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The Stars - Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pearl White, Theda Bara, Wallace Reid, William S. Hart

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D uring the nickelodeon era, the star system had rapidly established itself in the American motion-picture industry. After watching the growing popularity of Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, Carl Laemmle lured them to his IMP Company with greater salaries and the promise of wide publicity. He was not alone. Soon other producers had entered the star search, working actively through fan magazines and other promotional media to familiarize audiences with their players. Favorite actors and actresses, firmly identified with their employers’ corporate trademarks, were used to help establish product loyalty. Thus, a fan-magazine popularity poll published in October 1914 was careful to list the appropriate studio along with each star:

  1. Earle Williams (Vitagraph)
  2. Clara Kimball Young (Vitagraph)
  3. Mary Pickford (Famous Players)
  4. J. Warren Kerrigan (Universal)
  5. Mary Fuller (Universal)
  6. Marguerite Clayton (Essanay)
  7. Arthur Johnson (Lubin)
  8. Alice Joyce (Kalem)
  9. Carlyle Blackwell (Alco)
  10. Francis X. Bushman (Essanay) 1

At the very beginning of the feature-picture era nearly the entire roster of top stars had been developed from within the industry, basically holdovers from the one- and two-reelers of nickelodeon days. In 1915 Harry Aitken tried to supplant this group by signing top theatrical talent for the new Triangle Film Corporation. The experiment failed, but Aitken did establish extremely high salary levels for top performers, figures that Adolph Zukor had to match when he began assembling a new collection of stars at Famous Players. 2

Zukor’s experience with Mary Pickford had taught him that one top star could carry an entire season’s output of mediocre releases. By signing most of the stars in Hollywood, Zukor could drive his competitors out of business and dictate terms to the nation’s exhibitors. The result of even his partial success was to frighten theater owners into forming the First National Exhibitors Circuit in 1917, which outbid him for such stars as Chaplin and Pickford. By this time, the entire industry was “thoroughly obsessed by star frenzy,” and even moderately priced performers could win highly advantageous contracts. Benjamin Hampton claims that only 5 percent of American features that year were without the protection of a star name. 3

Another fan-magazine poll, in December 1918, showed a dramatic shift in the ranks of the most popular stars 4 :

  1. Mary Pickford
  2. Marguerite Clark
  3. Douglas Fairbanks
  4. Harold Lockwood
  5. William S. Hart
  6. Wallace Reid
  7. Pearl White
  8. Anita Stewart
  9. Theda Bara
  10. Francis X. Bushman

After four years, only two top stars had maintained their popularity, indicating the uncertainty of public response and the lightning changes in the industry over this period. Of course, the accuracy and impartiality of these polls are also open to question: votes could be purchased with magazine subscriptions, for example. But taken as a whole they do reflect something of the stars’ changing status in the public eye. If manufacturing stars was part of the business of early cinema, managing popularity polls was a necessary business skill. All references to such polls in this chapter should be understood with this caveat firmly in mind.

To counter the increasing power of the stars, Cecil B. DeMille produced, in 1918, an “all-star” remake of THE SQUAW MAN , which in fact featured no top stars and was promoted on the strength of its story and director. He followed its success with OLD WIVES FOR NEW (1918), for which he signed a minor Triangle castoff, Gloria Swanson. The success of these films, and the phenomenal popularity of THE MIRACLE MAN (1919), another “all-star” production, damaged the notion of star supremacy and added power to certain key directors who seemed to be able to create stars or at least to do without them.

With the major studios experimenting with the “all-star” policy, and a threatened merger between Famous Players-Lasky and First National in the offing, Chaplin, Pickford, and Fairbanks decided to protect their interests by forming United Artists, while Norma Talmadge, Harold Lloyd, and a few others arranged lucrative releasing deals with other distributors. Stars below the first rank began to feel the squeeze of a saturated market.

More conservative business practices adopted during the twenties acted to freeze many stars into repeated variations of familiar routines. Performers who a decade earlier had constantly developed and expanded their roles were now content to exploit their audience-tested images. A few critics noticed and complained. “The Capek Brothers’ mechanical Robots have nothing on the creatures who are inhabiting Page 262  our photoplays,” carped Tamar Lane in 1923. “Heroes, heroines, vampires and villains, they are all ground out of the camera like so many frankfurters out of a butcher shop; each one of exactly the same peculiarities and consistencies as the others, each one striving his utmost to remain true to type.” 5

In 1924, Photoplay magazine again polled fans on their favorites, while the Film Daily polled exhibitors on their top box-office attractions. The results show an interesting discrepancy between stated preferences and actual support: 6

While such surveys are not directly comparable, they do indicate that some stars, such as Pola Negri, were honored more in theory than in practice. One also observes the tendency of fans in this period to rank comedy stars far lower than their box-office pull would suggest. Chaplin had not released a film for some time when these polls were taken, but even when this was not the case he typically ranks very low on such lists. Comedy stars were somehow separated from other movie actors in the minds of many fans. Note how Harold Lloyd, the industry’s top box-office attraction throughout the late silent period, places lower than Thomas Meighan or Pola Negri on the Photoplay list. The drawing power of such low-profile favorites as Corinne Griffith and Reginald Denny is also revealing. 7

By the end of the silent era, Wall Street analysts had quantified the value of a star and could rank this value along with any other corporate asset. In their 1927 analysis of the motion-picture industry, Halsey, Stuart and Company observed:

Whatever change of emphasis from actor to play which the future may hold, the “stars” are today an economic necessity to the motion picture industry. In the “star” your producer gets not only a “production” value in the making of his picture, but a “trademark” value and an “insurance” value, which are very real and very potent in guaranteeing the sale of this product to the cash customers at a profit. It has been amply demonstrated that the actual salaries (not the mythical exaggeration) paid to motion picture actors, however famous, are determined by the law of supply and demand in exactly the same way as are the rewards of executives in the business world (“The Motion Picture Industry as a Basis for Bond Financing,” 27 May 1927 prospectus, reprinted in Balio, The American Film Industry, pp. 179–180).

Charlie Chaplin

Dominating this period as both a creative force within the industry and a cultural icon of unparalleled visibility, Charlie Chaplin remains the most significant figure in the history of the silent film. The Chaplin bibliography is vast, an almost continuous stream of publications dating from his first weeks at the Mack Sennett studio and ranging across the entire critical and cultural spectrum. Chaplin and his image were appropriated by e. e. cummings, Darius Milhaud, and Fernand Léger—artists whose attention wove Chaplin into the fabric of twentieth-century culture. “The little tramp” ultimately pulled the rest of the cinema along with him, going far to legitimize a medium that even Griffith’s efforts had not made entirely acceptable. There is no competitor for this mantle. 8

Arguments as to the superiority of Chaplin’s art to those of his main competitors—Keaton, for example—are outside the scope of this study and, in any case, are thoroughly developed elsewhere. But Chaplin’s function as an engine, as a force powering the expansion of film as an artistic vehicle and an economic force, can never be overstated.

Born in London in 1889, Chaplin suffered a Dickensian boyhood, and this background clearly informs the search for food, shelter, and affection pictured so vividly in his films. He was onstage from the age of ten and while still a young man was a leading star of Fred Karno’s company, a touring British music-hall group that brought him to America in 1913. At the end of that year he left Karno and signed a year’s contract with Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio for $150 per week.

Chaplin appeared in thirty-five pictures for Sennett, all released in 1914, and this so-called Keystone period remains his most controversial. Was Chaplin discovered and developed by Sennett and his Keystone “fun factory,” or did he succeed despite their inability to grasp the nature of his comedy? Lewis Jacobs points to the hostility that greeted Chaplin on his arrival and “the inconsistency between his pantomimic style and Sennett’s demand for slapdash, whirlwind action pictures.” It is possible, as Jacobs suggests, that Sennett and his staff attempted to “alter Chaplin’s delivery to conform to their standard,” but if so, they gave up rather quickly, since Chaplin was allowed to direct his own pictures after the twelfth of this series, an honor not lightly bestowed. 9

Conversely, Gilbert Seldes, in his remarkable study of popular culture The Seven Lively Arts, defends the Keystone period within the context of his general support for slapstick comedy. He says of Chaplin:

That he exists at all is due to the camera and the selective genius of Mack Sennett. It is impossible to disassociate him entirely from the Keystone comedy where he began and worked wonders and learned so much. The injustice of forgetting Sennett and the Keystone when thinking of Chaplin has undermined most of the intellectual appreciation of his work, for although he was the greatest of the Keystone comedians and passed far beyond them, the first and decisive phase of his popularity came while he was with them, and the Keystone touch remains in all his later work, often as its most precious element (p. 42).

Seldes is correct in singling out the Keystone films for launching Chaplin’s worldwide popularity, but his own affection for the Sennett knockabout style, wistfully compared to the commedia dell’arte throughout his essay, seems to blind him to the greater resonance of Chaplin’s more mature films. From Keystone, Chaplin moved to the Essanay Company, with a salary of $1,250 per week, and in 1916 to Mutual, where his salary soared to $10,000 per week—figures that have traditionally been used to illustrate Chaplin’s impact on the rise of star salaries in general over this period.

In these later short films, Chaplin can be seen at his finest and most characteristic. The character of “the little tramp” is fully developed, his pantomimic gestures are displayed with elegance and ease, and the working-class milieu is forcefully presented. Classic Chaplin began to appear in the bittersweet climax of THE TRAMP (1915), the gritty streetscapes of EASY STREET (1917), and the stark undertones social criticism in THE IMMIGRANT (1917). Calling Chaplin "the man who made comedy and pathos out of working class people’s lives and dreams, " Robert Sklar suggests that it was a difference in class, not style, that separated Chaplin’s art from that of Mack Sennett. According to this argument, the main thrust of Keystone violence was middle-class frustration, while Chaplin, picturing extremes of wealth and poverty more traditional in British culture, ultimately acts to subvert the established order tacitly accepted by Mack Sennett. 10

As Chaplin moved into longer films, first three- and four-reel subjects, then full-length features, he began to ration his onscreen appearances. Between release of THE GOLD RUSH (1925) and THE CIRCUS 1928), he was off the screen for two and a half years (except for reissues), a gap that would further increase as his career developed. The amount of time and attention devoted to each sequence was unprecedented; even von Stroheim’s working habits pale by comparison. 11

But Chaplin was working only for himself. The drawing power of “the little tramp” was still so strong that he could afford to work at his own pace, a luxury unavailable to other filmmakers of the period. Chaplin may have been the era’s most visible creative force, but he left no tradition, no disciples, and a body of work that was essentially inimitable (which is not to say that he lacked imitators). In the final sequence of THE CIRCUS the show moves on, and the character, Charlie, is left alone. His creator liked it that way.

Mary Pickford

Of the three greatest stars of the early cinema—Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin—Mary Pickford remains the most elusive for modern audiences. Not only are her films generally difficult to see, but what image remains of Pickford in the public imagination is far from correct. There seems to be a vague confusion with Shirley Temple and a fixation on REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1917), partially the result of the film’s poster art having been widely reprinted in the 1970s. 12

James Card, Edward Wagenknecht, and other Pickford fanciers have spent much time countering this image, arguing that “the composite Pickford character was considerably less simple than she is generally supposed to have been.” 13 In tracing the image of women in the American cinema, Molly Haskell, who took the trouble   to view Pickford’s films, saw her as not just a figure of sweetness and light but an active, aggressive young woman not unsuitable as a role model for the period:

Even at her most arch-angelic, Pickford was no American Cinderella or Snow White whose only claim to consequence was a tiny foot or a pretty face. She was a rebel who, in the somewhat sentimental spirit of the prize pup as underdog, championed the poor against the rich, the scruffy orphans against the prissy rich kids. She was a little girl with gumption and self-reliance who could get herself out of trouble as easily as into it ( From Reverence to Rape, p. 60).

While most of the writing on Pickford remains impressionistic and appreciative, other critics have brought out her key economic role in the development of the motion-picture industry, Benjamin Hampton being the earliest and most explicit. Hampton, who was a key figure in the 1915 negotiations among Zukor, Hodkinson, and Pickford, devotes an entire chapter of A History of the Movies to “The Pickford Revolution.” He argues that the increasing salary demands of Pickford (and her mother) not only raised the level of star salaries and production costs but “created the precedent that soon altered the entire industry.” 14

Pickford had been working for Adolph Zukor since 1913, and as her popularity grew it became apparent that the exhibitors’ desire for her films was carrying the entire Famous Players product line. In January 1915 her contract had been renegotiated to offer her $2,000 per week (double the previous salary) and 50 percent of the profits on ten films each year. But in order to meet her escalating salary demands, the following year Zukor had to set Pickford up as her own producer, creating the Artcraft label to handle her films separately from the general Paramount line. Exhibitors would pay extra for these Artcrafts, and with good reason: their star earned $10,000 per week, swallowed 50 percent of the profits, and, in effect, was Adolph Zukor’s partner. 15

Pickford’s Artcraft films cost some $165,000 to $170,000 to produce, of which $125,000 represented Pickford’s salary. 16 This still left enough of a budget to lavish special care on the entire series, which employed only the finest directors, writers, cameramen, and designers. Maurice Tourneur, Cecil B. DeMille, and Marshall Neilan directed most of the Artcraft films, often from scripts by Frances Marion or Jeanie Macpherson. Walter Stradling and Charles Rosher were Pickford’s cameramen, and in a period when few films employed credited art directors, she used two of the finest in Hollywood, Ben Carré (for the Tourneur films) and Wilfred Buckland.

Today these seem her most accomplished works, entirely lacking in the selfimportance that began to affect her later releases. While THE PRIDE OF THE CLAN (1917) and THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (1917) may be better read as Tourneur pictures, her own performing abilities are stressed in the Neilan films, notably the sophisticated STELLA MARIS (1918). 17

Late in 1918 Pickford followed Chaplin’s lead in moving to First National, where she was granted even more creative control and a salary of $675,000 to make three films. With her 50 percent of the profits this would net her over a million dollars per year. Chaplin had reached this plateau already, although not because of any superior business acumen. It was Pickford who was the acknowledged fiscal expert of the group that, in 1919, would form United Artists. Wrote Chaplin, "She knew all the nomenclature:

the amortizations and the deferred stocks, etc. She understood all the articles of incorporation, the legal discrepancy on Page 7, Paragraph A, Article 27, and coolly referred to the overlap and contradiction in Paragraph D, Article 24." Before she died, the New York Times would characterize Pickford as “one of the richest women in America.” 18

After her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks in 1920, Pickford slowed her output, relishing her regal position as mistress of Pickfair and vying with Fairbanks in the care and attention that might be devoted to each film. She released only one film a year after 1921, and while some, such as S PARROWS (1926), were popular hits, attempts at more mature parts in ROSITA (1923) and DOROTHY VERNON OF HADDON HALL (1924) were less successful. Pickford had not been limited to children’s roles when she began at Biograph and did not play a child throughout an entire feature until THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, her twenty-fourth such film. But audiences insisted on seeing her in this characterization, and as she grew older the women she found herself playing grew younger. The popularity of any star is subject to natural limits. Pickford reached hers when she bobbed her hair in 1929. She always regretted it. 19

Douglas Fairbanks

There is one thing in this good old world that is positively sure—happiness is for all who strive to be happy—and those who laugh are happy (Douglas Fairbanks, Laugh and Live, p. 9).

In 1917 there were no melancholy thoughts of death and taxes from Douglas Fairbanks. In the first of a series of volumes of popular philosophy, Fairbanks outlined a credo of American optimism that was one part Émile Coué and one part Teddy Roosevelt. Fairbanks’ buoyant, optimistic cinema effortlessly captured this public image, but he lived that way offscreen as well. What other star would have published those eight inspirational volumes for the edification of his young audiences, books with titles such as Initiative and Self-Reliance and Profiting by Experience that tried to set the tone for an American century?

One of the most popular American stars throughout the period of silent features, Fairbanks was idolized overseas as well and mobbed by thousands in London, Paris, and Moscow. His subject was always the American Everyman, and even when this was masked behind the veil of a costume picture, the source of his character’s energy and optimism was unmistakable.

Fairbanks was a stage actor of minor reputation when he was brought into films in 1915 by Triangle’s Harry Aitken, who offered him a starting salary of $2,000 per week. Aitken had been assembling a stable of Broadway celebrities to appear in Triangle features under the supervision of D. W. Griffith, but when such highsalaried performers as Weber and Fields or Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree failed to register with film audiences, the entire project began to seem hopeless and ill advised. By the time Fairbanks arrived on the lot, Griffith’s people were so opposed to the Broadway imports that they actively tried to sabotage his debut. 20

Griffith himself had no sympathy for “the jumping jack” or his style and foisted him off on Christy Cabanne, one of the least-imaginative directors on the lot. Aitken nervously slipped the first Fairbanks picture, THE LAMB , onto the premiere Triangle program, which opened with considerable attention at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre on 23 September 1919. Billed with an Ince picture and a short Sennett film, THE LAMB captured critical attention and proved to be Triangle’s first real hit. Frank Woods, the head of Triangle’s scenario department, had a better grasp of Fairbanks’ potential than did Griffith and teamed him with writer Anita Loos and director John Emerson. Over the next two years, this group would fashion a series of popular light comedies that defined the early Fairbanks persona. Their hero was a bright young representative of the moneyed classes who realizes his dreams through a witty application of initiative and physical agility. At a time when many films still featured working-class heroes, Fairbanks often appeared as a young broker or businessman, a fact which made the realization of these dreams that much easier. Audiences approved. By the end of 1916 Fairbanks had raised his salary to $10,000 per week and was ready to set up his own production company, taking Emerson and Loos with him. 21

History records the daring and acrobatic skill of Fairbanks in his prime, but the star was no mere stuntman. Alistair Cooke, in a study of Fairbanks’ career published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, saw his greatness in the apparent effortlessness of his achievements and the harmony of his movements with their environment, “a virtuoso use of the landscape as a natural gymnasium whose equipment is invisible to the ordinary man.” 22

In 1919, in an effort to gain complete control over the financing and distribution of his pictures, then in the hands of Adolph Zukor, Fairbanks became one of the founders of United Artists. Within a year he had dropped the character of the American Everyman and reappeared in the guise of Zorro, beginning a series of costume adventures that lasted throughout the twenties. What might have been a wrenching change of image for a lesser star only served to increase Fairbanks’ popularity, for his new Don Diego character was simply Doug’s old American aristocrat dressed up for a costume party. Behind Zorro’s mask was the Fairbanks his fans had come to adore, now fully liberated through the simple expedient of the period setting. THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921) and ROBIN HOOD (1922) were more of the same, and even when Fairbanks played a rogue, as in THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924) or THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) he was building on the old prewar virtues of selfreliance, initiative, and responsibility.

These films were among the most commercially successful of the silent era. Fairbanks’ popularity grew throughout the twenties, and the care he lavished on his productions bespoke his position as true Hollywood nobility. The vast settings of ROBIN HOOD , the expressionist magnificence of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD , or the costly and experimental use of Technicolor in THE BLACK PIRATE , were production exercises unmatched by his few rivals. 23

As Fairbanks aged, he realized that the ability to continue in this genre was finite. In THE IRON MASK (1929) he bade a formal farewell to the swashbuckler, and to the silent drama that had nurtured and developed it. In one of the most elegantly mounted of costume epics, a film that labors over the correctness of every setting and costume design, he kills off D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, annihilating his ageless screen persona. Fairbanks, who had once brought new vigor and imagination to silent films, became the first to offer the medium a melancholy elegy.

Pearl White

While many American stars had wide international followings (especially Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, and Hart), Pearl White was most clearly the product of a pre-1920 international film community. Not only did she achieve stardom with a French company (Pathé) and a French director (Louis Gasnier), but the serial genre with which she became identified was much more highly regarded in Europe than America, and her greatest admirers were certainly the French.

“I like Pearl White very much,” wrote Louis Delluc in 1919. He found her energy a better tonic during the dark war years than even the exploits of Chaplin or Fairbanks. Decades later, René Jeanne and Charles Ford claimed that her “perfect image of the athletic, good-natured young American girl” was a key factor in the eventual dominance of French screens by American films. 24 If so, there is considerable irony here, for Pearl White became a celebrity of international renown only after she was signed by Gasnier to appear in the most famous of the early serials, THE PERILS OF PAULINE (1914).

Pearl White was one of the first film stars to publish an autobiography, Just Me, which appeared at the height of her fame in 1919. Setting a pattern for similar works to follow, the information provided is hardly reliable, with large portions of her career ignored or distorted. Recent scholarship indicates, for example, that the picture of her impoverished childhood is a considerable exaggeration. But her name really was Pearl White, the result of a parental quirk that had already christened her older sister Opal. 25

Originally a stage actress, Pearl White entered films in 1910. Just Me does have a flavorful account of her first efforts to land a job in the New York studios, where she pounded the pavements of the strange city and couldn’t find the Edison studio because she could not tell uptown from downtown on the elevated train. She worked for Powers, Lubin, and Pathé in a standard assortment of shorts between 1910 and 1912, then moved to the Crystal Film Company in the Bronx. 26 These Crystal productions were very simply made, primitive split-reel subjects imposing a crude slapstick treatment on traditional situation-comedy plots. The few that survive, such as PEARL AS DETECTIVE (1913) and THE RING (1914), offer little of interest save the personality of Pearl White herself. Attractive and athletic, she transcended with her wholesome good looks the mugging and eye-rolling called for by the Crystal directors. Within a few months of her arrival the studio was naming the films after her. 27

In 1914 she was approached by Theodore Wharton to appear in a serialized film that he and his brother Leopold were to produce for Pathé. Intended to coincide with a weekly print version in the Hearst press, THE PERILS OF PAULINE was conceived largely as a device to increase newspaper circulation, a standard practice of the day. 28 But director Louis Gasnier and his new star suddenly tapped a level of audience response not previously evoked by earlier serial films. THE PERILS OF PAULINE quickly became the archetype of the silent American serial and found a permanent place in twentieth-century popular culture.

Realizing the value of their new property, Pathé and Gasnier immediately followed up with THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1914–1915) co-directed by George Seitz, who would work on all of White’s later American serials. Altogether, she appeared in nine serials for Pathé from 1914 to 1920, thus dominating the genre in its most significant period. 29 In running popularity polls taken between 1916 and 1918 by Motion Picture magazine, she ranked as the third most popular female star, behind Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark. But her following was not limited to readers of American fan magazines.

A reporter visiting Pearl White’s home in Bayside, New York, was struck by the peculiar character of her mail:

I had never seen such an enormous, worldwide representation of attention. My first thought was that a stamp collector would have paid her a hat-checker’s privilege price merely for a secretaryship. There were letters bearing the stamps of countries I had never heard of—commonwealths given birth by the Peace Commission in Paris…. Mostly from women. There were few mash notes (Julian Johnson, “The Girl on the Cover,” Photoplay, April 1920, p. 57).

Granted this somewhat unscientific survey of Pearl White’s fan mail, what is it that explains her appeal to foreign audiences and to women? If Europeans were fascinated by her exotic American athleticism, American women must have seen something else. Lewis Jacobs offered one explanation in a 1939 discussion of silent-serial heroines:

All were renowned for their stunts, physical powers, and daring. Their exploits paralleled, in a sense, the real rise of women to a new status in society—a rise that became especially marked on America’s entrance into the war, when women were offered participation in nearly every phase of industrial activity (The Rise of the American Film, p. 280).

What Jacobs does not add is that when this offer was retracted after the war, the popularity of serials suffered a coincidental change, falling almost entirely into the hands of second-rate producing companies that pitched their appeal much more strongly to children. Pearl White moved into features in 1920, but without success; the aggressive heroine she portrayed had passed from popularity in the postwar era, at least in America. The creator of this image would spend most of her later years in France, spending her time at casinos and breeding horses. She died in 1938 and was buried in Paris.

Theda Bara

In the nickelodeon era, showman Carl Laemmle demonstrated that an already popular player like Florence Lawrence could be built into a stellar attraction and that tickets, and many of them, could be sold on her name alone. Other stars of the era worked their way up through the ranks (even Pickford started at five dollars a day) or were brought from the legitimate stage. Not until the age of fan magazines and   feature pictures were conditions ripe for the creation of stars out of whole cloth, and the first great fabricated star, Theda Bara, reached the screen in January 1915.

She was born Theodosia Goodman, the daughter of a Jewish tailor who had emigrated from Poland to Cincinnati. Her mother’s family was Swiss, of French descent, and when the future star first tried the stage around 1908, she used her mother’s family name, appearing as Theodosia de Coppet.

Theda, the diminutive by which her family traditionally addressed her, spent several years in New York attempting to gain a foothold in the theater. Her stage career never seems to have amounted to more than a handful of roles, but in 1914 she was spotted by Frank Powell, who decided to cast her as the seductress in A FOOL THERE WAS (1915), an important feature he was about to direct for William Fox. Powell and Fox had been considering a number of potential temptresses to play opposite Broadway star Edward José, but Robert Hilliard, who had produced the stage version, suggested signing an unknown. He claimed that the part would make an overnight success of anyone who appeared in it, and that by signing this actress to a long-term contract Fox could acquire a potential star at little cost. In fact, the initial contract was for $75 per week, a sum that grew to $4,000 weekly by the time Theda left the company. 30

The film version of A FOOL THERE WAS traced its genesis to a stage version that had appeared at New York’s Liberty Theatre in 1909. This, in turn, was inspired by the Burne-Jones painting The Vampire, first exhibited in 1897, and the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name:

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you and I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair—
(Even as you and I!)

Painting, poem, play (and subsequent novelization) had already established a powerful image in the public’s mind of the vampire-enchantress. Employing a sex lure on any male within striking distance, this amoral adventuress drained her victim of wealth, position, pride, even life itself. Onscreen, she appeared at least as early as 1913 in Kalem’s THE VAMPIRE , SO the Fox film was building on a strong foundation of public awareness. 31


What was needed was an angle, and after studying the performance Theodosia de Coppet delivered under Powell’s direction, Fox put press agents Johnny Goldfrap and Al Selig on the job. They created the name Theda Bara, an anagram, they claimed, for “Arab Death.” (Some historians believe that “Bara” derives from the name of Theda’s maternal grandfather, François Baranger de Coppet.) The Fox publicity mill launched a bizarre campaign generating a detailed fantasy background for their new star: she was born in the shadow of the Sphinx, played leads at the Théâtre Antoine, distilled exotic perfumes as a hobby, and was well versed in black magic. They informed readers that Theda Bara offscreen was identical to the character she played in A FOOL THERE WAS , destroying males and turning a cold shoulder to the pleadings of abandoned wives and children. The press agents’ achievement was not that they succeeded in launching this campaign but that they successfully kept it up for the full four years of Bara’s stay at Fox, a period in which she ground out forty feature pictures. 32


Bara did not always play the vamp; she appeared in ROMEO AND JULIET (1916), THE TWO ORPHANS (1915), UNDER TWO FLAGS (1916), and KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN (1919) as well. But it was with this character that Fox’s publicity identified her, and on which her career rose and fell. As late as December 1918 Bara was listed ninth in a popularity contest conducted by Motion Picture magazine, but the following year she parted company with Fox, and although she made several attempts, she never effectively revived her career. How are we to explain this sudden fall from public favor?


Some critics see the Bara character simply as one pole of a standard male fantasy running from virgin to vamp, but this analysis fails to recognize the character’s real popularity with women of the pre-flapper generation. In 1917 Victor Freeburg almost put his finger on the source of her appeal: “Few are either daring enough or desirous enough of leading a vampire existence, but thru the medium of Theda Bara they can do her deeds and live her life.” What Freeburg could not see was that this character was one of the only females on screen who consistently demonstrated real power over men and who did not always have to pay the price for it. Or, in the words of Theda Bara, “The vampire that I play is the vengeance of my sex upon its exploiters. You see, I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a féministe. ” 33


Wallace Reid


Wallace Reid was the final heir to the “Arrow Collar” tradition of motion-picture stardom, which from the earliest years of features had dominated the American screen. The Motion Picture magazine’s 1914 popularity poll found Earle Williams the nation’s most popular screen star, with J. Warren Kerrigan, Arthur Johnson, Carlyle Blackwell, and Francis X. Bushman his nearest male rivals. These strong-jawed, all-American figures exuded stability, friendliness, optimism, and reliability. They were at home in overalls or evening clothes and did very nicely in a uniform when the occasion arose. Their imitators were legion and, to modern eyes, indistinguishable. Few silent-film historians spend much time on these men or their films, but occasional lip service is paid to the last and greatest of them, Wallace Reid. 34


Unfortunately, the attention directed to Reid nearly always centers on his tragic death in January 1923, while he was attempting a cure for his morphine habit. Few discuss his long and successful career, and received opinion notes his brand of stardom only to highlight the Valentino and Gilbert tradition that supplanted it. 35


Reid was born into a theatrical family in 1891. His father, Hal Reid, was an actor and playwright of some success who began writing scenarios for the Selig Company in Chicago in 1910. He would later work as a writer and director for firms such as Vitagraph and Universal, and his son Wally generally came along as part of the package. By 1912 Wallace Reid was a popular leading man in short action melodramas produced by a variety of nickelodeon-era studios, eventually becoming a fixture on the Universal lot. Historian De Witt Bodeen was able to identify over one hundred Reid films prior to his brief appearance as Jeff the blacksmith in Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION . 36


Here, Reid was spetted by Jesse L. Lasky, who immediately cast him in Famous Players-Lasky features opposite some of that firm’s most notable stars, including Cleo Ridgely and Geraldine Farrar. 37 Lasky’s use of Reid was similar to William Fox’s treatment of Theda Bara. Even after the 1916 merger, Famous Players-Lasky was still heavily committed to established stars brought from the theater at great expense, and it was economically imperative that some newcomers with potential drawing power be put under long-term contracts and developed into credible screen stars on their own. They could then be controlled more readily, and worked harder, while their salary demands could be kept within reason, at least until they had proven their screen appeal.


Lasky struck gold with Wallace Reid. Within a few months he was established as one of the nation’s most popular stars, a position he would maintain throughout his career. Reid seemed to capture the ail-American spirit offscreen as well, at least according to the fan magazines. One 1917 article found Reid and his wife such a model of domestic bliss that they put the lie to all those tall tales about Hollywood life. “There is strong verification in the life of Wallace Reid and Dorothy Davenport which condemns the oft-repeated aspersions against the members of the Hollywood film colony,” the reporter wrote with unknowing irony. 38


Reid was especially effective in such Cecil B. DeMille productions as CARMEN (1915), JOAN THE WOMAN (1917), and THE AFFAIRS OF A NATOLE (1921). Later, his films were directed by James Cruze and Sam Wood. Famous Players-Lasky made sure to get value for their money. In 1916 the first full year of his contract, Reid appeared in six features. The following year he was seen in ten. The pace continued without letup, and during 1922, when most stars of his caliber were appearing in two films per year, Reid made nine. Over a seven-year period, Reid was seen in a new feature picture every seven weeks, eclipsing Theda Bara’s pace at Fox. Amazingly, he seems not to have suffered overexposure at the box office and was still at the height of his popularity when he collapsed during production of his final film.


Reid had been taking morphine tablets for several years and recently had begun drinking heavily. He committed himself to a cold-turkey “cure” at a local sanatorium. Once he had been an athlete and dancer of considerable renown, but his body was now hopelessly debilitated. He lapsed into a coma after a bout of influenza and died on 18 January 1923.


Reid’s wife made a public issue of his commitment and took pains to put the truth of Reid’s condition before the public. But even she drew back from revealing all the facts. By the time of his death, newspapers were editorializing in support of Reid (“he died game,” wrote the Los Angeles Examiner), but in the end the affair only provided more ammunition to those attacking Hollywood immorality, and early supporters soon began to keep their distance. The studio’s complicity in Reid’s addiction and death was hinted at, but sensational stories of an underground dope ring gained wider currency. In fact, Reid had been introduced to morphine by a studio physician eager to keep the star working after he suffered an injury during location filming on VALLEY OF THE GIANTS (1919). In light of this revelation, the exhausting schedule imposed on Reid over the next three years seems especially unconscionable. 39


Those inside the industry who knew the truth collectively repressed the whole affair. Within a few years, it was as if Wallace Reid had hardly existed. Terry Ramsaye’s extensive and influential insider history, published in 1926, barely mentions Wallace Reid—and then mainly in connection with his father, Hal Reid. 40


William S. Hart


Eastern folks called it a tragedy story,
An’ tragedy—it rides herd on me;
Fer I know’d Ben, that cow-pony,
An’ that pink-nosed Pinto know’d me.

(William S. Hart and Mary Hart, Pinto Ben, p. 23)

William S. Hart’s poem “Pinto Ben,” of which this is the opening stanza, mirrors Hart’s respect for the simple virtues of western life, as well as his identification with his beloved pinto pony. Ben and his master, the boss rider who narrates the tale, travel to the Chicago stockyards with a thousand head of range-bred cattle. Careless urban stockhands accidentally stampede the herd, which heads straight for man and horse. After a mad dash to outrun the herd, Ben vaults a high stockyard gate, saving his master but losing his own life. Cradling the pony’s head as it dies, the boss rider reflects that some of the blood they lie in must have come “out o’ my heart,” the mingled essence of two kindred spirits.


This tale of self-sacrifice and betrayal by crass easterners certainly haunted the author. 41 Not only was his career shadowed by misunderstanding and recrimination, but the conscious identification of man and beast was directly carried over into his films and into the offscreen persona that Hart developed during his years of fame.


The vehicle for this was Hart’s own pinto pony, Fritz, whom he acquired soon after he joined Thomas H. Ince and the New York Motion Picture Company in 1914. Hart was an established legitimate actor, a man who had been acclaimed on Broadway for his novel interpretations of Western characters in The Squaw Man and The Virginian. With some justification, Ince had told him that Western films were a glut on the market, and Hart had accepted the low salary of $125 per week. But Hart’s own films soon began to reshape Western pictures in a more realistic fashion. In his first feature, THE BARGAIN (1914), he offered the public an emotionally complex figure whose personality was neither good nor evil but a prototypical “good bad man” who would reappear in subsequent films. 42


Hart felt a personal responsibility to move Western drama, on the stage or screen, away from the dime-novel conventions it had descended to by the turn of the century. Although born in Newburgh, New York, and (despite his later claims) lacking any significant firsthand experience of the West, Hart gradually became part of that celebration of frontier culture which grew up in the age of Theodore Roosevelt. He came to interpret the West with the same dramatic flair as his friends the painters Charles Russell and Frederic Remington, and with the same concern for the region’s legendary moral code.


He believed that the bond of friendship between himself and Ince meant more than a simple business arrangement and was sincerely shocked when he came to realize that Ince had been trading on his loyalty by keeping his salary at scandalously low levels. In 1916, for example, Hart appeared in one of his most famous films, THE RETURN OF DRAW EGAN (which he also directed) for just $875. The picture took three and a half weeks to film, and the day after it was finished Ince had Hart and his unit at work on their next picture. This, at a time when untested Broadway stars like Douglas Fairbanks were being signed at $2,000 per week by the same company, Triangle, that was making the Hart-Ince pictures. 43


When Triangle collapsed, Ince moved to Artcraft and was able to bring Hart with him. Here, Hart was finally paid a salary commensurate with his true status, $150,000 per picture. But he had to split with Ince the promised 35 percent of the profits, despite the fact that Ince no longer had any creative connection with Hart’s pictures. Now entirely soured on their relationship, Hart resented the enforced partnership and schemed to find a way around it. His solution was ingenious and highly characteristic. After their first Artcraft picture, THE NARROW TRAIL (1917), Fritz publicly "announced " his retirement from the screen. Ince might be making money from the sweat of Bill Hart’s brow, but he would not make another penny from the pinto pony. 44


Hart would have other problems, with Paramount’s Jesse L. Lasky, who failed to understand his choice of subject matter, and with the executives of United Artists, whom he successfully sued for shoddy distribution of his last picture, TUMBLEWEEDS (1925). By the time talkies arrived, Hart and Fritz had retired to their ranch in Newhall, California.


A 1930 inscription to King Vidor, in a copy of Hart’s autobiography, My Life East and West, tells the story. In the “handwriting” of Fritz, we read:


Humans have voices to help ‘em,
Animals have only their eyes.
That’s why I ain’t workin’ in “talkies.”
           So long

           Fritz

To which Bill Hart adds, “Now you can understand my handicap—being hitched up with a horse.” 45


Norma Talmadge


Of all the silent stars whose reputations collapsed with the coming of sound, Norma Talmadge was certainly the most important. Guided by her husband, the powerful film-industry executive Joseph Schenck, she formed her own production company in 1917 and operated it until her last film in 1930, one of the few stars to maintain popularity during this entire period. In a list of salaried stars given in the 1924 Film Daily Yearbook, her $10,000 per week far outstrips the nearest competition. The acerbic critic Tamar Lane felt that she was, after Pickford, the screen’s finest actress, while Adela Rogers St. Johns called her “our one and only great actress.” 46


Norma Talmadge was born in Jersey City in 1897. With her sisters Constance and Natalie, she was raised by her strong-willed mother, Margaret, one of the great stage mothers of Hollywood history. 47 Norma began posing for stereopticon slides in 1910 and made a fitting transition to the Vitagraph Company that same year. Over the next five seasons, she appeared in some 250 films for Vitagraph before striking out on her own and eventually landing a contract with Triangle-Fine Arts. But not until she returned to New York in 1917 and opened her own studio on East Forty-eighth Street did she emerge as a major star.


Throughout the era of silent features, Norma Talmadge maintained a remarkably consistent screen persona. Swanson or Pickford would alternate melodramas, comedies, and costume romances, but Talmadge steadfastly offered the one image her audiences seemed to demand: “a brave, tragic, and sacrificing heroine, lavish settings and beautiful clothes, and buckets of tears before the eventual redemption at the fadeout.” 48 Her one real attempt to break this mold, an appearance as the Parisian gamine in Clarence Brown’s KIKI (1926), seems to have been a serious commercial failure.


The demand for the familiar Talmadge persona was so strong that even supportive critics began to despair. Robert E. Sherwood wrote as early as 1923:


Miss Talmadge is a good actress. She has power, she has poise, and she possesses a delicate subtlety of expression. But her undeniable talent had been guided into false channels; she had become a box-office star, devoting herself to standard, stereotyped “emotional” roles which permitted her to wear a given number of fashionable gowns, and to occupy a given number of close-ups. She had become terribly monotonous ( The Best Moving Pictures of 1922–23, p. 25).


Gloria Swanson nearly broke with Paramount the same year, complaining of monotony in the roles she was asked to play. But Talmadge made her own choices and decided to keep on giving the public what it wanted. The decision may have been wise in the short term, but when the vogue for this particular brand of screen heroine faded, she and her films were violently rejected. In 1930 Paul Rotha was busy attacking the Hollywood system and promoting various continental approaches to screen art. His attack on American film acting (which, by the way, includes everyone from Pauline Frederick to the Gish sisters) focuses most directly on Norma Talmadge:


The ideal type for the film star was the blank-minded, non-temperamental player, steeped in sex and sheathed in satin, who was admirably suited to movie “acting,” which called for no display of deep emotions, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no delicacy, no guile. All through her career Norma Talmadge achieved success by looking slightly perplexed and muzzy about the eyes ( The Film Till Now, p. 131).


Rotha and Sherwood certainly saw the same films, but the change in critical taste over only a few years effectively wrote Norma Talmadge out of the history books. As luck would have it, there seems no way to write her back in. Even such diligent chroniclers as Kevin Brownlow, Anthony Slide, and William K. Everson have little to say about Talmadge or her work. Nearly all of her most important films have remained unseen for decades. Among the top-grossing films of the 1920s, critically well received and often directed by such major figures as Herbert Brenon, Sidney Franklin, and Frank Borzage, the Talmadge films are one of the last major secrets of the silent cinema. Whether the judgment of history will vindicate Sherwood or Rotha remains to be seen.


Marion Davies


The screen career of Marion Davies is of course inextricably bound up with the name of William Randolph Hearst. While this fact has always been recognized, the critical treatment of this particular partnership has shifted considerably over the years. When Hearst and Davies were still actively producing films, none dared mention the personal side of their relationship. Benjamin Hampton, writing in 1930, summarized Hearst’s film activities by noting, “few producers have derived more enjoyment from the game.” More recently, the “Citizen Kane” school of film history sees nothing but the awkward relationship of the patriarchal magnate and his handfashioned “discovery.” 49


The emphasis in all periods has been to suggest that Davies’ screen career was manufactured, then foisted on unwilling audiences and exhibitors. Reassessments of her late silent comedies such as SHOW PEOPLE and THE PATSY (both 1928) usually compare these films favorably to earlier costume pictures in which Hearst somehow “forced” Davies to appear. 50 But the current high regard for Davies as a comedienne is largely a modern fashion, and her accomplishments in the bulk of her silent features are much more varied than is generally admitted.


Hearst’s interest in film predated his encounter with Davies. He operated the International Newsreel, an animation studio, and produced several of the most important early serials, including THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (1915). He spotted Marion Davies in the 1916 Ziegfeld Follies and after seeing her performance in a cheaply made feature called RUNAWAY ROMANY (1917) decided to fold her into his own motion-picture empire. Under the Cosmopolitan banner, Hearst was already producing a series of features with Alma Rubens, but because of his special interest in Davies, he now became involved on a much more personal level.


The bulk of Davies’ Cosmopolitan productions, which were made in New York until Hearst shifted his center of operations to California in 1924, are light romantic melodramas. Some are more tearful than others, but one finds a wartime spy plot (THE BURDEN OF PROOF , 1918), a comedy (GETTING MARY MARRIED , 1919), and a flapper-era morality tale (THE RESTLESS SEX , 1920). These films do not seem to have been especially successful, and Hearst was already being chided in print for his string of Davies features. After discussing the early serials and newsreels Robert E. Sher-wood concluded:


Up to this point Hearst had probably made money from pictures, but then he founded Cosmopolitan Pictures Corporation and started losing on a triumphant scale. He made picture after picture in which Marion Davies was featured, and on which he lavished incredible sums, and one after another flopped dismally. Miss Davies did not prove to be a stalwart box office attraction, and an irreverent wag in the movie industry remarked that Mr. Hearst had to bribe the exhibitors to rent his pictures ( The Best Moving Pictures of 1922–23, p. 50).


Why these films failed is not at all clear. Perhaps the use of second-rate directors like Julius Steger or George D. Baker had something to do with it. One of the few films to survive from the period, BEAUTY’S WORTH (1922), suggests that Davies’ screen persona was not a problem. Yet the public did not respond to these films. Only when Hearst began production of costume spectacles in the wake of the 1921–1922 revival of this genre was he finally able to sell Davies to audiences. Their initial effort, WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER (1922), proved to be one of the season’s big hits, although seen today it suffers from its overstuffed period detail and lackluster direction by Robert Vignola. The film did utilize the full resources of the vast International studio, an old Harlem beer garden that had been taken over by Hearst when Prohibition arrived. It was followed by the equally successful (and similarly dull) LITTLE OLD NEW YORK (1923). This featured even more lavish settings, including an entire neighborhood of nineteenth-century Manhattan rebuilt inside a vast Brooklyn armory. But the spectacles that followed reverted to the original run of bad luck. YOLANDA (1924), a still more elaborate medieval pageant, gorgeously designed by Hearst’s house art director, Joseph Urban, was a complete failure. So was the lavish American Revolutionary War melodrama JANICE MEREDITH (1924) and the Hollywood-produced LIGHTS OF OLD BROADWAY (1925). Hearst could hardly be blamed for trying to duplicate the success of his earlier hits, but he did cease production of these costume epics after 1925.


Davies’ late silents, produced on the MGM lot, are as varied as those of any silent star. They include a large group of comedies, among them the still underrated THE FAIR COED (1927), and such literary adaptations as QUALITY STREET (1927) THE RED MILL (1927). Her transition to sound was relatively painless, but she never recaptured her former status. 51


Marion Davies was no Susan Alexander Kane. In viewing her films today one finds a bright, engaging performance style so often lacking among silent-screen actresses. While Hearst’s backing certainly provided the wherewithal to get Davies onscreen and keep her there during periods of public apathy, the performances we see today are quite capable of standing on their own.


Lon Chaney


Few silent-screen players passed directly into the popular idiom, but historians assure us that one could always raise a smile in the 1920s by exclaiming, “Don’t step on it—it might be Lon Chaney!” 52


Still known today as “the man of a thousand faces,” Chaney seemed to many the silent-film actor par excellence. He was a performer whose appeal lay not in his good looks, offscreen adventures, or lavishly mounted vehicles but in his traditional recourse to makeup and pantomime. Chaney whipped up his characters out of his makeup kit and applied his emotions with similar panache. At the time, much was made of Chaney’s birth to deaf-mute parents, with whom he was forced to communicate through sign language. 53 But while this experience may have helped him during the early years of cinema, by the period of his stardom the movies no longer relied on pantomimic representation in order to make themselves understood. In fact, Chaney’s acting style was largely molded by his barnstorming years in stock and vaudeville, and his films are weakest when he is called upon to express any degree of subtlety. To understand this, compare Conrad Veidt’s performance under the makeup of THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) to anything of Chaney’s.


Chaney certainly was at home, however, in the stylized world of the Grand Guignol. After 1919, and his great success in THE MIRACLE MAN , Chaney came to specialize in twisted minds and twisted bodies, objective correlatives of evil unmatched onscreen before or since. In THE PENALTY (1920) a careless surgeon leaves the young Chaney a legless cripple who grows up to revenge himself on society. In WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) the target is Lionel Barrymore, who has not only stolen Chaney’s wife but left him paralyzed after a brutal struggle. THE BLACKBIRD (1926) reverses this formula, with Chaney playing the role of a suave criminal who masquerades as a kindly but twisted Limehouse clergyman. The quick changes eventually catch up with him, and the evil Chaney finds he can no longer “take off” the crippled guise of the good Chaney. 54


Irony and sacrifice are the punch lines of these films, typically played with all stops out. In WEST OF ZANZIBAR , Chaney realizes too late that Barrymore’s daughter, on whom he is extracting fiendish revenge, is in fact his own daughter. Time and again he makes great sacrifices for his leading lady, only to see her wind up in the arms of a handsome rival. The most baroque of these sacrificial ironies occurs in Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN (1927), where Chaney has his arms amputated in fruitless pursuit of Joan Crawford, who has expressed an aversion to the romantic embrace. Browning proved to be the most sympathetic of Chaney’s collaborators, although his most famous films were made for other directors.


Near the end of his career, Chaney starred, inevitably, in an adaptation of Pagliacci (LAUGH , CLOWN , LAUGH , 1928), thus capping a recurrent strain in his work that marked even his famous Quasimodo in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923). When Chaney allowed this sort of pathos to get out of hand, as he did in NOMADS OF THE NORTH (1920) or MOCKERY (1927), the result was an embarrassing display of silent-movie clichés, all broad gestures and eye-rolling. Any number of lesser actors could have demonstrated the restraint that these roles called for, but restraint was not a major element in Chaney’s performing vocabulary.


His most famous film, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), does show Chaney at his best. Completely hidden behind a brilliant death’s-head makeup, Chaney stalks the passages of an elegantly designed Paris Opera—largely the creation of Opera veteran Ben Carré. Despite the efforts of two mediocre directors, Rupert Julian and Edward Sedgwick, the film manages to express much of the eerie texture of the original Gaston Leroux novel. With the chandelier sequence thrown away, and an unsatisfying chase at the end, only the authority of Chaney’s performance holds the production together. Furiously pounding his pipe organ, or staring madly at Mary Philbin with eyes of fire, Chaney becomes a gargoyle unmatched in twenties cinema.


Tom Mix


Adult audiences began deserting the Western genre after 1915. It was abandoned by serious filmmakers like DeMille and Ince (apart from his Hart releases), and trade-paper criticism grew increasingly condescending. But an underclass of Western films, and the popularity of a few individual Western stars, did continue to grow. During the late teens, William S. Hart dominated the Western market, but by the close of the war he was being eclipsed by Tom Mix, a rival who actually predated him in the motion-picture business.


Some have argued that it was Mix’s heavy use of stunts, comedy, and outlandish Western garb that somehow stole away the Hart audience, an explanation that implies an increasing frivolity among postwar filmgoers. But it was not the individual moviegoers who changed. The adult audience who had supported the gravity of a Hart film like THE DARKENING TRAIL (1915) had long since abandoned the genre. Children now made up the bulk of the Western audience, and the relatively mature themes of the Hart films had little interest for them. Tom Mix, who offered “action and excitement spiced with a boyish sense of fun,” captured this young audience, and with it the Western market. The pattern held true in Europe as well. Mix’s films were “just the stuff for children,” wrote French film historians Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, who saw them drawing larger audiences than Hart even before the war ended. 55


Whatever his audience, Mix was highly successful in appealing to it throughout the mid 1920s. Benjamin Hampton claims grosses of as much as $600,000 to $800,000 for the peak Mix films, and since he was releasing seven or eight of them a year, his annual earnings must have compared quite favorably with those of even the most prominent dramatic or comedy stars. Hampton claims that Mix made more money for his studio than any other star, which would certainly justify the $17,000 weekly salary claimed for him by Fenin and Everson. 56


The appeal of a Mix film was straightforward and direct. In 1920 the Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia, which analyzed the story lines of one hundred recent features, said about THE CYCLONE (1920), in which Mix played a Canadian mountie:


The value of this production as an entertaining photoplay does not depend upon the plot of the story, which is basically trite, but upon the unusual treatment and especially the development of thrilling stunts of horsemanship for the star to perform. It is a simple and convenient plot upon which to build Tom Mix’s usual tricks. … One forgets the simplicity and trite ness of the plot in marvelling at the star’s agility ( Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia, pp. 78–79).


This analysis notes the film’s simplicity only as a limiting factor that is somehow overcome by Mix’s athletic ability. The powerful appeal of an uncomplicated narrative (and uncomplicated hero) is hardly considered. But it is precisely this quality that separated Mix from William S. Hart, and on which much of his appeal to unsophisticated audiences was based. While Hart offered the ambiguity of a “good bad man,” and emotionally wrenching “soul fights” from the pen of C. Gardner Sullivan, Mix avoided such dramatics. George Pratt reminds us that Mix knew his limitations as an actor and that he emphasized those roping and riding tricks that could show him off to best advantage. 57 Uncomplicated characterizations and simple narratives put no strain on his histrionic abilities and made his films much more accessible to young audiences.


Such behavior laid the foundation for the B-Western genre, a category identified not merely by budgetary limitations but by an entire Mix-inspired, “code of the West.” B-Western heroes inhabited a world without ambiguities, avoided romantic entanglements, lived clean American lives, and would rather rope a rustler than shoot him full of holes. 58 Like Tom Mix, they often sported outrageous dude-ranch versions of Western garb, fantasies of cowboy life that drew their inspiration from circuses and Wild West shows.


 

For Mix, it all led inevitably back to the circus (he toured with his own for several years before his death) and to life as a media cowboy in vaudeville, comic books, and radio. On the air, his “Ralston Straight Shooter Pledge” summed things up neatly: “I promise to shoot straight with Tom Mix by regularly eating good old Hot Ralston, the official Straight Shooter’s cereal, because I know Hot Ralston is just the kind of cereal that will help build a stronger America.” 59


Lillian Gish


To one observer, Lillian Gish was “a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard.” To another, “She seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Lillian Gish has long inspired her admirers to flights of romantic metaphor, with visions of pale blossoms and fluttering doves recurring over the decades as new audiences discover the rare delicacy and spirit in her performances. 60


But those who worked with her tend to remember another Gish: a committed artist so intensely wrapped up in her work that her very life might ebb before the cameras if the scene required it. King Vidor, who directed Gish in LA BOHÈME (1926), recalls with trepidation her ability to stop breathing while she played the death of Mimi. Arriving on the set parched and gray, she announced that “she had succeeded in removing all saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquids for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums even in her sleep.” When she breathed her last in the scene, Vidor could only think, “What will the headlines say?” 61


Gish was, of course, a disciple, some say a creation, of D. W. Griffith. From the time she and her sister, Dorothy, first appeared at the Biograph studio in 1912 (to visit their friend Mary Pickford) Lillian Gish was Griffith’s most important performing tool. From short films like THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912), through nearly all of his great features, Gish delivered the needed balance of strength and fragility. The heroines Griffith offered might have appeared helpless in the face of melodramatic onslaught, but they were not about to whimper and collapse. Sustained by an inner strength, they justified Griffith’s vision of a world in which spiritual values always overcame the forces that threatened them. The vision found its greatest exponent in Lillian Gish.


This notion was writ large in THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), HEARTS OF THE WORLD (1918), and ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1922). But consider Gish’s work in TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919), a nostalgic pastoral where her sacrifices go unnoticed and her opponent is only an uncaring city vamp. The same strength of character serves her here, and without the distractions of rides to the rescue, the clarity and sophistication of her performance are all the more evident.


Gish had remained with Griffith through the production of ORPHANS OF THE STORM, but he sent her out on her own when her fame began to exceed his financial resources. For Inspiration Pictures she made two lavish costume romances in Italy THE WHITE SISTER (1923) and ROMOLA (1925). Then, in 1925, she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for two years at $8,000 per week. From Griffith she had learned the importance of personally supervising each detail of her films, and the attention she lavished on her MGM pictures was soon the talk of Hollywood. She had left the West Coast five years earlier to work with Griffith in New York and had continued her career in Europe. Returning to Hollywood, she was shocked at the rigidity of studio production; the few films she supervised were made with such personal care and conviction that even then they seemed handcrafted and pre-industrial. 62


Her contract gave her not only the right to choose stories and directors but the ability to rehearse the entire film in advance, as Griffith did, and to employ such technicians as Henrik Sartov, the cinematographer whose gauze work enhanced her ethereal screen presence. 63 Such working methods were far from standard at MGM, and Mayer and Thalberg seemed unhappy, especially when the returns on her pictures proved disappointing.


Griffith had created for her an image of virginal purity, but at MGM Gish began to explore more mature characterizations. While her conception of the love scenes in LA BOHÈME (1926) was based on keeping the lovers always apart (playing on what she called their “suppressed emotion”), the next subject she selected was THE SCARLET LETTER (1926). Gish notes in her autobiography how this novel had found its way onto a censorial blacklist, and only her personal reputation silenced the pressure groups opposing the filming. 64


Choosing a Swedish director, Victor Seastrom, and a Swedish co-star, Lars Hanson, Gish succeeded in giving the picture the aura of the early Swedish cinema classics. Time and place became powerful characters, compensating for the necessarily delicate handling of the adultery theme. Gish continued with Seastrom and Hanson on THE WIND , now considered one of the finest of silent features but barely released in 1928 during the transition to sound. 65 By then MGM was actively trying to rid itself of Gish’s contract.


In a controversial discussion of MGM’s handling of Greta Garbo and Gish, Louise Brooks suggests that MGM tried to build up the Swedish actress (over whom they had more effective control) in an effort to damage Gish’s position in the industry. Not only was Gish earning a fabulous salary, but she was exercising the sort of control over her pictures that the studio preferred to reserve for itself. At one point, Louis B. Mayer asked her to sign, without legal consultation, a release that would take her off salary until the studio found a suitable vehicle for her. When she demurred, Mayer threatened, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you.” Gish made one last, ineffective film for MGM, then signed with United Artists for $50,000 a picture, a small fraction of her previous salary. 66


She returned to the stage, and to a social circle that included Joseph Hergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Carl Van Vechten. Although her later film appearances were few, she continued working into the 1990s as the last great survivor of her generation. Most remarkable of all, Lillian Gish became a roving ambassador for the silent cinema, traveling to distant campuses and film festivals with only one purpose—to bear witness to the “universal language” of film, so powerfully developed by her great director and friend, D. W. Griffith. 67


Gloria Swanson


Unlike the screen careers of Chaplin, Wallace Reid, and Theda Bara, that of Gloria Swanson does not display a conventional arc of achievement. Her stardom was not manufactured and presented to the public as a fait accompli, nor did she strive to perfect one particular image and cling to it for as long as popular taste allowed.


Instead, Swanson’s career progressed in a series of plateaus, as her image in 1915, 1918, and 1923 shifted from comedienne to ingenue to (occasional) tragedienne. But the evolution of her screen image was not the only extraordinary development in her career. In 1926 Swanson walked away from her $7,000 weekly salary and set up her own production company. She was not the only female star to attempt this, but Pickford and Talmadge could call on their husbands as business partners. Swanson was alone at the top. 68


Gloria Swanson began in films at the Essanay studio in Chicago in 1914. Signed as a stock player at $13.25 per week, the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl soon became a steady member of the company, making up each morning to play sophisticated characters twice her age. Chaplin was then at Essanay, and Swanson made a brief appearance in HIS NEW JOB (1915), but the comedian who really impressed her was Wallace Beery, who was starring in the SWEEDIE comedy series, transvestite slap-stick in which he appeared as a Swedish housemaid. They were married after Swanson transferred to Essanay’s Niles studio in California. The marriage was a disaster, but Swanson did follow Beery to the Sennett lot, where she won some success in a series of eight two-reelers for director Clarence Badger. Swanson, however, resisted being developed by Sennett as “a second Mabel Normand.” She broke with Sennett and abandoned the comedies on which her small reputation was entirely based. 69


In 1918 a reporter for the Motion Picture magazine caught up with her on the Triangle lot, where she had been appearing in melodramas for Frank Borzage and Jack Conway. Already Swanson referred to her comedies as mere “stepping stones”—useful preparation for dramatic vehicles to follow. She acknowledged the best of them but made it clear where she believed her future lay. Swanson appeared in eight of these Triangle features, most of which she denigrates in her autobiography. Many were simple exploitations of the current war hysteria, uncomfortably jingoistic and laced with absurd espionage plots. But her Triangle films did demonstrate that the public would accept Swanson in dramatic high-society roles, and they allowed her to build on the comic timing she had developed in her films with Badger. Cecil B. DeMille recognized this, and when Triangle collapsed he cast her in DON’T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND (1919), the first of his sex-obsessed postwar melodramas. 70


DeMille realized that he had found an average American girl who could wear clothes. He understood that the fashion in heroines was about to change and that options were now available other than the traditional virgin or vamp. Swanson would be his vehicle in fusing these two characters.


The six films they made together over the next two years, including MALE AND FEMALE (1919) and WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE ? (1920), offered a new female role model for postwar America, what Alexander Walker has called “the playmate wife,” a tantalizing figure who never really breaks the old taboos. 71 Swanson proved to be the one actress, even more than Bebe Daniels, whom DeMille could cloak in worldliness without obscuring the homelier American virtues underneath.


The team broke up when they became too expensive for each other, and Swanson began a long series of films for Sam Wood that seemed to endlessly repeat the formulas established by DeMille. Fleeing to Paramount’s East Coast studio in Astoria, New York, and working with Allan Dwan, she took over creative control of her pictures for the first time. She did her share of costume romances, notably ZAZA (1923), but brought new life to her career by tapping her experience in comedy for MANHANDLED (1924) and STAGE STRUCK (1925).


By 1926 she had been luxuriating in her East Coast isolation for three years and had come to see Hollywood as simply a factory town where the key decisions involving her career were being made by unsympathetic executives. That year, she broke with Paramount, rejecting a salary offer that, she later claimed, topped $1 million. 72


The establishment of Gloria Swanson Productions proved to be an organizational nightmare. Without adequate fiscal or technical advice, she needed to construct an entire corporate infrastructure, and production on her first film, THE LOVE OF SUNYA (1927), lagged far behind schedule. A move to Hollywood eased some of these problems, and she was able to restore much of her position with her next film, SADIE THOMPSON (1928). Unfortunately, a distracting affair with her business partner, Joseph P. Kennedy, combined with the painful production of QUEEN KELLY (1928–1929), an $800,000 exercise that was never domestically released, brought the era of her greatest popularity to an end. 73


In the decades that followed, Swanson was able to keep recasting her public image as businesswoman, artist, inventor, stage actress, food faddist, and occasional film star. In SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) she played the actress Norma Desmond, frozen into her silent-star image and surrounded by a set of “waxworks” equally trapped in their old roles—if somewhat less secure financially. But Swanson’s success at keeping herself in the public eye proved that she was no waxwork. As a teenager, she once told an interviewer, “I intend to work until I drop dead.” Sixty years later she was the last of the silent-screen stars still playing the part. 74


Pola Negri


In the wake of the formation of United Artists, Adolph Zukor faced a sudden shortage of star material. He had managed to hold onto William S. Hart, but the loss of Douglas Fairbanks, following the departure of Mary Pickford, made a decided impact on the top of the Paramount line. In addition to these key defectors, stars such as Norma Talmadge and Lillian Gish were also unavailable on the open market. A dangerous trend was brewing, and Zukor reacted in two ways. First, he orchestrated a publicity campaign announcing the decline of the importance of stars and began the production of so-called all-star pictures (in fact, these were no-star pictures). When this failed, he imported Pola Negri. 75


The Polish actress was the rage of the Continent following her appearance in a series of dramatic productions directed by Ernst Lubitsch, especially CARMEN (1918), MADAME DUBARRY (1919), and SUMURUN (1920). When DUBARRY (renamed PASSION ) opened at New York’s giant Capitol Theatre, record crowds marveled at Lubitsch’s control of mass action and were electrified by the fiery performance of Negri. Here was an actress who took risks, who threw herself into a role with terrifying enthusiasm, oblivious to the need for posing and primping so common to American screen actresses. American producers competed for Negri’s services throughout 1921, but when she arrived in New York the following year it was Zukor who held her contract. 76


Negri’s place in American film history has never been adequately evaluated. If mentioned at all, she is seen as a foil for Gloria Swanson, and the concocted “feud” between them (generated by the Paramount publicity office) is either taken at face value or treated as an example of period press-agentry. Negri is pictured as exotic and aloof, not in the acceptable Garbo manner, but as some Slavic version of Theda Bara. The impact of her presence in Hollywood is never seriously discussed. 77


How much of the Negri phenomenon was real and how much was purely manufactured? The exact financial returns on Negri’s pictures, as with most silent Paramount releases, are unavailable. While modern critics praise such films as FORBIDDEN PARADISE (1924), A WOMAN OF THE WORLD (1925), and BARBED WIRE (1927), most of her films were poorly reviewed, and gossip columnists periodically dropped hints that the public was tiring of her. But in 1926, after four years in Hollywood, she far out-polled her nearest rivals in a Motion Picture Classic popularity contest. Her contract had been renewed in 1925, when she signed for $7,500 per week, and in the following years it rose to $8,000 and then $10,000 per week. 78 Failed German imports Camilla Horn and Lya de Putti did not merit such treatment, and one can only conclude that Negri’s films generated adequate profits. Her problems lay elsewhere.


Negri was a product of the fervid Berlin theater and film scene in the late teens and early twenties, when she worked with Reinhardt, Lubitsch, and Jannings. She was the first of this group to go to Hollywood and probably the most self-consciously “artistic” of the lot. She was appalled at Hollywood’s backwater culture and frank in discussing her feelings with the American press, which suspiciously characterized her as “an intellectual” and “a reader of books.” Visiting British columnist Alice Williamson reported, “Pola is an exotic flower, transplanted to America, yet never completely rooted.” 79


Negri’s complaints about the poor quality of the roles she was offered were lost in the press coverage of her private life, especially her well-publicized romances with Chaplin and Valentino. A diva in the grand tradition, Negri rushed to Valentino’s New York funeral in a cascade of publicity and sent “$2,000 worth of blood-red roses woven into an eleven-foot-long by six-foot-wide carpet with ‘Pola’ picked out in white buds.” Her public collapse at the bier, the press hinted, was a pure media event, staged on cue for the newsreel cameras. 80


Despite such murmurs, Negri’s career continued to flourish, and HOTEL IMPERIAL (1927), released a few months after the funeral, was a tremendous hit. But less than a year after Valentino’s death, she married Prince Serge Mdivani. “My fan mail, formerly requiring a staff of secretaries to answer it, fell off to a series of abusive letters,” she wrote in her autobiography. "The American Valentino cult was determined to ruin me for daring to live a life that was not completely dedicated to the memory of Rudy. " 81 Whatever the reason (and the real situation in Hollywood was considerably more complex than Negri allows in her error-ridden book), her contract expired when talkies arrived in 1928 and was not renewed.


More than anyone else, Pola Negri lived the life of a silent-movie queen. Draped in emeralds and chinchilla, she rode through Hollywood in a white Rolls-Royce trimmed with ivory and upholstered in white velvet (the color scheme set off her dark eyes and hair). Other stars could match the opulence, but none could handle the style. Twenty years later, Billy Wilder offered her the role of Norma Desmond, the silent-screen star living with her memories in a decaying Sunset Boulevard palazzo. Negri threw him out. To burlesque her former triumphs would be irredeemably vulgar, and even the suggestion was insulting. Gloria Swanson was less particular. She had better judgment, of course, but Swanson never did have the real Negri style. 82


Rudolph Valentino


Rudolph Valentino has become the cultural historians’ most popular icon of silent-screen stardom, and with good reason. More than sixty years after his death, when the face of Norma Talmadge has been forgotten and few can name the title of a single Mary Pickford film, Valentino’s recognition factor remains surprisingly high. It does not seem to matter that the accuracy of this Valentino image is considerably askew, battered by a series of inept screen biographies, and not very well served by a string of more traditional literary works. That Irving Shulman should be acclaimed the most accurate of his many biographers is a telling revelation. 83


Valentino died at a peak in his popularity. Stories of the riot at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home and newsreels of the endless procession of black limousines have become a standard reference point in any cultural history of the twenties. 84 Far outlasting the fan clubs of his contemporaries, Valentino Memorial Societies have operated continuously for decades.


But there is a strange dichotomy between Valentino’s place in American culture and his standing among silent-film specialists. Kevin Brownlow, for example, admits that Valentino made more bad films than good and that only the force of his personality transcended the “romantic kitsch” of his material. Anthony Slide, meanwhile, derides the screen personality as well as the filmed material, at least the largest portion of it. 85 How can this situation be explained?


The posthumous passion for James Dean was fueled by a small group of highly successful films periodically reissued to new converts, but Valentino’s body of work died with silent pictures. To the average modern viewer, his acting style is incomprehensible. “Today scenes from The Sheik make us laugh,” writes David Carroll, author of a popular survey entitled The Matinee Idols. “We watch as Valentino bulges his eyes at Agnes Ayres, walks around her like a dog circling a veal cutlet, and pulls her headfirst into his tent.” 86


Although a few of his films have their supporters, Valentino’s ongoing recognition does not draw its strength from this direction. Nor is the death cult entirely responsible. Rather, we need to consider how the image of Valentino changed the way America looked at its heroes, both on and off the screen. It is this offscreen dimension that keeps the Valentino legend alive, even when his own pictures are scorned and derided.


When the Motion Picture magazine published the final results of the “Motion Picture Hall of Fame” popularity contest in December 1918, there were five male stars listed in the top ten: Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lockwood, William S. Hart, Wallace Reid, and Francis X. Bushman. It would be hard to find a more clean-living group of ail-Americans (at least onscreen). William S. Hart might occasionally play an outlaw, but only to demonstrate the fine, essentially American virtues underneath. 87


The same year, the Motion Picture Studio Directory, a trade annual, carried a professional advertisement for "Rodolfo Di Valentina—Playing a New Style Heavy. " The new style referred to the sophisticated rotter played by Valentino in THE MARRIED VIRGIN (1918), his first major role. As Count Roberto di San Fraccini, he is a blackmailing adventurer romancing both mother and step-daughter. This foreigner who cloaks his designs behind a charming facade is not unrelated to von Stroheim’s "man you love to hate " of the same period. The following year, in A ROGUE’S ROMANCE, Valentino (previously a professional dancer) played the small role of a sinister apache dancer. The cliché of the Parisian underworld apache, drenched in treat-‘em-rough machismo, fitted Valentino like a glove. When the powerful screenwriter June Mathis saw him take roles like these and transform stock villains or seducers into attractive figures of raw sexual energy, she cast him in the leading role of her latest and most important project. 88


The American cultural scene was changing rapidly by 1921. That year the new-style heavy electrified a nation as the new-style hero of THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE A POCALYPSE (1921). Working closely with director Rex Ingram, June Mathis developed a script that not only satisfied readers of the Ibáñez novel but consciously carved a new niche in the romantic pantheon for their extraordinary discovery. Alexander Walker has outlined the film’s canny arrangement of grand emotional episodes, which highlighted Valentino in scenes of aggressive sexuality, seduction, rejection, and reconciliation. 89


Valentino was not always so lucky in his vehicles, but later the same year his role in THE SHEIK (1921) cemented his claim as king of exotic costume romance. As Theda Bara brought the kohl-eyed vamp into the culture of the teens, so Valentino, riding the crest of an incipient vogue for orientalism, launched the twenties passion for sheiks. The difference was, of course, that to love Valentino was not to die but to be reborn in a paroxysm of liberated bliss. Traditional rules of etiquette were served by clever little plot twists, but who in the audience remembered or cared that Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan had been a European all along?


When Valentino died suddenly in 1926, he was about to release his latest film, a sequel to THE SHEIK that contained more than a little self-mocking humor. SON OF THE SHEIK (1926) demonstrated that he was quite able to step outside his manufactured image, analyze the Valentino mystique with tongue firmly in cheek, and still give the public what it desired. The film proved to be his greatest popular success in years, but how much of this can be traced to his own talents and how much to the outlandish notoriety surrounding his death is still an unresolved question.


Buster Keaton


Many vaudevillians and music-hall comedians were attracted to the cinema during the silent era, from Charlie Chaplin and Harry Langdon to Stan Laurel and W. C. Fields. Most were content to transfer the style or character of their theater work to the screen in relatively unchanged fashion. In Chaplin’s case, this meant inserting more mood and characterization into his films than Mack Sennett felt comfortable with. For Langdon or Fields, it was an opportunity to film the most popular of their stage routines. Only Buster Keaton took the trouble to master the essential mechanics of the cinema. From the day he first set foot in Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s studio, he began to study the function of the camera in screen comedy. Where other comics were content to record their own performances on film, Keaton involved the camera (and all other technical elements of the cinema) as a key participant, not just an observer.


While an artist and craftsman of consummate skill, Keaton was politically and socially unable to play the Hollywood game. When working conditions were good, he produced the most graceful and hilarious of his films; when conditions were bad, he drew a blank. Control of those conditions was typically shaped by a more experienced friend or associate, one who could set up a production situation within which Buster could operate, thus freeing him from administrative details and allowing him, if he so desired, to continue spending his time on impromptu baseball games.


Arbuckle was the first of these mentors. In 1917 he invited Keaton, who had recently broken up the family act, “The Three Keatons,” to join his Comicque Film Company in New York City. Keaton writes in his autobiography:


Roscoe … took the camera apart for me so I would understand how it worked and what it could do. He showed me how film was developed, cut, and then spliced together. But the greatest thing to me about picturemaking was the way it automatically did away with the physical limitations of the theatre. On the stage, even one as immense as the New York Hippodrome stage, one could show only so much ( My Wonderful World of Slapstick, p. 93).


Showing everything soon became a Keaton trademark. Under Arbuckle’s tutelage, Keaton quickly learned to build on the mock violence and knockabout of his vaudeville act. The contained pratfalls of the stage comedian soon grew into the expansive, sweeping trajectories of films like OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) and SEVEN CHANCES (1925), with cinematic time and space completely at the service of extended gag sequences. 90


It was Joseph Schenck who made it possible for Keaton to develop these skills on his own. Schenck had been producing Arbuckle’s films and noted Keaton’s growing success in the short films made between 1917 and 1919. When Arbuckle moved to features, Schenck promoted Keaton to head Arbuckle’s unit, where Keaton continued to work with much of his familiar technical staff and supporting company. Keaton had married Natalie Talmadge, the sister of Schenck’s wife, Norma, and the business relationship took on the cozy familiarity of a family affair. Keaton flourished under this supportive arrangement, and his series of two-reelers quickly established him as the screen’s fastest-rising young comedian. During 1921 and 1922, when Chaplin films were few and far between, a new Keaton two-reeler was onscreen every other month. In 1923 Keaton himself moved to features, although not until he released THE NAVIGATOR (1924) did he have a hit of sizable proportions.


Modern acclaim tends to obscure the fact, but in box-office terms Keaton’s films were not in the same league as those of Chaplin and Lloyd. Keaton’s contract paid him a salary of only $1,000 per week, plus 25 percent of the profits of his pictures, but these were slim and occasionally nonexistent. Keaton was so careless of the economic organization of his own production company that he did not even own any stock in it—Schenck family interests owned most of the shares. 91


Joseph Schenck became a partner in United Artists in 1924 and president two years later. All of Keaton’s features had been distributed through Metro or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but Schenck moved him over to United Artists and gave the go-ahead for Keaton’s most ambitious production, THE GENERAL (1927). In his scrupulous account of Keaton’s finances, Tom Dardis shows how the film, now regarded as perhaps the single greatest achievement of silent comedy, was both a critical and commercial failure in 1927. Two additional United Artists features, COLLEGE (1927) and STEAMBOAT BILL , J R. (1928), were nearly as disappointing. Unable to continue backing the sagging Keaton production company, Schenck advised the comedian to move his operation to MGM. In later years, Keaton told Kevin Brownlow Page 304  (and everyone else who asked) that this move was “the biggest mistake of my life.” Here, his old unit dissolved, he was assigned a production supervisor, and MGM screenwriters dared to concoct his scripts. While the first of these films, THE CAMERAMAN (1928), was certainly up to standard, no critics today will defend the later MGM features (1929–1933) against the earlier output. (David Robinson, for example, does not even include the post-1929 titles in his Keaton filmography.) Keaton’s lack of involvement is palpable, but his own personal problems, especially his growing alcoholism, must bear most of the responsibility. The chief irony, as Dardis points out, is that most of these films were highly profitable and that Keaton was for the first time earning the salary of a major star, $3,000 per peek. But as Keaton’s life continued to disintegrate, his position at MGM grew impossible, and he began a long and ultimately pitiful decline. 92


Happily, however, Buster Keaton became the first great screen artist to be rehabilitated through film restoration. After decades as a Hollywood ghost, he got a tumultuous reception at the 1965 Venice Film Festival that not only restored his own reputation but helped trigger a wholesale reassessment of the entire silent era, a period that had suffered as much as he had from many years of patronization and neglect.


Harold Lloyd


Harold Lloyd was not only the most popular comedian of the 1920s but, by the close of the silent era, the biggest box-office draw in motion pictures. He far outgrossed Buster Keaton (whose best films, as we have seen, sometimes lost money) and surpassed even Chaplin over the long run, since there was always at least one new Lloyd feature each year. Richard Schickel reminds us that when Variety ranked the twenty wealthiest members of the entertainment industry in 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on the list. While his decline in popularity was rapid when the industry converted to sound, it seems strange that Lloyd was so quickly consigned to oblivion in the classic film histories. Lewis Jacobs, for example, mentions Lloyd only in passing in The Rise of the American Film, a book that devoted an entire chapter to Chaplin. 93


In his introduction to the 1971 reissue of Lloyd’s 1928 autobiography, Museum of Modern Art curator Richard Griffith suggested an explanation for the dearth of interest:


The lack of a definitive late book on Lloyd reflects the disesteem in which he has traditionally been held by the movie highbrows. They do not like his optimism. His calculated comedy methods have been labelled “mechanical” and let go at that. His wealth and success have naturally been held against him. But it’s the optimism which chiefly sticks in the highbrow craw and accounts for the continued fundamental lack of interest in him and the continued rating of him below Chaplin, Keaton, and even Langdon. Weltschmerz is hard to find in him, and of course essential ( An American Comedy, p. v).


Griffith wrote this just a few years too soon. Not only would the film-book explosion of the 1970s and 1980s produce several important studies of Lloyd and his work, but the public mood itself began to change dramatically; eventually, it became difficult to find anyone who would hold Lloyd’s prosperity and optimism against him. Lloyd’s bespectacled “glass” character was the quintessential achiever in the era of Harding normalcy and Coolidge prosperity. Onscreen, he applied wit, perseverance, and guile in an exhausting effort to better himself and achieve the American dream. Offscreen, Lloyd made it clear that comedy-making was a business with him, and in discussing his work with reporters, he concentrated almost exclusively on the mechanics of gag construction. He pioneered “scientific” methods of audience research that included charting gags and plotting viewers’ chuckles and titters on elaborate graphs. Using this data to recut and reshape his features, he crafted them into laugh-provoking entertainments of unparalleled efficiency. Lloyd was never the critics’ darling, but he did earn the most laughs and the most money. He was the Steven Spielberg of silent comedy. 94


Of all the major silent comedians, Lloyd was the only one with no prior reputation as a stage comic. In fact, his theater experience was limited to backwater stock companies, and when he entered films it was not as a featured player but as an extra. He fell in with another extra, Hal Roach, who was about to set himself up as a producer on the strength of a small inheritance. When he began working for Roach in 1915, Lloyd looked around at the other comedians onscreen and saw a collection of clowns in funny costumes and makeups. There were remnants of the ethnic stereotypes of vaudeville days, fat comics and thin comics, an assortment of ill-fitting suits and pants, and a forest of pasted-on moustaches. He stole from the best. “Chaplin was going great guns,” Lloyd remembered, “his success such that unless you wore funny clothes and otherwise aped him you were not a comedian. Exhibitors who could not get the original demanded imitations.” Lloyd created the character of “Lonesome Luke,” an inverted Chaplin figure. “All his clothes were too large, mine were too small. My shoes were funny, but different; my moustache funny, but different.” This “the same only different” policy was already a Hollywood tradition and served Lloyd admirably. Lonesome Luke earned his niche among the slapstick clowns by the speed and violence of his routines and his willingness to suffer outrageous amounts of pain. 95


But in 1917 Lloyd and Roach dropped Lonesome Luke, substituting a new character whose mannerisms were completely natural and whose costumes were comfortably off the rack. A pair of black horn-rimmed glasses completed the look, and the famous Lloyd “glass character” was born. With the stylized Sennett tradition already fading, the situation comedy based on realistic characters and events took its place. Lloyd’s genius was to shape his character in such a way that it seemed to merge with the postwar generation’s developing self-image.


The twenties adopted Lloyd as a special icon. IN SAFETY LAST (1923) his character hopes to rise to the top of the department-store business, a dream that comes true when Harold is forced to climb the outside of the building. The shot of Lloyd dangling from a clock face in this film is the most famous image in silent comedy. It prefigures another twenties image of worker and clock in Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS , but with characteristic American humor and optimism. Produced for $120,963, the film grossed twelve times its negative cost, $1,588,545. 96 THE FRESHMAN (1925), Lloyd’s contribution to the decade’s collegiate mania, earned even more.


Many suggestions have been offered to explain Lloyd’s decline after 1928, from poor material to his own inability to continue playing the same character, eternally youthful and optimistic. What has been overlooked is that Harold Lloyd, like the jaunty boater he often sported, was an ingrained element of twenties culture. Depression-era America turned its back on all that, and blotted out its love affair with artists like Lloyd—as Richard Griffith noted, not enough Weltschmerz.


Clara Bow


Did film make any real contribution to twentieth-century American culture? Most standard history texts are silent on the issue, but those that do mention the movies have a tendency to emphasize three common points: THE BIRTH OF A NATION , THE JAZZ SINGER , and Clara Bow. 97 For example, in Frank Freidel’s America in the Twentieth Century, the impact of the cinema is reduced to the following:


Motion pictures flamboyantly heralded the new moral code and together with tabloid papers helped fabricate false stereotypes of the period. An estimated 50 million people a week went to theaters to see the “It” girl, Clara Bow, the glamorous Rudolph Valentino, comedian Charlie Chaplin, gangster pictures, Westerns, and great spectacles like the first film version of The Ten Commandments (America in the Twentieth Century [New York: Knopf, 1976], p. 154).


A further line about THE JAZZ SINGER and the obligatory early mention of THE BIRTH OF A NATION are the limit of this text’s acknowledgment of the motion picture. Other volumes might alter the supporting players, but Clara Bow, the “It” girl, remains a constant. When she died in 1965, her obituary was carried on the front page of the New York Times. “More than any other woman entertainer of her time,” the paper wrote, "Clara Bow perhaps best personified the giddier aspects of an unreal era, the Roaring Twenties.’ " 98


One would expect to see this importance reflected in numerous critical studies, monographs, and retrospectives, but such is definitely not the case. Clara Bow may be the cultural historians’ idea of a silent star, but she rates hardly a mention from most film specialists. Only three years after her death, Kevin Brownlow published his massive, wide-ranging study of the silent film The Parade’s Gone By … , a work that focuses closely on individual careers. Yet Clara Bow is not mentioned. 99


There seems to be quite a difference of opinion here, and it turns on the real significance of Bow’s position as a prototypical flapper. Colleen Moore was certainly the first to establish the screen archetype of the flapper, as early as 1923 in FLAMING YOUTH . She was far more articulate than Bow, and with her own producing company, she had a degree of control over her roles to which Bow never even aspired. But Bow ensured her place in history in more spectacular ways. First, while Colleen Moore led a relatively decorous offscreen life, Clara Bow, in Adolph Zukor’s words, “was exactly the same off the screen as on.” The rambunctious swath she cut through the film community—one must turn to Hollywood Babylon for a full account—seemed a casebook study of the “new moral code” and its “false stereotypes.” 100 More important, Bow was targeted by Elinor Glyn as the prime female possessor of “It,” a fantastically successful promotional gambit that outlived Glyn and overwhelmed anything else one might say about Bow.


Madame Glyn, author of the scandalous best-seller Three Weeks (published in 1907 and filmed at least twice, most notably in 1924), had taken on herself the mission of instructing Hollywood society in proper standards of civilized behavior. Appalled by the various levels of vulgarity she found in Hollywood, Glyn formulated the concept of “It,” an attractive aura of poise and self-confidence that she found all too rare among American film stars:


To have “It,” the fortunate possessor must have that strange magnetism which attracts both sexes. “It” is a purely virile quality, belonging to a strong character. He or she must be entirely unself-conscious and full of self-confidence, indifferent to the effect he or she is producing, and uninfluenced by others. There must be physical attraction, but beauty is unnecessary. Conceit or self-consciousness destroys “It” immediately (quoted in James Robert Parish, The Paramount Pretties, p. 65).


For Madame Glyn, Clara Bow, Antonio Moreno, Rex the Wonder Horse, and the doorman at the Ambassador Hotel were the only possessors of “It” in Hollywood. 101


“It” did nothing for the other three but soon came to dominate the life and career of Clara Bow, which until then had been largely unexceptional. In 1921 she had entered one of many beauty contests then being sponsored by the fan magazines, from which she emerged with a screen test and a part in a real movie. Her scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor, but she eventually came under contract to B. P. Schulberg, a former Paramount executive then operating the “Poverty Row” studio, Preferred Pictures. Schulberg used her in some of his own films and skillfully built up her value by loaning her out to other producers. In 1924 she appeared in eight features, and in 1925 she was seen in fourteen, including Lubitsch’s KISS ME AGAIN for Warners. When Schulberg rejoined Paramount late in 1925, he brought Bow with him, and with first-class stories, co-stars, and production values her popularity soared.


Surviving Bow films, especially MANTRAP (1926), KID BOOTS GET YOUR MAN (1927), and RED HAIR (1928), show a natural comedienne, blending sexiness and humor in a tradition later developed by Carole Lombard. 102 This accessible, home-grown sexuality, radiating the special magnetism that so captured the likes of Elinor Glyn, did offer a new screen vision of the American woman. But the whole “It girl” idea was so bound up with the ethos of the 1920s that Depression-era audiences rejected it, and Bow’s career ended in 1933. It seems that the icons of one age can quickly become the “false stereotypes” of the next.


John Gilbert


By the time of Rudolph Valentino’s death, the mantle of “great lover” had already begun to pass to a local contender, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s popular new star John Gilbert. Gilbert had been working in pictures for a decade, first as a bit player at Inceville, later as a writer and director, and by the early twenties as the lead in a series of inexpensive melodramas for William Fox. But even his elegant performance in John Ford’s CAMERO KIRBY (1923) had failed to arouse much public response. In 1924 Gilbert moved to the new MGM, and his sudden acclaim for films such as HIS HOUR (1924) and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED made him seem an overnight success. Even his daughter’s scrupulously researched biography talks of Gilbert’s “meteoric rise,” but Gilbert had in fact spent years working his way up from within the industry. His career was no comet.


Release of THE MERRY WIDOW and THE BIG PARADE in 1925 firmly established his popularity as well as his value to MGM. Although his onscreen lovemaking was as dark and passionate as Valentino’s, Gilbert projected an entirely different image of a romantic idol. As Alexander Walker has noted, Gilbert was able to appeal romantically to the females in the audience without alienating their male companions. The hearty, good-natured American values that he projected made him the first successful link between the romantic traditions of Valentino and Wallace Reid. Clark Gable, whose early career crossed Gilbert’s more than once, would inherit this crown when Gilbert’.s star faded. 104


Gilbert himself identified his career with Valentino’s, admiring his rival’s natural acceptance of fame and adulation. 105 According to King Vidor, who directed five Gilbert features between 1924 and 1926 and was a close friend, Gilbert was never able to handle the emotional stress that came with Hollywood celebrity:


Jack Gilbert was an impressionable fellow, not too well established in a role of his own in life. The paths he followed in his daily life were greatly influenced by the parts that some scriptwriter had written for him. When he began to read the publicity emanating from his studio which dubbed him the “great lover,” his behavior in real life began to change accordingly. It was a difficult assignment to live up to (A Tree Is a Tree, p. 134).


Gilbert was not the only Hollywood star to behave in an erratic and self-destructive fashion, but the reasons for his ultimate decline seem directly bound up with his personal and emotional problems. He made more than his share of powerful enemies (most notably Louis B. Mayer), while his romantic entanglements with such stars as Greta Garbo, Leatrice Joy, and Ina Claire, the last two of whom he married, seem hopelessly neurotic and immature. When a crisis in his career developed, he had no professional or emotional support to help survive it. 106


It is a convention of Hollywood history that John Gilbert’s career was destroyed by the talkies, but why this was allowed to happen is still a controversial issue. Critics report that audiences laughed at his lovemaking in the first talkie he released, HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT (1929), but the conclusion that his voice was at fault is no longer generally accepted. Rather, Gilbert seems to have been the victim of inappropriate scripting and direction. As Vidor suggests, “The literal content of his scenes, which in silent films had been imagined, was too intense to put into spoken words.” In other words, we can see now that the laughter over Gilbert’s repeated “I love you. I love you. I love you” in this film was directed not at his vocal quality but at his dialogue, something not understood at the time. 107


Supporters of a conspiracy theory lay the blame at the feet of Louis B. Mayer. According to this group, Mayer had sworn to destroy Gilbert as early as 8 September 1926, when the actor assaulted him over an insult to Greta Garbo, whom Gilbert was scheduled to marry that day. When talkies arrived, Mayer took advantage of the confusion to sabotage Gilbert’s films and ruin his career. “You make that picture and   make it lousy,” he ordered the director of HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT , at least according to Louise Brooks. 108


In 1928 Gilbert had renewed his contract for three years, at the fabulous sum of $250,000 per picture, with a guarantee of two pictures per year. Bypassing Mayer altogether, he had made this contract directly with Nicholas Schenck in Loew’s New York office. There was no provision for a sound test in the agreement, and it was practically unbreakable. Alexander Walker suggests that Schenck agreed to such generous terms in order to keep Gilbert from going to United Artists. He needed Gilbert on the lot to sweeten the value of the shares he was negotiating to sell to William Fox, then in the midst of his failed attempt to purchase control of Loew’s. 109


If Mayer had wanted to destroy Gilbert’s career, why wait two years to begin work? Why not demolish him before contract-renewal time, instead of after? Mayer had a 10 percent share of the profits of Gilbert’s films, and Irving Thalberg had 5 percent. 110 Why would these men—and it was Thalberg who supervised production, not Mayer—cut their own throats at a time of chaos in the industry?


The conspiracy buffs attribute too much wisdom and foresight to Mayer. The fact is, most silent stars were very badly presented in their early talkies, even those producing their own films. Pickford, Gish, Swanson, Talmadge, Lloyd, Keaton, and Gilbert were only some of those whose talking picture debuts were far below their usual standard. Only Garbo and Chaney, who chose to make eccentric talkie debuts, came through unscathed.


John Gilbert was a victim of the inability of Hollywood’s best minds to predict a method of pushing silent stars into the age of talkies. Any vendetta on the part of Louis B. Mayer was simply another nail in the coffin.


Louise Brooks


There is one actress who is destined to succeed Gloria Swanson some day in the hearts of movie fans. And, to our way of thinking, that actress is Louise Brooks. Her work in A Social Celebrity was a revelation. This girl has charm, experience, looks, personality, and BRAINS (Exhibitor’s Trade Review, 18 June 1926, p. 2).


In a sense, Louise Brooks did ultimately supplant Swanson in the hearts of movie fans, at least those who combined their nostalgia with a strong taste for the outré and the exotic. But the celebrity that Brooks achieved bears little relation to the Hollywood stardom of Norma Talmadge, Pola Negri, or Gloria Swanson. In her heyday at Paramount (1925–1928) Brooks made few magazine covers, seldom achieved featured billing, and not infrequently appeared in support of W. C. Fields or Wallace Beery.


By no objective standard could Brooks be considered one of the major stars of the silent era, but today her status is unique. What historian Lotte Eisner once called “the miracle of Louise Brooks” became in the 1980s “the phenomenon of Louise Brooks.” At a time not especially interested in silent film, a passion for Brooks and her work spread from a small circle of admirers to a broad international public. She became The New Yorker’s favorite silent-film star, published a surprisingly popular memoir, and saw festivals of her most obscure work reach museum screens around the world. In 1989 a 600-page biography exhaustively detailed her on- and off-screen career. 111 Nonetheless, to view the silent film through the image of Louise Brooks is a substantial recasting of history.


Many reputations fall and rise over the years, but Brooks’s renewed popularity was a rare instance of a major reordering of critical priorities. From the status of a minor entertainer, Brooks emerged as an icon of the decade. How this happened is not nearly so important as what it means to the study of film as a living art.


Initially, what critical reputation Brooks possessed was based on two films she made in Germany for G. W. Pabst, PANDORA’S BOX (1929) and DIARY OF A LOST GIRL (1929). Heavily censored and never widely released, they were known only to the cognescenti, who treasured the few prints collected in scattered archives. In her discussion of Pabst’s work in The Haunted Screen, Lotte Eisner appears to give most of the credit for the success of these films to Brooks. “Her gifts of profound intuition may seem purely passive to an inexperienced audience,” Eisner wrote, “yet she succeeded in stimulating an otherwise unequal director’s talent to the extreme.” 112


Brooks had entered film in 1925. Prior to this she had toured as a dancer with the Denishawn Company (1922–1924), then appeared in Broadway revues for George White and Florenz Ziegfeld. Her first films were made for Paramount in New York, but even the best of them, such as Frank Tuttle’s LOVE ‘EM AND LEAVE ’EM (1926), fail to take full advantage of her radiant blend of innocence and sensuality. Nor is there much awareness of the character and intelligence in her face and eyes. In most of these films she is a traditional ingenue.


Her films improved when she transferred to Paramount’s Hollywood studio in 1927–1928, but the quality of her roles stayed about the same. Howard Hawks cast her as an anachronistic femme fatale in A GIRL IN EVERY PORT (1928), and only in BEGGARS OF LIFE (1928) did she have a role that brought out some of the contradictory elements of her screen personality. Tired of Hollywood life and the parts she was offered, Brooks left Paramount when the opportunity to work for Pabst arrived.


At a time when talent was flowing from Europe to Hollywood, Louise Brooks became one of the first to reverse the trend. She walked into the history books, but she also walked out on her professional career. Eisner, Ado Kyrou, and the others who rediscovered Brooks in the early 1950s were not very interested in these early films, and they certainly thought nothing of the few pathetic roles she landed when she returned to America. 113 But with their help, and that of James Card at Rochester’s George Eastman House, the new Brooks legend began to spread. Articles by Brooks appearing in such journals as Sight and Sound and Film Culture, reports of her strange exile in Rochester, triggered further interest. By the time of Kenneth Tynan’s 1979 New Yorker profile, the public at large was ready for a Louise Brooks revival.


This acclaim was without direct parallel in film history. Revivals of interest in Humphrey Bogart, W. C. Fields, and Busby Berkeley were based on bodies of work widely applauded in their day, but Brooks had never made more than a minor splash. Artists or composers could pass their careers in silence, only to be “discovered” decades later, but until recently film lacked this kind of memory. Only when the work of scholars and archivists was sufficiently developed could such a reconsideration occur. That Brooks finally supplanted Gloria Swanson is due in no small measure to their efforts.

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