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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring: Anna Q. Nilsson

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1920's Anna Q. Nilsson 5x7 Fan Photo1921 Anna Q Nilsson Henry Clay and Bock Tobacco CardAnna Q Nilsson is one of the very first Hollywood imports, and the first Swedish actress to become a bonafide movie starlet. And another interesting first: Anna goes down in history as the first Swede to become immortalized by way of a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. So why doesn’t her name roll off our tongues today? I suppose we’ve done enough silent film star bios by now to realize the sad fate of Anna and her many peers: to be relegated to the status of interesting if obscure historical figure, since so few prints survive of films from the silent days, and silent films are vastly under-appreciated today (even though their aesthetic has influenced everything from Guy Maddin’s films, TV commercials and video games).

Anna was born Anna Quirentia Nilsson on March 30, 1888 in Ystad, Skåne Iän, Sweden – incidently, the same day as Saint Quirinius’ day, which is where the “Q” in her name comes from. She must have had a rough time of it as a child, because it seems she was always dreaming of better days. The United States, early on, appealed to her as a land of plenty, where she could have the wealth and luxuries that her modest life in Sweden wouldn’t be able to provide.

She was also a natural-born performer who did some stage acting in her native country before she realized she would have to move to America if she wanted to make a real go of a career on the stage. She was still barely a teenager when she made the voyage to the U.S. in 1910, and she didn’t speak a word of English – it’s interesting to think that so many immigrants learn a new language today by watching TV and movies in that language – this option wasn’t available to Anna at the turn of the century. But she was a quick study, and after landing her first job as a nursemaid, she picked up English and by doing so, rose the ranks with impressive speed.

One can’t help if her gorgeous looks had anything to do with it as well. Everyone already has a picture in his or her head of the Nordic goddess – this pretty much characterizes Anna. She moved on from children’s nursemaid to model, by and large doing commercial work, though she also posed for many illustrators and painters. It seems like she was rapidly becoming the latest version of the “Ideal Woman”, and she took full advantage of this.

1920's Anna Q. Nilsson Ghiradelli's Chocolate Card1917 Anna Q. Nilsson Kromo Gravure Trading CardIt was probably inevitable that eventually, one of her photographers would tell her she belonged in the pictures; movies, after all, were just gaining momentum and the forward-thinking Anna took him up on this suggestion. Luckily, this photographer was a man known about town, and he connected her to a short, one reel film, Molly Pitcher (1911). (Another version of the story has it that it was her illustration that made her the original “Penrhyn Stanlaws Girl” that led to her landing the gig on the Kalem film).

Of course, it being the silent era, Anna’s accent was not an issue, and the hardworking Anna continued to make film after film for years after her debut. Unfortunately and strangely, as we’ll see, it wasn’t the coming of sound that would prove to be her biggest setback. Before this happened though, Anna was rapidly becoming one of the silent screen’s trademark stars. She wasn’t bound to any contract – at least for any substantial period of time – and worked relentlessly for Metro, Goldwyn, Paramount, First National and Warner; in other words, all the emerging biggies.

Anna made no less than 84 films between 1911 and the early part of 1917. Some of her titles from the early years include The Battle of Pottsburg Bridge, The Colonel’s Escape, The Drummer Girl of Vicksburg, Under a Flag of Truce (all 1912); A Desperate Chance, Shiprecked, Shenandoah, The Gypsy’s Brand (all 1913); A Shot in the Dark, The Man in the Vault (both 1914); The Second Commandment, A Sister’s Burden, The Haunted House (all 1915); Sowing the Wind and Puppets of Fate (both 1916); and The Moral Code and The Silent Master (both 1917).

And the film roles kept coming. She made a staggering number of them, and though most if not all the early ones have not survived until today, several of them are cited as noteworthy moments in her career: Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917), Soldiers of Fortune (1919), The Toll Gate and The Luck of the Irish (1920), and The Lotus Eater (1921).

And then it happened. In 1923, Anna made 11 films. In 1924, she made 12. In 1925, after making only 6, she was thrown off a horse; she landed on a stone and severely injured her spine. She was paralyzed for the better part of a year while she worked doggedly with physical therapists to get her health back. In an ironic twist, the girl who moved to America to pursue her dreams in show business ended up right back where she started, the land of the mountains, serenity – and now, spas. After spending some time in Sweden and Vienna, she got the use of her legs back, 1920's Anna Q. Nilsson 5x7 Fan Photoand instantly moved back to the U.S. to get her career back on track.

1920's Anna Q. Nilsson Card Unknown IssueAs we know, the film industry can be a fickle one, and it wasn’t easy for Anna to come back to the tremendous level of fame she enjoyed before her accident. She managed to make 13 films before the coming of sound, among them the aptly titled Her Second Chance (1926); the acclaimed (and also aptly titled) Babe Comes Home (1927), in which she starred opposite none other than Babe Ruth; and her last of the silent era, Blockade (1928).

Anna was smart enough to realize that the heralding of the sound age would be a career-killer for her, and she opted to remove herself from moviemaking for awhile. She focused on her personal life – she got married and divorced twice, never having children – and on doing charity work before plunging back in, doing mostly bit parts, uncredited roles and cameos until the end of her career, sometimes for amazingly successful films, like George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib (starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, 1949) and Vincente Minelli’s Gene Kelly vehicle, An American in Paris (1951).

Her most notable appearance from this era was as an idolized version of herself: a number of silent film stars including Buster Keaton appeared as “wax works” in the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson. Though it must have been difficult to be considered a relic as opposed to a hardworking, fan-generating star, one nostalgically appreciates how much these silent stars were venerated in Hollywood’s golden age of sound, based on the number of them who worked for decades after their star had stopped shining so brightly. Anna was one of these former stars, who helped inaugurate the star system that had audiences flocking to the theatres and making the cinema the seventh art it is today. She died, after retiring in 1954 after appearing in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, of heart failure on Feburary 11, 1974 in California
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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 The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.