The 1920s were booming times for the American theater, with more than 200 new plays being produced on Broadway each year, peaking at 264 in the 1927–1928 season. Among the top playwrights of the time, Max Marcin, the author of the 1924 hit Broadway crime drama Silence, is largely forgotten today. Marcin, a Polish immigrant who came to the United States as a child, was a well-respected New York Press crime reporter, and crime writing, in one way or another, occupied his interest for the rest of his career. He was twenty-seven when assigned to cover the sensational 1906 Stanford White murder case. After the second of its drawn-out trials, Marcin left the newspaper business in 1907 to take up magazine writing, selling dozens of serials and short stories to popular periodicals of the day. When he sold the dramatic rights to one of his stories in 1910, he switched to playwriting. His first big Broadway success was 1915’s The House of Glass, about a woman falsely accused of a crime, and his first to be adapted for the screen. Eventually Marcin entered the movie business himself, writing, directing, and producing, notably a 1931 talkie remake of Silence starring Clive Brook.
Since the earliest years of cinema, both vaudeville and the legitimate stage have been a major source of material for motion pictures. In 1894, audiences could see the finale to the first act of Charles Hoyt’s A Milk White Flag filmed for Edison’s Kinetoscope machine. Filmmakers were used to simply stealing ideas from plays until the Kalem Film Company lost a court case for an unauthorized 1907 adaptation of Ben Hur. Decided in 1911, the case led the way for playwrights to make money and take credit while reaching a wider audience.
The movies associated itself with theater as a way to earn legitimacy in this young profession. In 1912, Adolph Zukor formed the Famous Players Film Company, advertising “Famous Players in Famous Films” as their slogan, and imported the French production of Queen Elizabeth starring the internationally renowned Sarah Bernhardt as its first American release. The best plays of the theatrical stage in the 1910s and 1920s were adapted for movies, and anyone associated with the theater, famous or not, found that films could be their economic salvation.
Cecil B. DeMille was one of the many struggling unknowns of the stage, overshadowed by his older brother William and parents Henry and Beatrice, all successful playwrights. Despairing of his status, DeMille was looking for a change when his friend Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) made DeMille a partner in the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. Their first film, The Squaw Man (1914), an adaptation of the successful stage play, launched the trio into the business. They soon combined with Zukor’s Famous Players Company to form Famous Players-Lasky, eventually known as Paramount Pictures.
In 1924, DeMille (who then spelled his name De Mille) struck out on his own, buying a co-ownership of the fledgling Producers Distributing Corporation and taking over the old Thomas H. Ince studio property in Culver City. As he had done at Famous Players, DeMille looked to the theater to supply him with stories, among them was Marcin’s Silence, about a career criminal refusing to speak of the murder he’s blamed for even as he awaits the hangman’s noose. The play was still touring on the theatrical circuit when DeMille bought the rights in May 1925. Already working on an adaption of another play, Beulah Marie Dix’s The Road to Yesterday, to direct himself, DeMille signed Rupert Julian to direct Silence.
Rupert Julian had just seen his prestige as a director climb with the 1925 release of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, but he was also an actor, first on the stage in his native New Zealand, then on tour in the United States beginning in 1911. In 1913 he began to appear in movies for Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley’s Rex brand at Universal. Julian worked on more than forty films with the couple and directed for Universal between his acting assignments. His big success came in 1918, cowriting, directing, and starring in The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin. DeMille hired Julian to direct three features for PDC, but he continued for seven. When talkies came in, he didn’t survive the transition, making only two more films, his last 1930’s The Cat Creeps.
Silence was scheduled to start filming November 1, 1925, but was delayed when DeMille signed the celebrated stage and screen actor H.B. Warner to reprise his role from the original stage play and had to wait for him to come off tour. (The next year, the fifty-one-year-old Warner played Jesus in DeMille’s The King of Kings.) In the meantime, Julian directed Three Faces East (1925) for PDC and the delay gave more time for Marcin’s play to be turned into a screen scenario.
Beulah Marie Dix had been working with DeMille as a screenwriter off and on since 1917. By the time she was assigned to adapt Silence, she was a veteran, having written her first vaudeville sketch in 1895 as a teenager. She studied English at Radcliffe College, when it was still Harvard’s sister school, and, in 1897, became the first woman to win the university’s George B. Sohier literary prize. She made her living writing short stories, novels, and plays, and, eventually, movie scenarios. Since 1917, she had written or adapted thirty-seven features, the last being The Road to Yesterday (1925) from her own play. Also hired to work with her on Silence was Bertram Millhauser, who had written for The Perils of Pauline (1914) serial early in his career. Dix and Millhauser had already collaborated with DeMille on Famous Players-Lasky’s Feet of Clay (1924). The two writers continued to work together on seventeen projects over the years, into the television era. If Millhauser is recognized today at all, it is for his writing on the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films in the 1930s and ’40s.
It was a hectic time on the lot with DeMille in production on his own film and under pressure to make a success of PDC, and, during one heated meeting, Millhauser got into a fistfight with director Julian. It apparently did not affect their working relationship as Dix, Millhauser, and Julian all collaborated in the future. Shooting was delayed again to accommodate H.B. Warner, portraying the lead in Whispering Smith (1926) for Metropolitan Pictures (co-owned by DeMille). At the end of January 1926, production on Silence finally began, and it was in the cutting room by the beginning of March.
Silence was supposed to be released to theaters on April 25, 1926, but was slow rolling out and didn’t premiere in New York until May 19. The postponed release did not affect its critical reception and it was uniformly praised in reviews. Moving Picture World called it “unusually powerful” and Variety called it “the best movie melodrama in a long time.” Picture-Play magazine singled out H.B. Warner as giving “one of the strongest, most moving performances of a year rich in individual successes.”
Box office returns were not so positive; gross receipts totaled $268,630.74, lower than its production cost of $290,921.58. None of the ten Producers Distributing Corporation productions that year showed a profit, except for DeMille’s Bolshevik Revolution story, The Volga Boatman. The low returns continued for the company, with 1927’s lavish bible story The King of Kings holding PDC together. DeMille decided to give up his independence as a producer after four years and fifty-six films, signing with Paramount Pictures in 1932. From then on there was no stopping DeMille—every production until his last in 1956 was a moneymaker.
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra