"They had faces then,” proclaimed silent screen star Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 Hollywood tale, “Sunset Boulevard.”
Desmond was played by one of those “faces” of the silent era — Gloria Swanson — who had been one of the biggest and most powerful stars headlining such classics as 1919’s “Male and Female” and 1922’s “Beyond the Rocks” with silent cinema’s first male superstar, Rudolph Valentino.
Silent film stars had to use their faces to express every emotion — a skill that was lost on most actors when talkies came into favor.
There were funny faces such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, John Bunny and Ben Turpin; dashing faces such as Richard Barthelmess and Valentino, who died tragically at 31 in 1926, and astonishingly beautiful faces such as Norma Shearer, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Constance and Norma Talmadge and Pola Negri.
The silent era was also beset with scandals. Actress Mary Miles Minter’s career suffered after director William Desmond Taylor, with whom she was involved, was murdered, and leading man Wallace Reid’s drug addiction lead to his death at the age of 31.
One of the saddest tales was that of hunky John Gilbert, who starred in such classics as 1925’s “The Big Parade” and 1926’s “Flesh and the Devil,” which marked his first appearance opposite Garbo whom he nearly married. But his voice was reedy and thin in his first talkie “His Glorious Night.” Contemporary word has it that MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer — who hated Gilbert — had the soundtrack tampered with to make his macho star sound puny. Whatever was the cause, his stock in Hollywood went way down.
Subsequent films proved Gilbert had a perfectly find baritone voice, especially in 1933’s “Queen Christina,” which reunited him with Garbo. But it was merely a band-aid on a badly wounded career. Gilbert’s drinking problem spiraled out of control and he died at 40 in 1936.
— Susan King, who has covered Hollywood for The Times for more than 25 years.
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