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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Olive Thomas

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1916 Olive Thomas MJ Moriarty Playing CardOlive Thomas featured on Upstairs and Down Sheet MusicOlive Thomas’s life and death are, ironically, the stuff movies are made of. Of the many silent starlets who had their moments of superstardom before fading into the dawn of the sound age, Olive perhaps stands out as the biggest case of “what if.” Because Olive’s life and career came to an abrupt and tragic end while she was at the peak of her success, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not she would have usurped the likes of Clara Bow, Madge Bellamy, Josephine Baker and others as the biggest flapper starlet of her generation.

Olive was born Oliveretta Elaine Duffy on October 20, 1894 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania. Her name in itself presages a life of disproportionate glamour and almost operatic melodrama. Pennsylvania at the time was in the throes of the Industrial Age, and as a very work-intensive state, was more than filled with its labourers, grit and smoky air. All in all, not an exotic place to be. Olive spent her uneventful childhood in school, until she dropped out and married at the age of 16. Bernard Krug Thomas was evidently not an ideal husband – they divorced after two years, and Olive fled to New York in hopes of a better life.

Single in the big city, Olive found work at a department store and wiled away the hours waiting, as it seems now, for life to happen. And then it did: there was a competition being held for Most Beautiful Girl in New York City – can you imagine a competition like that being held today? She must have had great self-esteem, because she didn’t hesitate to enter, and lo and behold, she won. Of course, she garnered a lot of press with this victory, and her gorgeous face was suddenly known about town. And here’s where her story takes a familiar turn for us silent film star fans.

The brunette beauty caught the attention of none other than Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies. He immediately felt she could be a huge star, and within days she was out of her department store job and performing as a Ziegfeld girl. Not only was she talented enough to make a real go of it, but audiences were literally riveted by her charisma and ethereal good looks. Of course, all this was still on a relatively minor scale, the world not yet having been completely revolutionized by the mass entertainment medium that is the movies. But word of Olive was travelling pretty far – Peruvian artist Alberto Vargas commissioned her to pose nude, a matter of extreme prestige then as now. All of this happened within a year.

All of this excitement more or less led to the signing of her first film contract, with Triangle Pictures. She was 17 years old when she made her debut feature, Beatrice Fairfax, in 1916. Around that time, and still at such a young age, she married for the second time. Lucky husband number two was none other than Jack Pickford, brother of the famed Mary Pickford, godmother of Hollywood cinema. As with all great Hollywood romances – at least as far as publicity is concerned – their relationship was rocky at the best of times, which only fuelled the press machine and helped her achieve even greater star status.

1910's Olive Thomas Strip Card1917 Olive Thomas Kromo Gravure Trading CardIn 1917, while cinema was still in relative infancy, Olive starred in several films, including Madcap Madge, A Girl Like That, An Even Break, Broadway Arizona and Indiscreet Corinne. Her career was going as well as could have ever hoped for. Audiences loved her, the industry loved working with her, and she was A-list in every sense of the term; this at a time when there had been very few A-listers before her. In way, she was defining the term.

And who better than her? Look at the photos. She’s gorgeous. She continued to make films at a fairly rapid rate. Some highlights include: Limousine Life and Heiress For a Day (both 1918); Toton the Apache, The Follies Girl, Love’s Prisoner, The Spite Bride, The Glorious Lady and Out Yonder (all 1919); Footlights and Shadows, Youthful Folly, The Flapper, Darling Mine and her last film, Everybody’s Sweetheart (1920).

The latter films spoke to her reflection of a new age, in which the woman wasn’t the cute tomboy or the submissive housewife, or the young ingénue; but rather, the bold, new woman for the new century, the beacon of the freedom represented by the roaring 20s. She of course best captured this new woman in The Flapper, the film that swept the nation and truly catapulted Olive into what would have been an enormously lucrative career.

However, after filming Everybody’s Sweetheart, she and Jack set sail on vacation. Olive never returned. Reports indicate that near Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, she accidentally swallowed poisonous bichloride of mercury from a bottle that was mislabelled. Or perhaps it was dark in the room where she took it and didn’t see what she was ingesting. Rumours also abound after the fact, because the entire incident reeked of suspicion. In the end, after months of news headlines and an investigation, Olive’s death was ruled accidental.

She was only 25 when she died. She had just made her best and most successful film, and the world adored her. She was modern, she was cutting edge, and she was about to launch on an enviable road to glamour girl stardom. Her life was cut short, but like many victims of untimely death – Natalie Wood and James Dean, for example – she has become the stuff of legend. In 2003, a Rosanna Arquette-narrated documentary was made entitled Olive Thomas: The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, celebrating the life and films of this remarkable ingénue who never had the chance to become one of the brightest stars of the silent era.
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.

Other Olive Thomas Pages:

Denny Jackson's Olive Thomas Page -- Best Known for Her Death Rather Than Her Incredible Talent!
The Life and Death of Olive Thomas -- From Taylorology, A Continuing Exploration of the Life and Death of William Desmond Taylor, Issue 33, September 1995. Note, this is a plain text file.
Olive Thomas on Wikipedia -- Quite a bit of detail on this Wikipedia page.