Who were the top movie stars of 1916?

It’s a new year and we all know what that means! This is when we travel 100 years back in time to discover the top stars of American cinema.

I’ve already visited the stars of 1913, 1914 and 1915. Today, we will be reading about the most popular motion picture players of 1916.

When I started this project, I was surprised by how few big stars of 1913 were recognizable even to silent movie geeks. The top star that year was Romaine Fielding, who, contrary to what you might think, is not a variety of lettuce. Fielding is all but forgotten and none of his films seem to be available to the general public.

1914 and 1915 showed a steep uptick familiar faces but I will say that the 1913 list motivated me to step up my pre-feature game in order to familiarize myself with those earlier star players. I have made the acquaintance of some delightful performers as a result.

For example, Max Linder.
For example, Max Linder.

Following this pattern, 1916 features the largest number of still-famous stars. This poll is not scientific. It was conducted by Motion Picture Magazine using write-in ballots and repeat voting was both allowed and encouraged. However, it does give a good general portrait of which stars won over the hearts of moviegoers.

Guess what? Every single performer in the top five has at least one silent film from their prime available on DVD. Some of the actors in slots 6 through 10 are a little more obscure but that’s where the fun begins, right?

a-fool-there-was-rose
No, the fun begins when you take a man and crush his spirit like a ripe strawberry. Mwahahaha!

Overall Top 10 Stars of 1916

Here they are, the top ten vote-getters!

  1. Mary Pickford
  2. Francis X. Bushman
  3. Marguerite Clark
  4. Pearl White
  5. Theda Bara
  6. Anita Stewart
  7. Henry B. Walthall
  8. Edward Earle
  9. Wallace Reid
  10. Harold Lockwood
The Top 5: More ladies at the top– and in a variety of roles
What's the secret to your success, Miss Pickford?
What’s the secret to your success, Miss Pickford?

While the list is evenly split with five actors and five actresses, four out of the top five most popular performers are women with distinct screen personas. Mary Pickford and Marguerite Clark were cast in similar parts, though each had their own take on the sweetheart character. Pearl White was risking life and limb as one of the famous serial queens of the 1910s and Theda Bara’s vamp character continued to be a national sensation.

The lone man in the top five was the King of the Movies himself, Francis X. Bushman. A bona fide sex symbol with all the swagger that usually comes with the title, Bushman was causing a frenzy with his sculpted biceps and Greco-Roman profile. He was also a shameless ham, pushing everyone else– including frequent co-star Beverly Bayne– off the screen.

Recommended Viewing
Mary Pickford is going to the ball!
Mary Pickford is going to the ball!

Mary Pickford: I have not yet reviewed anything from her 1915-1916 career (I will soon) but I did check out her 1914 version of Cinderella, which gives a nice sample of what made her America’s Sweetheart.

under royal patronage 1914 image (8)

Francis X. Bushman: There are very few films from Bushman’s biggest years (approx. 1913-1918) available to the general public but I managed to get my grubby little paws on Under Royal Patronage (1914), a Ruritanian romance that showcases Bushman rather well.

Snow-White-1916-Marguerite-Clark-image-36

Marguerite Clark: She’s mostly known today as a rival to Pickford and, granted, the actresses were going for the same audience. However, Clark has a charm all her own and it is showcased to perfection in the 1916 version of Snow White. (It was the inspiration for the animated version by a certain Mr. Disney.)

pearl-white

Pearl White: I have not yet reviewed anything that the Queen of Serials appeared in but her name is synonymous with action adventure. I hate to get all sniffy but I prefer Helen Holmes. However, a few of White’s serial episodes are available on DVD, so judge for yourselves.

a fool there was 1915 image (42)

Theda Bara: Our poor Vampire has only a few surviving films to her name and only one of her infamous vamp roles. In fact, A Fool There Was (1915) was her very first vamping. It’s purported to not be her best but it’s all we have.

So, of the four women in the top 5, two were spirited heroines, one was an action star and one was the despoiler of poor wittle men. Nice variety! Modern filmmakers could learn something, eh?

Two familiar faces
Look! Up in the Sky! It's a bird! It's a plane!
Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Last year, some readers asked why the cast members of the megahit The Birth of a Nation were not more of a force on the 1915 list. The answer is likely that pop culture moved a bit more slowly in the pre-internet age and the film entered its widest release just as the write-in contest was winding down.

This year, however, the lead actor of the film, Henry B. Walthall, is nestled comfortably in the number 7 slot. Walthall’s follow-ups to Birth, The Raven and Ghosts, are both available on home video. They played up Walthall’s Edgar Allan Poe vibe but didn’t really do much to prop up his status as a leading man. Walthall’s later triumphs would be in supporting and character roles.

Poor Wally never stood a chance against Geraldine.
Poor Wally never stood a chance against Geraldine.

The ninth actor on the list, Wallace Reid had also played a small role in Birth but it was his work later in the year that really put him on the map. He had ignited the screen with opera diva Geraldine Farrar in Cecil B. DeMille’s spicy 1915 take on Carmen (it has just been re-released on DVD!) and charmed Dorothy Gish in the Ruritanian romance Old Heidelberg.

Reid’s placement on the list is particularly significant as he was the boyish new model of movie hero that would eventually supplant the statuesque Bushmans. He was ideally situated for the breezy films of the 1920s and had some solid hits under his belt in the new decade before his drug-related death in 1923.

Three enigmas

anita-stewart

Anita Stewart was Vitagraph personality, accomplished pianist, and proud owner of an electric coupe, which she apparently crashed into the wall of her studio. She had played the victim of a guerrilla social experiment in The Goddess, a rather bizarre-sounding serial that seems to be lost, like so many of her other films. Stewart later headed her own production company under Louis B. Mayer. (If you know of any Stewart films on home media, please share with the rest of the class!)

edward-earle

None of Edward Earle’s films from his prime seem to be available on home media but we can easily watch his later supporting roles. He had significant parts in The Wind (as Lillian Gish’s kissing cousin, wink wink) and Spite Marriage (as famed actor “Lionel Benmore”). It’s not ideal but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.

Lockwood and Allison in "David Harum"
Lockwood and Allison in “David Harum”

Harold Lockwood had formed a popular screen team with May Allison (you can see her as “the Wife’s Sister” in A Fool There Was). Lockwood can be seen in the original 1914 version of Tess of the Storm Country and his 1915 film David Harum is available on DVD. Lockwood is the best represented of this trio but his career is still full of what-ifs due to his early death in 1918, one of the millions of victims of the Spanish Influenza.

Mr. Chaplin is appalled.
Mr. Chaplin didn’t want to be in your old poll anyway.

P.S. Some readers have been asking about the lack of Charlie Chaplin in the top 10. He was undeniably popular in 1916 but these contests tended to skew toward dramatic performers rather than comedians unless comedians were specifically called for.

While Mary Pickford certainly included plenty of comedy in her films, she is rarely classified as a purely comedic performer. Chaplin came in 33rd on this list; he and Mabel Normand were the only comedians who made the cut.

This is likely surprising to silent movie fans as comedy is now ten times as popular as drama. However, remember that the modern view of silent film is pretty unique and would not have been shared by contemporary audiences who often sniffed at “vulgar” comedy. Drama over comedy has continued to be the preference for modern viewers. Just look at the Academy Awards: drama over comedy with a few notable exceptions. Look at the top 10 highest grossing films. All drama with a few Disney films providing the exception.

This cannot be healthy.
This cannot be healthy.

P.P.S. So, why wasn’t Lillian Gish in the top 10? Well, like Chaplin, she did make her way into the top 100. Gish was, of course, the leading lady of The Birth of a Nation after she Eve Harringtoned Blanche Sweet out of the role. (Carol Dempster would return the favor in a few years.) Frankly, Gish’s part in the picture consisted mainly of awkwardly making out with a bird, holding really still as she pretended to be a photograph, and running around shrieking, “Help! Help! Miscegenation!” when a guy in unconvincing blackface proposes marriage. Intolerance? She had a few minutes on the screen rocking a cradle. So much for the epics.

Gish isn’t in the top 10 for the same reason Gloria Swanson is missing: they were both busy paying their dues. Swanson was employed at the slapstick studios playing second banana to trained dogs and guys in walrus mustaches but that was nothing compared to what Lillian was going through. Gish was churning out ridiculous programmers, many of which played into D.W. Griffith’s rather bizarre fetishes. I promise I am not making any of this up.

In Daphne and the Pirate, Gish is abducted by Elliott Dexter, dropped off in a brothel and promptly forgotten about as Dexter has been kidnapped by pirates. Gish is then kidnapped by soldiers to be taken to a colony as an unwilling wife. The film is lost but I should imagine that we would need a flowchart to keep track of who is kidnapping whom. In Sold for Marriage, Gish plays a Russian girl who is, well, sold for marriage. In Captain Macklin, she is threatened with a Fate Worse Than Death in Honduras. In Pathways of Life, Gish is advised by “Daddy Wisdom” to grow virginal white roses and not lusty red roses.

Okay, seriously creepy. In addition to all this, Gish is impregnated and abandoned repeatedly, oh woe is she. (Is it any wonder she never had any kids? Sheesh! That would put me off pregnancy forever.)

If Gish had been producing films on par with, say, The Scarlet Letter, then the top 10 for her, by all means! But with this selection… Yeah, not happening.

14 Replies to “Who were the top movie stars of 1916?”

    1. Lillian was further down in the top 100 under Blanche Sweet, Florence La Badie and Norma Talmadge, if that gives any context. This is one reason why I love these lists: modern fame doesn’t always equal contemporary fame and some really forgotten actors get their moment in the sun one more time.

  1. Mary Pickford’s run on top of the film industry really is amazing. 15+ years being one of the top box office draws, writer, and movie executive. Very few people had that kind of success in any era.

    1. Yes, it’s a real shame. I think part of the issue may be due to people thinking of her as a Pickford rip-off when she definitely had her own style and persona. I would love to see more of her work as well.

    1. Rather few, I’ll wager. I remember Edward Wagenknecht wrote in the 1960s that when he was an avid Nickelodeon-goer back in the early 1910s, he would have bet that the most-remembered silent movie star would have been one of the Florences: Lawrence, Turner or La Badie. And I am sure that 1920s audiences would be shocked that Louise Brooks is far more famous today than Norma Talmadge.

      However, these contests are invaluable to measure to mood of the time. What appealed to people at that moment and why? That’s the intriguing mystery, not whether or not the poll “stood the test of time” or predicted who would be famous later. In any case, American Idol at its prime did not have the overreaching hold on the public imagination that movies enjoyed before the internet, TV and radio.

  2. This was really interesting. I knew Mary Pickford would be on this list and Francis X Bushman but I am surprised that Chaplin wasn’t. I do understand why-you explain it well and the snobbery against comedies still stands today when it comes to Oscars, etc… I did not hear of Edward Earle. What a shame Lockwood died so early. I am surprised that more didn’t. I have to check out 1913 since that is the year my dad was born (he was 51 when I was born)

    1. Yes, it’s always interesting to see the stars who were household names in their day but are completely forgotten now. The influenza epidemic hit the film industry hard. Director John Collins (husband of Viola Dana) died, Nell Shipman and Lillian Gish both nearly died and Vera Kholodnaya, one of the biggest stars of Russian cinema, was said to have died of the disease.

  3. Enjoyed this. You do an excellent job of explaining why some legendary names — well known in our time — weren’t among the top stars of 1916. Lillian Gish, in particular. Having spent a fair amount of time with The Moving Picture World and other periodicals of the 1910s, Gish, like her mentor D. W. Griffith, received a lot of critical praise and much advertising. But for audiences of the day, reflected in the magazine polls, she was pretty far down the list, as you point out.

    It is fascinating to me that Edward Wagenknecht thought one of the “Florences” — Turner, Lawrence or La Badie — would have been best remembered by posterity. I might have reached the same conclusion had I been a moviegoer between 1911 and 1916.

    1. Thank you! Yes, we have the luxury of seeing Gish’s brilliant 1920s work and it’s easy to allow that to color our perception of her relative impact and popularity in 1916. The programmers she was making back then must surely have been popular but they didn’t seem to capture audience hearts the way the other star vehicles did. I particularly regret the loss of Diane of the Follies as Gish’s vamp character would have been an intriguing departure. I also wish more of Florence Turner’s work would show up for us in the home video market. I have been consistently impressed by both La Badie and Lawrence but would love to see more Turner.

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