originally published October 17, 2013
If you swim deep enough into the swampy murk of Hollywood’s trench-laden ego, you might come across a tiny pulse of insecurity. To have one’s performance captured on celluloid (or digital film, but that doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as ‘celluloid’) is to have a date with immortality. Humphrey Bogart’s regal swagger lives on in Blu-Ray and DVD more than fifty years after his all-too-mortal lungs offered forth their final breaths.
But just how immortal is Hollywood stardom? Most people under 30 would have no problem picking James Dean or Marilyn Monroe out of a lineup, but how many could discern Lana Turner from Olivia de Havilland, or Van Heflin from Robert Ryan? These were potent stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but today they only resonate with scholars, trivia geeks, and those dwindling few who still love a great story told in black and white, and feel it’s important to read the credits.
I happily plunk myself in all three of the above pigeon-holes. And as someone whose own so-called artistic immortality is a lock only as long as people yearn to read love letters to bacon, I sympathize with the icons of silver screen past, in particular those who had mastered their craft enough to warrant an on-going legacy. So staple these photos to the underside of your skull and keep them in your hearts – these are the mighty ladies of Hollywood’s earliest years.
It would be hard to find a more important woman in the nascent days of movies than Mary Pickford. She was the first starlet of moving pictures, edged out only slightly by Charlie Chaplin when it came to outright popularity throughout the 1910’s and 20’s. In 1916 she signed a deal with Adolph Zukor (the guy who would later build the mountain known as Paramount Studios) for $500 a week, which is over $10,000 in today’s dollars.
Mary was not only brilliant in front of a camera, she was ambitious and business-smart – not traits that were often encouraged in a culture that wouldn’t even let a woman step up to the ballot box. Along with the biggest stars of the era – Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith – Mary founded United Artists, an independent film company that would enable her to produce and distribute her movies as she wished.
The talkies quashed her acting career, but she remained active as a producer and an advocate for people in the industry. Along with Fairbanks she was also half of Hollywood’s first power couple. Before there was Brangelina there was Maryglous Pickbanks. Or something.
Suddenly Princess Leia’s metal bikini looks a little conservative. That’s Theda Bara, perhaps the movie world’s greatest tragedy in terms of cinematic immortality. Theda was big in pictures before the first cameras started rolling in Hollywood – her story dates back to the medium’s beginnings on the east coast. As motion pictures became a mightier pillar of our culture, Theda became the screen’s first sex symbol, sporting outfits that the stick-up-ass Hays Code would ban from pictures two decades later.
In her prime, Theda was earning $4000 a week – somewhere around $85k in 2013 bucks. She was sold to the public as a mysterious ‘vamp’, born in Egypt to a French actress and her Italian sculptor husband. The truth – that she was born to a Jewish tailor in Cincinnati – wouldn’t have played as well to her image as the Vamp. She retired from movies before talkies were invented, yet because of a fire at Fox’s New Jersey film vault, only six of her 40+ films have survived.
I admit it, I have always had a somewhat irrational crush on Lillian Gish. She was launched to fame by the first director of blockbuster narratives, D.W. Griffith, appearing in the tragically racist Birth Of A Nation, the big-budget Intolerance, and the intensely dark Broken Blossoms. Unlike most silent actresses, Lillian continued working long past the introduction of synchronized sound, earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1946’s Duel In The Sun.
In fact, Lillian kept working past her 93rd birthday, appearing in The Whales Of August in 1987 alongside Bette Davis. She never married and never had kids, leaving the bulk of her estate to the Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize for “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” Dorothy was Lillian’s little sister, also a star of the silent era.
Clara Bow was the sex symbol of the 1920’s, earning the title of “The It Girl”, partly because she was sexy enough to warrant a catchy nickname and partly because her first big role was in the film It, which had nothing to do with scary clowns in sewer grates.
Clara walked into a studio chief’s office wearing her high school uniform in 1923, and within a year she was the queen of the flappers, blurring traditional gender lines with a wide swath of roles. By the end of the decade she was hauling in huge dollars and starring in Wings, the first movie to be awarded a Best Picture Oscar. And then suddenly she was gone. She married actor Rex Bell in 1931 and took off to Nevada, retiring from the industry.
It was almost as though all of Hollywood was swapped out when the new era of talking pictures ran through the door, some actually by choice.
Not all silent actresses needed to be adept at dramatic gazes and/or pulling off sexy wardrobe choices. There was room among the comedic titans of the era for a female presence, albeit in a supporting role. Edna Purviance met Charlie Chaplin in 1915 when he was entering his most creative period, working with Essanay Studios. Edna was a secretary, but Charlie saw something in her.
Okay, yes, he probably wanted to sleep with her. And the two were romantically involved for a number of years. But she was also a terrific comic foil for Chaplin, and she demonstrated this in more than thirty of his most revered films, including The Pawnshop, Easy Street, The Immigrant, and his 1921 masterpiece, The Kid.
Edna retired from movies in 1927, but Charlie kept her on the payroll until her death from throat cancer in 1958. She was more than a Hollywood fling in his eyes.
These ladies were a part of a magical time, when being a Hollywood starlet meant parties, romance, and the outward sheen of glamor, back before an over-inflated media felt we needed to know about every flaw in our matinee idols’ character. And while today they may only be names on the very outer fringe of our cultural awareness, they all made some rather kick-ass films, and actually earned their place at the top of the heap.
Certainly they’re worth remembering.