The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
ravishing, racy, ahead of her time, a true 20th century woman. She
graced the silver screen longer than many of her contemporaries, and happened to
be cast in some of the most epic and even controversial films of her time. Let
the tribute to Estelle Taylor begin.
Estelle was born
on May 20, 1894 in Wilmington, Delaware. Unlike many of her peers in the silent
star pantheon, she was not born to performer parents, nor did she grow up on the
vaudeville or theatre stage. After a relatively conventional childhood, she,
like many of her non-famous contemporaries, moved to New York and went to work
in an office, filling her days as a typist. Not the most glamorous of
beginnings, but certainly noble. And it must be kept in mind – she was very
young when she starting both working and living!
It was possibly
in this office setting that she developed a sharp sense of how to be savvy in
the business world, and with her keen mind, Estelle knew she could make a go of
it in her newly chosen field: acting. It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous
beyond belief, and also very ambitious. This uncanny human being married – into
money, mind you – at the tender (and today illegal) age of 14! The resources
were probably helpful to her, and by 18, when she started to become a successful
model, she and her husband divorced.
it was a quick and relatively easy jump into acting, thought she started off as
a chorus dancer on Broadway. It seems Estelle was quite a precocious young and
budding star, and she was known to meet the affections of quite a few men in
those days with open arms. And not just the lackeys hanging out by the stage
doors; more than a few producers were captivated by her beauty, and she took
full advantage of this when she decided it was time to move from stage to screen
Before her first
bona fide success, she graced the silver screen in no less than 17 films – most
of them short – beginning with The Golden Shower in 1919. She began to
gain ground and prestige in the industry, when she made several films including
The Revenge of Tarzan, While New York Sleeps (her credited role
here is The Wife/The Vamp/The Girl!), and Blind Jewels. She only made one
film in 1921, Footfalls, but it was a distinguished film, if one can
equate distinguished with star power: Estelle co-starred on this film with
Tyrone Power Sr.
1922 was a more
prolific year for Estelle; she made several films including Monte Cristo,
The Lights of New York, Only a Shop Girl and A California
Romance. In 1923, she continued working, making four films before landing
the plum role of Miriam (Moses’ sister) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten
Commandments. Now, this is not the version that plays on television several
times a year, but it was the version that provided all the groundwork, and there
was no more legendary figure to work with at the time than DeMille, arguably one
of the most influential figures of the silent period, of not all of cinema. I
should also mention that Nita Naldi, also featured in The Silent Collection, had
a bit part in this film, which gives a sense of the chronology of our leading
ladies’ climb to fame.
Another film of
note came a year later: Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall, starring
Mary Pickford, in which Estelle played Mary, Queen of Scots. But perhaps her most
notorious role, and the one for which she is best remembered, is that of
Lucrezia Borgia in 1926’s Don Juan, which also features
Myrna Loy and
Mary Astor and co-stars John Barrymore. Director Alan Crosland, who would later
direct the film that launched the sound era, 1927’s The Jazz Singer, took
huge risks with this swashbuckling, lavish melodrama. Not only was it the first
film in history to feature Vitaphone music and feature sound effects, but it
actually has the most screen kisses ever in one film, at 127.
was made four years before the inception of the Production Code, or Hays Code,
which severely limited the amount of sexual and/or
morally questionable content
that could be shown on film (The Code actually began to be enforced in 1934).
Still, silent films were for the most part quite restrained on this front –
though some did freely dabble with drug use, prostitution and nudity, among
other “offenses” – with few exceptions: Don Juan was one of these
exceptions. Just some interesting background and context on this most intriguing
of films! It should also be noted that the Hays Code was abandoned by the 1960s,
which would explain all that deliciously wicked stuff we see on screen these
Hot off the
heels of this lewd success, and married for one year to world heavyweight
champion Jack Dempsey (marriage number two), Estelle continued to make films as
the silent era began to wind down. In an unusual turn of events, it seems our ambitious actress also had exactly the right kind of talent to help her coast
into the dawn of screen sound. Until 1932, she was working consistently, making
such films as Cimarron (1931) and Call Her Savage (1932; the not
so old Estelle played Clara Bow’s mother).
Though she made
a couple more films – her last was Jean Renoir’s The Southerner in 1945
(the masterful French director knew how to pick his talent) – it’s a safe bet to
say that Estelle officially retired in the early 1930s. She became a staunch
supporter of animal rights, founding and acting as president of California’s Pet
Owner’s Protective League, and also serving on the City Animal Regulation
Commission in 1953. Another interesting tidbit: she had dinner one evening with
Lupe Velez, and actress, and wound up being the last person to see her alive
before Velez committed suicide.
After years of
living life exactly as she wanted to – as a star of the business world and then
of the stage and screen, Estelle died on April 15, 1958, in Los Angeles. We’re
fortunate that some of her most memorable films are still around so that we can
see just what about Estelle Taylor that captured the hearts of audiences for
over a decade of cinema and beyond.
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.