If they'd handed out a career Oscar to the most highly regarded actress of the silent era, Lillian Gish would have been the consensus choice. My personal feeling is that Louise Brooks was better. But as I'll explain in connection with my picks for 1929-30, Louise Brooks's best silent films were made during the sound era; so we'll get to her later.
Another good choice would be Greta Garbo, who was the most luminescent of the silent film stars and very popular with audiences before words started coming out of her mouth. But she didn't show up until right at the end of the silent era, and like Louise Brooks, I think her best work came after the introduction of sound.
Mary Pickford would also be a good choice. She was so popular during the silent era, she was known as "America's Sweetheart" and was Hollywood's highest-paid performer, male or female.
Pickford's success was not limited to work in front of the camera. She produced thirty-four movies, wrote twelve more, co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, along with Charles Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, formed the United Artists Pictures studio. She won a competitive Oscar in 1930 for Coquette, and the Academy further recognized her in 1976 with a lifetime achievement award.
So why not choose Mary Pickford? Two reasons. First, I have the benefit of 20/20 foresight, knowing I am going to give her a Katie for her performance in the 1927 film, My Best Girl. Second, though, and more importantly, based on what I've seen of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, I simply think Gish was the better actress.
Finally, we've all heard of Gloria Swanson, if only because she played fictional silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and as William Holden says, "You used to be big."
"I am big. It's the pictures that got small."
Unfortunately, I'll have to take her word for it. I just haven't seen enough of Swanson's work outside of Sunset Boulevard to say for sure.
So Lillian Gish it is. She was highly regarded at the peak of her career and is still highly regarded by people who know more about the Silent Era than I do.
Besides, I like what I've seen of her.Gish worked primarily with director D.W. Griffith and starred in his most famous movies, including the highly-controversial The Birth Of A Nation, its follow-up apology, Intolerance, and the three best silent films Gish made prior to our 1927 cutoff date, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans Of The Storm. Gish's style was understated, at least for a time when most movie acting consisted of broad, obvious gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, and she brought a needed realism to a highly-stylized medium.
She made seventy-four movies before The Jazz Singer came along and effectively ended the Silent Era.
Her popularity already in decline, Gish made her last silent movie in 1928. The Wind, in which Gish plays a rape victim, is now rightly regarded as a classic, but with "talkies" already flooding theaters, it was viewed upon its initial release as the relic of another age. While directors and critics were split on the artistic merit of the new sound technology, the public was not. The Wind bombed, so much so, MGM released Gish from her contract.
Gish made a handful of movies after that, the best being the expressionistic noir thriller The Night Of The Hunter in 1955 where she co-starred with Robert Mitchum in one of his most famous roles. In 1946, she was nominated for best supporting actress for her work in Duel In The Sun and she received an honorary Oscar in 1971 recognizing her "contributions to the progress of motion pictures."
Named for Katie-Bar-The-Door, the Katies are "alternate Oscars"—who should have been nominated, who should have won—but really they're just an excuse to write a history of the movies from the Silent Era to the present day.
To see a list of nominees and winners as well as links to my essays about them, click here.
Remember: There are no wrong answers, only movies you haven't seen yet.
The Silent Oscars
And don't forget to check out the Silent Oscars—my year-by-year choices for best picture, director and all four acting categories for the pre-Oscar years, 1902-1927.
Look at me—Joe College, with a touch of arthritis. Are my eyes really brown? Uh, no, they're green. Would we have the nerve to dive into the icy water and save a person from drowning? That's a key question. I, of course, can't swim, so I never have to face it. Say, haven't you anything better to do than to keep popping in here early every morning and asking a lot of fool questions?