I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1910s. Much, if not all, of what I’ve been reading, studying, researching and writing about in the past year or so has taken place then, most of that between roughly 1910 and 1916. My father was born in 1916 (and he was well into middle age when I was born!), so that provides a marker of sorts for me, something that allows me to grasp how far, yet still available that period remains for me, at least in my imagination if not in reality.
It was a pivotal period in the history of motion pictures and the performing arts in general. It followed a significant, if brief, economic depression (1907-08) and preceded America’s involvement in the first world war (1917-18). In film it saw the disappearance of the small, storefront theaters (the “nickelodeons”) and the rise of movie palaces — exhibition venues meant to compare to the houses of “legitimate” theater, where one could find an entire “evenings’ entertainment,” not just a short program. It brought the end of the short drama and the rise to dominance of the feature film, while the short comedy continued to thrive and produced many of the first great film comedians. It saw the axis of filmmaking — the production end of the business, not the financial one — shift toward the west coast from the east.
It saw the beginning and then the explosion of the star system in motion pictures and the concurrent rise of movie magazines geared toward the stars and their new fans. It saw the legitimate theater begin to recognize the importance and the permanence of “movies,” and the beginning of a slow contraction in live theater. Motion pictures went from being an embarrassing form of extra cash for actors “between engagements,” to being a means to five and six figure movie contracts for stage actors who made the transition to film stardom. Movie actors went from being anonymous players in 1910 to international recognition and acclaim in a handful of years.
By 1917, many of the important early film actors had faded from the scene. Four of the early Biograph pioneers, Marion Leonard, Florence Lawrence, Arthur Johnson and Mrs. Griffith herself, Linda Arvidson, were making films only sporadically (Lawrence and Arvidson), had retired (Leonard) or were dead (Johnson).
Some successful film actors and actresses had turned to writing and producing, in addition to occasional acting roles. Both Florence Lawrence and Marion Leonard had chosen this route, and also Florence Turner, Gene Gauntier and Helen Gardner (a rare female actor-writer-producer of feature films) with more success, but none succeeded for long. Female producers, and independent small producers in general, were swept aside or absorbed by the consolidation that transformed the cottage industry of early filmmaking into large corporations backed by financial heavy-hitters of Wall Street. The irony of the rise of “Hollywood” during this period was that even though the product was now largely made in California, more than ever the financial center of motion pictures was New York.
Despite the importance of this period, little evidence of the product of the period — the films themselves — remains to tell their stories. The survival rate of films of this period is far worse than that of the 1920s — in some cases, the output of entire studios is missing. And there are stars who were household names in the 1910s who are practically unknown today, and little or no evidence of their existence survives on film. In many instances, all we have of them is the written word and the still photograph.
Most of the early movie fan magazines (and some of the industry periodicals) included portraits of “the stars” as a regular feature. Every film fan magazine routinely conducted “surveys” and “contests” for fans to submit the names of their favorites which were tabulated and then updated in “rankings” monthly as if they were the standings of their favorite sports teams. Fans could also buy photos of their favorite stars, often “signed” by the star, suitable for framing, or even silk-screened on pillow cases to rest your head on the face of your favorite star at night.
We are fortunate in the digital age to have the ability to access at a keystroke or mouse click, or finger on a touch screen, complete issues and in some cases complete runs of these periodicals from a century ago. I find myself browsing from page to page of the star portraits, just gazing at the faces, not looking at the name printed beneath, not wishing to be swayed by a famous name, just reacting to the face and the expression. Does my “modern” concept of what a star should look like translate in any way to what was considered star-quality then? It seems as if I’m asking not only “does that person look like someone who would be a star today?” but also, “what did the fan of that period see in that face?”
I’ve selected a few that I find particularly absorbing (I think that’s an appropriate word — the images draw you in). All the faces are female. That’s partly a reflection of the source material, and largely a reflection of my own interests. Women dominate the images and stories of these periodicals — whether it was real journalism or, in many cases, pure fiction, it was primarily about the actresses. While the content, particularly the advertising (a fascinating subject of its own), was aimed at the female fan, the gorgeous images obviously were intended to attracted male interest as well. Many of the subjects were genuine stars whose names, if not their films, are still familiar. Others were being promoted as “stars,” but never made much of an impact outside of the issue of one or maybe two magazines. All of them have one thing in common: I find them exceptionally striking. But that’s my personal taste and it may not be everyone’s. I’ve included bits of information about them — any additional facts you can provide will be more than welcome.
[To give you further context for these images, please note that the first consumer-oriented film magazines that printed portraits of the stars were published in 1911, and the earliest of those highlighted here are from 1914.]
Mollie King was born in New York in 1895. If she is the same Mollie King listed in the cast of Her Own Way, a Charles Dillingham production starring Maxine Elliott that opened in New York at the Garrick Theatre in the fall of 1903, then she made her Broadway debut as a child actress, age 8. Mollie King reappeared on Broadway, this time at the Winter Garden Theatre with brother Charles King in a musical revue, The Passing Show of 1913. Mollie entered the movies in early 1916, in the Equitable Motion Pictures production of A Circus Romance, a five reel feature written by Frances Marion, starring Muriel Ostriche and distributed by World Film.
King would get much wider exposure with a starring role in the 15 part suspense serial, Mystery of the Double Cross in 1917. Miraculously, all 30 reels exist in 16mm prints, and also original 35mm elements are held in various lengths at several archives, including the Library of Congress. Later the same year she appeared in another 15 part serial, The Seven Pearls, opposite Creighton Hale. Her film career stalled in the late teens and early 20s after appearing in series of features for World Pictures directed by the prolific John M. Stahl (Leave Her to Heaven, Imitation of Life and the unforgettable classic, Father was a Fullback) and written by Paul Bern (later husband briefly to Jean Harlow).
Mollie King resurfaced on Broadway in two musicals, 1919’s Good Morning, Judge, a Lee and J. J. Schubert production with musical contributions from the young George Gershwin, that also included brother Charles and sister Nellie King, and the 1921 Lew Fields production, Blue Eyes (also with music by Gershwin). King retired in the mid 1920s. She died in 1981 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 86.
Jackie Saunders, a native of Philadelphia, was born in 1892, and worked briefly as a model before making her first films at age 19 for Biograph, directed by D. W. Griffith. She appeared in small supporting roles in two single-reel Biographs from 1911, both memorable and both still in existence, Through Darkened Vales with Blanche Sweet, Charles West and Joseph Graybill, and The Old Bookkeeper with Sweet, Edwin August and W. Chrystie Miller. She left Biograph and the movies for a year before appearing for the Nestor, Kalem and the Kinemacolor companies (the latter with director David Miles, another ex-Biographer). In 1914 she signed with Balboa Amusement, a film production company headed by the man who soon became her first husband, E. D. Horkheimer.
Over the next three years Saunders appeared in over two dozen films, light dramas and comedies, including 11 features by Balboa, distributed primarily through Pathe and Mutual. After taking a break with the birth of her first child in 1917, Saunders returned to film in 1919 and over the next 6 years made 17 more features with Triangle, Fox, Metro, Ince and Selznick, in progressively smaller parts until her retirement from film in 1925, followed shortly by her second marriage and the birth of her second child in 1927. Jackie Saunders died in Palm Springs, California in 1954 at 61.
Jackie Saunders was a very popular figure — almost a fixture — of the movie star fan magazines of 1916-17. Articles featuring Saunders can be found in these issues of Motion Picture Magazine at the Media History Digital Library.
A genuine “A-List” star of the 1910s, the saga of Marguerite Snow has one of the sadder final acts. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1889, the daughter of a comedian, Snow reached Broadway at 18 in the Henry W. Savage english language production of the Molnar drama, The Devil. She entered the movies in 1911 with the Thanhouser Film company based in New Rochelle, New York. During the next four years she appeared in nearly a hundred short dramas and comedies for Thanhouser, including some of the earliest film versions of classics like The Old Curiosity Shop, Lorna Doone, A Dog of Flanders and She.
Snow made a bigger impression when Thanhouser began making feature films in the mid 1910s. She was often cast opposite future director and her first husband, James Cruze, a pairing that also anchored the twenty episodes and forty reels of the detective mystery serial, Zudora. But the relationship with Cruze was doomed — she claimed that he physically abused her, a claim that became indisputable fact when the beat her up in public at a party. Divorced in 1923, she made only three more films for small independents, the last in 1925. Money problems and legal wrangles with Cruze occupied her later life. She died in 1958 at age 68 after complications from kidney surgery.
Gladys Hulette might be the odd choice here. She had a significant career on stage pre-dating the development of narrative, “story” filmmaking, and her movie career extended well beyond the 1910s, though not as a star. She was born in Arcade, New York in 1896 and as a child actress reached Broadway by the age of ten, including a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with the legendary Alla Nazimova in 1907. Not surprisingly, the first film experience for an actress with a classical stage pedigree was with Vitagraph.
Producer-director J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph chose many of the great works of the English-speaking stage for their earliest American film adaptations, including Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Nights Dream, of which at least a fragment survives and is available on the 1999 Silent Shakespeare set which has also been broadcast on TCM. Young Gladys played Puck in an amazing cast that included stage star Maurice Costello and his two very young daughters, Helene and Dolores (who in the 1920s became film stars), Clara Kimball Young, Florence Turner and Julia Swayne Gordon.
Hulette left Vitagraph to join Edison in 1910, and made more than seventy short dramas and comedies before signing with Thanhouser in 1915, just at the point where that studio was transitioning to feature films. Two of her “features” for Thanhouser, the 3-reel In the Name of the Law and the 5-reel The Flight of the Duchess, both from 1916, are seen here in advertisements from The Moving Picture World. Between 1917 and 1919 she made a dozen or so features for the independent production company Astra Films (which also made the two Mollie King serials, The Mystery of the Double Cross and The Seven Pearls), released through Pathe.
In the 1920s, her roles gradually diminished to supporting, but she co-starred with Richard Barthelmess in the Henry King classic, Tol’able David (1921) and was an early member of John Ford’s “stock company” for his 1924 epic western, The Iron Horse. Her career came to a halt in the sound era after a handful of bit parts, some uncredited. Gladys Hulette died in Montebello, California in 1991 at the age of 95.
At the opposite end of the career spectrum was Edna Mayo. Born Edna Lane in Philadelphia in 1894, Mayo began her career on stage in musical comedy. Her Broadway debut was in the chorus of The Social Whirl, a Lee and J. J. Schubert production that proved a hit with nearly 200 performances from April to September of 1906. In 1908 she played a dual role — male and female — in The Merry Widow Burlesque, a musical satire of the popular musical by Franz Lehar (the original of which MGM would adapt for the movies three times in the 20s, 30s and 1950s). The “Burlesque” was a hit, playing five months at Weber’s Music Hall on Broadway. By 1914, Mayo was ready to try her fortune in the movies, signing with Famous Players for whom she made several features, then moving to Essanay in 1915 where she would remain for the bulk of her short career. Her work load that year makes one suspect she suffered a case of burnout.
In 1915 alone, Edna Mayo appeared in twenty films for Essanay, nearly all features of anywhere from three to six reels in length, opposite such stars as Francis X. Bushman and H. B. Walthall. In 1916, she appeared with Walthall in The Strange Case of Mary Page, a 15 episode mystery serial. The final episode of “Mary Page” was released in May, 1916 after which Edna Mayo appeared in only two more films for Essanay, the five reel features, The Return of Eve and The Chaperon. Her last film was 1918’s Hearts of Love for the American Feature Film Corporation, a 6 reel romance of the first world war, released at a time when audiences were already weary of war films. Edna Mayo died in San Francisco in 1970 at 75.
Ollie Kirkby was born in Philadelphia on September 26, 1886. She began her film career in 1913 with the Kalem company. Kalem, founded in 1907, was one of the premier early film companies, producing more than 1700 films in just over a decade. Like many Kalem employees, Ollie Kirkby spent much of her career with the company, not leaving until it expired in 1917. Kalem stuck with the one and two reel dramatic form longer than any other major studio, choosing to venture into the extended serial format and shorter features of three to four reels as opposed to five and six reel feature films that began to dominate filmmaking in the mid-1910s. As a consequence, Ollie Kirkby’s resume is filled with shorts and short features, about 60 between 1913 and 1917. She also appeared in several serials, most notably the 12 episode, 25 reels of Stingaree, directed by James Horne, who would work with Buster Keaton in the 20s.
Kirkby had starred opposite actor George Larkin in numerous films at Kalem, and they married in 1918. Following her marriage, Kirkby left movies for about five years, resurfacing in 1923 with the independent Charles Seeling Productions company opposite her husband, in which she was billed as “Ollie Kirby.” She closed out her film career in a series of features with her husband in which he starred as a New York City reporter. She retired from motion pictures in 1926.
Olive Kirkby Larkin died in Los Angeles on October 7, 1964. (There had been some variation in her year of death as reported by various secondary sources. In this case I was able to verify it in the California Death Index, 1940-1997, for “Olive Larkin,” via Ancestry.com).
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There are dozens more I could highlight here. And then there are some whose stories easily justify individual treatment. Their names may be familiar to some of you, or quite possibly not. Florence LaBadie, Rita Jolivet and Adele DeGarde are names that come to my mind. Maybe you have similar suggestions for future installments?
12 thoughts on “LOST STARS”
“Lost Stars” is your best yet! I would like to suggest a future spotlight on Arthur V. Johnson.
Please continue to keep these little-known film personalities before us. Thanks to your research and writing, they will no longer be “lost.”
Thank you, Kenneth. And thanks for your suggestion. Arthur Johnson is on the list, just a matter of time!
Thank you for this well-written and informative essay on some of the most prolific yet forgotten female stars from a century ago. I greatly appreciate your research and presentation. -David W. Menefee, author of The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era.
Thank you. Your opinion is much appreciated!
I did pieces on both Florence La Badie and Marguerite Snow over at FF + SS — they both starred in one of Thanhouser’s biggest successes, a serial called “The Million Dollar Mystery”:
The MHDL is one of my favorite things on the web! Especially for the magazines from the teens. 🙂
I liked your piece on Snow; Cruze was apparently a real piece of work. With resources like the MHDL and others its becoming feasible for the non-professional (like me) to research the lives obscured by time and neglect. Thanks for commenting!
Your quite correct, those magazines are great. Thanks for the the archive .org links. Imagine all
that for 15-25 cents. While not really lost have been looking at the few available films of Florence Vidor, the first Mrs King V. Also, the sisters Talmadge especially Norma’s performance in
Within the Law. While she didn’t stay around too long Phyllis Haver was always fun to watch.
Norma Talmadge, though well-known to fans of silent film, might be the most important star to have virtually disappeared from the public consciousness, probably because she retired early in the sound period, didn’t attempt a “comeback” and didn’t live long enough to work the talk show circuit in the 60s and 70s as did Gloria Swanson. Your comments are much appreciated. Thanks!
I congratulate you on a beautiful blog posting and excellent summary of the historical changes that were then taking place. I also appreciate your reference to Helen Gardner as “a rare female actor-writer-producer of feature films.” Although she was acting in films from 1910 to 1924 (at least 60), she was doing most of her producing between 1912 and 1914 through her company, Helen Gardner Picture Players, where she also co-wrote, starred in, designed costumes for and edited her ten groundbreaking features. Dorin Gardner Schumacher, biographer of Helen Gardner. http://www.helengardner.org
Thank you! It’s fantastic that you are doing so much to make people aware of the important contributions your grandmother made. In my general research, I was almost certain that Helen Gardner was the first female actor to self-produce her work. The others I mentioned either formed production companies with their husbands (Lawrence and Leonard) or within existing companies as Turner and Gauntier did with Vitagraph and Kalem. I was also fairly sure that she did not rely on a distributor and instead sold her film via states rights regional exhibition — I’ve seen many of her advertisements in the trade papers of the period, The Moving Picture World and The New York Dramatic Mirror specifically. I’m also glad you are correcting the errors that unfortunately require repeated corrections, such as Charles Gaskill being her director/husband/co-producer, etc, or that others were the first to do what she did as a producer. No one else that I’ve found took the initiative ON HER OWN to venture into feature films in 1912 and to not only produce, but to distribute — no one in America or even in Italy. It’s a subject that I may pursue further in future posts, as well. Please let me know when your book is ready. And thanks again for commenting!
As a lover of the silent era, I enjoyed reading about all these great stars and would love it if you could do a post about the beautiful and talented Florence La Badie one day.
Thanks. I’ll probably do something on La Badie in the not-so-distant future. She is an early star with a compelling story, much like the ones I highlighted here, only much sadder. Thanks for commenting!