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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Nita Naldi

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1920's Nita Naldi 7x9 Fan Photo“On the vamp matter, I just don’t happen to look like an ingénue and that’s why they cast me for the vampire, which is wrong again, because the real vampire is the little baby doll with the liquid eye. Every time. A man is scared to death of a woman who looks as if she might have a couple of thoughts. He wants to know it all. That’s Men. The girl with the curls is the real vampire. I found that out when I was in the chorus. It was the blond cutie that did all the damage to the front row.” – Nita Naldi

The dark-haired, exotic-looking Nita Naldi may be one of the true unsung heroes of the silent era. Though most people wouldn’t know her by name, she is probably one of the best examples of true talents who found the perfect niche for herself as movies were starting to become the grandest form of entertainment. Like Clara Bow, she was born to play the Vamp, and appeared in some of the most glamorous, epic films of her time – as the love-to-hate bad girl.

Nita was born on April 1, 1897 in New York City with the less than distinguished name of Anita Donna Dooley – a name that might fly today but that fake names were made of. Like many of her peers, she started her career young, probably due to a combination of her own performing aspirations and her parents’ desire to live off of their pretty daughter’s success. She began with the Shubert revue in the Winter Garden, as a showgirl, and was a natural. It didn’t take long, then, before she was discovered by the biggest show in town at the time: the now-famed Ziegfeld Follies.

Nita stayed with the Follies for a long while, gradually becoming one of their leading attractions. It was fairly inevitable, then, that there was talk about a possible Hollywood career. Hollywood was still a nascent beast, but after 20 odd years of moving images, and a lot of key cinematic innovation in the US and abroad (notably, in the US, by D.W. Griffith), it was rapidly becoming an arena every performer wanted to try his or her hand at.

Nita was no exception, and this true East Coast girl was off to Hollywood. As the story goes, her rise to fame was faster than most. When she was 23 years old, in 1920 (the first year of the second full decade of the cinema), she made her debut performance in none other than the ever-popular (and much re-made) film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore. Most actresses could only dream of landing such a plum role without paying their dues as extras in many a short film. But Nita’s dark, glamorous look made her somewhat of a rarity in town, and she became 1929-30's John Barrymore Movie-Lane KEENO Game Card1925 Rudolph Valentino Rothman's Tobacco Cardan instant star.

In an age when “types” were the norm – there was the good, virtuous girl; the tomboy; the damsel in distress; the flapper, just to name a few – Nita made her name as the vamp. And there seemed to be an insatiable appetite for those in the early 20s. In 1921 alone, Nita starred in three films that capitalized on her vixen-like, sultry image:  A Divorce of Convenience, The Last Door and Experience. The stage was set for a real star of the Golden Age to be born.

This truly happened in 1922. After making three other films, Channing of the Northwest, Reported Missing and The Man from Beyond, Nita starred in Blood and Sand. Her costar was the sexiest, most sought after actor of his day, Rudolf Valentino, and this film – which combines love and tragedy like no other - is still considered one of the great, lavish and epic productions of the silent era. The film was a runaway hit, exceeding the expectations of everyone involved. Things couldn’t be going better for the young Nita, who had the great fortune of playing Dona Sol, the woman to drag Valentino into the depths of misfortune and disgrace. Audiences ate it up. Some things never change. Both Nita and Rudolf immortalized themselves in 1922, mere years before both their careers would end.

That year, Nita made two more films: The Snitching Hour and Anna Ascends, and she worked steadily from there. 1923 saw her make a few films – The Glimpses of the Moon, Lawful Larceny, among others – but the most notable was the action-packed The Ten Commandments, by the legendary master of epics and practically a synonym for Hollywood itself, Cecil B. DeMille. Over the next few years, she continued to star in success films, such as The Lady Who Lied, The Marriage Whirl and Cobra (all 1925, the latter seeing her reunite with Rudolf Valentino); and The Miracle of Life, The Unfair Sex (both 1926). She also did what many of her peers did in the mid-twenties, and went off to Europe to make films, such as The Marriage Whirl (1925) and La femme nue (1926).

Her last two films were in 1928 – as sound was beginning to rapidly take over: What Price Beauty and The Model from Montmartre. She was still young and incredibly beautiful, but being an East Coast gal, her accent was just not considered appropriate for the big screen, and this was before the days of the diction coach. One can’t help note the irony of life imitating art here; just like vamps tend to live wild, short lives before doom befalls them, Nita’s career was a true whirlwind of moviestardom, that ended almost as fast as it had begun.

But she was a true performer, and while she retired gracefully from the movies, she continued to act on stage, and eventually, on television. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to really make her mark on the tube – she died at the age of 63 on February 17, 1961, of a heart attack, and was buried on Long Island. Happily, films like Blood and Sand can still be found, and her talents enjoyed.
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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.

Other Nita Naldi Pages:

Denny Jackson's Nita Naldi Page -- The Trailblazing Vamp/Actress!!