A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen
By Daniel Blum 1953
THE NICKELODEONS, as the first movie theatres were called, in no way resembled the luxurious picture palaces of today, but what an aura of magic and mystery, of laughter and tears clung to them! There, to the sounds of a tinkling and appropriately emotional piano, Pearl White faced her perils, Francis X. Bushman caused fluttering hearts, Theda Bara wrecked homes, Chaplin and Arbuckle and Mack Sennett set zany standards, never to be excelled, and a host of beautiful ladies smiled and wept and were alluring. It was a realm of fantastic and childish make-believe situated in a never-never land called Hollywood, but gradually the whole world came to treasure its heroes and heroines and clowns.
Whatever role the silent screen has played in our social history—and I believe it was an important one—no one can underestimate the enormous pleasure the films of this era gave to audiences everywhere. It has been my thought in compiling this book to recall the varied and fascinating personalities and photoplays of the years from the earliest films to the advent of the sound screen, when stars were really stars, when the fashions and activities of the Hollywood greats echoed around the world and 100,000 people could gather in London and even in Moscow to greet Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on their triumphal tour of Europe. Here was an art peculiarly American and yet universal. Its essence was entertainment; its success, financial and otherwise, was stupendous. Perhaps today, in a more troubled age, we can look back on these people and their films not only with nostalgia but also with a sincere desire to learn what made glamor so glamorous and laughter so hearty, and the world a happier place to live in. It was a memorable age, and I hope I have captured some of its quality to preserve in this book.
1913 – Meanwhile companies were exploiting and contracting stars. Vitagraph, where Lillian Walker and Earle Williams were favorites, signed Clara Kimball Young, a stock company actress, and her husband, James Young. Her first film was “Anne Boleyn.” Mary Pickford, a big box office draw, had returned to Biograph bringing with her two young actress friends, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who had appeared with her in road companies. Their first important film appearance was in “The Unseen Enemy.” Alice Joyce and Carlyle Blackwell were Kalem’s top stars. Kathlyn Williams and Tom Mix headed Selig’s stars, while J. Warren Kerrigan was America’s best bet. King Baggot was Imp’s attraction. Florence Lawrence, still popular, had left Lubin for the newly formed Victor Company. Edison released “What Happened to Mary?” starring favorite Mary Fuller. It was a series of pictures and a forerunner of the serial. Each of the series was independent and complete, and one was released each month. G. M. Anderson and his Broncho Billy pictures were gaining in popularity and so was Francis X. Bushman at Essanay. Beverly Bayne, a Minneapolis society girl, became Bushman’s leading lady and soon they were the most popular team in films. Essanay also starred “Baby Parsons,” little daughter of Louella O. Parsons, who later as Harriet Parsons became the top woman producer in the industry.
1915 – The outstanding event of the year was D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” probably the world’s greatest silent motion picture, if greatness is measured by fame. The story was taken from a four act play “The Clansman” which ran for 51 performances on the stage of the Liberty Theatre, New York, in 1906, and which the Rev. Thomas Dixon had fashioned from his own novel of the same name. It had its world premiere at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, February 8, 1915, under the title of “The Clansman,” but Thomas Dixon, the author, thought the title was too tame, and at his suggestion, it opened at the same Liberty Theatre, New York, where it had been performed as a play, on March 3, 1915, as “The Birth of A Nation.” In twelve reels it was released by the Epoch Film Corporation, an outfit newly formed by Mr. Griffith himself to exploit it independently as a road show. Following its New York success, twelve road showings of the film swept the country at two-dollar top prices and broke all theatre records, not only in the United States, but in all the world capitals where it was eventually shown. The cast, with names that were to become world famous, included Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Robert Harron, Mary Alden, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Donald Crisp, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aiken, Walter Long, George Seigmann, Jennie Lee, J. A. Beringer, John French, Joseph Henabery, Howard Gave and Raoul Walsh, who later became a well-known director.
1916 – The price of two dollars a seat for a motion picture, which Triangle had inaugurated, was now becoming an established price for films that were shown in legitimate theatres about the country. “Intolerance,” “Ramona,” “Civilization,” “The Fall of A Nation” and “A Daughter of The Gods” were all in this category. “Intolerance,” which was D. W. Griffith’s second large-scale production, was not a worthy successor to his “Birth of A Nation.” It opened at the same Liberty Theatre, New York, on September 6, 1916, and its critical reception was decidedly mixed. The cast included Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Seena Owen (then known as Signe Auen), Constance Talmadge, Alfred Paget, Sam de Gross, George Siegmann, Bessie Love, Ralph Lewis, Tully Marshall, Joseph Hennaberry, George Walsh and Eric Von Stroheim. Among the bit players who later achieved prominence were Goleen Moore, Elmo Lincoln, Alma Rubens, Monte Blue, Carmel Myers, Pauline Starke, Mildred Harris, Carol Dempster, Jewel Carmen, Winifred Westover and Natalie Talmadge. Constance Talmadge had her first success as the Mountain Girl and Von Stroheim, who had been acting as stunt man and bit player in other Griffith films, played the second Pharisee. The film took twenty months to make and ran three and one-half hours on the screen.
1918 – “Mothers of France,” a French ” propaganda film starring Sarah Bernhardt, had been circulating in the United States in 1917 when we entered World War I, but it was nearly a year later before our entry into the war was reflected in our films. The country became flooded with such propaganda films as “To Hell With The Kaiser,” “The Kaiser’s Finish,” “Lafayette, We Come,” “The Woman The Germans Shot” (later changed to “The Cavell Case”), “The Beast of Berlin,” and a parody of it called “The Geezer of Berlin.” Germany was our enemy. Margarita Fischer dropped the “c” from her name, Alfred Vosburgh changed his to Alfred Whitman, and Norman Kaiser became Norman Kerry. The U. S. Government also made propaganda pictures. The Treasury Department asked the stars to help sell Liberty Loans. Such major screen personalities as Pickford, Hart and Fairbanks became active salesmen for Uncle Sam. Clara Kimball Young and Pearl White gave their time for recruiting purposes. Film actors who had “joined up” included Bobert Warwick, Bert Lytell, Tom Forman, Bichard Travers, S. Bankin Drew, Kenneth Harlan, Norman Kerry, Earle Metcalf, Bex Ingram and others. D. W. Griffith went abroad during the war and in France filmed “Hearts of the World,” a tale of a village behind the lines. While the industry was contributing patriotism and propaganda, it was also providing the populace with entertainment. Metro proudly announced it had signed “The Great Nazimova.” Edith Storey, the Dolly Sisters, and Bert Lvtell became Metro stars.
1919 – D. W. Griffith’s productions included “The Girl Who Stayed At Home,” “Scarlet Days,” “Trueheart Susie” and one of his most famous, “Broken Blossoms.” In this Lillian Gish had great success, and it put Richard Barthelmess on the road to fame and fortune. Glarine Seymour, another Griffith discovery, who scored a great success in “The Girl Who Stayed At Home,” was on that same road when she died a year later during an emergency operation. Carol Dempster and Ralph Graves were two other Griffith discoveries of the year. Alice Joyce, Earle Williams and Corinne Griffith continued as top Vitagraph stars. Marie Doro was making successful films in England and Italy.
1920 Among the preeminent attractions were D. W. Griffith’s film “Way Down East” and a foreign importation, “Passion,” which brought Pola Negri, a Polish actress, and Ernst Lubitsch, a German director, to the attention of the American public. Doris Keane and Otis Skinner filmed their great stage successes, “Romance” and “Kismet” respectively. Florence Lawrence, after an absence of five years, made an unsuccessful return to the screen in “The Enfoldment,” an independently produced film.