Silent Star of July 1995

In the beginning, films were silent. What early filmmakers lacked in sound, they made up with creative and artistic techniques. And it all ended with a jazz singer in the Jazz Age, but the output that survives from the silent period is astonishing, both in quantity and in content. Unfortunately, the new generations are unacquainted with the great pictures and the great actresses and actors from yesteryear. Through this and other forthcoming pages, we want to renew the interest in the silent film, lifting its label of "unfamiliar and remote" and making it, if not cherished, at least acknowledged and respected.

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 18 1895. She entered the film world in 1911 as the title role in The Lonedale Operator, directed by D.W. Griffith and produced by American Biograph. Her plump face and full form figure gave her a mature look, and consequently enabled her to get the leading roles in Griffith Biographs, such as Fighting Blood (1911), Home Sweet Home (1914), The Avenging Conscience (1914), etc. In 1913 she earned a place in history by starring in the first American full-length feature, Judith of Bethulia, also directed by Griffith. This four-reel film horrified Biograph executives for its incredibly large cost: $36,000. She was initially cast as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), but the role was eventually given to Lillian Gish. It was in that year that she left Griffith. Why? "I was stubborn, I was difficult, I played games, I was to fall in love, oh there are reasons and reasons" she said, in an 1981 interview. It is worth noting that during the time she worked with Griffith, he never put the names of his players on the screen. It was only after The Birth of a Nation (1915) that he began to do so.

During the rest of the Teens she worked with other directors, including Cecil B. DeMille and Marshall "Mickey" Neilan. She married the latter in 1922, but his constant extramarital affairs made her file for divorce in 1933. In the Twenties she starred in the first film version of Anna Christie (1923), directed by John Griffith Wray and supervised by Thomas H. Ince, this being the first Eugene O'Neill play to reach the screen. Although she had a rich speaking voice and could sing, too, her career plunged after just three talkies. She made over 120 pictures altogether.

Although her film career had ended, she was determined to stay in show business, by touring, playing secondary Broadway roles, and doing radio work during the Thirties. She married Raymond Hackett in this decade, and was widowed in 1958. After this she had to settle for clerking in a Los Angeles department store. Fortunately, film scholars began to seek her in the late 1960s, and her reputation was resuscitated. She traveled to England, Italy, and Canada to receive long overdue recognition as a pioneering film actress. She died on September 6, 1986.

Watch Blanche Sweet in:
The Transformation of Mike (1910)
The Lonedale Operator (1911) Part I Part II
The Battle (1911)
Fighting Blood (1911)
The Indian Brothers (1911)
The Miser's Heart (1911)
The Painted Lady (1912)
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)
Death's Marathon (1913)
The Villain Foiled (1911)
Home Sweet Home (1914)
The Avenging Conscience (1914)
Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Glen Pringle /
David Garcia Zamora
Copyright © 1995-2012 by Glen Pringle and David Garcia Zamora
ISSN 1329-4431