100 years of movies: Before 'talkies'

For the first two decades, the stars of the screen were mostly seen, not heard. But they were no less dazzling for that, says Geoffrey Macnab

Monday 25 January 2010 01:00

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!", Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) famously declared in Sunset Boulevard. This was certainly true of the first decades of movie stardom.

Ecstatic close-ups were the order of the day, whether of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and The Devil or of Lon Chaney in his ghoulish make-up in The Phantom of the Opera.

Yet the faces were surprisingly diverse. There were demure, virginal heroines such as Lillian and Dorothy Gish or Mary Pickford ("America's Sweetheart"). But this was also the jazz age: the era of the "flapper", the "It-girl" (Clara Bow) and the "vamp" – first incarnated by Theda Bara, whose image as a mysterious, sexually self-confident femme fatale was carefully cultivated by Fox.

A similar dichotomy existed with male stars: between, for example, the gleeful anarchy of Fatty Arbuckle's slapstick and the lyrical, sentimental undertones of Charlie Chaplin's tramp.

Such diversity provoked a wide range of responses, including – in the case of the era's most divisive star, Rudolph Valentino – homophobia and fear of the exotic "other". His brand of masculinity, androgynous and sensuous, made studio bosses and critics suspicious, and despite his popularity (or because of it) the "Latin Lover" was treated badly. He was never a Hollywood insider like, say, the all-American everyman Douglas Fairbanks.

Louis B Mayer liked to say that the public created stars. It was the studios that paid them, though – and that was at the root of the battles over money that were soon being fought. Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks and D W Griffith formed United Artists in 1919 to give them more control over their careers – and access to a bigger share of the profits their films generated. Greta Garbo stood up to Mayer, even beating a strategic retreat to Sweden until her wage demands were accepted.

Meanwhile, other, lesser stars were appearing, in increasingly numerous genre movies – like Tom Mix, who featured in scores of westerns. His horse Tony became famous too. Talking of which, Rin Tin Tin, the dog-star credited with saving Warner Bros from bankruptcy in the 1920s, received thousands of fan letters and a hefty salary. The star system has always been associated with stunts.

And the stars celebrated here are just 20 of the brightest in a large and colourful galaxy.

Click the image above to launch the gallery


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