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5 Iconic silent era actors

BY James Oliver

25th Dec 2017 Film & TV

5 Iconic silent era actors

Despite their star status, in their real lives, these silent heroes were rather less than the demigods they were sometimes taken to be. But it's their work that matters. Hopefully, this will inspire you to track some of it down—and see why so many fell under their spell…

All American boy: Wallace Reid

Image via Sunset Gun

We've been hearing a lot recently about the dark side of Hollywood—about a system that uses and abuses young talent, before spitting it out. It will come as absolutely no consolation to hear that none of this is new, as the terrible story of Wallace Reid makes all too clear.

Wallace Reid was one of the first matinee idols, maybe even the very first. He made his first picture in 1910 and while he had ambitions to write and direct his own productions, he was far too charming and good-looking for that. This guy was box office catnip, so he was well paid by producers to stay firmly in front of the cameras.

With Geraldine Farrar in Carmen. Image via Movies Silently

Virile, energetic and just plain likeable, Wally Reid was the most popular guy in pictures, not to mention the very model of American masculinity. His boss, Jesse Lasky kept him on a treadmill and even then they only barely kept up with demand.

Then, in 1919, disaster struck, literally. While on his way to make yet another film, Reid was involved in a train accident and hurt badly enough to be out of action for a few months according to local doctors. But those quacks reckoned without Lasky's ingenuity (and, frankly, his greed).

"Utterly disgusted with himself, he entered a sanatorium for a kill-or-cure treatment"

Lasky sent the studio's doctor to zap Wally full of morphine. Suitably medicated, the picture could progress. And since it seemed to keep him happy, they continued the treatment after shooting had wrapped, by which time Reid was an addict.

While this was inconvenient for the star and his family, Lasky wasn't unduly concerned: quite apart from anything else, it made Wally easier to manage. It also meant the studio could keep on working their prize asset hard—the public hadn't had their fill of Wallace Reid just yet.

Reid kept trying to kick the habit but in vain (those schedules were awfully tough). Eventually, utterly disgusted with himself, he entered a sanatorium for a kill-or-cure treatment. Suddenly deprived of drugs, his body gave out.

His family were devastated. His public mourned. Jesse Lasky moved on to his next project.


The great stone face: Buster Keaton

Image via Pinterest

It's hard enough to get people to watch films in black and white these days. Take away the talking too and it becomes harder still, so silent movies can be a hard sell.

That's why Buster Keaton is so essential. Even a few minutes of Buster can be enough to show that silent movies don't have to be difficult—that the best of them can even be (whisper it) fun.

He was born into a showbiz family and came to Hollywood in 1917, after learning his craft in Vaudeville. At first, he worked as a supporting player to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, contributing gags and more.

When Arbuckle was involved in a scandal that destroyed his career, his producers invited Buster to make his own films. (Arbuckle, incidentally, was completely innocent but persona non grata in Hollywood. Only one person stood by him and helped him work: Buster Keaton.)

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A string of brilliantly inventive (and, better yet, funny) short films followed, establishing Keaton's deadpan on-screen persona—no matter how chaotic things got, the on-screen Buster always kept his poker face—he'd learnt long ago it was funnier if you played things straight.

Soon, though, shorts were not enough: Keaton's great professional rival Charlie Chaplin had started to make feature-length comedies with tremendous success, and the money men suggested Buster follow suit. Thus began a run of some of the most purely pleasurable pictures ever produced: Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr., The General...

Keaton stars in The General. Image via Wiki

Ah, The General. No matter how acclaimed it is today, it was an inexplicable flop in 1926 and obliged Buster, once defiantly independent, to find new patrons. MGM snapped him up, and at first, things went swimmingly: he made The Cameraman for them, one of his best movies.

Then came sound. This did not present a problem in and of itself, for Buster was always up for a technical challenge. The trouble was, the new technology called for new working methods and a bigger crew.

Like Chaplin, Buster had been used to building his films from improvisations on the set. Chaplin, though, was his own boss. He could afford to keep his expanded crew standing by while he created; Buster no longer could.

The films suffered, then he did: he hit the bottle and lost his contract. He went back to the stage, by now a relic of a distant age.

There is a happy ending: his work was rediscovered by a younger generation and the still extant Keaton made a return to movies (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum and something called How to Stuff a Wild Bikini) and he was still working until close to his death in 1966.

Keaton's work endures and demands to be seen: more than those of anyone else Buster Keaton's best films transcend the silent era.


The first action hero: Douglas Fairbanks

Fairbanks in Private Life of Don Juan. Image via Wiki

In the early months of 1922, the Los Angeles skyline gained a new addition. In what was then a field in Santa Monica, someone erected what appeared to be a medieval castle.

People guessed it was for a movie, of course, and what's more they had a pretty shrewd idea who'd done it: only one guy would need his own castle in Hollywood, and that was Douglas Fairbanks.

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Douglas Fairbanks was the silent screen's premier swashbuckler—tall, graceful and athletic, his fame was based on his stunts and breathtaking action sequences. Small boys of all ages loved Fairbanks, and he did his best to give them what he wanted. That castle was built for Robin Hood but elsewhere he'd played Zorro and d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers.

He was made for the screen, was Doug. Although he'd begun his career on the stage, he was one of the very first performers to recognise the potential of screen acting, of playing to the camera rather than the audience.

He knew too, the value of trickery, using trampolines and slides to make his feats seem even more prodigious (don't try this at home, kids).

Starring in Robin Hood. Image via Mythical Monkey

Doug seemed to be able to do anything. Why, he'd even managed to woo Mary Pickford, who he married in 1920. She was a bigger star than even he and their union was more than just a Hollywood royal wedding—this was fairytale stuff for everyone who wanted to believe their movie stars were somehow perfect.

Fairbanks certainly tried his hardest to make it seem that he was—things like The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate continued his winning streak, dazzling audiences with things they'd never seen before (The Black Pirate was even in colour).

With his wife, Mary Pickford

That, though, was derailed by sound. Like so many of his contemporaries, including his wife, Fairbanks never managed to translate his silent popularity into the talking era. Nor did their marriage endure—they divorced in 1936, with rather less attention paid now than they once attracted.

He died in 1939, at only 56. No one ever thought he was immortal but… he did a damn good impression of it in his prime.


The great lover: Rudolph Valentino

Rudolph Valentino in 1922. Image via Vintage Photographs

We don't really know what stardom is anymore. Sure, there are some very famous people indeed but "stardom" is much more than fame. If you want to get an inkling of what it really means, consider the career of Rudolph Valentino.

He was not obvious material for a career in American movies. For a start, he was born on the wrong side of the Atlantic, in southern Italy. Frustrated by a lack of opportunity in his motherland, he set sail for America in 1913, but even then he had few ambitions to work in pictures.

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Brevity obliges us to glide over his early years in New York—during which time he worked as a nightclub dancer and had several brushes with the law—and jump ahead to 1917, which was when he arrived in Hollywood (it was either there or find a place in Utah).

He found work as an extra and it wasn't long before he found bigger roles. Not heroic ones, of course, those went to clean-cut lads like Wallace Reid. Valentino played devious foreigners and the like and might have continued to do so but for June Mathis.

Mathis was a screenwriter who knew Valentino socially and she reckoned he was exactly right for a picture she was working on called The Four Horse Men of the Apocalypse, a drama about a family ripped apart by war. After much lobbying, the studio gave way.

In The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Image via Pinterest

The Four Horse Men of the Apocalypse was the smash hit of 1921—the first picture to take over a million dollars, no less—and Valentino was a big part of that success. Further roles followed—The Sheik, Beyond the Rocks and Blood and Sand, each a huge hit.

As popular as he undoubtedly was, however, his fandom was a little… selective, made up as it was almost exclusively of women.

The American male has long held a suspicion of refinement and elegance—you could just tell Valentino wore cologne, and probably washed regularly too—and that was reflected in some especially vituperative coverage: the Chicago Tribune, for instance, dubbed him a "pink powder puff".

"The Chicago Tribune dubbed him a pink powder puff"

Keen to prove he was all man, Rudy challenged the author of that slur to a boxing match. The cowardly writer sent a ringer to fight his battle for him—boxing correspondent Frank O'Neill—but it was to no avail: Rudy, a useful fighter in his youth, won comfortably.

He died soon after, from a perforated ulcer. (Did the fight exacerbate it? Some people think so.) He was in New York at the time; 150,000 people, give or take, turned out to pay their respects and when his body was transported west, people would congregate at stations to see the train carrying it go by. You want to know what stardom is? That's stardom.

There's a coda to this: in the years after his death, a veiled woman, dressed all in black was seen visiting the cemetery where his earthly remains were interred. She left a single rose at his tomb and refused to talk to those who asked her why. It's likely that original mourner is herself dead now, but others have taken her place…


Silenced: John Gilbert

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs, (1928). Image via Pinterest

We've already seen how brutal the coming of sound was but it bears repeating. More than the internet stealing their films, more than television stealing their audiences, the move from silent pictures to talkies is the single most disruptive event in Hollywood history.

The entire industry had to be restructured and there were a lot of careers—big, important careers—that didn't make the transition, none so infamously as John Gilbert's.

Born in 1895, he entered films in 1916 and first established himself opposite Mary Pickford in Heart o' the Hills in 1921. The roles got bigger, and he became more popular: He Who Gets Slapped, The Merry Widow and, most of all, The Big Parade, the most successful film of the entire silent era.

"A wedding was arranged but Garbo didn't show, and Gilbert was left standing at the altar"

After being paired on screen, he and Greta Garbo became a couple—people began to talk of them as another Pickford and Fairbanks but this sadly was not to be. A wedding was arranged but Garbo didn't show, and Gilbert was left standing at the altar.

Worse was to come. If you've seen Singing in the Rain, you'll remember the scene where Gene Kelly, playing a silent film star trying to adapt to the new sound technology, plays a love scene by mumbling “I love you, I love you” over again. It's played for laughs, not unreasonably because it sounds so silly.

Starring again with his wife Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, 1933

It wasn't so funny for Gilbert when he did it for real back in the day; how was he to know that what was standard practice in silent movies would be so utterly risible in talkies? And nor was that the end of his travails—after all, you can learn from your mistakes.

It's rather harder, though to change his voice. The top brass at the studio heard the tests: they reckoned Gilbert sounded like a eunuch. His voice just didn't record well, and that was if. His contract was paid off and his career as a star was over.

There's an ugly follow up to this. Gilbert actually made some talking pictures and he sounds fine in all of them. The story about his high pitched voice was actually cobblers. Gilbert was the victim of studio politics. He'd angered Louis B Meyer by not obeying his every command and the arrival of sound gave Meyer a perfect opportunity to rid himself a turbulent star, twisting the knife by spreading a spurious story.

John Gilbert and Renée Adorée in The Cossacks. Via Tumblr

He had one important ally. Garbo's huge silent popularity had actually increased as audiences heard her husky tones. As Meyer's number one asset, he was in no position to acquiesce to her every demand, so when she requested John Gilbert be brought back to play opposite her in Queen Christina, he could not refuse.

Sadly, it would prove his last hurrah. The drink in which he'd taken solace after his fall from grace made him unreliable and hastened his end; he died of a heart attack in 1936, a mere 41 years old.

All these men are gone now but, as the mere existence of this feature shows, none have been forgotten. The celebrities of our own time can only hope their names will still be known ninety years from now.

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