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.
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 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: