The silent movie era produced a fine crop of actors who are remembered by many. The foundation of their body of work set the stage so to speak for the stars of today. Following are five memorable movie icons and their most notable performances.
Born in Toronto, Canada, Mary Pickford was known as America’s sweetheart during the silent movie era. As was the case with most actors, she started on stage in New York, appearing in The Warrens of Virginia. Soon after the play closed, she started working for D.W. Griffith who was a director and the head of American Biography Company. She was featured in more than 40 silent movies for the company in 1909 and moved to California with Griffith when he moved his operations there. Over the years her fame and popularity grew.
She starred in hit movies such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl, both released in 1917 and became a producer. In 1919 she teamed with D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. to form the United Artists Studio. A year later she married Fairbanks, Sr. who was her second husband. They were considered one of the earliest super-couples of Hollywood.
Though Pickford moved into the talkies after the silent movie era, her success never reached quite the same furor as it had during her years in the silent movies. Her last film, Secrets, was released in 1933. She continued to be involved behind the scenes producing and sitting on the board at United Artists. She married her third husband in 1937 and in her final years was rather reclusive.
Buster Keaton was born Joseph Frank Keaton IV. As legend has it, Harry Houdini had a hand in giving him the nickname “Buster” when as a six-month infant Keaton fell down a flight of stairs; Houdini picked him up and quipped to his parents “What a buster.” The infant went on to grow up to be the actor and director many consider one of the groundbreaking comedians of the early film era.
Keaton is best known for his silent movies; his trademark was physical comedy delivered with a consistent deadpan expression. He was often called “The Great Stone Face.” Keaton’s foray into the movie industry started with his work alongside Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The two worked together for over two years before Keaton struck out on his own in 1920.
Keaton was given his own production unit, Buster Keaton Comedies. He made a series of two-reel comedies before moving on to full-length features. Though Keaton had writers, he thought up and performed many of the gags himself. It was the time of slapstick comedy and he was one of the best. His full-length features included Sherlock Jr. in 1924, The Seven Chances in 1925, and The General in 1927. The General was set during the Civil War and received mixed reviews, with some questioning Keaton’s judgment about making a comedic film about the Civil War and others finding it too dramatic rather than the comedy they had come to expect from Keaton. Years later, the film was heralded as a pioneering piece of filmmaking.
The movie resulted in Keaton losing total control over future films. Keaton abandoned independent filmmaking and went to work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). This coincided with the advent of talkies. Keaton fared okay in this venue, but nothing as he had during the silent movie era.
Greta Garbo was born in Stockholm, Sweden and began her career in Europe. At 19 years old, she came to the United States to work for MGM and was popular in both silent and sound films. Garbo was known for her elusive nature. During her first interview with the American press, it is said she informed reporters, "I was born. I had a mother and father. I went to school. What does it matter?" She gave her last American interview in 1927.
Garbo became MGM’s biggest asset as her first three films were 13% of the company’s profits during 1925 and 1926. She was a shrewd negotiator and ended up with a new contract paying her a record $270,000 per movie and unprecedented control over the roles and films in which she starred. She was popular with both male and female audiences. Her fashion style was instrumental in changing the styles in America. Her reclusiveness only fueled the public’s fascination. Though MGM executives were worried about her transition into the sound films; Garbo’s low throaty accented voice was well received. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in her first sound movie, Anna Christie, and followed with an Oscar win for her role in Romance.
Garbo never married, but had several lovers, and her biographers claim, at least one woman. Garbo never signed autographs or attend public social affairs, even missing the Oscar ceremonies when nominated. She is linked to a line in her movie Grand Hotel in which her character says, “I want to be alone, I just want to be alone.” Later in life Garbo commented, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is a world of difference."
The career of Lillian Gish spanned 75 years and she was called the “First Lady of American Cinema” or “The First Lady of the Silent Screen.” She started on stage and then worked in silent and sound films as well as television. Her silent film career stared when her good friend Mary Pickford introduced her to D.W. Griffith who subsequently featured her in hit movie Birth of a Nation. She appeared in 25 short films and features the first two years of her career as a movie actress. Her transition to the talkies met with moderate success and she returned to the stage. She did make several television appearances beginning in the early 1950s.
Gish never married but had several high profile relationships such as a close association with director Griffith, which she neither acknowledged nor denied. During the outbreak of WW II in Europe until the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gish was outspoken about keeping a non-intervention stance. She claimed the film and theater industry blacklisted her until she signed an agreement to promise to cease her anti-intervention activities and never disclose she had agreed to do so.
Charlie Chaplin is most known for his Little Tramp character. The Little Tramp is recognizable as the little man with a mustache wearing oversized shoes and bowler hat and swinging a cane as he ambles off into the sunset. Chaplin, born in England, is one of film’s first superstars and a co-founder of United Artists.
Surviving a childhood of poverty and hardship, Chaplin made his way onto the silent screen after a successful stage and vaudeville career. In 1908 Chaplin teamed with the Fred Karno pantomime troupe and became one its stars. The troupe toured the United States and was well received. During the Karno Troupe’s second tour of the U.S., Chaplin was contacted by a representative of the Keystone Studios and subsequently offered a contract. Though not impressed with the Keystone comedies, Chaplin liked the idea of venturing into a new life and signed a one-year contract with the Studio.
In early December of 1913 Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles and began work under Mack Sennett who thought the actor appeared too young. Chaplin’s first film, released in February 1914, was called Making a Living. Chaplin didn’t like the film and in his second film introduced the character for which he became known. In his autobiography he explained how he came up with it:
"I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large ... I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
Over the next few years, Chaplin made many films under several studios. By the age of 26, Chaplin was earning $670,000 a year which made him one of the highest paid people in the world at the time. Chaplin refused to make sound movies, choosing to make movies in the 1930s with no dialogue. In 1940 he made the satirical movie The Great Dictator and in his private life became more political. His popularity started to decline, he was accused of communist sympathies and the FBI opened up an investigation on him. Eventually, Chaplin left the U.S. and settled in Switzerland.
Chaplin was considered a perfectionist and wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and starred in most of his films. He gained great financial wealth and continues to be highly regarded in the film industry. His films, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator are often ranked among the greatest films of all time.
These five silent movie icons are just a few of the great actors who shared their talents during the silent movie era. Others include Lon Chaney, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields. Many stars were able to transition into the talkies and continue their work to great acclaims.
- www.biography.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- en.wikipedia.org (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- www.busterkeaton.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- www.gretagarbo.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- lilliangish.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- www.charliechaplin.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
- www.goldensilents.com (Accessed February 17, 2013)
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