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5 Iconic silent film actresses and their crazy lives

BY James Oliver

9th Nov 2017 Film & TV

5 Iconic silent film actresses and their crazy lives

James Oliver hymns the queens of the silent screen—they didn't need dialogue. They had faces then...

Stardom these days is debased currency. No matter how many movie tickets they shift or magazine covers they decorate, there's no performer today that gets even close to the icons of the glory days.

Back in the day, "stardom" meant more than glorified celebrity; it was a rank awarded by the public to those they truly loved, those who shone on-screen like... well, like something from heaven.


Stars never burned brighter than in the silent era, when the movies themselves were still young and the novelty of these beautiful creatures was still fresh.

Most especially, it was the women who caught imaginations. While there were certainly well-liked men, none could match the popularity of their leading ladies.

Here we profile five of the very best, hoping to unpick at least something of their unique allure—it says something that, even though they lived a full century ago, their charms remain undimmed...


America's Sweetheart: Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford wasn't the first "movie star" (that was the euphoniously-named Florence Lawrence), but she was there near the very start.

Born in 1885, Mary P (or rather, Gladys Smith, as she was known before taking to the stage) started appearing in flicks in the 1900s: a stop-gap, she thought, before taking Broadway by storm.


Back then, performers weren't credited on screen, but audiences quickly identified favourites and made enquiries: when could they see more films with "the Biograph girl" (that was Lawrence, a reference to the company she worked for), or, for Pickford, "the girl with golden curls"?

Sensing profit, producers hired them under their own names. While poor Miss Lawrence didn't prosper, Mary did, beloved for her wholesome manner and girl-next-door pluck: "America's sweetheart", they called her (conveniently overlooking that she was actually Canadian).

Sweet, demur Mary was also one hell of a businesswoman: after years of fighting for control from the studios, she established her own company, United Artists, in collaboration with other, less popular stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks (her husband of the time). This gave her levels of control and renumeration pretty much unparalleled in Hollywood history.

She retired as sound arrived and her "fairytale" marriage to Fairbanks (according to every fan magazine of the era) broke down soon after. But let us not dwell on those years. Let's remember her as a trailblazer, the girl next door who never let anyone push her around.



The Vamp: Theda Bara

Since Mary Pickford had cornered the market in "wholesome", that meant other actresses had to find their own angle: Theda Bara was the first to use sex appeal.

It can be hard to explain her charms to modern audiences. Quite apart from changing tastes, most of her films have been lost and photographs don't do her justice. We have, then, to rely on contemporary accounts and according to them, she was quite something.


In an age when bearing an ankle was still considered risqué, she showed rather more. What's more she seemed to take pleasure in all this, as though (whisper it) being wanton was a good deal more fun than the puritans would have you believe.

She was the first person to be called a "vamp"—and, yes, it was short for "vampire", as though she might drink life from unwary men. But then, much of her appeal lay in her dangerous mystique.

She was wreathed in rumour: don't think people hadn't noticed her name was an anagram of "Arab Death". The studio let it be known she had indeed grown up in the Orient, born in Egypt, the daughter of a French mother and an Italian father (or maybe, it was muttered, an actual sheik...)

But Theda Bara wasn't just the first movie sex symbol; she was the first movie sex symbol who increased her allure with half-truths and lies. That backstory above? Pure bunk—she was a nice Jewish girl from Cincinnati called Theodosia Goodman ("Theda" was a childhood nickname). 

As such, she established a pattern that has persisted down the decades: most movie stars really aren't as interesting as their press agents might suggest.

Her career didn't last long—her last substantial film was in 1919. She married director Charles Brabin in 1921, a marriage that endured until her death in 1955. But she'd already made an indelible mark on movies.

And while all that stuff about "Arab Death" was made up, she was no phoney: as her few surviving films show, you can't cheat what she had.



Her Highness: Gloria Swanson

An irony: even though Gloria Swanson was one of the greatest stars of the silent era—a "queen", some have called her—she's best remembered for her role in a talking picture: she is the imperious Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a former silent star who can't accept her moment has passed.

But it would be wrong—cruel, even—to think Swanson was playing herself. Of course there were similarities: like Norma Desmond, Swanson had found fame in films directed by Cecil B DeMille, cavorting across the screen when she was still a teenager.

Born in 1899, she'd outgrown DeMille by the time she hit 20. She knew how to present herself and did it well: ever fond of the dressing-up box, she decked herself out in ostentatious clothing, in feathers, furs and silks.

People flocked to her films in part to see what she was wearing, and she influenced couture in ways modern players can only dream of: it was said with only a little exaggeration that she could change fashion overnight simply by what she chose to wear at a movie premiere.

As with Mary Pickford, she sought greater control of her career, albeit with less success: particularly ignominious was Queen Kelly, a film directed by Erich von Stroheim—the bills were mounting good taste was being abandoned, so Swanson pulled the plug. The rushes can be seen in Sunset Boulevard as one of Norma Desmond's films; von Stroheim played her butler.

(Swanson's partner on Queen Kelly—professionally and otherwise—was financier Joseph Kennedy, paterfamilias of the Kennedy clan, of politics fame. She had a turbulent private life, did our Gloria, although few of her relationships were satisfactory: out of six marriages, she deemed only the final one, to writer William Duffy who she married in in1976, happy.)

Sensing her appeal was waning after the arrival of sound, Swanson stepped back from pictures, until she got the call from Billy Wilder for Sunset Boulevard. But unlike the part she played, she was no recluse, enjoying a vibrant social life in New York. Her time was over; unlike the character she played on screen, she had made her peace with that.



The 'It' Girl: Clara Bow

There have been worse times to be young than the 1920s. It was an especially good time for young women, or at least those who enjoyed the freedoms of the big city: corsets were cast off and horizons broadened. Like the song said: Anything Goes.

...all of which brings us to Clara Bow, the personification of Jazz Age America. She was Brooklyn born and bred—audiences heard that loud and clear in her few talking pictures—and hustled her way into movies after winning a talent show. Small parts became bigger and soon enough, this self-confessed tom-boy was one of the biggest stars around.


Her definitive film was It. Nothing to do with spooky clowns, this It was all about charisma, free-spirit and sex—all of which Clara, the definitive on-screen "flapper", possessed in abundance. It was a huge hit and led to a new nickname for its star: other women have been called "It" girls since but accepts no substitute: Clara Bow was the original.

She was, then, the inverse of Mary Pickford. Unfortunately, the same was true off-screen too: in spite of her rough street kid roots, Miss Bow was something of an innocent. She took people as she found them, treated them well and expected them to do likewise.

Naturally, this was abused, first by the studio that stuck her on her treadmill, crowbarring her into inappropriate movies for short-term profit, and then, more shockingly, by her friends. 

Her one-time confidant Daisy DeVoe was the worst offender. She knew all about the star's active private life and then tried to blackmail her. It went to court, and the scandal sheets lapped up every last drop of juicy gossip: she had—ahem—"courted" hunks like Gary Cooper (whose career didn't suffer), Gilbert Roland (whose career didn't suffer) and many others (whose careers didn't suffer.) Even though she won the case, Clara Bow's career certainly did suffer.

She was burnt out; she married second-string cowboy star Rex Bell, bought a ranch with him and worked it until she died in 1965. Although she was always fondly remembered by friends and fans alike, her most enduring legacy was probably that she was the model for cartoon flapper Betty Boop. Boop-oop-be-doop.



The Lost Girl: Louise Brooks

Posterity is a funny thing. Louise Brooks didn't have much of a career—she only made about 25 films, most of them instantly forgettable—and, truth be told, she didn't make all that much impact while she was working.

Yet she's one of the most familiar figures in film history, famous especially for the sleek black bobbed hair. She's the only woman on our list who's still a pin-up, even if those doing the pinning haven't always seen her films.


And she only becomes more fascinating as you find out about her. Raised in Kansas, she escaped as soon as was considered decent to become a chorus girl. This led her, in turn, to the stage and thence to Hollywood, establishing herself in things like the hobo drama Beggars of Life.

Many would kill for such opportunities but Brooks wasn't satisfied: many of the parts she was being offered were beneath her and she didn't care to be bossed about by morons. Then one day there was a call from Germany, she was interested: director G W Pabst had seen her in Howard Hawks' A Girl in Every Port. Would Madam like to come to Berlin and make a film there?

This became Pandora's Box, the principal reason why she's still remembered. It's the tale of a woman who falls from grace and might have been a finger-wagging morality play in other hands. With Pabst and Brooks, though, Lulu becomes something more than just a victim. It's one of the great pieces of casting, and one of the great performances.

She would re-team with Pabst for Diary of a Lost Girl (a film that might even be better than its illustrious predecessor). A free spirit, she plainly enjoyed life in Berlin, then deep into its decadent phase. Enjoyed it a little too much, in fact, because when Hollywood tried calling her back, she declined to come.

This was the start of her own fall from grace: she'd been summoned so sound could be added to a silent film she'd already shot (The Canary Murder Case, not very good). In her continued absence, her employers at the studio put it about that her voice was unsuitable for talkies. So when she did deign to reappear, offers of work were few and far between.

Thus began her wilderness years. She returned to dancing and, by her own later admission, prostitution: the parallels to her best films are intriguing, to say the least.

There's a happy ending to this, though: her films were rediscovered and, in turn, so was she. She began writing and became a film historian. Of course, she told her own story, and told it clear-eyed and without self-pity (throwing in some salacious tit-bits for good measure: the night of passion she spent with Greta Garbo, for instance.)

So look again at that picture: the reason Louise Brooks endures isn't just because she was a beauty. It's because she was a remarkable, fascinating woman.


The coming of sound was the biggest upset in the history of Hollywood, and very few stars managed to navigate it.

We shouldn't be too nostalgic, because sound brought new stars with it, wonders like Katherine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. But it's worth spending a moment just to mourn what was lost, because they were special too.


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