Seven Women

November 29, 2010 at 3:47 am (Photo Gallery)

I kind of resent it when a vintage film star is remembered mainly for whatever tragedy may have befallen her. It’s a little voyeuristic to look past a person’s legacy and just stare at the horrible sadness that concludes her story. Admittedly, I’m as guilty of that as anyone, but not where this lady’s concerned. I’ve seen her at her luminous best in films like Fig Leaves (1926) and The Monkey Talks (1927)… so when I think of Olive Borden, I think first of that radiance.

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Gladys Brockwell re-invented herself as a character actress in the mid-1920s, and today she’s best remembered as Janet Gaynor’s cruel sister in Seventh Heaven (1927). But she’d first made her reputation as a talented actress at Fox a decade earlier, starring in a long series of romantic melodramas. We’ll never get to see much of her early work, though—  one more reason to regret the massive vault explosion that destroyed most of the Fox silents.

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Betty Bronson is well-known to fans of the silents, largely for Peter Pan (1924), her first starring role. Her success in that film led to choice projects like A Kiss for Cinderella and Not So Long Ago over the next year or so, in which she portrayed sweet innocence to perfection. But as she began outgrowing her teens, it was no longer clear what her “type” was. Paramount took the easy way out, seemingly casting her in anything that still had a female lead to fill. The results didn’t do her career any favors, but soon enough she left the screen to raise a family and (apparently) live happily ever after.

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The talkie transition years were a minefield for most actresses in Hollywood. But several young starlets of the very late 1920s sailed right into talkies without any problem, and Sue Carol was one of them. Unfortunately, her output was longer on quantity than quality, and her screen career went cold as the 1930s ushered in a whole different world.  Undefeated, she simply adapted to it by becoming one of the first female agents in Hollywood.

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Lili Damita is best remembered today for her stormy and inevitably doomed marriage to Errol Flynn. But before all that, she was a celebrated starlet of the late silent era, and Sam Goldwyn selected her to fill Vilma Banky’s slippers as Ronald Colman’s love interest in The Rescue (1929). Her exotic looks and French accent might have made her the Pola Negri of the talkies, but somehow her career never really caught fire, in spite of a few high-profile roles.

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Marguerite de la Motte, like many other actresses, was just lucky enough to land a reasonably steady career in 1920s Hollywood… but not lucky enough to get a breakthrough hit, to really get noticed and become a true star. With unforgettable eyes like those of Barbara LaMarr or Billie Dove, she certainly had the beauty. And in films like The Unknown Soldier (1926), she proved she could really act. Hollywood was a crowded field, and there would be even less room for her in the talkie era. But she’s always been a favorite of mine.

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Seen here with Victor McLaglen in Hot for Paris (1930), Fifi D’Orsay wasn’t necessarily the best-looking or most-talented woman in Hollywood. But she had a certain something, a sexy, energetic, electric quality we might as well call “it,” the same “it” that Clara Bow had before the microphone came along. When Fifi D’Orsay’s onscreen, your eyes are on her and nowhere else. A singer/dancer who hit town just as the first wave of screen musicals was underway, she got plenty of work and plenty of attention… for a while. But the musical craze came to a swift end, and Fifi was swept out right along with it. It’s too bad, just another example of Hollywood fumbling a great opportunity.

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– – – Christopher Snowden



  1. diane byrnes said,

    I have never seen any Olive Borden films but she certainly looks exotically
    beautiful. I have similar sentiments about Mary Nolan. I have seen a few
    of her sound films and apart from her astonishing beauty, I thought she
    more than held her own with the likes of Ruth Chatterton and Clive Brook
    (“Charming Sinners” (1929) but unfortunately she will always be remembered
    as the Hard Luck Girl.
    Gladys Brockwell – I have seen her in that early talkie “Lights of New York”
    and, I agree, she was probably the most relaxed member of the cast.
    Poor Sue Carol – I can remember reading in an old Photoplay about her
    “comeback” role in “Check and Double Check” and I thought comeback!!
    how old was she – about 20. I also don’t really care for Fifi – if I had to pick
    a “fractured English’ actress it would definately be Lupe!!
    Margueritte de la Motte – I have only heard of her but from your photo
    I am suprised I haven’t heard more. She is stunning and you are right
    she is very reminiscent of Billie Dove.

  2. The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of December 3 | Parallax View said,

    […] Christopher Snowden salutes seven of his favorite silent starlets tossed aside (or roughly misused, at best) in the transition to sound. […]

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