Silent Cinema: Five Enchanting Silent Film Actresses

One of the great pleasures of being a silent film fan is the feeling of digging for buried treasure. Many of the era's stars have not been discussed in decades and some have been forgotten for more than a century.

We're going to look at a tiny sample of the talent on display during the silent era. This isn't a list of the 'best' actresses of the silent era or the ones who are the most famous today. Rather, it's a collection of five talented women ranging from the famous to the forgotten to those in the midst of revival. Enjoy!

Florence Lawrence

Florence Lawrence's life is often summed up by declaring her the first movie star and mentioning her tragic suicide. Her name is not exactly forgotten among film history buffs, but her performances are. Florence Lawrence remains trapped in still photographs on the pages of history books.

This is a tragedy, as Lawrence's charisma does not come through in still images. To appreciate her, you have to see her move. Easier said than done. Lawrence's screen legacy has not received the same TLC as some of her contemporaries. There are no box sets of her work, no Star of the Week features on TCM.

However, all is not lost. Some of Lawrence's films have been released to the general public and they show an actress of great charm and versatility. The Country Doctor slips a bit into melodrama, but Lawrence's appearance in D.W. Griffith's slapstick version of The Taming of the Shrew is just splendid.

Lawrence's career was over long before sound came to Hollywood but should you care to hear her speak, she had a small role in The Hard Hombre, a Hoot Gibson program oater. Lawrence appears near the end as a woman scorned.

Gloria Swanson

Once upon a time, Gloria Swanson's brilliant performance as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard was seen as the archetypical silent star, bitter and stuck in the past. The great irony was these were two things Swanson assuredly was not.

Swanson's reputation as a flamboyant clotheshorse under the DeMille banner and her starter roles in slapstick comedies are well-documented and are certainly a good deal of fun to watch, but her later silent career contains some of her best performances. Sadie Thompson displays Swanson as a mature artist and her layered performance as a woman with a past stands out as one of the finest characterizations of the silent era.

Swanson was extremely versatile, but her dramatic silent roles remain her most famous. Her great talent was in her expressive face. Like Florence Lawrence, Swanson must be seen in motion to be properly appreciated. Stills don't really capture that special spark of charisma that made her one of the most popular actresses of the era.

Colleen Moore

Of all the recent silent film revivals, none has been more welcome than Colleen Moore's boost in popularity. Once dubbed the torch of flaming youth, Moore has not enjoyed the same level of modern name recognition as, say, Louise Brooks or Clara Bow.

How do you describe Moore's screen persona? To merely label her a flapper and leave it at that doesn't capture how delightful her performances were. Moore's greatest asset is her accessibility to her audience. She seems like everyone's sister, best friend, best girl, cute, funny, a little zany; she is the mischievous girl-next-door.

The release of Why Be Good? was a turning point, and Moore is once again basking in popularity. But don't stop at just one film. Try out Ella Cinders and Orchids and Ermine if you get a chance. The former is a particularly delightful Hollywood variation on the story of Cinderella, but instead of glass slippers and a ball, our waif gets a screen test and a movie contract. Colleen Moore is a delight as the lovable, zany Ella.

Bebe Daniels

Like Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels started out in comedy. After a stint vamping in dramas (playing characters named, I kid you not, Satan Synne), Daniels returned to her roots and made a series of successful comedies, several of which featured Daniels playing a gender-reversed version of a popular male role; (A female Zorro in Senorita, a female Valentino in She's a Sheik, etc.)

Feel My Pulse is an excellent showcase for Daniels' brand of athletic humor. She plays a hypochondriac heiress trying to hide out in a health resort being used as a hideout by rum-runners. In the course of the film, she manages to rescue Richard Arlen and defeat gang leader William Powell with a large bottle of chloroform. It's all wacky fun and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it captures the 'anything goes' spirit of twenties comedies.

Daniels was one of the big success stories of the sound revolution but her silent films remain a delight to anyone who sees them.

Enid Bennett

Of all the names on this list, Enid Bennett probably is the most obscure to modern viewers. This is not helped by the fact the two Bennett films most readily available (Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk) don't give her much to do other than stand around and look pretty.

Born in Australia, Bennett had built a popular film career in her own right in the late 'teens and early twenties. In her solo starring roles, she often played gutsy everywomen who solved mysteries of both a personal and criminal nature. Bennett comes off as a believable and thoroughly likable character in the films I have been able to view.

If you want to see Enid Bennett really act, take the time to see the dark, grimy Parisian underworld tale The Red Lily, which co-stars Ramon Novarro. In that film, Bennett and Novarro play naive lovers eaten alive by the big city. Bennett pulls out all the stops and creates a believable arc for her character, which could be described (in twenties terms) as an innocent sinner. Such parts can go wrong in all sorts of way but Bennett pulls it off rather well.

By the mid-twenties, Bennett had cranked down her Hollywood career in favor of raising her family with director Fred Niblo. She continued to play small parts in the sound era. Should you care to hear her voice, you can see her in Intermezzo (1939).

I hope you have enjoyed this whirlwind, admittedly incomplete tour of the talented women of silent film. There are so many more to discover but these are just a few of my favorites.

Fritzi Kramer is the chief cook and bottle washer at Movies Silently, where she opines on all things related to silent film. She lives in central California, which is the part without the palm trees.