Day 997: Hollywood’s Original A-List, Part II

originally published September 23, 2014

Last year I penned a heartfelt tribute to Lilian Gish and that first generation of cinematic ladies who made male hearts swoon, back when it was still gentlemanly to swoon in mixed company. Alas, the big bold number at the top of this article threatens an accusation of sexism if I don’t supply that article’s flip-side in short order. So here you go: five sploosh-worthy gents who first glued eyes to screens.

It’s important to note that the qualifications for being a sex symbol in the 1910’s were somewhat different than today. Washboard abs were barely an asset; Fatty Arbuckle was a lady’s man and he had the body shape of a Barbapapa. Acting back then was all in the eyes, and it was to the eyes that our attention was drawn. I suspect that in 1914, Channing Tatum’s beady greens wouldn’t have made the cut.

The style of acting required for silent film is truly unique; no one knew (or cared) whether these men could sing, or if their voices sounded like a sack of wet noodles being dragged through a frog’s trachea. We say that Hollywood is superficially mired in its obsession with physical looks today (seriously, why has every on-screen cop since Andy Sipowicz been traditionally attractive?), but back then looks was all they had. Looks, and the ability to brood on cue. Gotta have that brooding glare.

Those eyes will look into your soul, rearrange the contents therein and leave you a changed person. This is Sessue Hayakawa, and he was causing hearts to throb before literally any other Hollywood star. In his time – which began about a hundred years ago – he was as popular and beloved to audiences as Charlie Chaplin. Born in Tokyo, Sessue broke down racial barriers before the paint had even dried on their walls. He refused any role that perpetuated schlocky Asian stereotypes, and was thusly thrust into the spotlight when Cecil B. DeMille cast him as the romantic lead in 1915’s The Cheat.

Sessue started his own production company, produced 23 films of his own and became incredibly wealthy, yet his name strikes almost zero chords of recognition today. I just finished a degree in film studies and I’d never heard his name uttered in one lecture. The only performance of Sessue’s that I’ve seen is the one that netted him an Oscar nomination, as Colonel Saito in Bridge On The River Kwai. In fact, many of his films are considered to be lost today. But back in the day? He could raise the barometric pressure inside a theatre full of ladies with one coy stare at the camera.

Now here was a set of abs that could grate a block of cheddar into sunset slivers. The first Hollywood “event” movies were the swashbuckling adventure flicks of the early 20’s, like Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro or The Thief of Baghdad, and Douglas Fairbanks was the era’s Jason Statham, commanding the lead in most of them. By 1919 he was the country’s most popular actor after Charlie Chaplin, he was about to marry Mary Pickford (the highest-grossing actress in the business, making them Hollywood’s first power-couple), and all three stars hooked up with filmmaker D.W. Griffith to launch United Artists, the first artist-run production house in Hollywood.

Fairbanks and Pickford were the first to slap their handprints and footprints in cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. He presented the first Oscars. Then the talkies happened.

It wasn’t that Fairbanks’ voice was a cacophonous disaster; movies simply weren’t being made in the same way, and in the new reality of the marketplace, his first few performances didn’t resonate with audiences. He retired from movies after 1934, just as his son took over the family business of stardom.

Calm down, ladies. He’s taken. He has also been dead for more than 65 years.

Back in the rollicking 1910’s, the western was as ubiquitous in the cinematic landscape as superhero movies are today, and William S. Hart was among the first to follow the genre to stardom. John Wayne was still in grade school when Hart hit the scene, transitioning from the Broadway stage to the new medium as many curious actors did. Hart was a devotee of the Old West. He was friends with Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and he even bought Billy the Kid’s 6-shooters. He insisted that his westerns be realistic and true.

Hart’s white pinto horse, Fritz, became the first famous steed of the movie world, beating out Tom Mix’s Tony and Roy Rogers’ Trigger. But the popularity of Hart’s pictures – which were admittedly a little blatant in their morality, and were far outshone action-wise by the likes of Douglas Fairbanks – began to wane in the early 20’s. He bowed out of the scene before the talkies moved in to made the decision for him.

The ladies loved Valentino. Known as the Latin Lover, Rudolph Valentino (born Rodolfo Alfonso Rafaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolla – presumably his birth certificate was printed on tabloid-size paper) was originally type-cast as the grizzly Italian villain type. It was The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (1921), one of the first films to gross over a million dollars, that launched him to stardom. He married, then married again, then got sued for bigamy and un-married the second woman. The tabloid crowd, such as they were in the 20’s, ate it all up.

The press loved to play up Rudolph’s alleged effeminateness, which caused him no end of ire. He challenged one Chicago Tribune writer to a boxing match over a snarky story. The women didn’t care; Valentino had eclipsed any and all other sex symbols of the era, a fact that was evidenced by the reaction to his demise.

A bout of appendicitis led to his premature death in 1926 at the age of 31. Over 100,000 fans lined New York streets for his funeral, leading to an all-day riot around the Frank Campbell Funeral Home on Madison Avenue.  Apparently women committed suicide, they were so despondent. I don’t think that crossbow guy from The Walking Dead can expect that level of fan adoration.

And because there is always a portion of the lust-hungry female audience who gets giddy over the funny guys (what single woman wouldn’t fall for a guy with a Bill Hader tattoo?), I feel I should pay tribute to the beloved Harold Lloyd. Harold Lloyd was about as popular a comedic actor as Chaplin in the 20’s (and he released three times as many features), and considerably more popular than Buster Keaton. Like Keaton, Harold insisted upon performing all his own stunts, which makes the fingernail-biting building-climbing sequence in 1923’s Safety Last! all the more fantastic.

Harold was so devoted to his work, he paid for it in body parts. A prop bomb on the set of a 1919 production went off, costing Harold the thumb and index finger of his right hand. To be clear, the bulk of his stardom was achieved after this disaster, with a prosthetic glove subbing in for his missing digits when necessary.

The talkies didn’t kill Lloyd’s career – he simply slowed down his schedule until 1963 when he retired completely. The movies he left behind – Why Worry?, Girl Shy, The Freshman, etc – are still gut-splittingly hilarious today.

We can’t all be Valentinos or Fairbankses, ladies. This is what you’d have had to choose from among Hollywood’s first generation of A-list hunks. What do you think, are we better off today?

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