Who were the biggest movie stars a century ago? Today, we’re going on a whirlwind tour of a movie magazine popularity contest. We’ll be discussing the biggest stars of 1918 with research, films and GIFs. Ready?
Motion picture magazines liked to run these popularity contests, which involved write-in coupons and allowed multiple votes. As such, they can hardly be considered a scientific study of film popularity. This project is just a fun thing for us to enjoy and to get a basic snapshot of who had name recognition a century ago. In this case, we’re using the Motion Picture Hall of Fame contest held by Motion Picture Magazine.
The contest closed in December of 1918, which gave a nice window of opportunity for readers to see the year’s offerings before voting. (Nationwide film openings were still decades away, generally speaking city audiences saw new releases months and even years before their rural counterparts.)
One thing that struck me about this list is how stable stardom had become compared to earlier years. There are some shifts in position, mostly among the men. Henry B. Walthall and Edward Earle are out of the top ten, as is J. Warren Kerrigan (for the first time in one of these popularity contests, I believe). The ladies, though, have pretty much remained the same. The public knew what it liked.
10th Place: Francis X. Bushman
He was #2 in 1917 but 1918 was quite an eventful year for Mr. Bushman. His divorce made waves in the film industry and while he made several successful comebacks, he was never again the King of the Movies the way he had been in the early and mid-1910s.
You can see him in his prime in Under Royal Patronage.
9th Place: Theda Bara
Bara was still riding high on the vamp fad and had released her most famous film, Cleopatra, in the final months of 1917. We can’t judge her performances because all but one of her vampire pictures have been lost. Her 1918 pictures included Salome, Under the Yoke and The She-Devil.
Bara’s lone surviving vamp film is A Fool There Was.
8th Place: Anita Stewart
Anita Stewart only released one film in 1918 (Virtuous Wives) but her popularity remained intact for the voters in this contest. Stewart would make up for lost time by releasing nine pictures in 1919, including The Mind-the-Paint Girl, which strikes me as trying a bit too hard but we may never know for sure. Like most of the films from Stewart’s late-1910s career, it is lost.
Stewart’s 1915 film Human Desire is available on DVD.
7th Place: Pearl White
White was still the queen of daredevil serials in 1918 and would continue to be associated with the genre, though she did dip her toes in features before her 1924 retirement.
The Serial Squadron has made the first chapter of White’s only 1918 release, The House of Hate, available on YouTube:
6th Place: Wallace Reid
The affable Mr. Reid was continuing to charm American audiences with his boyish charisma. Nowadays, Reid is mostly known for his tragic death but his films reveal an easy, unaffected actor. His appeal is obvious.
You can see Reid in his prime in Hawthorne of the U.S.A.
5th Place: William S. Hart
Oh yes! Bill Hart is definitely going places, having cracked the top ten for the first time. (He released his first feature in 1914.) Hart’s dark, violent yet romantic vision of the west was catnip for 1910s audiences.
See Hart at his Hartiest in Hell’s Hinges.
4th Place: Harold Lockwood
Poor Harold Lockwood was voted the handsomest man in movies in 1917, the fourth most popular star in 1918 but he did not survive to 1919. He passed away in October of 1918 at the age of thirty-one, a victim of the influenza epidemic.
You can see Lockwood in David Harum, to my knowledge the only one of his features available on home video. (Holler if you hear of another.
3rd Place: Douglas Fairbanks
Another familiar face in the top 10 for the first time. Douglas Fairbanks made breezy action comedies (this was before he became king of the swashbucklers) and audiences ate them up with spoon. Yum!
You can see Doug in his modern prime in Flirting with Fate.
2nd Place: Marguerite Clark
Clark again very nearly steals the top slot from Mary Pickford! Alas, very few of her films are available to modern viewers but I like what I’ve seen. Clark retired from the screen in 1921.
You can see Clark in Snow White, which inspired a certain Mr. Disney.
1st Place: Mary Pickford
Pickford takes the top slot once again! That’s not surprising at all as she released Stella Maris in 1918, which contains two fine performances from the popular star. Pickford would soon parlay her box office draw into a new business venture, United Artists, but that is another story. Suffice to say, she remained the number one favorite for very good reasons.
Do check out Pickford in Stella Maris if you haven’t already.
Charlie Chaplin placed at 17th (this contest did not seem particularly open to comedians), Lillian Gish was out of the top 50 and placed between George Beban and Helen Holmes. Mary Miles Minter, Clara Kimball Young and Pauline Frederick were all in the top 20. Buster Keaton didn’t place at all, George M. Cohan did. I don’t make the rules.
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