The May 5, 1920, headline in the Los Angeles Times for the recurring “Flash” column about Hollywood read, “Blanche Going Abroad.” In the short item, the correspondent bemoaned, in her slightly purple prose: “We shan’t have a single star left in our American firmament if the emigration of our best-loved luminaries keeps on.” The Blanche of the headline is Blanche Sweet, a big star who needed no surname to be recognizable. Since her anonymous days as the “Blonde Biograph Girl” making films under D.W. Griffith, Sweet had grown into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Like her fellow Biograph actresses Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters, she began as a child on the touring theater circuit—thrust on a Cincinnati stage at only eighteen-months old, she told film historian Anthony Slide, as a human prop in Blue Jeans. Then, also like Pickford and the Gishes, Sweet worked in the flickers between theater gigs, first with Edison, briefly, and then at Biograph, as an extra in Griffith’s short masterpiece about the small farmer getting screwed by Wall Street, 1909’s A Corner in Wheat. At fifteen, she played the title role in his The Lonedale Operator, wielding a wrench against telegraph office burglars.
After five loyal years at Biograph, she starred in Griffith’s first feature and his last release for the studio, the four-reel Judith of Bethulia, for which she was finally credited by name. A critic in Moving Picture World noticed her ability to portray a fully formed character: “The feminine sweetness and shyness of the lovely Judith are intensified by her advances and retreats in measuring her sex attractions against his formidable power.” Movies were making their most significant transformation since invention, from short amusements to longer more elaborate entertainment, and Sweet was poised on the brink of stardom.
She followed Griffith to Mutual and was set to play Elsie Stoneman in his upcoming opus, The Birth of a Nation. Not around one day for an impromptu rehearsal, the earthy Sweet found herself replaced by the vulnerable, ethereal presence of Lillian Gish. Reluctantly, Sweet moved on to the Jesse Lasky studio. In a telegram, Lasky wrote of trying to lure the still-teenaged actress from Griffith: “I am still holding out on Blanche Sweet, as I hate to pay her over $300, but I will not lose her and, if by the time I leave I cannot bring her around, will give her more money.” He ended up paying her $500 each week the first year and $750 the next.
She was a boon to the budding studio. Sweet acted for both Cecil B. DeMille, starring in his The Warrens of Virginia (planned like Birth to commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War), and his brother William, formerly of Broadway. Sweet didn’t get along with Cecil, always preferring William, whom she later said, had a “more subtle way of doing things.” As part of the publicity push for her move to Lasky, Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote a glowing portrait of her in a 1914 issue of Photoplay magazine: “In Hollywood, where all things come in time to a great sameness, Blanche has managed to avoid the mold.”
Now romantically and professionally linked to the talented director Marshall Neilan whom she’d known since Biograph, she worked under his sure—but often hung-over—hand in several Lasky productions before taking a mysterious two-year hiatus. She returned to the screen with an independent feature set in occupied Belgium during World War I, 1919’s The Unpardonable Sin, directed by Neilan. Her refusal to sign any long-term contracts led to an itinerant way of working—that May 1920 article marked this new phase of her career. A second notice in the L.A. Times in June announced that producer Jesse D. Hampton had commissioned scenarios by six British authors, one of which would be chosen as a vehicle for Sweet. She later dismissed the films she made during this period as “what I knew I shouldn’t do.” The Deadlier Sex, shot in part on location around Truckee, California, was one of those films.
In it she plays the daughter of a railroad magnate (Winter Hall) who has to take charge when her father unexpectedly dies. Timing couldn’t be worse as he was in a do-or-die stock market struggle over control of his company. To fight back, she doesn’t resort to her feminine wiles but to her cunning and survival skills as an outdoorswoman. She kidnaps her rival (Mahlon Hamilton), stranding him far from the city where his money’s no good. The role is typical of Sweet, in that she doesn’t play a shrinking violet or damsel in distress, at least not one without resources, yet she also conveys tenderness, in particular during an early scene in her father’s study.
The film also has some interesting touches: a trail of pipe smoke enters the frame as her father dies and sinister doings in a clearing in the woods are shot from a great distance. Boris Karloff, in his second feature, plays the trapper whose brutish ways inadvertently unite the couple. But here, rather than the lumbering, pitiful monster that later made him a legend, Karloff’s an aggressive brawny threat.
Reviews were tepid but most pointed to Sweet, who had above-the-title billing, as the film’s single best draw. Wid’s Film Daily advised exhibitors: “You can’t feature Blanche Sweet too much for her performance here certainly justified stardom and will go a long way toward pushing her up to the top again.” In an Exhibitors Herald article the month the film opened, Pathé asserted that Sweet was still the distributor’s biggest box-office attraction.
She followed her Hampton films with some of her best work, this time with producer Thomas Ince, who paid $35,000 for the screen rights for Anna Christie, the O’Neill play about a prostitute who finds redemption. Now considered lost, the film was directed by John Griffith Wray, with whom Sweet later said she was in “constant conflict” because he had “a melodramatic idea of the thing.” It didn’t help that he used a megaphone to direct her even during close-ups. Ince lost a coin toss to Sweet who insisted on retakes and the resulting film got great reviews. The playwright even approved, calling it “fine and true.” They followed it up with the light-hearted Those Who Dance (1924), but, by November of that year, Ince was mysteriously dead. Sweet moved on again.
By now married to Mickey Neilan, the pair made a deal with MGM in 1924 to distribute their independently made features, including the now lost Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Sporting Venus. But Neilan did not get along with Louis B. Mayer (“prenatal enemies,” Sweet called them) and the relationship ended in what Anthony Slide labels “vitriolic litigation.” A few years later her marriage also ended. She made the transition to sound but no longer had top billing, appearing in three films in quick succession, one that included a song she made famous, “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood.” She still felt that she had “a whole big future ahead” when, in that same film, 1930’s Showgirl in Hollywood, she played a fading movie star of the silent era who tells her protégée, “When you are over thirty-two, you are older than the hills out here.” Sweet was thirty-four years old. She worked onstage and in radio, but the next and last time she appeared on-screen was in 1959, in an uncredited role in Paramount’s musical biography, The Five Pennies.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with live music by Guenter Buchwald