Early cinema developed around a formula based on ‘the movie family’. This concept was made up of the heroine, the hero, the mother, the villain, and the vamp.
While these are obviously reductive archetypes, they worked well enough for the simple storytelling purposes of early motion pictures. The actors who succeeded back then were those who fit those moulds, and even made them.
Heroines and heroes
Sweetness was the heroine’s main characteristic. Children and animals loved her. Her face was a picture of innocence. She habitually wore white. Her intelligence was immaterial, her purity threatened by the villain. If the audience was in any doubt, the actress’ name would clarify matters: Louise Lovely, Blanche Sweet, Arline Pretty.
Mary Pickford typified the early heroine. Her golden curls and youthful looks dominated the silent movie era. The most highly paid American woman, she married ‘King of Hollywood’ Douglas Fairbanks, and owned a mansion named Pickfair.
Pickford and Fairbanks conducted a clandestine affair before marrying. Careers had been ruined for less, yet the press sat on the story, refraining from lurid headlines. Then, as now, it was choosy about which celebrities to expose. From humble beginnings, Pickford rose to the top and became untouchable. It was in no one’s interests to ruin her career. She had escaped an abusive first marriage, attracting sympathy. Her fans adored her. It was better for everyone to lose themselves in her wholesome characters.
The early hero was strong, noble, generous, and patriotic. It helped if he loved his horse. While sin was a stranger to the heroine, the hero could be tempted, but must not succumb. If he did, a period of penitence was required for the heroine’s forgiveness in the final reel.
King Baggot was an early Hollywood hero:‘the king of the movies’, ‘the most photographed man in the world’ whose face was ‘as familiar as the Man in the Moon’. He made over 300 movies from 1909-1947. Fans mobbed him. He was nominated the first president of New York’s Screen Club. But he turned to alcohol, leading to divorce, bit parts, and a sanitarium death. Another reminder that who we see on the silver screen is far removed from reality.
Mothers and monsters
Iris Barry, film critic of the Daily Mail, asked in 1926: “Why must all American movie mothers be white-haired and tottering even though their children are only tots? Does the menopause not operate in the United States?” In early Hollywood movies, the mother figure was often old before her time.
Although perfect of skin and figure, her grey hair underlined her martyrdom in serving her (often callous) husband and (often ungrateful) children. The mother was the backbone of the family, society, and the movies. The father was inconsequential, a background figure in the shadow of the long-suffering matriarch.
Mary Carr appeared in over 140 films, the go-to actress to fill such roles. She had seven children of her own, most of whom gravitated towards the movie business.
The villain was often depicted as a member of the aristocracy or a city slicker. Screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood wrote:
The villain earns our hiss,
For he is of the aristocracy.
He wears silk hats and evil leers,
He goes to clubs and drinks straight beers.
He plays roulette and stays out late,
In fact, a base licentiate.
He gets the maiden in his power,
And wrestles with her for an hour.
But when the hero heaves into view,
The villain receives his rightly due.
Screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz offered this advice: “The hero, as well as the heroine, has to be a virgin. The villain can lay anybody he wants, have as much fun as he wants, cheating and stealing, getting rich and whipping the servants. But you have to shoot him in the end. When he falls with a bullet in his forehead, it is advisable that he clutch at the Gobelin tapestry on the library wall and bring it down over his head like a symbolic shroud.”
The family vamp
Looking for a femme fatale to appear in his movie A Fool There Was, Frank J. Powell discovered a demure young actress, Theodosia Goodman. He gave her a new identity: born in Egypt in the shadow of the Sphinx, the daughter of an Italian sculptor and a French actress. And a new personality: she was a seeress, and frightfully evil.
Then he introduced her to the world. Theda Bara, cinema’s first sex symbol was born.
In a white limousine attended by Nubian footmen, Theodosia arrived at a Chicago hotel. She entered a dark room draped in black velvet, the air heavy with incense. There she met the press and proceeded to play the role of Theda to perfection.
Theda Bara was the first artificially-created movie star. She gave the word ‘vamp’ to the language, and the catchphrase: “Kiss me, my fool.” In just four years there were 40 Theda Bara films. She was photographed with skulls and snakes. In the movie public’s mind, she became the personification of evil.
Theodosia Goodman wanted to break out and play more challenging roles. However, she was typecast, just as Mary Pickford was typecast as an ingénue and therefore unable to succeed in grown-up, romantic roles.
In the mid-1920s, Goodman married Charles Brabin, a successful director. Now wealthy, she joined the Hollywood society set and devoted herself to charity work. Though her moment in the limelight had long gone, touchingly she continued to advertise herself as ‘at liberty’ in Hollywood casting directories.
The stereotypes of ‘the movie family’ set the blueprint for early Hollywood storytelling. Filmmaking has long since broken out of these moulds, so constraining to actors, as has society. But the outlines can still be seen in both films and society. We haven’t changed that much.