[To read part one of this essay, click here. To read part two, click here.]
The First Film Stars
● The first international movie star was Max Linder, a French comedian not just in the style of Charlie Chaplin but the guy Chaplin was often imitating early in his career, a fact Chaplin himself freely acknowledged. Born to a family of vintners in the Bordeaux region of France, Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle joined a troupe of actors touring France. In Paris, he discovered motion pictures and signed with Pathé in 1905, changing his name at the same time. He made over two hundred movies in his career, most as the recurring character "Max," an upper class roué who is a bit baffled by practical matters.
Linder wrote and directed his own films and in the years before World War I, he was the biggest star in Europe.
Unlike most of the comics of this era, Linder largely eschewed the slapstick style of Mack Sennett's Keystone comedies in favor of gesture and reaction; and as film historian David Thomson points out, "there was little of the sentimentality that American comedians resorted to." In this short Max reprend sa liberté (a.k.a. Troubles of a Grasswidower) (1912), you can see shades of Chaplin, the Three Stooges and Lucille Ball:
Max reprend sa liberté (1912)
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His career came to a virtual end during World War I after he was injured by mustard gas while serving as a dispatch driver in the French army. He never fully recovered and although he later made films at Chaplin's United Artists, he never again regained his audience. In 1925, he and his wife killed themselves as part of a suicide pact.
● Internationally, the best known actress was Asta Nielsen. Though born in Denmark, Nielsen made most of her films in Germany where she was known simply as "Die Asta" (The Asta). Film critic Lotte Eisner called her acting "intensely modern" and the "ideal" of European intellectuals in the 1910s and 1920s. It was also, for its time, intensely erotic, and thanks to the heavy hand of American censors, largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, her "exceptionally unmannered" style of acting (David Thomson) influenced the generation of performers who followed her. Her best known films now are Afgrunden (a.k.a. The Woman Always Pays), Hamlet and Joyless Street, in which she co-starred with a young Swedish actress making one of her first films.
"The woman who taught me everything I know," Greta Garbo said later, "was Asta Nielsen."
Nielsen's version of Hamlet, produced by a film company she formed specifically for that purpose, is unusual in that not only does she play the title role, but she plays Hamlet as a woman disguised as a man. She abandoned movies with the advent of sound and returned to the stage in 1927. She died in 1972 at the age of 90.
● In America, actors—and everybody else, for that matter—toiled in virtual anonymity for most of this era. Growing up in an age when a film's closing titles last seven minutes and even the caterer gets a credit, film fans now may find it hard to believe that a hundred years ago nobody got a credit—not the director, not the producer, and certainly not the actors—just the name of the studio and the film's title, that was it. As crazy as that sounds now, the studios believed that by keeping the cast and crew anonymous, they would remain interchangeable and underpaid.
And the strategy worked for a while. The only problem was, audiences weren't stupid; they knew who they liked and even if they didn't know the names, they knew the faces and clamored for more movies by, for example, "the Vitagraph Girl." And even though exhibitors couldn't advertise actors by name—they didn't know them either—they could, say, put a cardboard cutout of Charlie Chaplin's readily identifiable Tramp character in front of the box office whenever one of his films was playing.
The first American actress known by name (other than those already known from another medium) was Florence Lawrence. Known for years as "the Biograph Girl," Lawrence signed with the rival Independent Moving Pictures Company—"IMP" for short. In March 1910, to promote the new "IMP Girl," studio founder Carl Laemmle concocted a publicity stunt, first planting stories that Lawrence had been killed in a streetcar accident in New York, then buying up advertising refuting the story. "We nail a lie!" the ad boasted. Lawrence made a personal appearance in St. Louis to prove she was alive and well and within days, she was a household name.
To counter the publicity, Vitagraph began promoting its own star, Florence Turner, by name as well. The star system was born.
Sadly, Lawrence was badly burned in a studio fire in 1915 and her star quickly faded. Five years later, her husband died and two subsequent marriage failed. In 1938, reduced to bit parts at $75 a film and suffering from myelofibrosis, Lawrence committed suicide.
In terms of stardom, Lawrence's counterpart, Florence Turner, fared little better. She moved to London in 1913 and formed her own production company, which produced some thirty short films, but her career went into eclipse during the war and she returned to America to work mostly in bit parts at MGM. She died a virtual unknown in 1946.
● Although credited as the first American movie stars, Lawrence and Turner were soon eclipsed by "Little Mary"—better known now as Mary Pickford. Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto and began acting on the stage at the age of seven. Hoping to become a Broadway actress, Smith moved to New York and changed her name to Mary Pickford, and while she did land a few parts, by 1909 she was desperate for work and auditioned for a role in a D.W. Griffith film, Pippa Passes. Although she didn't get the part, Griffith offered her a contract at $10 a day with a guarantee of $40 a week —double the going rate. She made fifty-one movies that year alone.
Although like everyone else she remained anonymous on screen, audiences were immediately taken with her and theater owners began to bill her as "The Girl with the Golden Curls." By 1912, she abandoned the stage altogether. In 1914, by that time working for Adolph Zukor at Lasky's Famous Players (later Paramount), Pickford's name for the first time appeared above the title of a film, Hearts Adrift. Her next film, Tess of the Storm Country, was one of the most popular of the year and made Pickford an international star. (The film is preserved in the National Film Registry.)
Pickford later co-founded United Artists with husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, and won an Oscar for her performance in the 1929 film Coquette. At her zenith, Pickford's power and popularity was greater than that of any actress before or since. I'll be writing about her again. In the meantime, you can read a bit more about her here.
● Once Mary Pickford left Biograph, D.W. Griffith found his ideal leading lady in Lillian Gish. Born in Ohio in 1893, Gish's father abandoned the family when Lillian was still a child. Her mother took up acting to support herself and Gish and her younger sister, Dorothy, joined acting troupes early, including a stint with Sarah Bernhardt in New York. Eventually, Mary Pickford introduced the Gish sisters to D.W. Griffith and they made their film debut in the short drama An Unseen Enemy in 1912.
Gish quickly established herself as one of the finest actresses in film and made forty-five movies before her starring role in 1915's The Birth of a Nation. In Griffith's 1913 melodrama The Mothering Heart—about a wife abandoned to raise her child alone—she displayed a gift for conveying pain, particularly of the long-suffering variety, and thereafter her best work, such as Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East, mined that vein. Gish fit Griffith's notion of the ideal Victorian maiden, and she largely played that role on screen and off for the rest of her life, even after parting company with Griffith in 1921.
I've previously written about Lillian Gish here.
Dorothy Gish was five years Lillian's junior and was as different from her older sister as two people who nevertheless remained close could be. Whereas Lillian was a serious-minded tragedian, Dorothy was a flirtatious cut-up so adept at comedy that Paramount Pictures once offered her a million dollars to make a series of comedy features. "At my age," she said, turning down the offer, "all that money would ruin my character."
Although Dorothy actually made more movies during these early years than her older sister, she didn't really achieve a breakthrough until 1918 in Griffith's war picture, Hearts of the World, in which she played a small comedic part in an otherwise grim drama. After that she specialized in comedic roles. Still, her best performance was as a blind foundling threatened by the turmoil of the French Revolution in Griffith's last commercial success, Orphans of the Storm (1921).
After watching her sister in a rare leading role, Lillian exclaimed, "Why, Dorothy is good; she's almost as good as I am!"
Dorothy continued to work throughout the silent era, then returned to the stage when talkies came in. With the exception of a handful of television appearances in the 1950s, she remained on the stage for the rest of her life.
More about the Gish sisters when I hit the early 1920s.
[To continue to Part Four, click here.]