Robert writes about popular culture including movies and books.
Beautiful Women of the Silver Screen
The 1920s were a time of great social change unparalleled in history. The rise of the automobile brought increased mobility and social freedom. The early movies of the silent era made stars of beautiful actresses and handsome actors; millions emulated them as role models and copied their style, their look and even their scandalous lifestyles, which led to a break down of old social taboos and norms.
Now largely forgotten, the actresses of the silent film era played a huge role in shaping modern attitudes towards sex, the role of women, and fashion. When we look at their photos, these women appear surprisingly modern for in fact, whether we realize it or not, their look and attitude towards the world helped shape the way we are today.
Here is my list of the most beautiful and influential women of that era.
Louise Brooks (November 14, 1906 – August 8, 1985) was an actress and national sex symbol during the Twenties. She was involved in many scandalous relationships with both men and women, and was seen as an icon of sexual freedom and liberation during the early part of the last century. The frivolous and liberated Flapper girls of the Roaring Twenties emulated her and her hedonistic lifestyle.
Sadly, Brooks would later reveal in her memoirs that she had been sexually abused as a child and that because of this she found no enjoyment in sex or in her relationships.
She never married. In later years, she turned to religion and converted to Roman Catholicism. She died at the age of 78 from a heart attack.
Evelyn Nesbit (December 25, 1884 or 1885 – January 17, 1967) was a beautiful actress of the silent film era who had a spectacular rise to fame as an artist's model while still a teenager, and then reached the pinnacle of high society, only to lose it all in a tragic scandal.
While still a teenager, Nesbit began modeling and posing for artists. She became the inspiration for the iconic Gibson Girl drawings, which epitomized the ideal of female beauty at the beginning of the century. Her face was everywhere, and she became a star of the early silent movie era.
She caught the eye of many famous men, eventually marrying the wealthy Harry Thaw, the heir to a coal mining fortune. This young woman who had risen from very impoverished beginnings seemed to have it all. Unfortunately her husband proved to be mentally ill and he became obsessed with an earlier paramour of Nesbit's, eventually killing him in cold blood at a theatrical performance, in front of hundreds of witnesses.
The ensuing Trial of the Century resulted in her husband's acquittal on the grounds of insanity. The notorious trial garnered non-stop salacious coverage in the press and mirrored the later O.J, Simpson trial. Nesbit's reputation never recovered, and she lived out the rest of her life an impoverished alcoholic.
Did you know that during the silent film era, theaters would hire bands to play the film score live during the movie?
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Here is an interesting fact about silent movies: In Japan, movies were never really silent. Theaters would hire actors to read the dialogue out loud during the showing of the movie.
The beautiful Maude Feely (born Maude Mary Hawk; March 4, 1883 – November 9, 1971) began acting on stage at the age of three and appeared in her first movie in 1911, a short silent movie.
Feely had a long career that outlasted the silent film era. She continued to act in the "talkies" and was active in the movies until the late 1950's, a career that spanned over six decades.
She was married four times but had no children.She passed away at the age of 88.
Marie Doro was the stage name of Marie Katherine Stewart (born May 25, 1882 – died on October 9, 1956 at the age of 74). She began her career as a chorus girl, then moved on to acting in stage productions, and movies. She was one of the first female stars of the silent film era and was noted for her unusual beauty. In fact, she looks a lot like Helena Bonham Carter; if she were alive today, I bet that Tim Burton would want to cast her in one of his movies.
According to Lowell Thomas, a contemporary writer, Marie Doro "her fragile-looking type of pulchritude caused her to be cast in usually insipid, pretty-pretty roles." She was usually typecast in lightweight roles, though she often showed signs of considerable acting ability. Off-screen she was known for her intelligence, and biting wit. She was a recognized expert on Shakespeare and Elizabethan poetry.
Doro was briefly married to another actor; after their divorce she had two major love affairs with two very rich and powerful men. Her relationship with her manager Charles Frohman ended tragically when Frohman drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat during World War 1. The sinking would lead to the United States entering World War 1.
She later became involved with the much older William Gillette, a playwright and actor renowned for playing the part of Sherlock Holmes.
In later ears Doro withdrew from acting and from public life. She became very spiritual and would go on what she described as "retreats," cutting herself off from everyone by hiding out in hotels, changing hotels several during the same week.
Doro never remarried and had no children. She died at the age of 74.
Most of the films she appeared in have been lost. Doro is honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She also has the distinction o having appeared in the first commercial 3-D film towards the end of her career.
Lilian Gish was a beautiful star during the heydays of the silent film era, and later became an accomplished film director in her own right.
Her career transcended the passing of the silent movie era. She continued to act in sound movies, on stage, and on television. Her career spanned , as well as a respected stage actress. However, by the 1930s, styles and public interest had changed, and her star faded. Nevertheless, her acting career spanned over eighty years and she came to be known as the First Lady of Cinema.
In later years she devoted herself to the preservation of silent movies and tried to revive interest in them as works of art.
As a director, she is credited with developing fundamental and innovative film techniques which are used to this day in modern movies.
She was involved in several high profile relationships with men, including some considered scandalous at the time, but she never married and had no children. She died at the age of 99 and left her considerable estate for the establishment of The Gish Prize, one the largest awards in the American art scene, which is awarded annually to "a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life."
In many photographs the actresses of the silent film era are wearing very dark eye make up. This is because the film processes of the time did not show contrasts between lighter shades of the same colors. The eye makeup was meant to highlight their features.
Bessie Love (born Juanita Horton on September 10, 1898 – April 26, 1986) was a star of the silent film era and one of the few silent movie actresses who successfully made the transition to the "talkies".
Love began her career as a movie actress at the age of 17 and specialized, or some might say was typecast, playing the part of innocent young girls on screen. This persona carried over into her adult years, as she continued to portray wholesome characters, for the most part.
Her acting career spanned eight decades, and she continued to work well into her eighties. Her last movie role was with David Bowie in The Hunger in 1983, just a few years before her death. She appeared in over 70 movies during the Silent Film era and just as many during the sound era. Many of her silent films have been lost.
In 1929 she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in a sound movie. She is honored with a start on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Bessie Love wrote a book entitled From Hollywood with Love, about her experiences in the film industry.
During the silent film era, the film reels were often destroyed after the movies ended their theatrical release in order to recover the valuable silver nitrate from the negatives. As a result, approximately 90 percent of all silent films have been lost forever.
Colleen Moore (born Kathleen Morrison; August 19, 1899 – January 25, 1988)
was a beautiful movie actress during the silent film era, and later an accomplished financial investor.
She popularized the short bobbed haircut, which freed women from the complicated hair styles of the early 1900s. As a star of the silent movie era, she became one ots most sought after and highly paid stars. However she did not make the transition to the talkies, and her later sound films were not a box office success.
She retired from show business in the 1930s but used the considerable wealth she had amassed to invest wisely in the stock market. She eventually became a partner in the investment firm of Merill Lynch, a considerable accomplishment for a woman in that era.
Moore was married four times; two of her husbands predeceased her. She maintained a passion for dollhouses throughout her life, which she furnished with meticulous care. One of her dollhouses is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Towards the end of her life she was disappointed to learn that the sole surviving copies of her movies, which she had entrusted to the Museum of Modern Art, had not been stored properly and had disintegrated. She struggled to save what she could, but most of Moore's work has been lost forever. She died at the age of 88.
Clara Gordon Bow (July 29, 1905 – September 27, 1965) was one of the most beautiful and famous actresses of the silent film era, and continued to act after the introduction of sound movies, while many other stars of her day saw their careers dwindle.
She rose to prominence after a role in a movie called "it" in which she played a sexy and plucky shop girl. Her role earned her the nickname of the "It Girl" and she came to represent the ideal of sex appeal during the Roaring Twenties, and the model for the so called Flapper girls of the era.
She died at the age of 60 from a heart attack.
Just like the Roaring Twenties, the bright stars of these beautiful actresses soon faded. A few managed to find success in the new era of "Talkies" while others went on to other endeavors outside of show business; still more ended their days in poverty and obscurity. They are all gone now, but they should not be forgotten.
Thank you for reading my hub. Please take a moment to comment on these women of the silent film era.
© 2019 Robert P
Kara on February 25, 2020:
Absolutely excellent article!! I was wondering why you didn't include Mary Pickford? Just curious
Ranjan dhar on December 11, 2019:
Wonderful collection of wonderful women of wonderful era !