Several weeks ago, we took a look at some of the leading ladies of the silent film era. Today, we will be giving the men their proper due. Seven of the most celebrated actors of the silent period will be the focus of today’s post.
An established stage actor, Douglas Fairbanks (1883 – 1939) entered films in 1915 at Triangle. Within a year’s time, he had become one of the most popular film stars. Prior to 1920, Fairbanks primarily made social, drawing-room comedies that made use of his natural humor and athlethicism. In 1920, for a change of pace, Fairbanks made The Mark of Zorro. This swashbuckling film became a box office success upon its release. With the mediocre audience reception given for his next film, the modern-dress comedy The Nut, Fairbanks decided to devote himself to producing and starring in swashbucklers. For the next decade, Fairbanks played adventurers ranging from Robin Hood to D’artagnan. Fairbanks made the transition to sound films, but by then he had lost much of enthusiasm for film making. Also, with the changing times and tastes, his films were not as successful as they had been years earlier. After making The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) for Alexander Korda, Fairbanks retired and died five years later of a heart attack.
Douglas Fairbanks, Theodore Roberts, and Marjorie Daw in “Arizona” (1918)
The still seen is above is from Arizona (1918). At some point in the past, an anonymous reviewer wrote this note in pencil on the back of the still: “Doug directed this one himself and it was pretty bad.” This note takes on a poignant tone when we realize that we will never likely know whether or not this reviewer is right. Arizona is sadly among the many films from the silent era that may no longer exist.
An Italian immigrant, Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926) found himself working in a variety of odd jobs in New York before finding work as a taxi dancer in dance halls, night clubs, and eventually the stage. In 1917, he arrived in Hollywood after having been on tour with a stage musical. Prior to 1921, he was primarily cast in bit roles as exotic, ethnic characters and villains. In 1921, he played the leads in two movies that would define his career: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse and The Sheik. In an era when ladies were called flappers, the men were called sheiks after the popularity of the Valentino picture. Ladies of the time loved Valentino and embraced him as the great Latin lover. On the other hand, men tended to view him with much skepticism and at times derision. Valentino’s sudden death in 1926 from a perforated ulcer caused a media sensation not unlike what was seen about fifty years later with the death of Elvis Presley.
Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in “The Sheik” (1921)
Interestingly enough, Valentino has had a relatively successful post-mortem career. In the 1930s, when many of his still living contemporaries had been forgotten, Valentino still had a legion of devoted fans. In 1937 and 1938, three of Valentino’s signature films, The Sheik (1921), The Eagle (1925), and The Son of the Sheik (1926), were retro-fitted with recorded musical scores and reissued with much acclaim to theatres. It is a testament to Valentino’s popularity that these three silent films did better box office business than many of the current, first-run sound films of the time. The still seen above was published specifically for the 1938 reissue of The Sheik.
Richard Barthelmess (1895 – 1963) entered into the film industry in 1916 after being discovered by family friend Alla Nazimova. Lillian Gish, his co-star in the D.W. Griffith films Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) said that Barthelmess had “the most beautiful face of any male who ever went before the camera.” Throughout the 1920s, Barthelmess made many popular films including Tol’able David (1921), The Patent Leather Kid (1927), and The Noose (1928). He made a successful transition to sound. However, by the early 1930s, his popularity had started to wane. Barthelmess retired from the screen in 1942. The still seen below is taken from Shore Leave (1925). The film survives and is said to contain an off-beat, comedic performance from Barthelmess.
John Barrymore (1882 – 1942), also known as the Great Profile, was born into a stage family. John almost naturally found himself following his family vocation (following a stint as a newspaper cartoonist), and he made his stage debut in 1903. He quickly became one of the leading actors of the era and was celebrated for his portrayals of the title roles in the Shakespeare plays Richard III and Hamlet. Beginning in 1913, Barrymore also found time to mix his stage work with film acting. Some of Barrymore’s more well-known silent films include Raffles (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Don Juan (1926), The Beloved Rogue (1927), and Tempest (1928). He often played great lover/adventurer roles, but he also tried to include some grotesque/mad scenes into his films.
John Barrymore and Camilla Horn in “Tempest” (1928)
Barrymore was a natural for sound films given his excellent voice and stage experience, and he did star in several excellent films throughout the 1930s. However, the coming of sound roughly coincided with the beginning of his physical and mental deterioration brought about by his health, personal life, and alcoholism. In spite of these problems, Barrymore always managed to turn in excellent work up until his death in 1942.
William Powell (1892 – 1984) and Wallace Beery (1885 – 1949) were two silent character actors that benefited tremendously from the sound transition. In the silents, they were rarely afforded the leading roles. Powell was mostly cast as villains, and Beery was often case as either villains or comical oafs. With sound, they both propelled to leading man status and audience favorites. Due to his distinguished sounding voice, Powell now played sophisticated leading man roles (e.g. One Way Passage (1932) and The Thin Man (1934)). Beery, with his gravelly sounding voice, was able to play his villainous and “lovable slob” roles with far more nuances and versatility (e.g. The Big House (1930), The Champ (1931), and China Seas (1935)). Interestingly enough, these two men did their most well-known work at MGM during the 1930s and 1940s, but their only film collaboration was done in the 1928 Paramount feature Partners in Crime. A still from that feature may be seen below. Also seen in the still are Raymond Hatton (1887 – 1971) on the far right and Arthur Housman (1889 – 1942) in the center under Beery. Hatton was a profilic actor whose career extended from the teens to the golden age of television. Housman may be best remembered today for his comic drunk routine often seen in the films of Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd.
William Powell, Wallace Beery, Arthur Housman, and Raymond Hatton in “Partners in Crime” (1928)
Lon Chaney (1883 -1930), also known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” played in more than 150 films between 1912 and 1930. While perhaps best known for The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and a series of macabre films he made for director Tod Browning, those films only make up a small portion of his film work. Chaney should probably be best remembered for being one of the great character actors of the screen who well used his acting and make-up skills to play a variety of roles such as the physically deformed gangster Blizzard in The Penalty (1920), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and a Marine sergeant in Tell It to the Marines (1926). The still seen below is from While the City Sleeps (1928). This crime drama was MGM’s answer to the popular Paramount crime thriller Underworld (1927).
Lon Chaney and Richard Carle in “While the City Sleeps” (1928)
There has been much speculation about what Chaney would have accomplished in sound films had he not died in 1930 from throat cancer. His only sound feature, The Unholy Three (1930), reveals a fine and strong speaking voice that would have served him well in sound. Some believe that Chaney would have played the title role of Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film. While that is certainly possible (especially since it was directed by frequent Chaney collaborator Tod Browning), I do not believe that this casting would have been assured. Chaney and MGM would have had to agree to a loan-out to Universal to do the picture. While loan outs did occur with some frequency (MGM did lend out its top star Clark Gable several times during the early 1930s), I do not necessarily see this particular loan out happening. Most likely, Chaney would have done most of his sound work at MGM. If so, I can his career path taking a few different but simulataneous paths. In response to Universal’s successful horror films Dracula and Frankenstein, I see MGM starring Chaney in a few horror films. Perhaps Chaney would have starred in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) instead of Boris Karloff. In response to popular crime thrillers like Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932), MGM probably would have featured Chaney in some crime thrillers. Perhaps Chaney would have been featured in The Big House (1930) and The Secret Six (1931) instead of Wallace Beery. Furthermore, I can see Chaney taking some of the roles that MGM assigned to actors such as Walter Huston, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore.
Thanks for reading today’s post. We have several entries already under construction. Please come back again later!