, in which famous actresses are described in poetic terms. Lillian Gish is "a potted lily in a lonesome window" . . . Norma Talmadge is "scarlet poppies in a white field, sable and ermine, a studio tea in Greenwich Village" . . . her sister Constance, on the other hand, is "April showers, a college campus, a ride in the rain, a kiss in the dark" . . . and Mary Pickford is "every little girl's dream, white kid gloves and white tulle, a playground and children's laughter." This gushing tone is not the whole story, however; the magazines could be acerbic. A piece appears in the very next issue of the same magazine which "explains" to movie fans what the advertising they see for films really means: "A thrilling spectacle is 50 horsemen riding around in and out of the picture; a masterpiece is a picture that cost more than expected; and a crowning achievement of the screen is something in which the author is starred."
Most of these magazines promoted stars through superbly photographed, full-page portraits suitable for cutting out and framing. They held popularity contests and endless discussions of who was the handsomest, who the prettiest -- and there were many candidates, because these early stars were the most beautiful people of their time. The faces of silent film stars, particularly the actresses, are not the faces one sees on-screen today, nor are they the faces of women like Garbo, Dietrich, and Crawford (who all started in silents, but who were not typical of the era). The silent stars look rounder. Their faces aren't shadowed or hawkish, with razor-sharp cheekbones, but romantic and soft, with apparently no bones at all. (Detractors sometimes call this look a "pudding face.")
To say that "they had faces" is true, but that's only the beginning. They had radiance, and projected a kind of magnificent emotionalism that today's more ironic times can't sustain, much less inspire. In their world of silence, these actors and actresses use their complete bodies in performance, treating the self as a single expressive unit. Every big star in those years has enormous physical control, whether it's Colleen Moore trying to keep her balance on a whirling fashion dais, Gloria Swanson flouncing past a lineup of mocking soldiers, or Rudolph Valentino holding his partner tight for a sudden moment of hesitation in the tango. They were not afraid of their bodies. Clara Bow constantly hugged herself. Douglas Fairbanks leapt off a building in a suit and sensible shoes (or slid down a ship's sail in a pirate's costume). Lon Chaney twisted himself into legless creatures and crippled hunchbacks. They boldly used their arms to express emotion -- raising them dramatically and reaching out their hands, things no actor today would do under any circumstances. Each star had a distinctive body and put it to use in developing a character which in turn developed into a persona that the audience fell in love with and wanted to be in the presence of as often as possible.
Sometimes, watching these gorgeous people, I had the sense that I was kneeling down and peeping through a knothole, spying on another world, a perfect world full of beautiful little people. They are all so small! The women are often barely five feet tall, and the men are short, compact, and well proportioned. (Where do these teeny people come from, and where are such people today?) The women hop about on feet that look as if they might have been bound at birth. They're like today's gymnasts, without real breasts or hips or shoulders, but with large heads and enormous masses of hair. The men have small hands and feet and make perfect matches for the little women they are wooing. When a genuinely substantial woman -- a Greta Garbo -- or a really tall man -- a Gary Cooper -- enters the frame of silent film, it's startling.
Most of the silent stars play representational types: the all-American, the Latin Lover, the stalwart hero, the country rube for the men; the vamp, the city siren, the unhappy wife, the small-town sweetheart for the women. The male stars made their heroes energetic, optimistic, and quintessentially American on the one hand, or, as in the case of Valentino, exotic, sensual, and inherently foreign. The various types of women add up to reflect the emergence of the modern woman. There is something touching about the covert desire for liberation their characters collectively represent. Often, the stars are grown women pretending to be little girls, denying their female bodies and thus rejecting their roles as wives and mothers in some hidden, visually nuanced way. These girls are called "hoydens" or "tomboys," and the desire to escape the traditional female self is obvious. In the teens, women like Pickford and Mabel Normand, two very different stars, both play tomboys who do physical comedy and who trick the world into giving them what they want. They control other people and their environment with their cleverness, and they spend more than half of every movie uninvolved in a romantic tangle or a sexual situation. Although the later flapper type would be sexualized by Clara Bow, the original flapper was, as Colleen Moore once described herself, "sexy, sexless" -- both liberated and old-fashioned. There's a single image that provides a crystalizing glimpse of the 1920s modern girl in transition. As Broken Chains (1922) opens, Claire Windsor (playing second lead to Colleen Moore and wearing a huge hat with feathers) is driving her roadster at top speed and busily planning her "radiophone" dance for the coming evening's entertainment. She's "new" -- driving a powerful machine at high speed -- and "old" -- she's got feathers on her head and her "work" is merely social.
Different types of male stars all have the same goal: success. They're going to make it somehow, against all odds. The only variance has to do with how the success is defined. It can be getting rich, winning the game, marrying the beautiful girl, stopping the villains, inventing the cure for a mysterious disease, finding the treasure, or perhaps just figuring himself out, finding a value system that will work best for his character and its world. For the men, it's an open world, with unlimited opportunity for good or evil, romance or seduction, but always with the challenge to succeed.
The fictionalized world these stars inhabit is never silent in the viewer's mind, even today when there's often no musical accompaniment. Sound is never missed, because silent films are about emotion and action -- two things that don't require it. The absence of sound becomes irrelevant as viewers read titles aloud inside their heads and "hear" everything that is happening. In fact, the representation of sound is often embedded in both titles and story action. Shouts are presented in BIG LETTERS on a title card and simulated by such things as Norma Talmadge shaking a coal scuttle in Kiki (1926), while Ronald Colman is trying to talk on the telephone. (He covers his ears.)
Title cards provide an ongoing conversation with the viewer. When well done, they're folded into the story, never interrupting it needlessly, never breaking the mood, and never providing unnecessary information. (A bad film will often have too many titles, most of which supply only dialogue.) In a good film, titles are used for historical background, exposition, commentary, mood and atmosphere, irony, moralizing, dialogue, and touches of wit. The brilliant pacing of many silent films is helped by title cards that cover narrative developments which, if visualized, would slow down the action.
When you enter the world that silent stars inhabit and bring to life, you enter a strange and private place, a world of reinvention and sudden redemption. It's not outdated -- there are too many modern concepts and too much that's surprising and fresh -- but it's not our world, either. It's an Ur-world, full of strong emotion, and you seem to be constantly sharing lives in secret ways, looking on at secret moments, watching scenes of deeply felt and hyper-expressive revelation. More than any other type of film, silent film is voyeuristic. If porn had a pure counterpart, it would be silent film. The secret watching, the silent sharing -- the sense that we're intruding in emotional space that has no easy words to explain itself, no noise to distract us from our feelings. It's a world of beautiful lovers, friendly old parents (much better than your own), and exciting monsters to stir you up and get you going. Safe monsters, however, along with safe floods, safe love affairs, safe dangers, safe sex -- anything and everything in its purest possible form, one that gives you all you want but robs you of nothing. It's a world of adventure and romance, and it takes you to exotic times and places: Revolutionary Russia, Napoleonic France, jungles, the days of knights and ladies, imaginary kingdoms, and of course, the wonderful world of wealth. You enter a magnificent mansion where there are fresh grapes in silver bowls, lace tablecloths, crystal glasses, velvet draperies, all kinds of things. The high-class woman of the house dresses in a fur-trimmed cape with no buttons or sleeves, the ultimate in the irresponsible garb of the very wealthy, something she can toss lightly over her dress and hold together with her own delicate yet superbly manicured hands. She isn't going to need those hands for anything practical such as driving a car or carrying a purse; she has people to do that for her. And she isn't going to have to worry about bad weather, either -- she's going to be untouched by the elements, riding in cabs, carriages, limousines, the conveyances of wealth and position. Again and again in these movies, exquisite women in silk shoes clutch their wraps around them and move effortlessly through time, living in a world where the snow is never cold, their feet never get wet, and pneumonia strikes only when needed for plot development.
In contrast to the mansion with the grapes, there's a bucolic landscape that is unrecognizable today -- a world of quiet dignity. Scenes could easily be shot on real locations since there was no need to worry about chirping birds, honking motorcars, or airplanes overhead ruining the take. This world offers real information, an honest glimpse into dreams of the past. A heroine stands in the farmyard while a gentle wind ruffles the apple trees and blossoms drop around her feet. The rural world of the teens and twenties is a sunny fantasy, something beautiful, innocent, and lost. "Six spring broilers" at the Busy Pie Café would cost you $5, and a piece of homemade pie, a nickel. (Wine, however, would be $49.) Characters are freely using "arnica" (which has not been seen in American homes in at least four decades) and clothes are made of "linsey-woolsey." A biscuit is a "clinker," a bad dancer a "corn shredder," a half-smoked cigarette a "dincher." Sometimes you haven't a clue to what's going on. When a villain gets out of prison and discovers his shoes squeak, he goes immediately to the waterfront and dips his feet. This means something -- but what?
It's a world where railroad tracks run alongside every back road, and railroad handcars are free and available for stealing to use in a freewheeling chase. These chases can be serious, with a heroine needing rescue; or comic, with an eloping groom frantically chasing the speeding train that carries his would-be bride; or western, where the outlaws are creeping up on the train they're going to rob. The handcar is an all-purpose story element recognized by everyone, and none of us today has so much as seen one, much less commandeered one to solve a problem.
It's a world full of strange rituals and a great deal of attitude, and the films that illustrate it best are probably the wacky silent film comedies. Anything that can possibly go wrong absolutely does, and there's always a gun somewhere: in a pocket, a purse, or a drawer. When "Help! Help! Police!" rings out (on a title card), those reliable troopers always arrive promptly. They arrive, but they don't help much. People fall down, jump, scream, run, and bump into things, but just when all settles down, fresh disasters strike, from new and unexpected sources. All the women are indignant and the men don't know what to do about it. They just try to be stoic, and withstand assault. Everyone is concerned with money. There are rich people, and there are poor people, and there's a big gap between the two. However, lines can be crossed, because the poor victimize the rich with real dedication and true imagination and resource. This doesn't mean that silent film comedy -- or silent film in general -- suggests that there is no evil in the world, no poverty, no catastrophe. But it suggests that individuals can triumph and bad things can be overcome with enough enthusiasm, hard work, optimism, and decency. To look at these films today is to learn about the optimism of Americans. It's not just that people are so ingenious at solving problems, but that there are so many problems to be solved. While characters lie asleep in their beds at night, burglars are breaking in downstairs. If they stand under a drainpipe, it will break and they will be drenched. If they take to the floor in a rented tuxedo to tango, trouser seams will give way. All the machinery they try to operate will backfire, break down, or run away with them. Opportunity knocks, but on their heads as well as their doors. On the other hand, they have a chance to move forward and accomplish something, even while waging a constant battle against disaster. Their glass is both half empty and half full. They teeter between profit and loss, winning and losing, loving and hating. It's a wild and unpredictable place full of crooks and con artists, suckers and rubes. Anything can happen. It does. They survive. And that's America.
Watching silent films from the teens and twenties, one observes a society undergoing rupture. At first, the films reflect an attempt to hold on to innocence. The women are childlike, the men impossibly heroic. Many of the stories concern children, and sex is always a cautionary tale. D. W. Griffith's is the dominant sensibility, with its roots in agrarian society and the melodramatic theatrical tradition. By the end of 1919, after World War I has given the nineteenth century the coup de grace, the twentieth century cracks open. The tempo changes from the waltz to the Charleston, and the energy, pace, and rhythm of silent films begin to produce unexpected riffs, shifts in tone, and wildly improvisational scenes. The silent film becomes visual jazz. Women cut their hair, shorten their skirts, and become aggressive. Men start swanning around in impeccable evening clothes or exotic Arabian garb. Both women and men are looking for sexual satisfaction or, rather, sexual stimulation. The rural world of sun-dappled forests, flowing rivers, and lazy farms with clucking chickens fades away to be replaced by art deco apartments, limos, and roadhouses selling "hooch." Stars become more casual, and the acting style shifts from one of declamation, broad gesture, and overt emotion to a loose naturalism that will lead directly to the sound era. The fantasies of the audience change from grand dreams of a generic quality -- settling the frontier, owning their own land, escaping oppression -- to specific dreams fueled by the movies themselves: wealth, social position, passion, clothes, furniture, glamour, exotica, and, of course, sex.
The twenties became a movie-dominated decade, and the silent stars its beautiful, representative citizens. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire." It's the perfect introduction to silent film and the world of stars who did not speak.