The Most Enchanting Photos of The Greatest Silent Film Stars
The early decades of the 20th century saw the dawn of the film star and cinema. From the stage of cabaret and vaudeville theater emerged a new type of entertainment that took the world by storm – the motion picture. At first, these ingenious feats of technology were not produced with sound, therefore focus was largely placed on expression. At the height of the silent film era in the Roaring Twenties, these actors embodied the height of glamor, extravagance and fame. Their black-and-white images are now nostalgically romanticized and represent a far bygone epoch of emblematic elegance and sophistication. Read on to find out more about the stars of the silent film era.
The Roaring Twenties witnessed a great many cultural changes and advancements in the arts, particularly in the moving picture industry. Louise Brooks was one of the most defining figures of the flapper generation and is credited with popularizing the era’s iconic bob hairstyle – and rock it she darn well could!
Born in Kansas, Brooks began her career as a dancer before she was noticed by legendary Paramount Pictures producer Walter Wagner. With a career spanning from Hollywood to Europe, the “Soft Jazz” age legend starred in 17 silent films and eight sound films.
Anna May Wong
Los Angeles native Anna May Wong is considered to be the first Chinese-American movie star. Her internationally recognized, decades-long career launched in the silent film era and she later went on to make a name for herself in sound films, television, stage and radio.
Starring in many “exotic” roles in films such as “Shanghai Express” and “The Red Lantern,” Wong left a notable legacy as a pioneering Asian-American entertainer who helped thaw rampant discrimination. Her frustrations with being typecast or undercast led her to go back-and-forth between Hollywood and Europe. Until this day she’s revered as an iconic trailblazer.
Petite Bessie Love was a popular pick to play innocent young girls and wholesome leading ladies due to her small stature and delicate features. Born Juanita Horton in Midland, Texas, the cherubic beauty was often compared to another popular star of the era, Mary Pickford.
Love found instant success in 1929’s “The Broadway Melody” and was even nominated for an Oscar for the film. Doe-eyed and emanating an ethereal glow, Love’s versatile and enchanting image landed her in dozens of silent film roles before she successfully transitioned to “talkies.”
There are more pearls, frays and Art Deco embellishment in the next breathtaking photos from the dawn of the motion picture.
Glamor. Elegance. Extravagance. Gloria Swanson had it all. Undoubtedly of the most dazzling dames of Old Hollywood, Swanson’s high-octane beauty, hypnotizing noir mystique (those eyes!) and champagne-and-caviar lifestyle rendered her a star in a class of her own in Hollywood’s heyday.
Forget intertitles, audiences just wanted to see Swanson’s bewitching face. Dripping in sumptuous allure, Swanson starred in dozens of silent films before she became synonymous with her aging silent film character Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Her bejeweled legacy includes unparalleled star power that brought with it riches, timeless fashion icon status and a multitude of amorous suitors. Slay, queen.
Barbara La Marr
Dubbed “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful,” silent movie sensation Barbara La Marr was just as renowned for her on-screen magnetism as her tumultuous real life that ended in scandal and tragedy. During her all-too-short lifetime, however, La Marr rose to fame as a preeminent vamp of the ‘20s.
Seemingly always dripping in pearls, plumage, silks and beaded luxe, La Marr could pull off 1920s headwear and that dramatic forlorn gaze like no other. Her short career included 27 films between 1920 and 1926 with prominent roles in “The Nut,” “The Three Musketeers” and the Gothic drama “Trifling Women.”
Marion Davies was a legendary member of the Hollywood elite. The platinum-haired screen vixen was not only breathtaking but had a prolific career with some 30 films in the silent ear and over a dozen more sound pictures. She also made her mark as an astute businesswoman.
Despite being a ubiquitous facet of the Jazz Age, the mesmerizing beauty’s legacy is more often than not primarily associated with (technically married and much older) media mogul William Randolph Hearst, with whom she had a decades-long relationship. An emblem of a foregone era and elegance, her larger-than-life legacy far eclipses her hinted portrayal in “Citizen Kane.”
Indistinct European exoticism was a central theme among many silent film stars. Metamorphosing from the advancements made by filmmaking luminaries the Lumière brothers, silent film was a major commercial success in Europe in part thanks to stars like Jetta Goudal.
Tall and elegant, Jetta Goudal was born Julie Henriette Goudeket to a Jewish family in the Netherlands and enjoyed a successful stage career touring Europe before the devastation of World War I. She then moved to America and transitioned from Broadway to film, working with other industry titans like D.W. Griffith and Marion Davies.
Greta Garbo is one of the most legendary names associated with the era. She made her debut in 1926 and became an iconic star known for her naturalistic acting techniques that became increasingly de rigor with changing cinema techniques in the mid-to-late ‘20s.
Born in Sweden, is ranked among the top film actresses in cinema history. Garbo’s film career began with her debut in Sweden and a second in Germany before she came to Hollywood. The silver screen goddess made 10 silent films and became even more of a sensation with her first sound film. It’s hard to tell who loved her more, the camera or society.
Doris Kenyon had the kind of enigmatic delicate beauty that could (and still does!) transfix anyone whose eyes fell upon her. Hailing from New York, Kenyon made her film debut in 1915 and often played a pleasant heroine in some two dozen silent films.
Kenyon had a successful silent film career co-starring with popular male leads like Rudolph Valentino and her future husband, Milton Sills. Seen here effortlessly pulling off the period’s emblematic Marcel Waves, Kenyon’s classic good looks along with her theatrical background contributed to her smooth transition to sound acting.
From spit curls to the waved bob, classic beauty Myrna Loy emerged from the ranks of the chorus line to become a full-fledged film star. Trained as a dancer, the sophisticated starlet was typecast in exotic vamp and femme fatale roles early in her silent movie career.
At the height of her fame as Tinseltown’s highest-paid actress, she was regarded as Hollywood’s “Queen” in the ‘30s and ‘40s. The popular leading lady was beloved for her fusion of demure ladylike demeanor mixed with a witty sense of humor. The fabulously prolific artist made 129 movies in her time.
Full of chutzpah and natural sex appeal with a hint of disillusionment, auburn-haired force of nature Clara Bow was THE “It Girl” (a term derived from her silent rom-com hit “It”) and ultimate personification of the Roaring Twenties. Basically, she was “all that jazz” and a bag of chips.
Prohibition was in full swing as was the flapper movement, and Clara Bow was at the helm of pop culture celebrity having escaped the slums of New York for the glitz of Hollywood. The influential star not only made a killing at the box office but popularized fashion and cosmetic trends such as henna as a hair dye and her iconic heart-shaped lipstick design.
Before millennial party girls were sporting the “smokey eye” look for evening outings, heavy-lidded silent film sensation Theda Bara was an icon of the kohl-rimmed eye in the era in which film starlets’ makeup, hair and fashion trends largely represented a modern reinvention of Ancient Egyptian motifs.
Publicized as the daughter of a French woman and Arab sheik, the 1917 “Cleopatra” star was actually Jewish, naturally blonde and from Ohio. Styled as a dark temptress and ultimate “vamp,” she is credited with spurring the term following her role as a sultry vampire. It’s not hard to see why everyone was under her spell.
Sultry silver screen siren Marlene Dietrich is one of the most famous figures from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Born in Germany, the firebrand entertainer was instantly recognizable for her iconic “bedroom eyes” that were a particularly vital attribute in the melodrama of silent film facial expressions.
The legendary femme fatale acted in more than a dozen German silent films in the ‘20s before her part in Josef von Sternberg’s hugely successful “The Blue Angel” propelled her to international stardom. She then reveled in screen glory in the US and has endured as a glamorous and liberal-minded icon of early Hollywood.
Although he’s best known as a lynchpin legend of the American Western genre, John Wayne had small parts in nine silent films before he got his big break in 1939’s “Stagecoach.” Looking at his prolific filmography, it’s incredible to think “The Duke” was ever in an uncredited role.
Wayne, like fellow actress Marlene Dietrich, got his career start in the silent film era. The two made three films with each other, starting with “Seven Sinners” in 1940. After his run with minute silent film roles, Wayne went on to star in a numerous low-budget B-movie before he became one of the biggest megastars of the 20th century.
Known as the “The First Lady of the American Cinema,” Lillian Gish has been credited as a pioneer in establishing emotionally nuanced performance techniques. Radiant and waif-like, Gish is recognized as cultivating the craft of screen acting, in contrast to stage acting.
Considered one of the greatest actresses of the silent era and of cinema history in large, she became a strident voice for silent film preservation in her later years. Due to studio destruction and the inflammatory nature of nitrate film, sadly, the majority of originally-formatted silent works have been lost forever.
The next silent film star represented the epitome of the exotic vamp, but she was actually from a small town in Heartland America.
Among the trove of silent films that were lost were all 11 of momentous star Valeska Suratt’s productions. Although she hailed from Indiana, Suratt was cast as an exotic, fiery vamp. This image was representative of a decisive shift from rigid Victorian standards to the increasingly independent and anti-establishment shifts of the time.
Like the silent film industry itself, Suratt’s career morphed from beginnings in stage acting, vaudeville and dance. Often referred to as the “Empress of Fashions,” Surrat was synonymous with lavish gowns and an eccentric and extravagant wardrobe. Regularly cast in exotic and seductive roles, Surrat had that ineffable “It” factor that rendered her a legend.
Mary Pickford overcame poverty and hardship in Canada to become one of Hollywood’s brightest stars in the 1910s and 1920s. Regarded as “America’s Sweetheart” and “Queen of the Movies,” the dynamic actress starred in 52 movies during her career. Radiant and with enviable ringlets, fans initially adored her “little girl” roles.
Despite her frail and innocent image, she portrayed a range of roles from spitfires and spurned women to prostitutes and mothers. Behind the scenes too she was an astute businessman and became a pioneering female producer, who took charge of her own pictures just three years after her debut.
One of the most enduringly important and famous figures in cinema history, the fabled Charlie Chaplin rose to fame in the silent film era. His instantly recognizable persona of the mustachioed “Tramp” cemented his place as a universally legendary icon who helped develop the art of comedic cinematography.
Born in London, Chaplin cultivated his early craft as a stage performer to become one of the best-known film personas in the world. By 1916 he was already a global phenomenon and his prolific career spanned more than 75 years. His performances may have been hilarious, but Chaplin’s impact of film and pop culture was seriously (and literally) monumental.
French comedian Max Linder is cited as the “first international movie star.” His film career launched in 1905 and he was famously recognized for his comedic on-screen persona “Max,” a dapper, skirt-chasing man-about-town. Linder was also a close accomplice of Charlie Chaplin.
At the height of his fame in the early 1910s, Linder was the highest-paid entertainer of the time and was widely-recognized across Europe. After suffering a serious gunshot wound in World War I and experiencing difficulty breaking into showbiz in the US, Chaplin eventually helped him make a couple of classics shortly before his death in 1925.
The next couple of gorgeous silent era stars were some of the most prominent personalities in the world.
With her perpetually despondent stare and drop-dead gorgeous looks, petit platinum-haired Anita Page shot to stardom at the end of the silent film era. Referred to as “a blond, blue-eyed Latin” she was described as “the girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood.”
As one of the period’s biggest stars, Page allegedly received the most fan mail of any of the era’s actresses (except for Greta Garbo). She also received multiple mailed marriage proposals from Benito Mussolini. In 1933, aged 23, Page went into retirement, yet she returned to acting 60 years later.
Any list of Jazz Age icons isn’t complete without Josephine Baker. Still recognized as a legend of timeless style and all-around trailblazer. Instantly recognizable for her Eton crop and megawatt smile, American-born Baker was a superstar in her adopted France and one of the first African Americans to catapult to worldwide fame.
Baker had already established herself as a popular cabaret dancer and stage performer by the time her first silent film, “Siren of the Tropics,” was released in 1928. Also a renowned civil rights activist and French Resistance agent, she became the first person of color to star in a major motion picture – the 1934 film “Zouzou.”
Beginning as an itinerant dancer and showgirl, legendary screen actress Joan Crawford shot up to rank as one of Classic Hollywood’s greatest female stars. The ravishing beauty got her big break in the Depression-era as her common roles of spirited yet hard-working young women who find happiness resonated with the national zeitgeist.
Although her career roller-coastered somewhat between the ‘30s and ‘40s, Crawford has gone down in cinema history as one of the most prominent and highest-paid women in the country at the peak of her career. Just as captivating as her on-screen presence was her personal life, which inspired later books and movies.
Now considered poignant vintage relics, nostalgic photos like this one of silent film star Nita Naldi incorporated the elements of Art Deco, dreamy etherealism and soft black-and-white focus that were all the rage in the early decades of the 20th century.
Born Mary Dooley, she took the stage name Nita Naldi that resonated every bit with the dangerously seductive femme fatale/vamp persona that she so iconically embodied. Described as “Sloe-eyed, and darkly beautiful,” Naldi made her eight-year career debut in 1920 starring opposite another Hollywood legend, John Barrymore, in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Jersey girl Norma Talmadge was one of the most popular stars of the silent era. With dark, evocative eyes and a highly expressive face that was key to the films with no synchronized recorded sound or spoken dialogue, Talmadge was an icon of the naturalist approach and was a huge box office success for over a decade.
Talmadge exuded an aura of elegance and glamor and landed some of the grandest sets and most opulent costumes that spurred fans to flock to her extravagant films. She once ranked among the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood and also became a producer. Given the fate of many silent movies, an unusually high rate of her films have survived.
Celebrated as a feminist trailblazer, Norma Shearer hailed from Canada and took Hollywood by storm for nearly two decades. The five-time Academy Award nominee was recognized for breaking taboos and playing sprightly, sexually-liberated roles while possessing poise and sophistication.
Although her talent and beauty were debated (she’s a total knockout, if you ask us), Shearer became known by MGM as the “First Lady of the Screen.” Before her retirement in 1942, the glamazon turned down the lead in “Gone with the Wind.” Frankly, my dear, that’s unfortunate.
Rudolph Valentino immigrated to America from Italy and took up work as a dancer before he rose as a Hollywood sex symbol and the ultimate Latin lover. He was styled as an exotic heartthrob with slick-backed hair and penetrating eyes after breaking out of slimy villain roles.
His silent film stardom was propelled by roles in movies like “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” “The Sheik,” and “Blood and Sand.” Women swooned and men were largely disdainful of the seductive Valentino. His premature death at age 31 spurred mass hysteria among female fans and further cemented his ravaging renown.
Like her contemporary Louise Brooks, actress Colleen Moore launched her career during the silent film era and became a fashion icon who promulgated the popularity of the bobbed haircut that was seen at the time as a shocking statement of flapper independence and a stark divestment from Edwardian-style hair trends.
Moore was among the crème de la crème of the silent era, yet sadly, about half of her films are thought to have been lost. Apart from her reputation as a widely popular star, Moore’s legacy is also connected to her financial savvy. The top-dollar Hollywood honey was a partner at Merrill Lynch.
The film industry in Europe flourished in the ‘20s after World War I, and from that prolific cinematic surge came some of the biggest stars in the silent and golden eras of film. One of those legends was world-famous femme fatale and tragedienne, Pola Negri (her sultry stare says everything).
Originally from Poland, her career spanned both sides of the Atlantic as was the first Continental movie star to come to Hollywood. Negri’s move to the American film scene paved the path for numerous other European stars such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Now that’s one heck of a European invasion!
Mexican-born actor Ramon Novarro was regarded as one of early Hollywood’s biggest romantic leads and was marketed as a “Latin lover.” With his start in silent films, Novarro was pitted as a rival to fellow Latin sex symbol Rudolph Valentino.
Novarro was propelled to the Hollywood elite after his great success in the 1925 rendition of “Ben-Hur.” As one of the era’s greatest heartthrobs, Novarro made the transition to sound films and later television in the ‘50s and ‘60s before his untimely murder shocked the nation in 1968.
With honey-hued hair and striking good looks, Blanche Sweet was pure motion picture sugar. Sweet started acting as a child and by her early teens was contracted as a film actress. She was initially among legendary director D.W. Griffith’s leading ladies and was pitted as a rival to fellow wholesome beauty, Mary Pickford.
Sweet was recognized as a popular movie maiden at the height of her career in the 1910s and 1920s, although she was often overshadowed by another rival actress – Lillian Gish. Sweet’s career wound down at the end of the ‘20s as the advent of the “talkies” rose. She made three sound movies before retiring.
Don’t miss the next larger-than-life icon who got his start in silent films.
Famously regarded as the ideal American hero, the legendary Gary Cooper had the type of on-screen persona that resonated admiringly with both male and female audiences. The timeless icon of a dashing leading man, Cooper’s showbiz start progressed from film extra and stunt rider to one of the biggest names in Hollywood history.
His 35-year career included 84 feature film credits during Classical Hollywood’s silent and golden eras. The charismatic dreamboat was famously cast as a Western hero in his early movies and later moved on to more common-man portrayals. Until this day, Cooper is regarded not only as one of the most handsome, but successful and talented actors in showbiz.
Comic silent film star Harold Lloyd was famous for his bespectacled, every-man go-getter persona that provided a sense of relatable, yet humoristic escapism, for the audiences of 1920s America. Even if you didn’t know his name, you probably recognize this iconic photo from his film “Safety Last!”
Although his pictures weren’t as much of a box office success as fellow comedian Charlie Chaplin’s, Lloyd more prolific by far, releasing some 200 flicks between 1914 and 1947. Popular and successful in silent films and “talkies,” Lloyd’s legacy is largely synonymous with his thrilling stunt-filled knee-slappers.
Delicate diva Viola Dana had a mesmerizing combination of piercing eyes and gentle features that could render a man (or woman, for that matter) transfixed. Born to wear furs and silk headpieces, Dana was one of the most hard-working actresses of the silent film era.
After entering show business in 1910, she went on to make 100 films! Despite her popularity in the ‘20s, as the decade came to an end, her stardom waned and her career didn’t successfully carry over to the “Golden Age” of sound films.
Don’t miss the next few of legends on the list, keep reading!
San Francisco native Carmel Myers was a rabbi’s daughter who got her start in acting on the stages of Broadway before she took Hollywood by storm. Often cast in vamp roles, Myers starred in a multitude of silent films in the ‘20s.
Slinky and sumptuous, although Myers’ name is less prominent today than some of her peers, in her heyday she was a star in the ranks of Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro and Joan Crawford. The actress best known for her role in “Ben Hur” was able to transition into a fairly successful sound career.
Sizzling silver screen fox Douglas Fairbanks was dashing and gregarious. Not only is his name synonymous with his swashbuckling roles in the likes of “Zorro,” “Robin “Hood” and “The Thief of Bagdad,” but he was one of Hollywood’s extraordinary founding fathers.
Along with BFF Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and betrothed Mary Pickford, he established the United Artists studio. Although he never won an Oscar, he was also a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In short, he rightly reigned as “The King of Hollywood” when Tinseltown first made its mark as a prominent symbol of cutting-edge innovation, glitz and creativity.
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Sources: The Guardian
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