They Had Faces: Famous Ladies of the Silent Screen

Today is the 116th anniversary of Dorothy Gish’s birth. Bio remembers her and other legendary actresses who enchanted moviegoers without ever saying a word.
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“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces! There just aren’t faces like that anymore.”

Gloria Swanson Photo

Gloria Swanson in a publicity still from the 1920 film 'Why Change Your Wife?' (Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Gloria Swanson, playing the aging silent screen actress Norma Desmond, memorably uttered these lines in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. She spoke them while watching herself in an actual scene from her 1929 film Queen Kelly, a film made just before the talking picture revolution changed movies forever. It’s surprising to consider, but when Sunset Boulevard was made, actors had only been talking on-screen for a little over 20 years. Even so, the faces that Norma Desmond rhapsodized over seemed like ghosts from another age.

In a way, Norma Desmond was right: There weren’t faces like that anymore. The faces of the silent era, especially the faces of silent actresses, carried an emotional weight that those in talking pictures never had to bear. Actresses in silent films had to say a lot without saying anything, and their faces spoke volumes. Once dialogue began to do more of the work in carrying a story forward, the purely visual language of the original cinema changed, and the unique faces that made it so successful began to seem like relics from a different time. Until she appeared in Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson was one of those relics; she was only 50, but she was greeted by the industry with surprise, as if she had been resurrected from the dead. The era of the great faces was indeed past.

Fortunately, many of these faces have not been forgotten. Today, on the occasion of the birthday of one of those famous faces, Dorothy Gish, Bio remembers a few silent-screen actresses that Norma Desmond might regard with respect. Their performances were of such high caliber, and their appeal so universal, that even now they are remembered as some of the greatest movie actresses of all-time.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish

Dorothy Lillian Gish Photo

Lillian and Dorothy Gish in a publicity still for 'Orphans of the Storm.' (Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Writing about one Gish sister without writing about the other is an almost impossible task. Their careers followed very similar trajectories, and although Lillian would in some ways overshadow her five-years-younger sister (as most big sisters do), both are regarded as among the finest actresses of the early cinema.

Dorothy and Lillian began their careers early. Their father had left the family, and their mother became an actress and stage performer to support them. Soon they too were performing, Dorothy by age four. Their friend Gladys, a young Broadway actress who was Lillian’s age and who had an almost identical backstory, had started to make a little money on the side by acting in short films produced by the Biograph studio. Biograph, of course, was the pioneering film company of director D.W. Griffith, and Gladys’ success there would allow her to introduce her friends to Griffith. By this time, Gladys had changed her name to Mary Pickford, a name that would soon become synonymous with movies (more of whom below).

Dorothy Gish Photo

A publicity photo of Dorothy Gish from 'Stars of the Photoplay.' (Photo: Photoplay magazine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Impressed by the sisters’ good looks and stage experience, Griffith soon began to use them where he felt they worked best. In most cases, this meant that Lillian did drama and Dorothy did comedy. Dorothy was by most accounts the more high-spirited of the two sisters, and her gifts as a comedienne were obvious. The sisters’ first joint film was An Unseen Enemy in 1912, a story about two orphaned daughters who fight off a thief. They would make many more together, among them Hearts of the World (1918) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). These films still exist and are all the more valuable since so many of Dorothy’s early features are lost (somewhere between 75–90% of films from the silent era did not survive because they were disposed of by studios or disintegrated over time). Dorothy’s performances in them give some hint of her range and talent.

In the late 1920s, Dorothy moved to England and made a few movies there that would prove to be great stateside successes, but she only made one talking picture before deciding that she would prefer to return to the stage. Lillian did the same; perhaps both sisters were too identified with the silent era to make the transition to talkies smoothly. Age may have also been a factor: Lillian was approaching 40. Both sisters would make a handful of films in the coming years (Dorothy hit with Centennial Summer, Lillian with The Night of the Hunter), but mostly they concentrated on stage work. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Dorothy appeared in many hit shows on the London and New York stage, including several with Lillian, most notably Life with Father (later made into a film without the Gish sisters).

Lillian Gish would go on to become one of the grand dames of American cinema in her old age, but Dorothy died in 1968, somewhat neglected since she played so few tragic roles (the kind that made Lillian a star) and since much of the evidence of her best comedic work was gone. Although Lillian remembered her sister as somewhat carefree and irresponsible, she also acknowledged how remarkable an actress she was. “She was the talent in the family,” she once said.

Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford Photo

A half-length portrait of Mary Pickford. (Photo: David Shapinsky (Flickr) [Public domain]; Library of Congress via pingnews via Wikimedia Commons)

Writing about women of the silent screen and leaving out Mary Pickford would be like writing about men of the silent screen and forgetting Charlie Chaplin. In a sense, both defined the period in which they worked. Mary Pickford was not only the most popular female star of the era, she was also one of the shrewdest; her mastery of the movie business was almost as impressive as her on-screen performances. She lived up to her nicknames as “America’s Sweetheart” and “The Queen of the Movies.”

Pickford’s early popularity is notable for just how grassroots it was. After appearing in dozens of films for D.W. Griffith at Biograph, audiences began to wonder who the appealing girl was that seemed to steal every picture she was in. They called her the “Biograph Girl” and clamored to know her name. As a result, Mary Pickford was one of the first actresses to receive title billing, in effect ushering in the “star” era when the actors appearing in films would be considered just as important as the people making them. Audiences also had plenty of opportunity to get to know Mary Pickford – in 1909, for example, she made more than 40 one-reel films!

After moving to Paramount Pictures in the mid-teens, Pickford grew even more popular. Films like Hearts Adrift (1914), Tess of the Storm Country (1914), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917) made her Hollywood's most bankable star. In her films, she could be both girlish and charming as well as tough and resourceful; audiences responded to her unique combination of sweetness and grit. Her vast popularity and reliable profitability allowed her to take full control of the production of her films at Paramount, doing everything from casting and scripting the films to distributing them.

Mary Pickford Ziegfeld Photo

Mary Pickford as a Ziegfeld girl. (Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston. [Public domain]; Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

By the 1920s, Pickford was the most powerful woman in Hollywood. She ensured that she made all of the decisions about her movies by forming her own film company, United Artists, with Griffith, Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks (whom she later married). Her films for United Artists in the '20s were just as popular and better made than her films from the teens. (Fortunately, almost every film Pickford made survives, so we can view almost her entire career on screen, a rarity for most stars of the period.) Pickford also gave back to the industry that she dominated by forming the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an organization founded to take care of actors who had fallen on hard times. It’s still active today.

Pickford would never need the Motion Picture Relief Fund herself; she was a very rich woman, and even when the talking picture put an end to her screen career (like the Gish sisters, she had also aged out of most lead roles), she continued to produce until the '50s. Sadly, however, personal issues contributed to an alcohol problem that would prove chronic. Pickford became a recluse, rarely leaving her Pickfair manor house, a situation that may have inspired the hermetic aspect of the Norma Desmond character (a role that was initially offered to Pickford). Still, the years did not erase her impact; when she died in 1979, Mary Pickford was remembered as what she was – one of the most accomplished women in movie history.

Gloria Swanson

Gloria Swanson Photo

Gloria Swanson in a production still from 'Don't Change Your Husband' (1919). (Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Gloria Swanson’s career is unique in that her second act, which arrived with Sunset Boulevard, is almost as well-remembered as her first, when she took the silent cinema by storm with her portrayals of uninhibited, impeccably dressed women embroiled in romantic travails. Like Pickford’s, Swanson’s huge popularity would allow her to control her career and make the kind of movies she wanted to make while working with some of Hollywood’s greatest actors and technicians.

Oddly enough, Swanson’s career started on a lark. She thought it would be fun to be in a movie, and when she heard that the Essanay company was auditioning extras in her hometown of Chicago, she decided to try out. In short order, she was asked back, and she soon realized that she could make a real career of it. She moved to California, following the exodus of the film studios to Hollywood from the east, and appeared in movies by Chaplin and Mack Sennett. By the late teens, she was working for Paramount Studios, the home of Mary Pickford and sometime co-star (and eventual paramour) Rudolph Valentino. Director Cecil B. DeMille, remembered primarily now for his Biblical epics, featured Swanson in a series of romantic comedies and dramas in which Swanson established her persona as a sophisticated woman in fabulous clothes who negotiates marriage problems, quite often related to sex. Most of them were quite successful.

Gloria Swanson Photo

Full-length portrait of Gloria Swanson. (Photo: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sex would be the main focus of the last major film she made in the silent era. Having lived a colorful life in the '20s during which she married a European nobleman and became a Marquise (it was her third marriage, and she was only 26!), she continued to make popular movies and dictate fashion trends. She longed, however, to determine the course of her own career. Joining forces with United Artists, she pushed through her adaptation of the notoriously racy W. Somerset Maugham story “Miss Thompson” about a prostitute stranded in Samoa who gets involved in a love triangle. Hot stuff for 1928, Sadie Thompson ran into many problems with the censors, but when it was finally released, it was a major success. Swanson was nominated for Best Actress at the first annual Academy Awards ceremony. She lost to Janet Gaynor, but she didn’t place much importance on the award, even though she would be nominated twice more (she never won).

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Swanson would do well in a few talking films in the '30s and '40s. She also kept herself busy with pursuits unrelated to the movie industry, the most remarkable being a company she founded to spirit Jewish inventors out of Europe during the rise of the Nazis. She hosted one of the first live television shows in 1948, appeared occasionally on stage, and was eventually cast in Sunset Boulevard, which made her more popular than ever. (Queen Kelly, incidentally, Sunset Boulevard’s movie within a movie, was a disaster for Swanson in the '20s and never even showed in America; it was partially directed by Erich von Stroheim, who plays Max the butler in Sunset Boulevard!) In 1980, three years before her death, she wrote a tell-all autobiography that detailed her amazing career, including her romances with Joseph Kennedy (JFK’s dad), Valentino, Herbert Marshall, and of course, her six (!) husbands. In a career filled with highlights, however, Sunset Boulevard would remain her crowning achievement, an odd mix of horror story and valentine to the era she once ruled.

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo Photo

Greta Garbo in 'The Joyless Street.' (Photo: Alexander Binder (died 1929) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In the silent era, the chances that the actress on screen in the new film at your local cinema was not American were reasonably high. Because spoken language was a non-issue in silent films, “faces” could be imported from abroad and often were. They came from Russia (Alla Nazimova), Poland (Pola Negri), Mexico (Lupe Vélez), France (Renée Adorée), and many other countries. Sweden would gift America with one of the most beloved and well regarded of these imports: Greta Garbo. A moody beauty with a striking look, Garbo played heroines in tragic romances on-screen and made a stand for privacy in her off-screen life that would come to characterize her for decades. A measure of her popularity is the offhand anagram of her first name that became her permanent nickname: Greta Garbo became “The Great Garbo,” one of the most celebrated “faces” of her time.

Born in Stockholm to a poor family, Garbo (né Gustafsson) got her first break while working at a department store. She appeared in one of the store’s filmed advertisements (usually shown in theaters as part of the previews before a feature) and, while still a teenager, landed a part in a comedy short in 1921. Gaining entrance to acting school, she studied for two years before leaving for a lead role in Mauritz Stiller’s film The Saga of Gösta Berling. This film made her an overnight star in Sweden, and her second film, The Joyless Street (a.k.a. Streets of Sorrow), directed by G.W. Pabst, made her a star in Germany. This caught the attention of MGM Studios, who brought her to America with Stiller, who became her mentor and manager.

It didn’t take long for Garbo to add America to her list of conquests. Her first MGM film, Torrent, was one of the big hits of 1925, despite the fact that Garbo did not feel very comfortable playing a Spanish girl. While Stiller failed to click in Hollywood and returned to Sweden after directing Garbo’s second film, The Temptress, Garbo could do no wrong. Every one of her films from the '20s was a hit, and her films began to account for a large portion of annual MGM earnings. With success came power, and she negotiated for a higher salary and special conditions on set. Flesh and the Devil would prove to be the biggest success of this period, as well as the most troubling – romantically linked with co-star John Gilbert, Garbo experienced for the first time the invasive nature of the Hollywood press as they dogged her every move.

Greta Garbo Mauritz Stiller Photo

Greta Garbo & Mauritz Stiller on board the "S/S Drottningholm" in 1925 en route to the United States. (Photo: Jimmy Sileo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Garbo’s acting style was subtle for the period, often communicating great emotion with small movements of her eyes or lips. Studio bosses fretted that Garbo’s greatest asset, her expressive face, would be devalued by the coming of sound. Their concern was misplaced; Garbo made the transition from silent to sound more successfully than any other Hollywood actress of the era except Joan Crawford. Her first talkie, Anna Christie, would turn out to be the most popular film of 1930, promoted by the tagline “Garbo talks!” Garbo, who had come to America with no knowledge of English at all, was proficient enough by this time to handle lines from Eugene O’Neill. In the early '30s, she would eclipse her incredible popularity of the '20s with roles in movies like Mata Hari and Grand Hotel (the highest grossing movies of 1931 and 1932, respectively). Greta Garbo owned Hollywood; when writers referred to her as “the Divine Garbo,” the adjective seemed to refer almost as much to her unerring ability to pick winners as her natural beauty.

Inevitably, however, Garbo’s divinity began to falter after her early 1930s peak; although she made films until 1942, not all of them were hits, and one of them (Conquest) bombed miserably. The Soviet satire Ninotchka would temporarily revive her fortunes, but by this time, 1939, Garbo’s interest in the screen was beginning to wane. Her famous line from Grand Hotel – “I want to be alone” – became a credo, and she became famous for her reclusive habits and disinterest in discussing her career. (Like the equally reclusive Mary Pickford, she also turned down the role of Norma Desmond.) Garbo travelled, collected art, and became a U.S. citizen, but she never returned to the screen. Photographers made a sport of catching sight of her on the streets of New York in her later years. She died in 1990 – very rich, very legendary, and still very alone.

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks Photo

Louise Brooks. (Photo: Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

If Mary Pickford was America’s girl next door, Gloria Swanson its modern woman with a past, and Greta Garbo its woman of mystery, then Louise Brooks was an intriguing mix of all of these characteristics. A beautiful woman famous for her helmeted bob haircut, Brooks did not have the box-office clout of any of these actresses when she was making films, but while other, more popular actresses of the era like Colleen Moore, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and Norma Talmadge have drifted into obscurity, Louise Brooks’ reputation continues to grow and deepen. No other actress of the silent era, with the possible exception of Anna Mae Wong, has been as reassessed and as celebrated so long after the end of her career as Louise Brooks.

Raised in an artistic environment in Wichita, Kansas, Brooks studied dance from an early age. She landed a series of dancing jobs in her mid-to-late teens and eventually ended up dancing in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. A talent scout for Paramount Pictures picked her out of the line-up and signed her up. Brooks made a quick impression in a series of light comedies that solidified in the public mind the image of the flapper – a young, unconventional girl who smokes, likes jazz, wears her hair and skirts short, and who might seem daring but is essentially sweet. Although never as popular as “It” girl Clara Bow, Louise’s distinctive black bob and dancer’s physique were emblematic of the type. Brooks brought more to her roles than her look, however; her acting style was very naturalistic for the era, free of the mugging and exaggeration that characterized so many of her contemporaries.

In life, Brooks shared some of the flapper’s devil-may-care attitude, although she could push it to the next level. “I have a gift for enraging people,” she once wrote, “but if I ever bore you, it will be with a knife.” Annoyed by Paramount’s stinginess at salary negotiations, she decided she’d had enough of the studio and quit. Unlike Greta Garbo, who left Sweden to make films in America, Brooks followed the opposite route and deserted Hollywood for Europe, where commercial considerations often took a backseat to artistic aims. 

'Once there, she accepted the lead role in two 1929 films by G.W. Pabst (the director responsible for Garbo’s second film), Pandora’s Box and The Diary of a Lost Girl. Both films dealt frankly with issues of sex and death in a manner that was far beyond what most films of the era attempted. Consequently, even in heavily edited form, they were little seen outside of Europe and were not very highly praised there at the time. Since the 1960s, the stature of both films has risen considerably, and both are now regarded as two of the greatest silent films ever made. Brooks dominates the screen with her mixture of innocence and worldliness; her performances rival Garbo for sensitivity and subtlety.

After her European adventure, Brooks would return to an unwelcoming Hollywood. She would never quite regain her footing, and after a few minor talkies, she never appeared in another film. She became a reclusive, forgotten figure, working odd jobs to pay the bills until discovering that she had a flair for writing. She wrote film commentaries and eventually penned a short autobiography. By the '60s and '70s, critics had rediscovered her films, and the more permissive climate of the era made them seem remarkably modern. She became the subject of several documentaries before her death in 1985. Although many of her films are lost, the ones that survive reveal Louise Brooks’ timeless appeal – her iconic look, her natural grace, and her personal flair. Like all great ladies of the silent screen, her face says it all without saying a single word.