The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Here’s an enticing one: The Madonna of the Screen! Some moniker, I would say.
Would you feel accomplished as an actor or actress if you made over 200 films over a nearly twenty year period? Even for the Golden Era of the silent screen, this is one prolific career. And it all belongs to Alice Joyce, who made her mark throughout the silent era as an original, one-of-a-kind performer, known for her calm, understated performances at a time when the grand gesture and flagrant theatrics were king. Still, a diva is a diva is a diva, and Alice Joyce was one of the most hailed among them.
Alice was born on October 1, 1890 in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Her father, John, worked in a smelting factory and mother Vallie Olive sewed clothes for a living; her parents split while she was still a young girl. Soon thereafter, little Alice decided she’d had enough of school and started her first job as a telephone operator. She was only 13 years old. By then she was already blossoming into the gorgeous lady she would become, and started modeling on a part-time basis. It wasn’t long before she was one of her Kansas City agency’s top draws.
Even back then, there was crossover between modeling and the acting world, and Alice was determined to make it to the silver screen. Her first attempt – an audition with D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios – was not successful. A star was not born overnight in this case. So she had to wait until 1910, when she was twenty years old, for her career to really begin. A photographer who knew her from some modeling gigs brought her up to the powers that be at Kalem Co., a big company at the time and part of Thomas Alva Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Co. Alice hired her as a stock girl with the company’s East Coast division, and sadly, most of her early films from this era are completely lost to history. Her first film is generally credited as 1910’s The Engineer’s Sweetheart, though it in fact might be The Deacon’s Daughter, of that same year. Also in 1910, she notably made the film Her Indian Mother, in which she plays the daughter of a white Hudson Bay Co. employee who buys his wife from a First Nations tribe – making one of her very early roles – as an interracial child – very forward-thinking indeed! She would go on to land several more roles as a Native American in the early part of her career.
It wasn’t long before her company decided to send Alice out to California, where the industry was really moving, especially in the area of Westerns and Hispanic interest. Alice appeared in several dozen films during this time as heroines in distress, and this was really her period for learning how to churn out films one after another. Some highlights, from 1911 alone, include: The Mission Carrier, The Badge of Courage, The Branded Shoulder, How Betty Captured the Outlaw, Too Much Realism and Between Father and Son.
It used to be that stock players in a company went uncredited in their films, and Kalem was one of the first companies to start naming them – that is, to market films around actors, and create stars. Alice was one of their first, and her name began appearing in reviews and in advertising. She was a household name in no time. For a time, she spent her days between New York and California, making movies on both coasts. While in New York, she was making different kinds of films, moving away from the brash Westerns for more dramatic fair – it would not be uncommon, for example, to see her
play princesses and poverty-stricken women of beauty and talent, like singers. By 1913, fans were just wild about her, naming her their favourite actress and clamoring for more. Kalem, picking up on this adulation, started making two-reel “Alice Joyce Series” films in 1914, so that fans could see her on screen literally every couple of weeks. Some films from 1914, many of which co-starred Tom Moore (whose brother was furtively married to
Mary Pickford) include: The Cabaret Dancer, The Show Girl’s Glove, The Mystery of the Sleeping Death, The Viper, The Girl and the Stowaway, The Riddle of the Green Umbrella, The Price of Silence and The Mayor’s Secretary. During this time, a frequent costar became Guy Coombs.
In 1915, shockingly, Alice quit Kalem Studios, not for another company but because she wanted to leave the film business altogether. By now she was married to Tom Moore, her costar from so many of her star-making films, and wanted to devote her time to being a mother. But soon she was bored and restless and two years later made her return. The business, of course, had changed a lot during this time – as things always do. Her marriage, by this time, was also on the rocks, and they divorced in 1918 or thereabouts. Her next husband followed soon after that – James B. Regan, Jr. a millionaire hotelier.
Kalem was out of business by this time so Alice signed a contract with Vitagraph, which bought Kalem’s archive. Vitagraph was thrilled to have her, having just lost
Clara Kimball Young, one of their biggest names. Alice started work right away, making Whom the Gods Destroy (1916) and Womanhood, the Glory of the Nation (1917) among other films. Her tenure with Vitagraph was lucrative and gave Alice the chance to try out many different kinds of roles, including comedy for the first time. Usually, though, she tended to play forlorn victims of bad circumstance, and audiences ate it up. It was around this time, though, inspired by the fact that she had married into a lot of money, that she declared she would be making fewer films, focusing on quality. This did not completely work out as planned though, because Vitagraph was having a rough time of it financially and weren’t putting out their best work. Alice ended her contract with them in 1921 and took time off to travel with her husband.
In 1923 she made her return but didn’t want to be tied to a studio – she freelanced for the rest of her career under the guidance of her manager brother Frank. She had a great and particular screen presence, and producers were happy to have her, studio or not. Between 1923 and 1925 she made eight films, including The Green Goddess (1923), The Passionate Adventure (1924 – Alfred Hitchcock co-wrote the screenplay) and Stella Dallas (1925). She continued to make films at a modest rate, still garnering critical acclaim for her subdued, very actorly performances. She even made the transition to sound briefly (her first sound film was 1929’s The Squall), though, like her peers, she was affected drastically by this technological revolution. And the fact is, she was getting up there in years, and was no longer the sensation and audience draw she once was. Her last films were all made in 1930: The Green Goddess (the talking version), He Knew Woman and Song o’ My Heart. She was now cast as the mother, which, like today, in many ways sadly represents the declining years of a actor’s career.
In many ways, Alice quit while she was still on top. She knew better than to stick it out hoping things would turn around – in this fast-paced industry, things never do (or rarely – look at Mickey Rourke’s astonishing comeback in The Wrestler). Instead, she took to vaudeville with her ex-husband Tom Moore, married for a third time, to MGM director Clarence Brown and traveled a lot. After they divorced in 1945 she withdrew from public life, and died of heart disease on October 5, 1955. She was 65.
There is a lot of information about Alice Joyce out there for people interested in hearing more, including copies of interviews she did and articles written about her in the 1910’s when she was just starting to become a superstar. Many of her films are tragically lost, but others exist and still others will hopefully be found and restored, so that Alice
Joyce’s beautiful, even beatific face can continue to grace the big screen for years to come.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in
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