Silent Cinema - Four Intriguing Silent Film Actors

Of the hundreds of stars who won the public's heart during the silent era, only a tiny fraction is remembered today. It's time to shine the spotlight back on a few of them. Last time, we discussed five enchanting actresses of the silent era. This time, we will be sharing four intriguing actors.

This isn't a list of the 'best' actors of the silent era or the ones who are famous today. Rather, it's a collection of four actors whose work deserves a closer look by modern movie fans. We will be discussing three leading men and one character actor. None of them are forgotten, not exactly. It's just that they don't enjoy the same name recognition as Chaplin or Valentino. It's a pity because, as you will see, they had fruitful careers.

Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess is hardly forgotten but he is not really well-known outside the classic film community and most people remember him for just two roles: Broken Blossoms and Tol'able David. There's nothing wrong with this but it's a shame that his later silent work often gets ignored.

Barthelmess had his own production company and showed considerable care and taste in his selection of material. His productions were not ostentatious, but they were lovingly crafted and used the finest talent both in front and behind the camera. Most important of all, these films were designed to showcase Barthelmess and his understated acting style.

For example, The Enchanted Cottage (1924) is the story of a severely injured WWI veteran who enters into a marriage of convenience with his homely housekeeper (May McAvoy). The pair fall in love and soon realize their cottage must be enchanted for they are transformed into, well, Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy. The story could easily have fallen into a syrupy trap but Barthelmess keeps it all together with his carefully modulated performance.

Unfortunately, not many of these Barthelmess productions are available to the general public; some are lost and others are locked in vaults. But if you do find one of his surviving silent films (for example, The Drop Kick, Ranson's Folly or Shore Leave), be sure to take the opportunity to watch it for there is much to appreciate.

Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid's tragic death now overshadows his career. One of the first film stars to succumb to substance abuse, Reid's passing was a shock to the industry. Known for his athletic, optimistic, boy-next-door roles, Reid was one of the most popular leading men of the mid-1910s to the early 1920s.

So, where do we start in our introduction to Mr. Reid? Fortunately, a fair number of his films are available on DVD and so there is a pleasant variety.

The Golden Chance is an early Cecil B. DeMille drama. Dark and boasting a fair amount of grit, it's a Cinderella story modernized for 1915. Wallace Reid is the Prince Charming, a wealthy businessman with an eye for the ladies. Cleo Ridgely plays a poor seamstress passed off as a debutante in order to charm Reid into staying in town talking business. What no one knows is her husband is an alcoholic criminal with a penchant for violence. While it's Ridgely's story, Reid gets to show off his romantic chops and his athletic prowess in a brutal fight scene.

For a cheerier look at Reid, Hawthorne of the U.S.A. is an optimistic tale of an American lad who, through no fault of his own, finds himself in a Central European kingdom on the brink of revolution. With a mixture of pluck, determination and always looking for the silver lining, Reid saves the day, finds love, etc.

Ernest Torrence

We've talked about two handsome leading men but I also wanted to give a little attention to one of the most colorful character actors of the silent era, Ernest Torrence. A strapping six foot four inches in his stocking feet, Torrence managed to avoid type casting and his versatility is one of the keys to his charm.

Torrence's famous role is as the villain of Tol'able David, in which he and Richard Barthelmess engage in a bloody fight to the death. Torrence's psychotic hillbilly is truly terrifying. Torrence then swashbuckled across the decks of the Jolly Roger as Captain Hook opposite Betty Bronson's Peter Pan; in fact, he was the very first James Hook on the silver screen, a fact that guarantees him screen immortality in and of itself.

And here's where things get interesting. In quick succession, Torrence played Clara Bow's doting husband (Mantrap), Ramon Novarro's brother (Across to Singapore), Buster Keaton's father (Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and Mary Nolan's criminal lover (Desert Nights).

See what I mean about versatility? (I don't know about you, but I am dying to know what those family trees looked like) Torrence's appearance and build seemed ideally suited to villainy but he easily adapted to any part that came his way. He was never a matinee idol or a major star but he always gave a good performance and any film he appeared in benefited from his contribution.

Richard Dix

Richard Dix enjoyed a long and fruitful career. A leading man from the early twenties all the way to his retirement in the mid-forties, Dix brought intensity and gravity to his roles.

Dix is probably best remembered by classic film fans for his starring role in the Whistler series and his turn as the dangerous captain of The Ghost Ship but in the early 'teens, he was a fresh-faced kid complete with dimples. Yes, really.

Paramount was Richard Dix's home for much of the silent era and he bounced back and forth between heavy, often religious, dramas and lighter comedies. He was the leading man of the modern story of Cecil B. DeMille's original version of The Ten Commandments. (He beat out William 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd for the role.) The year before, he had been the leading man of The Christian, an oft-filmed tale of faith, religious conversion and oh-so Victorian death.

One the other end of the spectrum, Dix played a city playboy who heads out west in the hilariously titled Womanhandled. He was a male model who wins a hexed automobile in the zippy comedy The Lucky Devil. He dispensed medicine and romance in The Love Doctor.

Dix easily made the jump to sound and continued to be in demand, though his output of romantic comedies soon dried up. As he aged, Dix's features turned craggy, which were just the thing for westerns and crime films. What remained constant was his ability to lend dignity and emotion to his roles.

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.