Silent Stars Name Their Favorite Roles (and most of them are on home video!)

We have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when we discuss silent films. Most silent stars are no longer with us and we have the privilege of examining their careers from beginning to end. Well, today we have a chance to go back in time to the height of the silent era and see what the stars considered to be their best work at the time.

In 1926, Motion Picture Magazine asked some of the biggest stars in the business to list their favorite roles. The best part? Only one of these films is lost and most are available on home video!

Let’s go down the list and see if the stars’ picks have stood the test of time.

The iconic chewing gum scene.

John Gilbert chose The Big Parade (1926). He felt that the film spoke to people who had lived through the war years and he grew with his part. The vast majority of his modern fans would agree with his choice, I think.

The Big Parade is available on DVD and Bluray.

Novarro vows revenge.

Ramon Novarro chose Scaramouche (1923), stating that it was a hit for a reason. I could not agree more, it contains his finest performance by far and showcases everything he could do well. I think it’s significant that he chose this film over Ben-Hur, which was then in theaters and one of the biggest and most expensive films ever made.

(You can read my review of Scaramouche here.)

Scaramouche has been released on DVD by Warner Archive.

Barrymore and Dolores Costello.

John Barrymore chose The Sea Beast (1926), which is a sexier version of Moby Dick. He enjoyed the seafaring scenes and the old school sailing ship used in the film. Personally, I prefer my reimaginings of the White Whale to involve Ricardo Montalban, eighties hair and a nebula but that’s just me. My picks for Barrymore would have to be his zanier offerings, The Beloved Rogue and Tempest. Which movie do you think is his best silent?

The Sea Beast was released as a meh DVD that is now out of print. Scalpers want an arm, leg and assorted organs.

Norma in “The Devil’s Needle”

Norma Talmadge chose Smilin’ Through (1922). She felt that it best captured her creative vision and was an artistic success. I am personally rather fond of her performance as a junkie in The Devil’s Needle but this film is probably nicer for mixed company. The story was revived twice, for Norma Shearer in 1932 and Jeanette MacDonald in 1941. (You can read details of the film and enjoy stills and clippings here.)

Smilin’ Through has been released on DVD as a bargain edition. I wouldn’t expect much in the way of quality.

Milton Sills chose The Sea Hawk (1924). Yes! Of course he did! In fact, he even stated that his choice was glaringly obvious. Admittedly, Sills pictures are as rare as hen’s teeth but this picture is of particularly high quality. It has juicy conflict, great epic sea stuff and buckles swashed most skillfully. Sills said it was a man’s part in a man’s picture but most of The Sea Hawk megafans I have met have been women. Sorry, Milton.

(You can read my review here.)

The Sea Hawk has been released on DVD by Warner Archive.

Pola Negri chose Carmen (1918), stating that the famous temptress was a pleasure to play with so many layers of complexity. The film was released in the U.S. under the title Gypsy Blood. I liked it but I think she is far better in The Wildcat, Barbed Wire and A Woman of the World.

(Read my review of Negri’s Carmen here.)

Mae Murray chose The Merry Widow (1925), stating that she loved beauty and the film was the most beautiful thing she had ever made. Erich von Stroheim certainly coaxed out the finest performance of Murray’s career in this film.

(You can read my review here.)

The Merry Widow is available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Leatrice Joy chose Manslaughter (1922), a perfectly wackadoodle picture from Cecil B. DeMille. Joy stated that she liked playing a role that allowed her to jump from comedy to drama and she is the best thing about that very weird picture. I personally adored her in Eve’s Leaves, a saucy comedy about a sailor who kidnaps the man of her dreams.

(Read my review of Manslaughter here.)

Manslaughter has been released on DVD by Kino Lorber.

Moore when “So Big” was released.

Colleen Moore chose So Big (1924), crediting it with breaking her flapper typecasting. In hindsight, Moore spoke too soon. Alas, it is the only title on this list that is missing and presumed lost. Based on the 1924 novel of the same title by Edna Ferber, the film was directed by Charles Brabin (Mr. Theda Bara) and was universally praised. Please check those attics, cellars and former Soviet archives!

Rawr.

Rudolph Valentino chose The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I tend to prefer his kitsch (The Sheik for the win!) but I know this choice will be seconded by many of his fans. And that tango! Oh my!

Alas, I know of no super high quality releases of this film on DVD or Bluray. Please let me know if you have heard of a nice one! In the meantime, there are cheapie editions aplenty.

Griffith in “The Garden of Eden”

Corinne Griffith chose Black Oxen (1923), a rather curious flapper picture with science fiction trappings. It also features Clara Bow in an early flapper role. Griffith stated that she enjoyed the oddball combination mystery, tears and romance. I haven’t seen the complete picture but I must say that I found Griffith most charming in The Garden of Eden.

While there are bargain editions of the incomplete Black Oxen on DVD, the restored version has yet to be released to the general public.

Harold Lloyd chose The Freshman (1925), his collegiate football comedy. Lloyd stated that he felt the film captured the youthful spirit well and that he was able to really sink his teeth into the characterization. Definitely one of his most popular, though nothing matches the following of Safety Last.

The Freshman has been released on DVD/Bluray by the Criterion Collection with all the trimmings.

***

What do you think? Of the pictures I have seen, it seems that the stars did quite well for themselves. Quite a few genuine classics are included, along with some films deserving of rediscovery.

28 Replies to “Silent Stars Name Their Favorite Roles (and most of them are on home video!)”

  1. I’d have been a bit surprised if Lloyd had picked “Safety Last.” As iconic as it is today, and as impressive as it looks for him to scale that building, it doesn’t show off his comedic as well as acting talents to the same degree as “The Freshman” or, say, “The Kid Brother.”
    Still, it’s hard to go wrong with a Harold Lloyd comedy.

    1. I wasn’t saying that Lloyd necessarily should have chosen Safety Last, just that when people look for an image of Lloyd, there’s a 99% chance it’s going to be that clock scene.

  2. These are great choices. I also could add Lon Chaney who according to author Michael F. Blake liked “Laugh Clown Laugh” of all of his films. Your thoughts?

      1. West of Zanzibar is a great choice. There are so many good choices and they are so diverse. Tell it to the Marines is another film that highlights Chaney’s acting with minimal makeup. Thanks Fritzi, always great to read your blogs, this one was a particularly enjoyable read.

  3. This is great to learn what they loved. I am not surprised that Pola Negritos liked Carmen because of her personality. I do hope they find the lost film …somewhere. Maybe check every barn in the Ukraine

  4. Such an interesting post- thanks! I wondered if Milton Sills might go with Cornish in Miss Lulu Bett, or even Cary Scott in Flaming Youth (oh, to see a complete print rather than snippets…some day). Even thought he’d perhaps opt for Nifty in The Barker, one of my personal faves. But Sills’ choice is certainly sound: The Sea Hawk really is something special, and he’s special in it. A big screen “event” picture when it opened that also had wit and panache to go with its locales and spectacle, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Sills, and his perfect match, Enid Bennett, in the leads.

    Any hope of a “Silent Stars Name their Least Favorite Roles” coming along at some point? Have read about Gloria Swanson’s and Louise Brooks’ thoughts on the subject, but would love to hear from some of the stars in this post on their flip sides 😉

    1. Thanks! I read somewhere that Valentino was campaigning for the lead in The Sea Hawk. Much though I love Rudy, I think it would have been a mistake. He just doesn’t have that rugged quality that Sills brought.

      I’ll have to look around and see if there is anything on the least favorite front. Speaking of which, Rosita is finally getting a restoration! I would love to see a quality print. Mary hated it but it seemed pretty good to me (allowing for the blurry print)

      1. As a big Pickford fan, Rosita’s restoration is wonderful news- thanks for sharing! Yeah, I have read that Mary was not pleased (to put it mildly) with either Lubitsch or the resulting film. Apparently it didn’t do much at the box office either. I’ve never seen it, but welcome the upcoming opportunity to have a go!

      2. I believed the same thing about Rosita but it actually made $900,000 in all, though it seems that its success was limited to urban centers and not the rural filmgoers who preferred Little Mary.

        https://books.google.com/books?id=QljKdIYzncoC&lpg=PA91&dq=rosita%20(1923)%20900%2C000&pg=PA91#v=onepage&q=rosita%20(1923)%20900,000&f=false

        I am very interested to see how they use Balboa Park! With a clearer picture, I am hoping to drink in many more details.

  5. $900,000 in 1923 moola- not too shabby!

    They shot in Balboa Park? One of our favorite train destinations, home of the fabulous Old Globe…now I’ve GOT to see it!

    1. Yeah, isn’t it fabulous? Love it there! If only they still had those wonderful motorized wicker couches like they used in Fatty & Mabel at the San Diego Expo.

  6. This is so interesting! I did think Valentino’s performance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) was good, but personally I think his work in Cobra (1925) or The Eagle (1925) was his best. He did so well in comedy. I thought Pola’s choice was interesting, I haven’t watched that one in a while, I plan to see it soon!

  7. I keep wondering what they may have in the Cuban film archives. I know they shot a lot of silents there.

  8. Hoping you know about Mar Diaz’s WONDERFUL documentary, “The Spanish Dancer,” (a play on words, not the actual movie), on ANTONIO MORENO! You can watch the lovely trailer on youtube! She is also writing a book on his life! I’m 63 years old, and was once married to Malvina Polo’s son, character actor Carlos Romero. Malvina’s Father was also Eddie Polo, the great serial king in the days of Pearl White, so, I fell in love with Antonio way back when I was quite young as so many I knew in Hollywood had fond remembrances of him, Yet, it seems it’s always, VALENTINO! VALENTINO! Nothing against dear Mr. Valentino, but please, would LOVE to see ANYTHING on the spectacular Antonio Moreno here and at other silent sights! He so deserves the attention AND accolades! Thanks so much for your time! <3

  9. I’m a great fan of Leatrice Joy. Her performance in “Manslaughter” is, as you wrote, the best part of that film (along with Julia Faye as the wife/widow of the policeman), but for me, her talent and beauty shine much more in “Saturday Night” and “The Ten Commandments,” which happens to be my all-time favorite silent film. I also love her in “Made for Love,” in which she plays an archaeologist’s girlfriend and an ancient Egyptian princess! I’ve added “Eve’s Leaves” to my must-see list; it sure sounds like a fun movie! Thank you, Fritzi, for creating and maintaining this wonderful website! You’re awesome!

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