Silent Star Mini Biography: Elliott Dexter

Elliott Dexter (1879-1941)

Country of Birth: USA

Birth Name:
Adelbert Elliott Dexter

The basics: Elliott Dexter was the epitome of the long tall Texan. He was born in Galveston in 1879 to a German mother and an American father. From an early age, he dreamed of being an actor and made his debut in a supporting role in The Great Diamond Robbery. (The play opened in 1895 but Dexter likely took part in a later production.)

Dexter made his motion picture debut in 1915 and soon found success as director Cecil B. DeMille’s favored leading man. Dexter was one of the early advocates of underplaying a scene and he showed enormous range and versatility in his DeMille roles. At the height of his popularity, he was making $1000 a week, a tidy sum especially when you consider that he was working for Paramount, a notoriously thrifty outfit.

Dexter had been chosen for the lead of Male and Female, the film that put Gloria Swanson on the map, but he suffered from a nervous breakdown and a stroke in mid 1919. Dexter was off the screen for nearly a year and a half, even when he did return, he did not recover full mobility (DeMille even arranged to have Dexter’s limp be written in as a character trait) and took a European sabbatical. Well-liked and well-respected, his health allowed him to take larger roles in films like Adam’s Rib and the Universal remake of Stella Maris. (Dexter credited faith healing for his recovery.)

Dexter took to breeding German Shepherds after his return from Europe.
Dexter took to breeding German Shepherds after his return from Europe.

Dexter returned to Texas to perform in the play Through the Years (1926). While there, he stated his plans to create his own production company but that never came to pass. It is possible that his health was starting to deteriorate once more.

Dexter talked of a comeback but in 1930 he entered the Percy Williams Home, which cared for ill, disabled or indigent actors. He stayed there until his death in 1943.

You probably saw him in: Don’t Change Your Husband, A Romance of the Redwoods, Adam’s Rib

Silent style: Dexter’s performances are refreshingly modern and he thoroughly deserves rediscovery. What he was most noted for was his impressive versatility. He could be fierce, he could be staid, he could be funny, he could be serious. Unfortunately, his illnesses came at a time when Hollywood was turning away from the staid leading men of the ‘teens and looking for sexier romancers and energetic male flappers. While Dexter was popular and talented, he never regained his footing.

Sound transition: Dexter never made a talking picture. He had a fine, stage-trained voice but his health seems to have taken another turn for the worse in the mid-twenties and his last credited film appearance was in 1925.

What others said:

“One does not know him upon a single meeting; one does not even suspect him. He is careful to avoid arousing curiosity. I discovered, before I had been talking with him ten minutes, that I was talking about myself.”

Willis Goldbeck, Motion Picture Classic columnist

If you gotta know more:

(Use caution as many of these sources list incorrect birth dates and other basic facts.)

LA Times Star Walk Profile

IMDB Profile

TCM Profile

1918 draft card completed by Elliott Dexter*

1921 passport application submitted by Elliott Dexter*

U.S. Census Reports*

Motion Picture Classic 1920**

Motion Picture Magazine 1922**

Photoplay 1919 and 1920**

Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood by Robert Birchard

Swanson on Swanson by Gloria Swanson

Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille by Scott Eyman

American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 by John T. Soister

*Retrieved from ancestry.com

**Retrieved from archive.org

If you can only see him in one thing: A Romance of the Redwoods. I wasn’t crazy about the film but it really showcases Dexter in powerhouse mode. You can then compare his performance in Don’t Change Your Husband. Oops, that’s two things. (You can read my review of Redwoods and Husband.)

***

Notes: I try to limit my mini-biographies to 400 words but Elliott Dexter’s life has been so misreported that I felt the need to explain my research and conclusions.

Dexter’s birthdate has long been erroneously listed as 1870. His headstone lists his birthdate as 1869. However, census records from 1880, his draft registration, his passport application and a sworn affidavit from his aunt all list his birth date as December 21, 1879. I think the 1870 date likely stems from a mistyped or misread document (0 and 9 are beside one another on the keyboard and a sloppily written 9 can often look like a 0) and Dexter was not famous enough to make a correction worth anyone’s while.

Young or just young-looking?
Young or just young-looking?

I first became interested in solving this mystery after noting Dexter’s youthful appearance in A Romance of the Redwoods and Castle for Two. If he really was pushing fifty, he could have made  a fortune bottling whatever made him look so young. The 1879 birth date solves a good number of mysteries.

(Dexter’s passport application also lists his height as an even six feet and his eyes as brown, in case you were wondering.)

Dexter’s illness has not been fully explained. Most fan magazines of the day (notoriously unreliable) list him as having a nervous breakdown coupled with a stroke. A stroke is certainly likely as Dexter had a limp for several years after his illness. However, he seems to have recovered (or have been very carefully shot) by the time Adam’s Rib entered production.

This is pure speculation but it is possible that Dexter had a second nervous breakdown when his half-brother, Walter Carroll, passed away in 1930. In any case, I find it likely that Dexter was almost totally incapacitated for the final decade of his life. Cecil B. DeMille had a soft spot for actors he had worked with in the old days and always contrived to get them (or their spouses) work in his pictures if he could manage it (with the stipulation that they be sober). DeMille found supporting roles for such early film notables as Hobart Bosworth and I am certain he would have done the same for Dexter if the latter had been in any shape to work. He always spoke glowingly of Dexter’s talents.

Dexter's return to work after his illness. DeMille is at center and Thomas Meighan. who replaced Dexter in Male and Female, is to the left.
Dexter’s return to work after his illness. DeMille is at center and Thomas Meighan. who replaced Dexter in Male and Female, is to the left.

Much of the confusion about Dexter’s biography appears to stem from the fact that he was an introverted gentleman who was not inclined to share details of his personal life. His mother had been married three times (widowed once, divorced once) and was a German to boot (there was enormous anti-German sentiment in the ‘teens and twenties). His father was reported to be a violent alcoholic. It is likely that the social climate of the time conditioned Dexter to hold his tongue regarding his background.

Further, the incorrect census data that has caused much of the trouble was taken during Dexter’s final hospitalization. If he had suffered from another nervous breakdown, it is possible that his age and personal facts were merely guessed at by hospital staff (the “about” box was checked regarding his date of birth). The fact that he was a Texan was one of the few correct details about his life that followed him everywhere. According to contemporary interviews, he never lost the accent.

Do you have more information on Mr. Dexter? Please let me know. I am quite fascinated with him.

Silent Star Mini Biography: Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford (1892-1979)

Country of birth: Canada

Birth name: Gladys Marie Smith

The basics: Mary Pickford became an actress at the age of seven when her mother’s lodger gave her a part in his play. Pickford managed to steal the show even in a bit part. She joined the Biograph film company in 1909. Pickford returned to the stage briefly but soon realized that the movies were her true home. Through a combination of talent, popularity and shrewd bargaining, Pickford was soon one of the richest and most influential performers in the film industry. She was one of the co-founders and United Artists and one of the founding members of AMPAS. She and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were the acknowledged king and queen of Hollywood. Pickford was not keen on sound films but she set to work and earned an Oscar for her role in 1929’s Coquette. Pickford retired from the screen in 1933.

You probably saw her in: Sparrows, My Best Girl, Stella Maris, Daddy-Long-Legs, Tess of the Storm Country

Silent style: If one role shaped Mary Pickford’s career, it was Gwendolyn in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Just shy of 25 in real life, Pickford successfully captured the spirit of a child. The audience responded enthusiastically and demanded more child roles. Pickford spent the rest of her silent career balancing her need to satisfy the public with her desire to create art on film. She often found the balance by starting out playing a child and then having her character grow up. Pickford on screen was spunky, fiery and cute; rough edges with a heart of gold. Her flair for physical comedy combined with a talent for pathos creating memorable role after memorable role.

Sound transition: Pickford had nothing to fear from sound movies as far as her voice was concerned. However, she knew that it would be difficult to leave her best-known screen persona behind. As she put it: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me. I’d already been pigeonholed.” However, age and shifting public tastes meant that the little girl had to go. So Pickford left with her.

What others said:

“She was a unique symbol of of the birth and growth of the only art form that found its origins in the western hemisphere– the motion picture.”

Film historian Kevin Brownlow

If you gotta know more:

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (autobiography)

Mary Pickford Foundation (official website)

Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (biography)

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (biography)

Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Cushman (pictorial tribute)

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies by Christel Schmidt (large format anthology)

LA Times Star Walk Profile

TCM Profile

IMDB Profile

If you can only see her in one thing: Tough call but Daddy-Long-Legs shows off Pickford in a child role as well as a romantic role and it is adorable.