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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Gertrude McCoy

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1916 Gertrude McCoy MJ Moriarty Playing CardFor every silent film star that has become legendary if not iconic in the ensuing decades, there are hundreds who worked tirelessly in the industry for years, doing bit roles and even many starring ones while remaining off the radar of movie stardom. Gertrude McCoy is one of these hard-working actresses. She made endless films in the early silent years before fading into obscurity a year before the first talkie was made, and itís through actresses like her that we can trace the inner workings of the new and growing medium of moving pictures.

Gertrude was born Gertrude Lyon on June 30, 1890 in Sugar Valley, Georgia. The story has it that she started performing at a very early age, making quite a name for herself as a child star on the vaudeville stage before heading off for a life on the big screen. Of course, there were stars in vaudeville, but the world prior to mass production was a completely different beast, and no one knew yet just how big stars could get. Itís one thing to be a key attraction in a nightly show, and another altogether to have your face projected to millions of people at the same time around the world.

In 1910, Gertrude was ready to give the movies a try. She became a member of Thomas Edisonís company (aptly titled Edison Company). Since this company gets mentioned a lot on these pages, perhaps the time has come to give a little background on them, since they were key to the development of motion pictures, and people like Gertrude wouldnít have had careers without them.

Thomas A. Edison, as we all know, was an inventor: we owe our everyday use of light bulbs to him, to name one example. In 1888, he turned his inquisitive mind to the phenomenon of capturing and fixing light, and the man who invented ways of capturing sound was quoted as saying the following: ďI am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion .... .Ē To make a long story short, the first movie camera was born in Edisonís lab. His assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was an instrumental figure in this invention, which came in two parts: the Kinetograph was the camera, and the Kinetoscope was a sort of peep-hole contraption with which one viewed films.

We say the word ďfilmsĒ now so often that we can easily forget that films back then, during the first few years of capturing images on film stock, barely resembled the concept of motion pictures we have today. Edisonís company managed to make movies a hugely successful entertainment industry within a decade of operations, but most of what was being seen amounted to one or two reels (a few minutes) of actualities (news) showing timely events of the day, disasters (sound familiar?) travelogues, and eventually, mini-dramas. During this time, technology developed so that people didnít have to watch movies one by one through Kinetoscopes, but in crowds at screenings projected to mass audiences (like today). In other words, Edisonís company gave rise to the movies as an entertainment phenomenon.

1917 Gertrude McCoy Kromo Gravure Trading Card 1917 Gertrude McCoy Kromo Gravure "Rounded Borders" Trading Card 1917 Gertrude McCoy Kromo Gravure "No Borders" Trading Card
Great example of the 3 different types of Kromo Gravure sets. Square borders, Inside borders rounded, no borders

So this is where Gertrude, like so many of her contemporaries, comes in to the picture. She joined Edisonís company, and made dozens upon dozens of one- and two-reelers with them. She worked exclusively with Edison for a number of years, making such films as Heroes Three, The Summer Girl, Mikeís Hero (1911); Winnieís Dance, Apple Pies, Annie Crawls Upstairs (1912); The Title Cure, The Mountaineers, The Cabaret Singer (1913); The New Partner, All For His Sake, and Andy Playís Cupid (1914). The story has it that Gertrude left Edison to freelance in 1914 after three years of enormous and increasing success with the company, but her filmography suggests otherwise. Through 1915, she made many more Edison films, like On The Stroke of Twelve, Greater than Art, Through Turbulent Waters, June Friday and Friend Wilsonís Daughter.

Titles, of course, donít always give us a full sense of what these actors and actresses were doing, despite the melodramatic and comedic natures of these films as suggested by their names. Sometimes itís not what you do Ė especially in an era where there was such a quick production turnover and so many films were being made Ė but who you do it with. During these early, heady years, Gertrude had the pleasure of co-starring with the likes of John R. Cumpson (who made literally hundreds of films from 1905 until his early retirement in 1912); Charles Ogle (who also made hundreds of films in the silent era, including 1923ís The Ten Commandments); Claire Adams (a silent starlet who will grace these pages soon); Viola Dana (soon to be a huge star, she starred with Gertrude in 1915ís The House of the Lost Court.

Among the first films Gertrude made without Edison was 1916ís The Isle of Love, a drama co-starring Earl Schenck, whose career lagged in the 1930s but revived again in the early 1940s; Gertrude made this film with Gaumont. She then made The Lash of Destiny (1916) with the Van Dyke Film Corporation, The Silent Witness (1917) and Madame Sherry with the Authorís Film Company. It should be said that leaving a exclusive contract with a big company works for some people, but in Gertrudeís case, the number of films she was making annually after leaving Edison dropped substantially.

She did, though, have a few shining moments in the remainder of her careers. In 1918, she played Light in the delightful first film version of the classic, phantasmagoric Blue Bird Ė a Famous Players-Lasky Corporation production Ė starring child actress Tula Belle. This was one of the early films made by Famous Lasky, and really helped entrench them as one of the great studios of the era. She also co-starred with Seymour Hicks in the successful 1923 comedy Always Tell Your Wife, and made a few more films before concluding her career in 1926 in the Cedric Hardwicke vehicle Nelson, produced in England.

It seems like our lady Gertrude didnít attempt a career in the sound age. She married British actor/director Duncan McRae (brother of silent film actor Bruce McRae. She passed away in her home state of Georgia on July 17, 1967.
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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 tammystone444@yahoo.ca with any questions or comments on her column.