The Monumental Claire McDowell

At the dawn of the home video era, one of the first VHS cassettes I purchased was a D. W. Griffith/Biograph anthology which included a film unfamiliar to me titled, “The Female of the Species.”  But it did have Mary Pickford in the cast, in her last year (1912) with Biograph before she left for movie superstardom elsewhere.

Could this woman make a John Ford western opposite John Wayne? HELL NO! THEY COULDN'T HANDLE THIS WOMAN!!! In the Left Frame, Claire McDowell is flanked by Dorothy Bernard (left) and Mary Pickford. In Right Frame, Claire leads her party of survivors across the unforgiving desert wasteland. "Female of the Species," Biograph, Griffith, 1912.

In this particular film she is one of three main characters, all female as you might expect from the title.  All three actresses have equal screen time, but one dominates the story because that character initiates (with a little instigation) the action that propels the narrative, and a strange narrative indeed.  The actress playing this role is Claire McDowell.

Claire McDowell appeared in more than 350 films, in shorts and in features, starting with Biograph in 1908, D. W. Griffith’s first year as director, and was still playing bit parts in the mid-1940s.    She is probably better known to general audiences for roles she played later in the silent era:  “The Mark of Zorro,'” United Artists, 1920, with Douglas Fairbanks and her husband, actor Charles Hill Mailes; in the mid-to-late-1920’s in several high-profile projects with MGM:  “Ben-Hur,” 1925, reputed to be most expensive film made up to that time; “The Big Parade,” also 1925, directed by King Vidor, and the biggest box-office hit of the 1920s, and “The Viking,” 1928, an early all-color feature in the 2-Strip Technicolor process.

Claire McDowell as the widowed matriarch Ben-Hur, "Ben-Hur," MGM-1925.

At the time of "Ben-Hur," in 1925, Claire McDowell was already a veteran of the first two decades of filmmaking in America. She began her film career at 30, in 1908.

Claire McDowell has a tearful reunion with son (John Gilbert), returning from war with leg amputated. "The Big Parade,"MGM, 1925, directed by King Vidor. Reputed to be the biggest box-office hit prior to "Gone With the Wind" in 1939, with the possible exception of "Birth of A Nation."

In "The Mark of Zorro,"(1920), Left in both frames, with Marguerite De La Motte at right.

Claire McDowell in the early 2 strip Technicolor feature, "The Viking," MGM 1928.

In a tender moment with son, Alwyn (LeRoy Mason), and the calm before the storm of the . . .

. . . The Vikings !!! . . . .

Claire McDowell is not exactly the first name that comes to mind when thinking “Griffith actress.”  She was not in any of his major features of the 1910’s or the 1920’s.  She remained at Biograph until 1916, then worked for Universal, and in the mid-20s, with newly formed MGM.  Never a star, she apparently preferred the ensemble work of the Biograph “stock company” of players.  She frequently played parts much older than her actual age, especially maternal ones (as she played in each of the three MGM hits of the ’20s).  But she makes a considerable, substantial  impression in the roles she played in the Biograph shorts directed by Griffith in 1910 through 1913.

She was one of the most versatile of  Griffith’s actors of the period.  She may not have had the comedic flair that Pickford had, but that is an unfair comparison: no one else did, or has since then.  But as a dramatic actress of both force (when necessary) and subtlety (when you don’t expect it), she is deserving of at least being mentioned in the same breath as Lillian Gish or Blanche Sweet, and Sweet may be the closest comparison to make.

A fact worth noting is that she was born in 1877, in New York City, sixteen years before Miss Lillian, and almost twenty years before Blanche Sweet, and she was past 30 when she entered movies — a late bloomer in early film.  She was 35 when making her best Biograph films, and almost 50 at the time of her more famous MGM film roles.

She had a strong, and at times imposing, physical presence; slender but solid, tall but well-proportioned — “statuesque” is a term that comes to mind, maybe a slimmer Marion Leonard, or a taller Blanche Sweet. But “statuesque” seems to me vaguely condescending, with “bathing beauty/pageant” connotations.  And while I’m reasonably sure Claire could have had an impressive career in our era as swimsuit model, a better word to describe her and her overall impact, body and persona, and evident in her best roles with Biograph and Griffith, is “monumental.”  It is an adjective I won’t take credit for, an adjective applied to her years ago in a magazine article without a description of why the writer thought it was appropriate.  Now, I think I do know, and it is appropriate.

She is intense when she needs to be — borderline psychotic at times in “Species” — but very subtle in scenes requiring restraint in performance, as in “Sunbeam”(1912), or a combination of both, as in “His Trust” (1910).  She also has a natural athleticism, maintaining the body control needed to play roles that required a level of physicality, a trait that few actresses of that era possessed outside of the comedic realm of Mabel Normand or Marie Dressler.

But enough of plain unadorned words.  Images and credits, with notes, from several of her best Biograph films directed by D. W. Griffth, from 1910 to 1912:

"The Female of the Species," Biograph, Griffith, 1912, California. Opening sequence of the decimated desert mining camp (we are never told how or why it was destroyed or who was responsible). We pick up the story as the main characters pick up the pieces of their lives and head out into the desert, destination unknown.

BUT, foreshadowing trouble to come is the already tense relationship between Ms. McDowell's character and the woman (Dorothy Bernard) she suspects of desiring her husband. Always ready to instigate is Claire's sister, played by Mary Pickford in a very uncharacteristic role, possibly the strangest role she ever attempted.

Here, and below, the sister, played by Mary Pickford, stirs up trouble by indicating to Claire's character that Dorothy Bernard has designs on Claire's husband (Charles West) . . .

. . . and in a brilliant display of passive-agressive agitation by Pickford's charachter, Claire decides to confront the "other woman" . . .

Claire is unaware that it is her husband who desires the other woman, who is trying to fend off his advances.

. . . and in the ensuing brawl, her husband has a fatal seizure and dies.

The burial. The meddling sister (Mary Pickford, at far right in each frame) realizes the enormity of what she has done . . . and its aftermath . . .

Claire's character pulls herself together to lead the party of three across the desert . . .

"The Sunbeam," Biograph 1911. Here, and below, Claire McDowell as a lonely "spinster" befriended by a neighbor's child (Inez Seabury). . .

The woman, who has never held a child, awkwardly tries to find "the handle," to pick up the little girl.

Where moments earlier, she had tried to shoo away the child, the emotion in her face changes as she seems to understand something that has been missing from her own lonely existence. "The Sunbeam," Biograph, 1911, directed by D. W. Griffith.

"His Trust," Biograph, Griffith, 1910. Confederate Col. Frazier is killed in action; his wife (Claire McDowell) is informed of his death by a soldier who hurriedly gives her the Colonel's sword, then leaves; Below, she stands in shock, slowly absorbing what she has just learned.

Mrs. Frazier gathers her strength, has her faithful servant slave (the "his" of "His Trust") hang sword on mantle, then prepares to face far greater challenges, below . . .

. . . as Union soldiers loot and then torch her home . . .

And her faithful servant slave guides her and her child to the safety . . . of a camp of fellow refugees . . .

Claire McDowell in a portrait by Clarence Bull at MGM to promote the upcoming release of "Ben Hur," in 1925, below.

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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15 Responses to The Monumental Claire McDowell

  1. Thanks for this page – Claire McDowell is a favorite of mine and she’s been overlooked by too many for too long.

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked it. Claire McDowell appeared in nearly 80 films for Griffith, more than Lillian Gish or Blanche Sweet. But probably because she was older, and more physically imposing, she didn’t fit the “ingenue” roles and image that Griffith often (but certainly not always) preferred for his “leading ladies.” Plus she was so versatile, and played so many different types and women of all ages, often being almost unrecognizable from one film to the next, she tends to be overlooked. That particular post was just a very general overview. I’ll do something in more depth in the not too distant future.

  2. Alice says:

    Greetings from Hollywood,
    I have been doing some family genealogy and just discovered the Claire McDowell was the only daughter of my GG Uncle, Eugene Addison McDowell. Thanks for your research on her screen acting career.

  3. You’re welcome. Thank you! Wow, that’s fantastic for you to find that family connection. There is very little information out there about Claire McDowell’s life before the movies, virtually nothing of her personal life up to then. And although she’s not alone, there hasn’t been any significant scholarly study of her career in film — and there needs to be. She’s a lot more important to the early development of movie acting than even most “scholars” have realized — it’s clear to anyone who looks at her films, and fortunately, most of the Biograph films still exist, though not that many are available to the average viewer on home video.

    I don’t know to what extent you’ve been able to find any information that is previously unknown or unavailable to researchers, but since you apparently live in So. Cal. you may want to contact UCLA for their opinion on the importance of any materials or information on Claire. Keep in touch. Also, feel free to copy to your computer any of the images here that you may like. I have a very nice original large portrait photo of Claire from the late 1910s, and I’ll upload it to Flickr, so it will appear near the top of the far right column of this blog site. Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for researching and posting this fascinating tribute! Claire was a great actress and a striking personality. Her work is long overdue for an in-depth restrospective. Considering the number of films in which she appeared, I hope someone will research and write a full-length biography and filmography soon.
    -David W. Menefee
    Author of:
    SWEET MEMORIES
    WALLY: THE TRUE WALLACE REID STORY (Foreword by Robert Osborne)
    SARAH BERNHARDT, HER FILMS, HER RECORDINGS (Foreword by Kevin Brownlow)
    THE RISE AND FALL OF LOU-TELLEGEN
    GEORGE O’BRIEN: A MAN’S MAN IN HOLLYWOOD
    RICHARD BARTHELMESS: A LIFE IN PICTURES
    THE FIRST FEMALE STARS: WOMEN OF THE SILENT ERA
    THE FIRST MALE STARS: MEN OF THE SILENT ERA
    FALLING STARS: 10 WHO TRIED TO BE A MOVIE STAR

  5. Thanks. Your opinion is appreciated. I’ve done a bit more research on Claire McDowell, nothing monumental, but every bit of “new” information I uncover is something to add to the larger picture. These early film actors, of pre-Hollywood filmmaking, who began before their names were known to audiences or credited by their studios, have largely been overlooked, even in academia — aside from the few who lived and remained “stars” into the sound era, like Mary Pickford (and even she has only recently been restored to her proper place in film history). Having spent a fair amount of time researching early Italian film, I am amazed at how much more information is known and has been gathered about the early Italian (and other European) film actors. Unlike their American counterparts, the Italian audiences never forgot their days of “Cabiria” so to speak.

  6. Jim Holt says:

    Hi Gene,
    please contact me when convenient at jimhgym@yahoo.com….Claire has long been one of my favorites….I actually interviewed her son Eugene Mailes in the early 1980s….I believe she has descendants living in the Novato CA area…..a mesmerizing screen presence, and yes, “monumental” best describes her!
    Jim Holt

    • Jim,
      Thanks for commenting. Claire is an interesting, yet largely unknown figure in early film, even among scholars and historians. As you can see above, one of her descendants contacted me about this post. More study of her career contributions to film needs to be done. I have a few questions maybe you could answer, as well! Thanks again.

      • Jim Holt says:

        Hi Gene,
        Thanks for contacting me; I’m certainly no expert, but would be happy to answer any questions you might have that I might be able to answer…..have you seen William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road”? That’s probably her most extensive speaking part….
        regards
        Jim

  7. Dave Miller says:

    Hello,

    I recently found and posted on flickr Claire McDowell’s 1924 passport photo. I include a link to this page in my description.

    I appreciate the work you have done researching and posing information on these early movie pioneers. I am enjoying exploring your website.

    • Dave Miller says:

      I meant to include the link to the passport photo.

      Claire McDowell 1924

      • Lots of amazing passport photos on your Flickr pages. How on earth did you get photos (as opposed to the greyscale copies available via ancestry.com)?
        Gene

        • Dave Miller says:

          Hi Gene,
          They are all from ancestry.com. It depends on when the digitization was done. The main body of passport applications was digitized from microfilm records and, my theory is, the technicians were adjusting the contrast for legibility, not depth of contrast in the photos. Some series, such as special passports issued for government personnel and “emergency” passports issued abroad, were digitized later, when digital photography was available. These are the better quality pictures that you see.
          Dave Miller

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for commenting and also for the fantastic passport photo of Claire McDowell.

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