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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1916 Clara Kimball Young Water Color Company Premium1917 Clara Kimball Young Strand Theatre Ad CardSometimes I wish I could find myself in a room – preferably a glamorous ballroom – with all the stars of the silent screen. There, I’d find a room full of the most dramatically made up and costumed personalities of cinema, probably with competing egos to match, and no doubt with fascinating things to say. When I write about them, one at a time, each becomes so distinct, and so alive to me. So when I move on to another star, and read for the umpteenth time that this was the most famous silent star of his or her time, I start to get wary. Then I realize, “Wait a minute. They were all stars. They were all glorious. They were all unique, and loved.” I don’t have to pick favorites, or get to the ‘truth’ about who was the most famous! Lucky I decided this, because I might have had to pick the funny and strong-willed Clara Kimball Young, once known as the “First Lady of the Screen.”

The facts show that Clara Kimball Young, born September 6, 1890 in Illinois, was popular indeed. She started making films in 1909, and by 1914, when Louis Selznick “discovered” and signed her, she won a popularity poll, beating out even Mary Pickford. She was also the first star to have her name in lights on Broadway. She would, by the end of the 1910s, be considered the queen of adult society dramas, although she her staggering filmography of over 150 films reveals a range of acting choices and skills. Ultimately she suffered the fate of most of her contemporaries, falling out of pictures by the mid-1920s, and attempting a partly successful comeback in the 1930s. But let’s go back to the beginning, so we can discover what a remarkably humored woman she was together.

From the start, Clara’s appearance had the grace and maturity she would sustain throughout her career. She wasn’t what we would think of today as the great beauty of the silent screen, but she had elegance, poise, lush long hair which she never bobbed, and a face that practically act expressively on its own. She had class, and this was considered extremely beautiful by her peers and audiences. Hailing from traveling-actor parents, some sources have it that she was first called Clarisa, then Clairee, and then Edith, before her relatives, with whom she stayed to attend school, began calling her Clara. Census information, on the other had, has her acting at the age of three, and traveling with her parents company throughout her childhood. While on the road, playing in mining towns and various places, she married James Young, an actor who showed Clara’s photo to the powers that be at Vitagraph. However it happened, Clara wound up with a yearly contract there, starting at $25 a week. James began directing and slowly became one of Vitagraph’s most successful directors. Most believe this all started in 1909; soon her parents came aboard, as did the other now-famous personalities of Maurice Costello, the Talmadge sisters and Sidney Drew.

Clara made many films at Vitagraph, and these are among the best of her career – she had a natural charm that came through despite her newness to the silver screen. She played several traditional leading ladies, but shone the brightest in the early comedies, such as “Beauty Unadorned” (incompleted), “Lord Browning and Cinderella” (1912), and “Goodness Gracious”, a parody of the melodrama. She was soon one of Vitagraph’s favorite actresses. Most of these early films were one or two reelers, but Vitagraph did expand into feature length films, one of which James directed and starred Clara: “My Official Wife”. This proved to be the film that propelled Clara – and her costar Earle Williams – to the head of all the popularity polls, and launched her status as superstar (despite her fascinating role in this film as a nihilist bent on assassinating the Russian Czar!).

1917 Clara Kimball Young Kromo Gravure Trading Card1917 Clara Kimball Young Kromo Gravure Trading Card (No Borders)This, of course, is where mogul Louis Selznick swooped in to capitalize on Clara’s fame. Once signed, he starred her in “Lola” (1914), a lady-turned-vixen who destroys one man after another once she is brought back from the dead without a soul. A huge hit, the film made her one of the primary attractions of Selznick’s company, the World Film Corporation. Meanwhile, a tryst had begun between Clara and Louis, much to the chagrin of James and Selznick’s wife, who was forced to take Clara to public events to quench the rumors. The last film James directed for his wife was 1915’s “The Heart of Blue Ridge”, and a nasty match of suing/counter-suing began, before the couple was finally separated in 1919 (James obtained the decree on grounds of desertion).

Although she excelled in her meaty roles, Selznick kept casting her as tragic heroines leading ladies, and she was getting bored, as well as disenchanted with her public image as brooding diva. In 1916, when he was ousted from the Corporation, Clara was delighted – but not for long; she realized she was signed to Selznick, not the company. He had exclusive rights to her, and he soon set up the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation, as well as Selznick Productions, which would distribute her films. He had his eyes set on turning Clara into an even more luminous star, and he succeeded. Her films grew from five to seven reels, and Clara was now dressed in clothes that grabbed much attention. The productions were lavish, the topics controversially risqué (unfortunately the four films from this period haven’t survived).

In 1917, after increased hostility and many lawsuits between Clara and Selznick, Clara finally announced that she would form her own company, with producer Harry Garson, so as to have complete control over her career. She no longer wanted anything “to do with any picture which is at all likely to run foul of censor boards.” After a mucky and involved process, Young ended up producing her own films, but Select Pictures Corporation – owned by Selznick and archrival Adolph Zukor – distributed them.

Clara and Harry were becoming closer and closer, although much of this was covert as she and James Young were not officially separated yet (James actually assaulted Harry with a knife as he and Clara exited New York’s Astor Theater in February of 1917). In 1918, Clara moved to California with Harry, her “business partner.” It’s hard to believe that through all this commotion, films were actually being made, but they were. Clara’s now-famous gowns were becoming a defining characteristic, and the films were scaled back to five reels. Her roles became more adult once Clara was out from under Selznick’s tutelage, and her characters were more and more independent and decisive. “Magda” (1917) and “Cheating Cheaters” (1919) are notable in this period.

Select Pictures, however, was still breathing heavily down her back, and Clara knew she needed a big hit if she wanted to make it with her own, completely independent production company, Garson Productions, and Equity (distribution). She got what she wanted with “Eyes of Youth” (1919), one of her most well-known films to this day, and possibly her best – it also cast a young and not-yet-famous Rudolph Valentino.

1916 Clara Kimball Young MJ Moriarty Playing Card1916 Clara Kimball Young MJ Moriarty Playing CardBut Selzick was suing again, and wouldn’t leave Clara alone. And Harry Garson, who now fancied himself a director, turned out to lack talent in this field, especially when the scripts were weak to begin with. The films weren’t great, and Clara’s downward trajectory is evident from watching her films from this period. She was glamorous in some, but was also cast in roles too young for her; meanwhile, her acting style – especially the way she used her big eyes melodramatically to ambiguously convey every emotion under the sun – was losing its resonance. Meanwhile, Clara was becoming embroiled in lawsuit after lawsuit, and she was all but attacked in all the trade papers and gossip columns. She owed a lot of money, and her last two Equity films were visibly low-budget.

Clara and Harry got involved with Metro – Harry directed one disastrous film for them, “The Hands of Nara” (1921), and then he was fired. Meanwhile, Metro tried hard to promote Clara and her films, including “Enter Madame” (1922), but too much had gotten in the way of her once blossoming career. She looked older, the momentum was gone; Variety (the trade paper) kindly attributed her decline to poor film choices. Her last Metro film was 1923’s “A Wife’s Romance”. In 1925, Clara tried to hop back in the saddle with an independent silent, “Lying Wives” – she played the villainess. The film did poorly, and that was her last film of the silent era.

The one thing Clara had that many of her contemporaries lacked was a strong disposition and a good sense of humor. Instead of retiring, defeated, she cut her losses, and spent the rest of the twenties in vaudeville. She left Garson and, in 1928, married Dr. Arthur Fauman. For a short time, the coming of sound helped her career – she appeared in several, including 1931’s “Kept Husbands” and a few leads. But the size of her parts dropped, and she wound up doing several B films, as well as serials and also a Three Stooges short. Although she had the talent to make it in sound, the press had labeled her a has-been, and she was fairly content to take what roles she could get. She is said to have declared, in good humor, “During the depression I had half a mind to take up a tin cup and beg for alms."

Clara officially retired from film in 1941, although she did appear, as herself, in 1942’s “Mr. Celebrity”, starring another former star, Francis X. Bushman. Her husband died in 1937, and her father, one year later. She stayed in Hollywood, where early television was blossoming – they wound up airing many of her old silent greats, and she ‘resurfaced’ for awhile to give interviews and promote the films. She was also hired by CBS to be a Hollywood correspondent for Johnny Carson. Throughout all, she remained cheerful.

Eventually, time did catch up with her, and she passed away oat the Motion Picture Home on October 15, 1960, after telling her old friend Francis Marion that she “was worn out from the long journey, but I have found my way home.” Scandals and rocky career aside, she had maintained many friendships, and was admired by all for her ability to withstand controversy, and do what she loved best: perform.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Clara Kimball Young Pages:

The Clara Kimball Young Website -- Website devoted to the career of silent film star Clara Kimball Young.