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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Estelle Taylor

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1920's Estelle Taylor 5x7 Fan Photo She was 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.

From modeling, 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 by 1919.

Before her first bona fide success, she graced the silver screen in no less than 171923 Estelle Taylor MPDA Print 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.

Don Juan was made four years before the inception of the Production Code, or Hays Code, which severely limited the amount of sexual and/or 1920's Estelle Taylor 5x7 Fan Photomorally 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 days.

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.
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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 stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.