The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Featuring: ANITA STEWART
In many ways, Anita Stewart stands as a beacon of what silent cinema was all about. She was radiant, talented, popular … and one of so many actresses whose luminescence had a chance to shine because the moving pictures could reach such a large number of people at the exact same time. Anita may not be the best known of the silent sirens, but this is perhaps because she did what she did so well: relate to her mass audience as a performer and entertainer as ubiquitously as the movies themselves. If films are unthinkable without their actors, the legacy of the golden era of cinema is unthinkable without Anita Stewart.
Anita was born Anna M. Stewart in Brooklyn, New York on February 7, 1895. Her childhood passed relatively uneventfully, except, as you can see by her place of birth, she was certainly in the right place at the right time for a career in the entertainment business to become a reality. She went to Erasmus High School, and in 1911, she began acting. But she didn’t perform in school plays as most of today’s actors say they’ve done. Anna was in the first city to turn to craft of projecting moving images into a business, and Vitagraph film studios were now looking for actors at a frenzied rate.
I’d like to take a brief pause to give a little history on Vitagraph, since the company appears over and over in these silent star biographies. A British businessman living in New York, Émigré Blackton, was working as an artist and reporter in 1896 when he had the opportunity to interview inventor Thomas Edison about a strange new device: a machine that could project moving images. Edison managed to convince Blackton to buy one and within a year, Blackton and a partner, Albert Smith, launched a company, American Vitagraph Company, running right alongside Edison. A few years later a third partner, William Rock, was added. They had a studio on a rooftop in Manhattan but they later moved to Brooklyn, where they first became famous for doing newsreels (featuring many reenactments when direct footage couldn’t be shot).
So, enter Anna, who began doing extra work and small parts in this new, rapidly growing medium. She must have loved the movies at first start, because from here she never stopped. She was truly one of the first actresses to become well known as a movie actress
and not stage performer; her public immediately took to her and she also received much critical acclaim for her performances. One of her very first roles was in a film with a large pre-existing pedigree: William J. Humphrey’s A Tale of Two Cities (1911). She was in auspicious company: the film costarred
Mabel Normand, Dorothy Kelley,
Norma Talmadge and John Bunny.
For the next two years Anita Stewart was virtually unstoppable. Some of her roles include character and leading roles in: The Battle Hymn of the Republic (1911); Her Choice, The Godmother and The Wood Violet (1912); Love Laughs at Locksmiths; or, Love Finds a Way, The Web, A Regiment of Two, The Moulding, The Prince of Evil, The Lost Millionaire, The White Feather, His Last Fight, The Swan Girl and His Second Wife (1913). All these films were made with Vitagraph, with Anna using both her given name, and Anita, as her fame began to skyrocket.
1913 and 1914 were perhaps her most prolific years. Over the next few years, she continued, appearing in films of all genres but focusing mostly on romances and Westerns. She had that magical transformative quality, in both appearance and gesture – that could allow her to look demure and seductive, girl-next-door and vixen. She made a slate of films between 1914 and 1918 including: The Lucky Elopement (1914), A Million Bid, He Never Knew, Uncle Bill and Shadows of the Past (1914); Two Women, The Juggernaut and The Goddess (1915); My Lady’s Slipper, The Daring of Diana and The Combat (1916); and The Glory of Yolanda and Clover’s Rebellion (1917).
In 1917, Anita got married to actor Rudolph Cameron, a frequent co-star, which put her in the line of film royalty: her brother-in-law was actor and director Ralph Ince, who directed for Vitagraph. From here, her roles became even larger, and more importantly, focuses so that her public image could be easier to digest … and of course, consume. The 1910s were very good to Anita
Stewart. She had talent, looks, and timing on her side. She acted in film after film, often with such other well-known names as
Barbara La Marr, Walt Whitman and Mae Busch.
In 1918, however, Anita was ready to leave Vitagraph, and she took a contract with Louis B. Mayer, who – unbelievably in hindsight – was still a struggling would-be film mogul. Why would she leave her fantastic position at Vitagraph? Mayer offered her the opportunity
to be the head of her own production company at the Mayer Studios. She had to move to Los Angeles, of course, to make this happen. It’s rumoured that this scandal-about-to-happen began as Anita lie ill in a hospital, vulnerable to Mayer’s convincing oratory skills (and offer of a tremendous amount of cash). She made seven films in 1918 and 1919 under her own company; she starred in all of them, and all did fairly well in terms of popularity and box office. Among these are: Virtuous Wives (1918); and Mary Regan, Shadows of the Past and The Mind-the-Paint Girl (1919).
Vitagraph wanted to keep Anita Stewart, and sued Mayer for illegally taking her away from them. Vitagraph won, and Anita went back to fulfill the terms of her contract. She continued to make films throughout the 1920s, though at a slower pace. Among her films were: The Yellow Typhoon (1920); Sowing the Wind (1921); The Woman He Married (1923); The Great White Way (1924); Never the Twain Shall Meet (1925); Whispering Wires (1926); Wild Geese (1927); and Sisters of Eve (1928). She divorced Cameron in 1928 and a year later, she married George Peabody Converse.
And then came the talkies. Sound destroyed many a silent star’s career, and Anita was no exception. She made one more film in 1932 – the aptly titled The Hollywood Handicap – but by then she had resigned herself to retirement. Brother to noted silent film actor George Stewart, Anita established a name for herself as the movies began to blossom. She was in the enviable position of being desired by two famed companies, and managed to make the films she wanted to make, largely on her own terms. In other words, Anita
Stewart – who died of a heart attack on May 4, 1961 in Beverly Hills – did it Hollywood style: her own way.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at
firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.
Other Anita Stewart Pages:
Find A Grave Memorial - Anita Stewart page including photos of her burial site at Forest Lawn Memorial. Not much else available on Stewart online, beside the standard Wikipedia page.