Part One, “Deep in the Corner.”
As the young “telegrapher” who holds payroll bandits at bay while sending for help, Blanche Sweet had her first important lead role at the age of 14 (no that’s not a typo) in The Lonedale Operator (Biograph, 1911, dir: D. W. Griffith). She would become a major star within three years. Though her name is not as well-known to modern audiences as her contemporaries Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, the availability and wide circulation of The Lonedale Operator would make Blanche Sweet a very familiar face to generations of American film students.
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Of all the actresses who began their film careers at the American Biograph studio in New York under the direction of D. W. Griffith — indeed of all the major female film stars of her generation — Blanche Sweet more than any other resists definition. She falls into no obvious stereotype or category — certainly not the waif-like, child-woman “Griffith actress`.” She is an icon who subverts the original meaning of ikon. She cannot be captured wholly in a single portrait.
Blanche Sweet was a major star of the 1910s and 1920s, popular with audiences, admired by critics, and a favorite subject of motion picture fan magazines and the film trade press, beginning with the release of the first official studio publicity photo linking her name with her image on screen (from the anti-star system troglodytes at Biograph no less!). a photo portrait of the striking, natural blonde Blanche at age seventeen, to her final years in film as a respected Hollywood elder, a veteran from the dawn of motion pictures (she was all of 34 when she retired from film acting shortly after the transition to sound), her career had spanned virtually the entire history of the film industry,
She was among the very few whose careers pre-dated not only the star system, but also the use of the that very word, “star”, to describe anyone but the most important actors of the stage. From the nickelodeon era when narrative or “story-telling” film was something new and adventurous, through the rise of the multi-reel feature film and the consolidation of the industry in the monolithic entity known as Hollywood, to the end of silent film and the rise of sound, Blanche Sweet had been a major player in the story of motion pictures.
More important than her status as a proto-star of film was her contribution to the art of film acting. In this her timing was impeccable. Her career at Biograph began in 1909, the year Griffith (or more likely the Biograph executives) began to allow more naturalism in performances. And this new naturalism in acting (new-to-world-of-film but not so new to European theater) was exactly what the film camera demanded in its proximity to the actors. But old, learned habits die hard in actors old and young alike, so that naturalism in practice often still contained or stood alongside the older styles — those of both pantomime and the classical mid 19th century gestural form prescribed for the stage melodrama.
So now you may be wondering why, with all her accomplishments in film, is the name Blanche Sweet less known now than her colleagues, the Biograph alumnae Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford? It is because most of her post-Griffith work is missing and presumed lost. She was as popular a star as Dorothy Gish — who has likewise been mostly forgotten for the same reason (and both were bigger box-office draws than Lillian, if not Pickford). Her portrait appeared with regularity on the covers of the popular movie magazines of the period, along with the Gishes, the Talmadge sisters, Gloria Swanson, and more. We would call her an “A-list” star if she lived and worked in our time. But, for the most part, the similarity with her contemporaries ends there.
She was a deeply private movie star. During her career, her thoughts on the movies and film acting, much less movie stardom, were guarded at best. Late in her life this would change significantly — she would become one of the most important and quotable veterans of early film when interviewed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by writers, historians and documentarians. Almost eight decades after the nickelodeon era, she was still alive to provide first hand knowledge of early filmmaking and of the development of early film acting, and we are fortunate to have had her in-depth observations and recollections carefully recorded for posterity before the end of her life in 1986.
But as a young star being sought out by editors of the new magazines that fed the voracious appetite of a public starved for news of movies or movie-stars, journalists often had to search for her on a film set, typically finding her off to the side or in a quiet corner by herself, reading. When they found her, it took all of their skills to obtain a story from the interview. She didn’t find acting dull. She found talking about acting to a reporter dull. And movie stardom? That seemed a concept too alien for her to contemplate much less a subject on which to opine to the press.
Yet she was as eager to keep up with changing fashions as any star, going from one look to another in clothing and hairstyle as frequently as would Ginger Rogers in the 1930s and 40s. But even more so than Ginger, Blanche Sweet would take care not to become stereotyped, whether playing a victim, a vamp or a virgin. She practically created the film image of the courageous working woman, the plucky shop girl, an “everywoman” — the kinds of characters Joan Crawford spent the better part of a career portraying. Sweet could — and did — play all these characters, in many variations, in over a hundred and fifty films beginning in 1909, including more than fifty features, from Griffith’s groundbreaking American feature Judith of Bethulia in 1914 to the first (and some say best) film version of the O’Neill classic Anna Christie (1923) to the early talkies. She worked for and with film producers and studios as varied as Edison, Biograph, Lasky, Paramount, Universal, Ince, First National, Metro, MGM, Fox and RKO. Many of her films were made by her own production company, including her partnership in the 20s with her husband, a man who for a time was also Mary Pickford’s favorite director, Marshall Neilan.
One thing Blanche Sweet did have in common with so many other young actresses of early motion pictures was a strong, supportive, single mother-figure — although in Sweet’s case it was actually her grandmother. Sarah Blanche Sweet was born in Chicago on June 18, 1896 to Gilbert Joel Sweet and Pearl Alexander Sweet (whose name on six different Cook County, Illinois records has been reported variously as Clara Pearle Cones Sweet, Clara Pearle Alexander Sweet and Sara Pearl Alexander). Her mother, a dancer and an actress, died at about nineteen when Blanche was still an infant. Gilbert Sweet, about age 38, had abandoned his wife shortly before Blanche was born. Grandmother Cora Blanche Ogden Alexander (a youthful 37 herself), whose daughter had been the last surviving of her five children, took responsibility for raising baby Blanche. Mrs. Alexander was able through her late daughter’s friends and contacts to obtain stage work for Blanche before she turned two.
Author and historian De Witt Bodeen interviewed Blanche Sweet a number of times, and wrote a lengthy biographical article in Films In Review (as noted in the bibliography at the end of this article). In these interviews, she shared with him fascinating glimpses of her early life on stage, including a production in which she was held in the arms of Maurice Barrymore while he fought a fencing duel with another actor. Maurice, the father of John, Lionel and Ethel, and great-grandfather of Drew, was rehearsing little Blanche at the flat she shared with her grandmother on 34th Street in New York for a part in another, new play which, unfortunately, never materialised: Barrymore was committed to an asylum not long after rehearsals had begun. According to Sweet, her grandmother was for a long time afterward fearful that he might return to their apartment, it having been the last place he had visited prior to his illness.
Mrs. Alexander secured work for Blanche with the Chauncey Olcott company — Olcott’s specialty was musical theater with a decidedly Irish twist — a job that lasted three years for Blanche, from age 6 to 9. While touring the continent with Olcott, Blanche and her grandmother were eventually reunited with Blanche’s biological father in Denver in about 1905, then all three relocated to San Francisco so that Blanche could attend school (Gilbert Sweet may have been living in the Bay Area as early as 1898). Coincidentally, both Sweet and her future colleague at Biograph, Linda Arvidson (later Mrs. D. W. Griffith), were both shaken out of their beds and their apartments during the earthquake and fire that struck in April, 1906. Blanche and her grandmother relocated to Berkeley where Blanche was diverted by dance. But to pay the bills (and help support her father), Blanche stayed in theater. She returned to New York, still desiring to become a dancer.
In order to pay for dance lessons, Blanche found work in motion pictures — with the Edison Company — and appeared in her first film, A Man with Three Wives, released in November, 1909. Other contacts led her to Biograph, where she found work much the way Mary Pickford had six months earlier: as an extra face in the crowd. But unlike Pickford’s debut in the split-reel comedy Her First Biscuits, Sweet’s first Biograph was a film which some consider Griffith’s first great work, a thoroughly dissected single-reel masterpiece, A Corner in Wheat.
In the film, the petite, round-faced, blue-eyed blonde, thirteen-year-old Blanche Sweet appears in three shots as part of a group of visitors to the silos of the “Wheat King,” played by Frank Powell. She can be seen wearing a narrow-brimmed white hat with a dark feather on the side. As she told De Witt Bodeen, “I was placed very deep in the corner” of A Corner in Wheat.
An extra face in the crowd of A Corner in Wheat (1909): Blanche Sweet appears "deep in the corner" in these two shots. At left, she is just right of center, in the rear, wearing a small white hat. At right, she appears just left of center, again with white hat, and now with her dark suit jacket and skirt visible. Based upon the works of novelist Frank Norris (whose "McTeague" would be adapted by Erich von Stroheim for "Greed" in 1924), A Corner in Wheat was the Biograph debut of Blanche Sweet and her first film working for D. W. Griffith. Much like Ida Lupino more than two decades later, Sweet played adult roles while barely in her teens. Blanche Sweet was all of thirteen when A Corner in Wheat was shot in November, 1909.
Although Sweet could pass as an adult woman in crowd scenes, D. W. Griffith initially judged her as physically and professionally unready to play anything more challenging than a naive ingenue in bit parts. In her memoir of the Biograph days, Linda Arvidson Griffith describes her first impressions of Blanche Sweet among the new crop of actresses appearing at Biograph in the fall of 1909:
“There was the blond and lily-like Blanche Sweet, an undeveloped child too young to play sweethearts and wives, but a good type for the more insignificant parts, such as maids and daughters. David [Griffith] wanted to use her this first winter in a picture called ‘Choosing a Husband,’ so he tried her out, but finding her so utterly unemotional, he dismissed her saying, ‘Oh, she’s terrible.'” Linda Arvidson Griffith, When The Movies Were Young, (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1925).
Griffith kept Sweet in Choosing a Husband, but in a bit part. Linda Arvidson doesn’t mention A Corner in Wheat, but she does observe that Frank Powell, an actor being groomed by Griffith as an assistant director (and who had acted with Sweet in “Corner“), had liked her work. Powell used her as a co-lead with Mary Pickford in the first film he directed on his own, All on Account of the Milk. Arvidson likewise doesn’t mention Sweet’s first role of significance at Biograph, in a film called The Rocky Road, in which she plays a young woman about to be joined in holy matrimony to a man who happens to be her biological father.
In The Rocky Road, another newcomer to Biograph, Stephanie Longfellow (a niece of the American poet), plays a mother who goes mad after her husband (Frank Powell) abandons her and their infant daughter. The mother wanders off into the countryside, leaving her baby in a haystack, whereupon the infant is found and adopted by another couple. The mother partially regains her sanity, but forgets she ever had a child. Years later, the father meets and falls in love with a young woman, unaware that she is his daughter.
Despite the over-the-top story line, The Rocky Road manages to avoid melodramatic excess in the scenes depicting the romantic relationship between the father and daughter. These scenes are underplayed by Powell and Sweet, as they must be. Physical “intimacy” is suggested only with Powell caressing Sweet’s face in his hands as he describes their anticipated happiness as a couple.
The wife happens to see her estranged husband on his way to the wedding ceremony and, recognizing him, follows him to the church. As the service is about to begin, the wife bursts in and recognizes her daughter. She reveals the relationship to the husband, then drops dead, presumably from sensory overload.
Blanche Sweet had begun working for Biograph near the end of 1909 — a year of tremendous development for the company and Griffith. He had developed what now amounted to a stock company of regular actors who were no longer showing up just for the $5 daily or $25 weekly guarantee: they were there to work for D. W. Griffith. Although their names and Griffith’s were still not made public, by the end of 1909 Biograph was rapidly earning a reputation, within the industry and with the entertainment press and movie audiences, for producing the highest quality motion pictures on the market.
Griffith had produced more than 200 short films in the year and a half since he accepted the assignment of what was at the time an interim position as director with Biograph. He had ended 1909 with what was possibly his best work to date, A Corner in Wheat. He was now planning to take the core of his company of technicians and actors on a working vacation to California for the winter months, beginning in late January, 1910. It was a historic trip for Griffith and Biograph. Griffith would shoot 19 one reel films in a little over two months, taking advantage of the vast and varied landscapes of Southern California to produce gems such as The Unchanging Sea at Santa Monica beach and Ramona at the historic Camulos Ranch. Ramona would cement Mary Pickford’s position as the top star at Biograph, though she was still anonymous to her growing number of fans. Marion Leonard, who had resumed leading lady status in mid 1909 with the departure of “Biograph Girl” Florence Lawrence, would make her final film for Biograph and Griffith in California before leaving for both money and name recognition elsewhere.
Lucky newcomer Blanche Sweet was invited to make the trip west. She declined the offer — at least that was what she told film historian DeWitt Bodeen in 1965. She gave a different version of her withdrawal from Biograph several years after the event:
“I worked there [at Biograph] for several months on a guarantee of five dollars a day until finally the news came that the company was going to move to California to take pictures. Everyone wanted to go in the two companies that were to be taken. Mr. Griffith came to me and said, ‘If you were only two years older, I would make you an ingénue with the second company at a salary of $100 a week.’ But I was not two years older and neither tears nor entreaties would prevail upon Mr. Griffith to take me. I was offered a salary of $40 a week to remain with the New York company, but promptly asserted my independence, got up on my high horse, and resigned to take another engagement with [dancer/choreographer] Miss [Gertrude] Hoffman.
“The work before the camera was too quiet, anyway. I longed for the music and the lights of the theater. I went to work with Miss Hoffman for a much smaller salary than I was getting in the motion picture work.” “Breaking Into The Movies By Blanche Sweet,” syndicated news feature article, The Pittsburgh Press, October 30, 1915.
Pursuing what seemed to be her first love, Sweet accepted a position with the Gertrude Hoffman dance company touring in a new ballet, much to the chagrin of her grandmother who preferred the security of the $25 weekly salary Blanche had been receiving from Biograph (and one wonders if Blanche ever told her that Griffith had offered to raise it to $40!).
Although, at the time, a gig with the Hoffman troupe was far more prestigious than film work, grandmother proved correct when dance prospects dried up for Blanche once the tour ended. But fortune remained in Blanche’s favor. In the winter of 1910-11, Griffith and company made their second California trip. When grandmother wrote to Griffith asking that Blanche get another opportunity with Biograph, she received a reply from Frank Powell who invited their “Biograph Blonde” to rejoin them in California. Sweet’s timing was perfect: Mary Pickford had married, left Biograph and joined Carl Laemmle’s IMP company in the weeks preceding this second western trip. There were little-big shoes to be filled.
Blanche Sweet had matured in every way since she last worked for Biograph in early 1910. According to Sweet, she had “plumped out with adolescent fat” apparently in all the right places, and was now more suited to adult roles than when she had been “thin and scrawny” one year earlier. Linda Arvidson had even written the scenario for a film about a young woman who evolves from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, How She Triumphed, a story she thought ideal for Blanche Sweet (and a film that is now lost). But it was another film, one that had begun shooting just before How She Triumphed and completed just after it, that would launch Blanche Sweet on a course to movie stardom.
That second winter in California found the Biograph “stock” company in a state of flux. Griffith had lost three of his most important actors: Mary Pickford, Marion Leonard and Arthur Johnson, as well as scenarist Stanner E. V. Taylor (husband of Marion Leonard) and number two cameraman Arthur Marvin, who died in Los Angeles in January of 1911. The brother of Henry Marvin, one of Biograph’s founders, Arthur Marvin was a genuine pioneer of motion pictures, beginning in 1896, developing and perfecting the Biograph camera with Billy Bitzer. Marvin was the man who turned the crank for Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). Though he had long been supplanted by Bitzer in Griffith’s hierarchy, Marvin’s death, combined with the other personnel losses, and the escalating tension in Griffith’s marriage to Linda Arvidson, all pointed to what some would see as a year of difficulties for Griffith.
In reality, Griffith had a staggering — and enviable — array of choices to make regarding his company of actors. Among the many “new” members of the company working for Griffith in California the winter of 1911 were two future stars, Mabel Normand and Blanche Sweet. And Griffith seemed at a loss as to how to use either of them. Normand’s madcap personality seemed to blind Griffith to her talent as an actress. Her physicality and athleticism were at odds with his concept of the ideal leading actress, who seemed to grow smaller, thinner and more ethereal every year — from Leonard to Lawrence to Pickford to Dorothy West (who seems to have been the straw that broke the back of the Griffiths’ marriage), and soon it would be Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish (though notably not Dorothy, who was in personality something of a mini-Mabel). Blanche Sweet seemed to have him stumped.
With her blue-eyes, round-face and pronounced curves, she had become a full-bodied, pale-skinned, golden-haired presence — Blanche Sweet was physically unlike anyone in his company since Florence Lawrence in 1908-09. But at least initially, neither Griffith nor Linda Arvidson thought that she had anywhere near the talent that she would eventually demonstrate. It isn’t surprising that the first two films in which they used her upon her rejoining Biograph were films that emphasized physicality over emotion. This seems to have been the case particularly with How She Triumphed, a lost film that told the tale of a girl who bests her rival by athletic training in the gymnasium. The Lonedale Operator, however, had less need for brawn than brains. It required Sweet to be believable as a spunky payroll clerk who holds two robbers at bay with nothing more than a wrench. Both roles required Sweet (and Griffith the filmmaker) to venture far from the passive, physically weak Victorian era female archetype. And now the new, emerging robust archetype found a very receptive and enthusiastic practitioner in Blanche Sweet.
A lyrical opening to a classic “rescue” film shows Blanche as the “Telegrapher” walking to work with her admirer, the railroad engineer (Frank Grandon). Today she is filling in for her father, the regular payroll clerk, who was taken ill. Blanche has responsibility for accepting and securing the payroll delivery. Darkness begins to fall as she removes the satchel from the train, and shady characters lurk in the background. Once inside the office, Blanche sees the two men and immediately senses trouble.
She telegraphs the next office down the line for assistance, while holding off the two would-be thieves. After finally getting through and summoning help, she finds in her desperation a weapon. As the thieves break down the office door, she brandishes a shiny steel object . . . a tool! The thieves in the darkness of the room mistake it for a pistol, and back off. Just in time, the engineer and his fireman arrive to subdue the thieves. In a bit of comic relief, the “weapon” is shown to be a common wrench, and the thieves doff their hats to the lady telegrapher for her ingenuity. Aside from this last bit of comic revelation, critics found The Lonedale Operator to be a masterful version of what was already a routine type of film, superior in its editing and in the performance — the “believability” — of Blanche Sweet (though her name was still not publicized) as the spunky telegrapher.
It may be stretch to refer to The Lonedale Operator (or any short dramatic film) as a vehicle for a particular actor, but Blanche Sweet’s telegrapher was required to “carry” the film, appearing in every shot aside from the “switchbacks,” the edits among the telegraph stations and the speeding locomotive rushing to her aid. If Griffith needed proof of her ability before the movie camera, he found it here.
The Lonedale Operator was one of the first films Griffith made during this second, and extended, western trip in which he and the Biograph company shot thirty-one films in Southern California (at numerous locations, and at a rented studio facility in Los Angeles for interiors), from the first week of January through the middle of May (hardly a mere “trip”). Among them was the first Griffith/Biograph two-reel production, Enoch Arden, released in individual reels to distributors and exhibitors as Enoch Arden, Part I and Part II. Blanche Sweet played a minor role in Part I, but in Griffith’s eyes, she had earned a genuine promotion, a leading role in his first “epic” film in an epic setting, a western — or as epic as a one reel western can be.
The Last Drop of Water was the last of the 1911 California Biographs, and the first attempt by Griffith to manage larger groups of actors and extras (and horses and wagons) in large-scale settings, in sequences of travel and battle.
Blanche Sweet plays Mary, a young wife accompanying her husband John (Joseph Graybill) on the trek west, across a forbidding desert in which they naturally encounter hostile natives along the way, and must fight alone until soldiers come to their assistance. Sweet’s Mary transforms from mousey victim to a brave defender of her wagon-train of pioneers, a leader among not only the women and children but the men.
She must first overcome the abuse of an alcoholic husband, who also finds his own courage during the battle and provides the “last drop of water” to his friend Jim (Charles West), who has tried unsuccessfully to stop John’s abuse of Mary. Mary must then deal with the death of her husband, and travel onward to destinations untold as the film ends.
Blanche Sweet would, of course, travel back east with Griffith and his stock company — one that she (or, at any rate, her grandmother) had practically begged to rejoin in January. Now in late May, 1911, she arrived back in New York as a rising star within Biograph. Though not quite a movie star to the public, Blanche Sweet was no longer an unknown quantity to her director, colleagues, and critics. Her next role would take her to the wilds of New Jersey, in a film that combined the bucolic charm of many of Griffith’s earliest Biographs with a new twist: the danger faced by an independent woman at the hands of a deranged admirer. And in the following months, she would take part in the next phase of Griffith’s development, the transition to multiple-reel and feature films in which both Blanche Sweet and her director would make cinema history.
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De Witt Bodeen, “Blanche Sweet,” Films in Review, November 1965.
Kevin Lewis, “Happy Birthday Blanche Sweet,” Films in Review, March 1986.
Linda Arvidson (Mrs. Griffith), When The Movies Were Young, E.P. Dutton &, Co., New York, 1925.
Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: an American Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984; Limelight Editions, 1996 (paperback).
Paolo Cherchi Usai, Editor, The Griffith Project, Volumes 3, 4 and 5, Films Produced in July-December 1909, Films Produced in 1910, and Films Produced in 1911, the British Film Institute, and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 1999, 2000 and 2001.