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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1920's 5x8" Premium Photo of Dolores Costello1920's Dolores Costello Picturegoer PostcardGoddess of the Silent Screen. Clearly Dolores Costello was much admired in her day, as she, like so many of her peers, turned away from the theatre to that new, elusive and magnetic new industry of the motion pictures. A wise decision for Miss Costello, whose beauty enraptured her fans ... and the major players in the business. Not only was she a huge star of the silent screen, but her legacy lives on through more than just her films ... all these years later, her genes are still in the movies, in the form of her granddaughter, the equally enduring Drew Barrymore and in the famed Abbott and Costello name (the second part of the name was inspired by a meeting with Dolores). Intrigued? Let’s move on ...

Born on September 17, 1903 in Pittsburgh (others, such as her publicists, insisted she  was born in 1906), she was the daughter of Maurice Costello, who would enter the movie business a few short years after Dolores’s birth, joining Edison studios in 1908 and eventually achieving incredible fame as a matinee idol. It was through Maurice’s success and influence that little Dolores and her sister Helene (who died of TB in 1957) got their breaks and made their film debuts, Dolores as a fairy in A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1909). Most of Dolores’ films over the next few years were ones made with her father and sister as well: some of her many appearances include those in His Sister’s Children (1911), She Never Knew, The Money Kings, Her Grandchild (all 1912), and Fellow Voyageurs (1913).

Following 1915, there is a mysterious withdrawal from the movie business for a time; for his part, Maurice was a huge star in the 1920s, but was a thing of the past by the mid-twenties and had to rely on his children for support until the end of his life. Dolores and her sister Helene moved to New York City; Dolores took modeling classes and worked in this field for a time; her beau, fashion designer James Montgomery Flagg, turned her into a very successful, almost iconic, model of the day. The next known acting appearance for Dolores happened in 1924, when she appeared on stage in George White Scandals with her sister. It seems the two Costello sisters were discovered again – this time by Warner Brothers, who signed them on. This time they were headed to Hollywood. An odd trajectory: straight from the womb to the big screen, then back to the stage for the traditional road to movie stardom!

It so happened that the legendary John Barrymore was at Warner Brothers at this time, and it is alleged that when he first laid eyes on Dolores, he proclaimed her to be “The most beautiful creature I have ever seen.” Let’s just say he had quite a bit of influence at Warner, and he convinced studio honchos to have her costar in his upcoming film, The Sea Beast (1926), in which she had a melodramatic, passionate kissing scene with John that many argue became the template for other major movie love scenes. That same year, she was listed among other notable actresses (Fay Wray, Joan Crawford, Mary Astor) and the big up-and-coming stars.

1916 MJ Moriarty Maurice Costello Playing Card1916 MJ Moriarty Dolores & Helen Costello Playing CardDolores’ love affair with John was to go far beyond the making of this picture, and they wed in 1928. Meanwhile, Dolores managed to squeeze in many silent films just as the industry was beginning to make the shift to sound. Some of her most memorable films from this era are When a Man Loves (with John) and Old San Francisco (both 1927), Glorious Betsy (1928) and Noah’s Ark (1929), which went to great lengths to produce special effects which are still respected for their innovation to this day (despite the fact that the film was so dangerous to make that six extras died in a flood and Dolores herself contracted pneumonia.

We know John and Dolores had children; they had two: DeDe in 1931 and John Drew in 1932. Dolores took some time off her career to be with the children, and John was turning more and more to drinking. The two divorced in 1935, and following this difficult period, John began drinking even more; he never really recovered, and he ravaged his body in the process. He died at age 60, never getting to know his sons, and never finding out that his son John Drew would follow in his father’s footsteps (as would granddaughter Drew, at least for a time).

Later, in 1939, Dolores married her obstetrician, Dr. John Vruwink – they divorced eleven years later, and Dolores was trying to revive her film career. Unlike many of her peers, she was able to survive the transition to sound with relative ease – she worked with a speech pathologist for a couple of years to remove a lisp, which worked well to make her a notable actress of the sound age. Among her most distinguished films of this time are Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Beloved Brat (1938), The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) and This is the Army 1929-early 1930's Dolores Costello Premios Coupon Card(Michael Curtiz, 1943). The latter was her last film. Apparently, the studios weren’t happy with her appearance anymore after her skin had been damaged by excessive use of make-up in her final films.

Basically forced into retirement, Dolores left Hollywood to a small town outside San Diego and lived a life of solitude on an avocado farm. Due to a flood on the farm and Dolores’ own hermit-like existence, a lot of information about the Costello and Barrymore families has been lost, but Dolores did, in the last few years of her life, stepped out to try and raise awareness about her family and work. She gave several interviews in 1977 and a book was written based on them: John Kobler’s “Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore”. It’s unfortunate that the book wasn’t written about her as well; this is why so many of the silent film actresses aren’t remembered that well today. Dolores died on March 1, 1979. It is said that her face was badly damaged and wrinkly in her later years, but that almost magically transformed into her beautiful, youthful self every time she talked about John. Luckilywe have several of her outstanding movies to see this beauty for ourselves.

Note: The Magnificent Ambersons is not only a wonderful showcase for Dolores Costello, but is also Orson Welles’ best film. I highly recommend viewing it.
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.