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bonyoldrajah

Best/Worst Performance by A Leading Actress In the History of US Silents

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Best performance by a leading actress in the history of the American silent cinema:

 

CLARA BOW in "It" [1927]. Trifling story, but tour de force acting by Bow who delivers a wealth of inspired expressions and gestures.

 

Worst performance by a leading actress in the history of the American silent cinema:

 

LILLIAN GISH in "Broken Blossoms" [1919]. Gish as Lucy Burrows: hers is either the worst performance or the worst leading-actress role I've ever beheld in the silents. Absolute nadir: Gish pushing up the corners of her mouth, forcing smiles. Absurd.

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Clara is my fave actress (in either talkies or silents) and she was great in *It* even though like you said, it's really just a cute chick flick.

 

I haven't seen *Children of Divorce* 1927 starring Clara Bow, Esther Ralston and Gary Cooper in his first leading role but supposedly, Gary was pretty bad in this one. Up until that point he had done mostly extra and bit part roles in westerns and war movies. He had a supporting role in *The Winning of Barbara Worth* the year before but he had no romantic scenes and it was a western and he felt comfortable there.

 

In *COfD* however, he had love scenes with both Esther and Clara and he was just mortified to have to kiss them in front of other people and the cameras. He was no stranger to women and was actually dating Clara at the time but as he said it just seemed indecent to kiss a woman he didn't even know (referring to Esther) on camera. He had some scenes that were supposed to be full body shots but he was so nervous that his legs were visibly shaking so they ended up having to do some of his scenes with him sitting down instead - ha! He was even fired early on but then rehired and the picture was finished with a new director.

 

I actually have seen a clip of this film as part of the *Hollywood* series and he did a pretty good job in the scene where he wakes up and discovers Clara in his bed. He doesn't remember it but they got drunk the night before and got married. He looks genuinely surprised and just flaberghasted, but that could also be b/c I'm sure he was nervous while filming it ;).

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Oddly enough, the performance by Miss Gish was especially commented on at the time. Huge praise was extolled on how evocative the character was, and how she was so convincing. Years later she would proudly describe how she psyched herself up for it, how she decided this girl that she was playing was so full of fear that she had to walk in that stiff manner, and that she's never known happiness, and had never smiled, and didn't know how!.

Audiences of 1919 understood all this, and found it greatly moving. It just goes to show you how fast something can lose it's power, and becomes a joke. In Keaton's 1925 feature GO WEST, he, being the famed "Stone Face" of American comedy, doesn't know what to do when the bad guy, in a "VIRGINIAN" inspired move, commands Buster to "..smile when you say that!" Our hero can only reply with the same pathetic pushing up the ends of his mouth- certainly counting on the audiences recognition of the famous Gish scene, now become parody.

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You know, it's kinda funny, but I think Lillian Gish was good in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, when you compare it with her (and her sister's) over-the-top performance in ORPHANS OF THE STORM.

 

I got way tired of all that overblown hugging and kissing.

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I think it is a total waste of time to consider Miss Gish performance in BROKEN BLOSSOM as the worst of the silent era, specially when Donald Crisp, a fine actor in other productions, was miscast. The entire cast of POTEMKIN and many other pictures left everything to be desired.

 

And we don't even have full access to the surviving 10% of silents to come which such argument.

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Well it's futile to see a performance in a 1919 film through today's eyes. If you can't approach the film as a film from 1919 and understand the contemporary acting styles, use of sentiment, etc., there's not much point watching it.

 

As I always told my lit classes when I was teaching, you have to read the book (or watch the film) in the context of ITS time, not yours....

 

Griffith might never have understood the concept of "constraint," hence his long films (same can be said for Spielberg), but silent film had only the visuals (and maybe accompanying music) to make its points.

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I disagree, drednm. It is not futile "to see a performance in a 1919 film through today's eyes." It is entirely possible. A knowledgeable viewer with an active mind can place a film in its historical/artistic context while evaluating its performances objectively.

 

By the way, I'd much rather read a post from you to this thread in which you offer your own takes on "best/worst" performances by a leading actress in the American silent cinema as well as, in brief, your reasons for the same.

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northbreed,

 

One of the great performances of the Silent Cinema, and for that matter overall performances in screen history is Margaret Mann's poignant portrayal of Mother Bernle in John Ford's FOUR SONS (1928).

 

I am so angry that Fox desecrated this extraordinary film by removing the brilliant original Movie-tone track, and replacing it with a new score that is decidedly inferior in every way!

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North......"A knowledgeable viewer with an active mind can place a film in its historical/artistic context while evaluating its performances objectively."

 

If you're doing that then you're doing what I said about watching the film in its own context.....

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Gloria Swanson as "Sadie Thompson" as the best ... For me that still stands by itself as the most intensely engrossing screen performance by a silent actress ever. JMHO ...

 

The worst is a little harder to nail down. I guess I'd say Mary Astor in "Two Arabian Knights" because she didn't do anything except be there. She was veiled which worked against her to start with, but she was uninspired too and just frumped around. I think it was intended that the viewer would determine her characters mood by just her eye gestures, but all I saw was sad, sad, sad ...

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Quite a few of the girls in the silent comedy world were little more than beautiful bundles to be bounced about by the stars of the piece. Often they come off as without even the first acting lessons. One that particularly has struck me this way was Madeline Hurlock, of the Sennett comedies. She was a lucious creature to be sure, with huge eyes, slick dark hair and pursed lips. But she might have been made of wood for all her lack of emotion, even in comic love or even fear scenes.

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I really haven't seen enough Garbo, Swanson, and many others. I've seen some, but nothing approaching completest. I will say that I was blown away by Zasu Pitts in "Greed". Then again, the first time I saw it, my only frame of reference for Zasu was as "comic relief" in character parts on late nite oldies as a kid. So she was playing against a "clear type" that was bouncing around in my head for about 15-20 years.

I would like to see "Sadie Thompson". I actually like Crawfords "Rain".

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Factotum,

That's it, you've gone too far and I'm going to track you down for this 'beautiful bundle to be bounced about' comment you've made here! LOL! All empty threats aside, I agree with precoder about Gloria Swanson in SADIE THOMPSON. The worst acting goes to Janet Gaynor's wig in SUNRISE.

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LOL.... I couldn't come up with a "worst" but Gaynor's wig is a fine nominee.... Such a superb film and such an ugly wig! why????

 

and certainly Swanson would be right up there for best for SADIE THOMPSON but also for FINE MANNERS and STAGE STRUCK

 

Message was edited by: drednm

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I had a hard time coming up with a 'worst' myself. I just posted the weakest performance I could recall seeing. Truthfully, the acting is usually very good from almost everyone in silents from what I'm seeing. Maybe I'm just loving them now but there aren't a lot of people I don't like. When talkies came, that's a different matter ...

 

lol at Gaynor and the wig thing ...Yeah, Why? Just saw her in "Lucky Star" and she was terrific even good and dirty. Charles Farrell had to wash her hair (with an egg) and practically gave her a needed bath. It was a very touching romance. Some of the movie is missing and the score was a disappointment, but the sets were stylish and comfortable. It needs restoration tho ...

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yes Benji LUCKY STAR was very good.... the final scenes had originally included talking sequences...

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Perhaps the wig was Murnau's idea of "Realism". That or he felt that the plucky all-American waif that Gaynor often asseyed was so at odds with the wretched, worn out wife in his eastern european story (well it certainly isn't happening in Kalamazoo! ) that great pains must be taken to alter her appearance to fit it.

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If I only knew this thread was going to degenerate into "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch"...

 

C'mon, friends, these anti-Gaynor-wig comments ain't fit for man nor beast.

 

I'd rather see the thread diverge in more fun (and not funnier!) ways, like Cutest or Most Adorable U.S. Silent Screen Actresses: I'm particularly fond of Mildred Davis and Jobyna Ralston in Harold Lloyd's films; Sybil Seely in Buster Keaton shorts; Marceline Day in "The Cameraman" and more; and, ahem, the well-coiffed Janet Gaynor in "Sunrise."

 

But as far as the main thread goes:

 

I'm still touting BOW in "It".

And booing GISH in "Broken Blossoms."

 

I do, however, agree with pro-Swanson comments: she was a riveting performer.

 

Message was edited by: northbreed

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I think GISH took a big BOW for BROKEN BLOSSOMS, generally as regarded one of the great films of the era.

 

Gish became so well known for the "bit of business" of forcing herself to smile by propping up the corners of her mouth with her fingers, that a decade later (more or less) when Marion Davies did her dead-on impression of Gish (in THE PATSY) she also did the finger-smile thing.

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northbreed,

 

OK, if you want to talk about who were the Most Beautiful Silent Film Actresses, they are very difficult to narrow down. My very tentative Top 10 list would probably consist of these ladies:

 

Gagman's patented Hubba-Hubba Ratings Scale:

 

1. Corinne Griffith

2. Dorothy Janis

3. Jacqueline Logan

4. Olive Thomas

5. Delores Costello

6. Marceline Day

7. Mary Philbin

8. Esther Ralston

9. Camille Horn

10. Vilma Banky

 

While they did not make this list, I still love Janet Gaynor, Colleen Moore, Laura La Plante, Lillian Gish, and Jobyna Ralston very much. All of them were exceedingly darling little things! So were Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and numerous others. Renee Adoree was perhaps not quite as dainty, but She is still one of my very favorites. Ditto for Eleanor Boardman, Phyllis Haver, and so on!

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Jeffrey OH PLEASE..... where is Gloria Swanson on your list? Marion Davies? Barbara LaMarr? Anita Page?

 

LOL

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Ed,

 

Well, I tinkered with this list several times before submitting anything. I figured that the final result may raise a few eyebrows? I actually had Marion Davies listed in the top 7 or so at one point. Unfortunately, I had to drop Laura La Plante, and Jobyna Ralston from the Top 10 as well.

 

Here is a short list of the other Actresses that I was considering. Among those not previously noted, Honorable Mention went to the following:

 

Jetta Goudal, Marion Nixon, Virginia Lee Corbin, Anita Page, Mary Nolan, Vera Reynolds, Bebe Daniels, Dorothy Gish, Getrude Olmsted, Madge Bellamy, Louise Brooks, Olive Bordon, June Collyer, Olga Baclanova, Alice White, Jeanne Eagels, Kathryn McGuire, Ruth Roland, Evelyn Brent, Swanson, and on, and on, and on!

 

Again as I said from the start, Not an easy task.

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