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.