Who were the top stars of 1915?

Who were the most popular stars a century ago? Once again, Motion Picture Magazine gives us a clue. In 1913 and 1914, they held popularity contests to discover the top stars in the eyes of their readers. In 1915, the magazine did things a little differently. They held the Great Cast Contest. Readers could vote for performers in various categories instead of voting for everyone in a huge lump.

Here is the announcement detailing the contest and the twelve voting categories:

cast-contest-announcement-1cast-contest-announcement-2

And the voting coupon:

cast-contest-ballot

And prizes were offered to the top performers (more on them in a bit).

prize-list

I am intrigued by the $50.00 Mexican rug. No details are given. A mystery. The rest of the prizes are weirdly random. Like the editors just went to a garage sale and saw what they could get.

But who were the victors in this contest? Well, the magazine publishes it two ways. First, the winners for each category. Next, the overall winners by total votes.

winners-list

Notice something about this year’s list? Recognizable names! (It’s also the first year in the series in which a woman tops the contest.) Here are the top 15 winners by votes in 1915:

  1. Mary Maurice
  2. Charles Chaplin
  3. Bobby Connelly
  4. W. Chrystie Miller
  5. Mabel Normand
  6. Antonio Moreno
  7. Mary Pickford
  8. Earle Williams
  9. Beverly Bayne
  10. Anita Stewart
  11. Flora Finch
  12. Bryant Washburn
  13. Jack Richardson
  14. Warren Kerrigan
  15. Helen Dunbar

Now compare the previous two years.

1914

  1. Earle Williams
  2. Clara Kimball Young
  3. Mary Pickford
  4. J. Warren Kerrigan
  5. Mary Fuller
  6. Marguerite Clayton
  7. Arthur Johnson
  8. Alice Joyce
  9. Carlyle Blackwell
  10. Francis X. Bushman
  11. Crane Wilbur
  12. Edith Storey
  13. Florence Lawrence
  14. King Baggot
  15. Anita Stewart

1913

  1. Romaine Fielding
  2. Earle Williams
  3. J. Warren Kerrigan
  4. Alice Joyce
  5. Carlyle Blackwell
  6. Francis X. Bushman
  7. G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
  8. Muriel Ostriche
  9. Arthur Johnson
  10. Mary Fuller
  11. Edith Storey
  12. Crane Wilbur
  13. Maurice Costello
  14. Ormi Hawley
  15. Mary Pickford

As you can see, Charlie Chaplin has jumped from zero to #2 between 1914 and 1915. Mary Pickford slid down a few spots but from what I have seen of her 1914-1915 output, that’s not surprising. She would hit her stride a few years later.

Of the top five, both Chaplin and Mabel Normand are familiar faces but what about Mary Maurice, Bobby Connelly and W. Chrystie Miller? Well, Maurice and Miller were both in the “mature” category of performers while Connelly was a child actor. Sadly, all passed away within a few years of this contest. Maurice died in 1918 and Miller and Connelly both died in 1922. (Young Connelly was only thirteen.)

Mary Maurice
Mary Maurice

Mary Maurice’s performances are hard to come by (though not as rare as 1913 victor Romaine Fielding). Her Vitagraph short A Helpful Sisterhood is available on DVD as part of a Norma Talmadge collection.

W. Chrystie Miller is an oddity. His filmography drops off after 1915. Presumably, his status as a D.W. Griffith regular sealed his selection. Griffith’s Biograph films were phenomenally popular and remained in circulation for long periods.

Little Bobby Connelly was only six when he won the honor of being the top child performer. Modern audiences will likely know him from the 1920 Olive Thomas vehicle, The Flapper.

As for Normand and Chaplin, you can see them anywhere. If you want to see the work that made both of them so very popular on this list, I recommend the box set Chaplin At Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films.

Marie Dressler observes Chaplin and Normand in "Tillie's Punctured Romance"
Marie Dressler observes Chaplin and Normand in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”

For your reading pleasure, here is the complete contestant list. This was assembled from an earlier round of voting so the tallies will be a little different. Note that one player can be voted into multiple categories. Also note that Chaplin was nowhere to be seen in this early round. This illustrates his rapid rise to the top as his films spread across the nation.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Whew! But what about those crazy prizes? Who took what?

echoes-1echoes-2echoes-3

The motion picture star system was beginning to solidify and take on the shape that many silent movie fans will recognize. Still, it is intriguing to know that three of the top five were a mature lady, a mature gentleman and a little boy.

(Thanks to the Media History Digital Library.)

12 Replies to “Who were the top stars of 1915?”

  1. Thanks for the blast from the past, Fritzi! As you note, you can really see how fast Chaplin rose from nothing to the top in 1915. I’m surprised to not see a “Birth of a Nation” effect giving similar, albeit smaller popularity to Wallace Reid or Lilian Gish. It’s also interesting to not see a best director category, or did they cover that in a different poll? I can imagine D.W. Griffith winning a toaster or something for that one.

    1. The motion picture director was still not as clearly understood as it is today. However, I think they should have had a contest. The prizes: One pair of gloves (lightly used), one can opener, a year’s supply of prunes and a painting of beautiful basket of flowers by Miss Patience Fullerton.

      Birth of a Nation did indeed open in 1915 but it took a while for films to spread across the whole of the United States. For example, Chaplin debuted in early 1914 but his popularity did not manifest itself in the poll until late 1915. I think it likely that Gish and co. would have gotten the Griffith bump in 1916 or so.

  2. What a sweet letter from America’s Sweetheart! No surprise to see Mary Pickford’s and Charlie Chaplin’s names in the list. Great fun seeing all the other names. I recognize only about 10% of them . . . makes me wonder which of the big names of today will be remembered in 100 years.

  3. The early movie fan mag polls are a fascinating window into the beginnings of the “star system.” Amazing how fast some rose and fell (and we think WE have short attention spans)! Mary Fuller is the classic example of the “hard fall.”

    I would argue that Mary Pickford, appearing among the top votes received in four different categories, was “most popular.” I also get that sense from reading the exhibitors reports that appeared in The Moving Picture World in 1914-15 where exhibitors were beginning to hold week-long Mary Pickford film “festivals” due to popular demand for both her features and the re-released Biograph and IMP shorts she had made a few years earlier.

    1. Pickford was in multiple categories (and, really, is “Attractive Young Woman” so different from “Leading Woman” but she lagged far behind the other top contenders in total number of votes. Getting third or fourth place multiple times does not make someone the overall winner, otherwise Ralph Nader would be president.

      1. Touche!

        But I take these numbers with a huge block of salt … the fan mags even then were not above manipulation for publicity purposes, so who knows for sure? I wouldn’t rely on the results for an accurate indication of who was the top box-office draw. No one can seriously argue that Mary Maurice pulled in a bigger audience than Chaplin or Pickford in 1915.

      2. Oh certainly not. The inclusion of separate entries for mature actors, for example, meant the inclusion of many unlikely performers. I would say, though, that Charlie Chaplin would be more of an apples to apples comparison. (And, I should note, one that riled and irritated Pickford no end.)

      3. Another thing I just noticed. Mary Maurice isn’t even among the top twelve in the “Old Lady” category in the earlier vote totals, yet wound up far and away the top vote getter in the final tally. I wonder if in the meantime she had a role in a hit film that influenced the totals? As you mentioned, not much of her work survives … but it is curious!

      4. The totals were published on a month-by-month basis and there was HUGE fluctuation depending on the month. But I do agree that a popular film being released in a major market (say, New York or Chicago) would certainly have been enough to create a surge.

  4. I just think of those items bestowed upon the victors, sitting around in dusty attics for years, and only just now being found by grandkids. “Wonder where grandpa got this Mexican rug?”

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