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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
BLANCHE SWEET

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1916 MJ Moriarty Blanche Sweet Playing CardWith a name like Blanche Sweet, who could stay away? Although not the best known or remembered actress of the silent screen, Blanche Sweet’s is a story that needs to be told, not so much for her antics as a red-blooded diva, but for her role in the distinguished history of early American filmmaking. Although her career wasn’t marked by the constant highs of a Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, born to perform, was also destined to be involved in some of the most important films of her generation.

Blanche was born in Chicago on June 18, 1895 and was raised largely by her grandmother, who saw the little girl’s charisma and star potential from the start. It wasn’t long before Granny was dreaming of a life on the stage for little Blanche – whether she was living vicariously through her granddaughter, or was interested more in the money than the little girl’s future, will remain lost to history. What we do know is that by 1909, they were facing financial trouble, and a friend of the family notified them that Biograph Studios was accepting applications. Biograph was a huge studio in those days, and perhaps they were receiving more applications than they could handle. Blanche never heard back from them.

1916 Blanche Sweet St. Louis Globe-Democrat PremiumNot to be dissuaded, Blanche headed straight for the competition, the Edison company. There she was luckier, and became an extra within a matter of days. That same year, she was already starring in her first film, at the age of 14: A Man With Three Wives, a short comedy. Basking in the glow of this immediate success, Blanche and her grandmother felt it was time to go back to Biograph and see if Blanche could work there; after all, Biograph was a very distinguished studio. Perhaps it was a matter of being at the right place at the right time; this time someone suggested Blanche speak directly to D.W. Griffith (eminent, legendary filmmaker/innovator and known as “the grandfather of the close-up”). It was a good suggestion; that same day he had Blanche on the set of A Corner in Wheat (1909) as an extra. She ultimately became one of his biggest stars during his years at Biograph.

But let’s backtrack a bit. By 1911, Griffiths was impressed enough with Blanche to cast her in the title role of The Lonedale Operator, a film which has survived over the years and is now studied in film classrooms all over the world for its then-new editing1917 Blanche Sweet Kromo Gravure Rounded Border Trading Card and camera set-up techniques. It was an American Biograph film, and its producers felt Blanche was perfect for the role, as her relatively plump face and full-figured body made her look older than she was. This very same look landed her the lead in many of Griffith’s short Biograph films; he took her with him when he left Biograph for a company called Reliance-Majestic, where she made three films with him: The Escape, Home Sweet Home and The Avenging Conscience, all in 1914.

The biggest excitement for a silent actress, one can imagine (prior to the advent of sound, which was as angst-provoking as it was exciting), was the move from few-reel films to feature length. For Blanche, this time came in 1913, when she starred not only in her first American feature length film, but THE first feature length film in the U.S. Of course, Griffith, as early film pioneer extraordinaire, directed this landmark film: 1913’s Judith of Bethulia. At four reels, this was one expensive film to make, and Griffith had a difficult time convincing the execs at Biograph that this movie was worth its then-staggering $36,000.

1923 MPDA Blanche Sweet Photo PrintWhat happens next is a bit of an enigma. Blanche was to be cast in the lead role of 1915’s Birth of a Nation (probably the most famous early American film today), but Lillian Gish ended up getting it; her legendary status among cinephiles is probably attributed to her appearance in this oft-seen film. Whether Blanche was furious or not is unknown, but she did leave Griffith and Biograph that same year. She discusses this decision in an interview much later: “I was stubborn, I was difficult, I played games, I was to fall in love, oh there are reasons and reasons.” It was only after Blanche’s stint at Biograph, and after Birth of a Nation that Griffith decided to put his actors’ names up on screen at the beginning of his films: stars and divas searched for the spotlight elsewhere.

Another version of this story is that Blanche was offered a good deal by the new Famous Players-Lasky Company (headed by Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille), and that Blanche was offended when Griffith encouraged her to take it, prompting her decision to leave him. In any case, her split from Griffith did not prove ultimately damaging to her career; she had by then enough prestige to get work with other famed directors of the day, notably Cecil B. DeMille, in films such as The Warrens of Virginia (1915).

Her contract with Famous Players ended in 1917, and for some reason, her contract1916 Blanche Sweet Kromo Gravure Trading Card wasn’t renewed. Blanche was a little irritated and depressed at the turn her career was taking – she was, after all, a proven actress and bonafide star – and left the world of acting for a couple of years. She returned, though, in full force, acting in The Unpardonable Sin (1919) for director Marshall Mickey Neilan, whom she married in 1922 and divorced by 1933, due to his penchant for sleeping around. Among her career highlights is her starring role in the first film version of Anna Christie in 1923 (directed by John Griffith Wray), the very first Eugene O’Neill play to be adapted into a film.

In all, Blanche had enormous success, with about 120 silent films to her credit. However, the transition to sound proved extremely damaging to her career, despite her clout in the world of the silents. The odd thing was, she had a great speaking and singing voice. Whatever it was, that magic elixir that created the first stars of the talkies did not for Blanche; after a mere three films, her film career was over.

Like many other starlets who refuse to let their careers die along with the silents (by 1930 there were precious few silent films being made anymore), Blanche’s show was to go on. She went back to the stage, performing in secondary roles; she toured; she did voices for radio throughout the Thirties. Her name still drew audiences. She also remarried, to Raymond Hackett, and widowed in 1958. Before long, she had to face the facts that her career was over and people had lost interest in her, and she actually began clerking for a department store in Los Angeles – a first for the divas of this series.

Her final lucky break came in the late sixties, as film studies was just starting to become a discipline studied at university, and new film studies scholars were taking a large interest in the early film greats, especially the actors and actresses involved in such pioneering film works, like Griffith’s. Suddenly Blanche Sweet was a name to be reckoned with again, and she traveled to England, Italy and Canada, where she was recognized over and over as the film actress and true innovator she was. She died in 1986.

1917 Blanche Sweet Ink Blotter

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 & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.