By Tammy Stone
With 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
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.
Not 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.
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 editing 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.
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
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.
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).
with Famous Players ended in 1917, and for some reason, her contract 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
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.
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 email@example.com with any questions or comments on her column.