Silent Movie Bookshelf: Ladies in Distress by Kalton C. Lahue

While there will always be a demand for biographies of the brightest stars of the silent era (e.g. Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish) their less-remembered contemporaries do not get much respect on the printed page.

Enter the biographical collection. These books cover multiple stars, ranging from famous to obscure. At their best, these collections enrich the reader’s knowledge, resurrect the memory of forgotten performers and create a overall picture of the silent screen. At their worst… well, let’s not talk about that.

Availability: This book is out-of-print but it is easy to find a used copy for just pennies.

What is it?: Ladies in Distress contains biographical sketches of 40 silent era actresses. They range from well-known (Louise Brooks, Mary Pickford) to relegated-to-footnotes (Allene Ray, Elaine Hammerstein). The biographies are in alphabetical order and most are between 7-12 pages long.

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Pictures: The book is lavishly illustrated with period stills of the actresses. For some of the more obscure performers, this may be the best resource for images.

Writing style: Affectionate toward his subject at a time when silent film scholarship was just starting to revive. Unfortunately, Lahue did not interview any of his subjects (many of whom were still alive when this book was published in 1971) nor does he provide sources for his information. This is particularly annoying when he mentions seeing the 1925 serial The Green Archer (survival status: unknown). I want to shake him! Where did you see it, man, where?

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Clearly, Lahue was an aficionado of the silent serial and his selection of actresses is colored by this preference. This is not a complaint, just an observation.

What else?: Lahue’s preference for serials also affects his writing style. For example, the title of this books, while appropriate for serials and melodramas, is just a little patronizing. Theda Bara, top vamp, is a lady in distress? Really? Mary Pickford, who personified pluck, is a lady in distress? Blanche Sweet, who engaged in on-screen decapitation? If this is distressed, I would hate to see what these women are like in charge.

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The bookflap blurb:

“…the heroine was relegated to merely standing by and looking pretty, while the hero saved the day. However, with the dawning of the Jazz Age, the little bit of fluff came back into her own…”

Um, thanks?

So, is this book worth it? Well, I do appreciate the coverage of some very obscure stars and the pictures are to die for. I just would not rely on it as a sole source for research.


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