Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Actresses

We all have our favorites. Today, I am going to be sharing my five favorite silent movie actresses. These are the actresses whose performances make me laugh, cry and applaud. Enjoy!

I’ll list the actresses and suggest two key films that showcase their talents to perfection. Sound like a plan? Good! Away we go!

Note: I will be limiting the films I list to ones I have already reviewed for this site. There will be some inevitable overlap between this and my Top 10 Silent Films list.

5. Leatrice Joy

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How to describe Leatrice Joy? A tomboy flapper clotheshorse? One thing is certain: she was a darn fine actress. Equally at home in dramas and comedies, Joy is probably most famous as Gloria Swanson’s feather headdress-wearing successor in the DeMille camp.

What she played: Tomboys, sophisticates, red hot hellions and the occasional anarchist.

See her in:

Saturday Night (1922) in which she plays a society princess who marries her chauffeur and then must live with the consequences. Joy’s performance, particularly in the third act, is sweet and intelligent.

Eve’s Leaves (1926), a hilarious gender-bending comedy in which she plays a sailor who shanghais the first man who catches her eye, in this case future Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd.

Tinder schminder, this is how you get a date!
Tinder schminder, this is how you get a date!

4. Ossi Oswalda

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Oh, little Ossi. Sometimes called the Mary Pickford of Germany, this title doesn’t capture the glorious rambunctiousness that made Ossi Ossi.Her collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch were surreal affairs that showcased her huge personality.

Ossi is said to have toned herself down later but, alas, these films have not made their way across the Atlantic.

What she played: Spoiled brats, amateur pugilists, jokesters of every stripe.

See her in:

The Doll (1919) in which she plays an inventor’s daughter. When a life-size doll is accidentally destroyed, she takes its place and the results are hilarious from beginning to end. She uses her status as an “inanimate object” to play jokes, steal food and generally make trouble.

The Oyster Princess (1919) in which she plays a bratty American heiress who demands to marry a European prince now, now, now! She never learns her lesson and gets her prince anyway. So there.

Her way or the highway.
Her way or the highway.

3. Mary Pickford

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America’s Sweetheart may look innocent in still photographs but she was really a bold and empowered heroine with a flair for physical comedy. Her productions always had the best of everything (she was producer and she made sure of it) but Little Mary was always the star of the show.

What she played: Shop girls, orphans, plucky rural misses, underdogs and go-getters.

See her in:

Stella Maris (1918) is a Dickensian tale of woe in which Pickford plays two roles. The woman-centric plot and the brilliant performances from the star make this one of her very best films.

My Best Girl (1927) proved to be Pickford’s last silent film. A traditional romantic comedy, Pickford charms both the audience and her boss’s son. Light, fun and goes down smooth.

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2. Marion Davies

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She’s been described as the bubbles in a glass of champagne. Certainly she was one of the funniest comedians of the silent era. With a wicked gift for mimicry and a wonderfully expressive face, Davies delighted audiences with her wacky antics and zany faces.

What she played: All manner of costume roles, aspiring actresses, put-upon homebodies, plucky teens.

See her in:

Show People (1928) a sly spoof of Hollywood and moviemaking. Davies is in her element as a stiff little southern miss who tries to be a star and loses who she really is along the way. Uproariously funny and a treat for silent movie fans due to its behind-the-scenes content.

The Patsy (1928) isn’t Davies’ best film but it contains her most famous scene. In rapid succession, Davies does ruthless impressions of Mae Murray, Pola Negri and Lillian Gish. Two warnings: you may lose the ability to breathe and you may never be able to take Gish’s performances seriously again.

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1. Pola Negri

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Pola Negri is my favorite silent film actress because she has the three things that I most admire in a performer: intensity, versatility and the ability to laugh at herself. Negri was a powerhouse who could leap between comedies and dramas without skipping a beat. In spite of her obvious talent, she melded into ensemble casts and played off her co-stars. She is always a pleasure to watch.

What she played: Historical and fantasy figures, European nobility, girls who were no better than they ought to be.

See her in:

The Wildcat (1921) is a weird, weird movie that was Dr. Seuss before Dr. Seuss was Dr. Seuss. Negri is a bandit girl who terrorizes the local garrison and steals the heart of one of its officers. She’s fierce, zany and a blast to watch.

Barbed Wire (1927) is a sensitive romance set in a POW camp. I cannot emphasize enough how good Negri is in this film. Her performance is subtle and heartbreaking and her interactions with co-star Clive Brook make for some of the best romance in silent Hollywood.

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Hope you enjoyed my list! Who are your favorite silent film actresses?

14 Replies to “Movies Silently’s Top Five Silent Movie Actresses”

  1. Leatrice Joy and Pola Negri are so underrated and need more love!

    My top five are probably (in no particular order): Lillian Gish, Leatrice Joy, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Pola Negri.

  2. My choices for my top silent actresses are.-

    #1 Mary Pickford – I think she’s fantastic!
    #2 Marion Davies.
    #3 Janet Gaynor (fingers-crossed that you do a review on one of her films soon).
    #4 Bebe Danies.
    # Lillian Gish.

    I love Ossi & Clara Bow too but I can’t fit them all in a top 5!
    I would be interested to see a favourite character list. Roxie Hart played by Phyllis Haver in Chicago would top mine!

    I love Movies Silently!

    1. Thanks so much! Great list! Yes, I have had a lot of requests for Gaynor’s work with Borzage in particular. It will probably show up sooner rather than later.

  3. Being a novice to silent films (but love them, learning more daily), it was interesting to see a German actor –Ossi Oswalda–(who I have never heard of) listed; however, I am familiar with mainstream actors of the teens and 1920s…
    I LOVE the site, and look forward to learning more. Greetings from Memphis, Tennessee.

  4. Let’s see, I gave Marie Dressler a Century Award for “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” in 1914, so I’d have to include her in a “best of” list. Of course, I’d include Mabel Normand, that goes without saying. Probably Pearl White belongs on the list as well. Beyond that…much as I hate to be obvious, I think Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish would take it…Gish for shorts like “Mothering Heart” and “Unseen Enemy” as much as any of her feature work.

    1. Hey, sometimes the obvious choices are just that good. 😉 For pre-feature cinema, I have been very impressed with Florence Lawrence, Gene Gauntier and Claire McDowell.

  5. My favourites:

    5: Edna Purviance (and I don’t mind if she wasn’t an actress before Chaplin)
    4: Clara Bow
    3: Jobyna Ralston
    2: Lilian Gish
    1: Colleen Moore (my favorite after “Ella Cinders” and her scene with Harry Langdon).

    1. Great picks! There is a definite tendency to underrate the female co-stars of big name comedians. Edna was wonderful and I agree that how she came into the movies doesn’t really matter.

  6. Louise Brooks, what can I say, I wore my hair like hers for over 40 years (now I sport a Judy Dench do) I love all of her silent movies and I’m still a wee bit obsessed with her.

    Anna May Wong, what an actress, I cried for her in ‘The Toll of The Sea” and rooted for her in “Piccadilly”.

    To round out my list in no particular order, Garbo, Swanson and Clara Bow.

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