The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
From beauty queen to movie
star: this was the trajectory for Corinne Griffith, a silent era starlet lived
the dream before it was the dream of every little girl growing up in later
decades. (Maybe not every little girl, but more and more every generation). So
let’s turn back the clock and see how it all began for the Toast of Hollywood,
about whom it was allegedly said: “There are pretty women and there are
beautiful women and there are witty women. And there is Corinne Griffith.”
Corinne was born in Texarkana –
you guessed it, Texas – on November 21, 1894, which isn’t to say there’s no
dispute over her year of birth. We can easily guess that she was a couple of
years older than her stated age, but at least Corinne Griffith was her real
name. After a few years of school, she moved to New Orleans to join the Sacred
Heart Convent. We know she didn’t follow this route to its logical end!
Even while in school, Corinne
was starting to get noticed for her beauty; she was quite the gal about town and
once won a Mardi Gras beauty competition. There was a solid class system in
place back then, and Corinne became established in the society set. In fact, it
was at one gala affair that she met one of the early moving picture directors,
Rolin Sturgeon of the Vitagraph company. She loved the attention and vied to
show him what she was made of. It’s said that he granted her a picture contract
that night. She was still young, and her parents weren’t sure she should get
into the business, but as fate would have it, the biz beckoned, and Corinne and
her mother were soon moving to California, bypassing the New York film industry
altogether, for a time.
It was 1916, and Corinne was
about to make it big. At 5 feet 4 inches and of slender build, she was a natural
beauty. She began with short films in the Western genre, but it wasn’t long
before she was getting leading roles. After a year in California, Vitagraph
decided to move her to New York – quite a shock to someone accustomed to warmer
climes. With many films being made on location in those days (before the studios
up their in-house sets), she was forced to work in such non-glamorous
locales as the Hudson River and Ashokan Dam – at least a good film came out of
it, 1918’s The Girl of Today. Apparently the cold was a little too much
for her; we’re not sure how sick she became, but there were rumors of her
freezing and taking some time off before her next project.
It’s hard to say when she did
take this time off, because she made an impressive 35 films between 1916 and
1922; this was by far her most productive period. Films from this era, some of
which have survived, include: A Fool and His Friend and The Last Man
(both 1916); The Stolen Treaty (1917); Miss Ambition (1918);
The Girl Problem (1919); Human Collateral (1920); Moral Fibre
(1921); and Island Wives and A Virgin’s Sacrifice (both 1922).
Westerns, melodramas, morality fables; the movies were up for all kinds of
entertainment, and Corinne wore many of these heroine hats perfectly.
After 1922, she had caught the
attention of the bigwigs, and in 1923, she made a film with Goldwyn and then
another with the infamous David O. Selznick. She then signed with First
National, a big studio at the time. While she wasn’t nearly as prolific as many
of her peers, she did make approximately 19 films with First National – with one
detour: The Garden of Eden,
which she made with United Artists (Fairbanks and Pickford’s company) in 1928. Her relationship with First National was so
strong, though, that she even executive produced on a number of them. Among her
films from these years, that is, before the coming of sound: The Common Law
(1923); Love’s Wilderness (1924); Infatuation (1925); In Her
Kingdom (1926); The Lady in Ermine (1927); Outcast (1928);
Prisoners (1929); and Back Pay (1930), her third last film.
So who was the woman behind
these divas, goddesses and girls-next-door? Well, Corinne was said to be a
workaholic and very diligent in her craft. She loved watching daily rushes of
her films and being involved in the creative process. Much of the information we
have about Corinne is gleaned from the press of the day, and we all know how
spin doctors (aka publicists) like to work their magic. So little is known for
certain; apparently, Corinne was a virtuous woman who would not smoke or wear
make-up in person; nor did she want to be exposed to things like dirty jokes.
This contributed to her reputation as a lady of dignity and grace.
We already know she had
business savvy, having exec-produced some of her films; she accumulated a lot of
money this way, though she didn’t live big. She had been in New York for four
years, and bought a nice home when she moved back to California; it wasn’t
extravagant, though, and she wasn’t a partier –
this is why she didn’t make quite as many films as some of her more legendary
peers. Or maybe it was
of her work ethic. We can only guess all these decades later.
Was Corinne a star of epic
proportions? She was petite, beautiful and as the press had it, endowed with the
softest hands. Her looks were admired more than her acting abilities when her
films were reviewed. Her films did well, though none necessarily stand out. She
got press coverage, but wasn’t a media darling. She was married and divorced
twice – first to filmmaker Webster Campbell of Vitagraph and then to producer
Walter Morosco – while she was at the height of her popularity, but wasn’t
embroiled in juicy gossip and scandal. She was, in 1924, voted sixth top
box-office attraction, tying with Rudolph
Valentino. It is noted that more people were naming their children Corinne
after her than other names of famous stars. But her films didn’t do as well as,
say, her peer Colleen Moore’s – they both worked
at First National and there was some semi-fierce competition between the two.
After her final silent film –
The Divine Lady – Corinne made two talkies with First National, and they
didn’t go over too well with the critics, both because the storylines lacked the
sophistication no required of the new sound films and because her performances
were weak. Corinne did what many of her peers did and went to Europe to try
again. She made a film in England for Paramount, 1932’s Lily Christine,
and threw in the towel. She married again, to George Marshall, then-owner of the
Boston Braves – the marriage lasted from 1936 to 1958. During that time, she
started writing, first for newspapers and then a book about her new relationship
with sports. She then wrote several more books, including "Hollywood Stories"
(1962) and "Papa’s Delicate Condition", which was made into a Jackie Gleason
Corinne never quite left the
industry, as we’ve seen. She also chaired The Committee for Honoring Motion
Picture Stars for a time, and then married one final time, at the age of 71 in
1965. Dan Scholl was 33 years younger than her, and the marriage lasted six
weeks. This seems impulsive for a woman known throughout her career to be such a
stable and untainted (by scandal) star. But she was certainly thrifty, because
when she died, on July 13, 1979 in Beverly Hills, she was extremely wealthy,
leaving behind an estate worth around $150 million. A few of her films remain,
including The Garden of Eden, and these bear witness to the beauty and
tenacity of this ever-mysterious starlet-turned-mogul.
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 & Premiums Newsletter.
Tammy invites you to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.
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