About Silent Movies #10: Myths, Rumors and Hogwash, Movie Star Edition

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Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. History is jam-packed with examples of this truism. From George Washington to Phineas Gage, a whole lot of what we know about the past does not stand up to close scrutiny.

The silent era is particularly prone to these wild rumors, it seems. It stands to reason. Lack of mass communication, lost films, fan magazine exaggerations, fading memories, artistic temperaments… It would be amazing if there weren’t a few rumors and outright lies in the mix.

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(Pictured above: My opinion of how some silent film historians look.)

Well, in this four-part series, I am going to be discussing how misinformation can spread from four sources: Silent era veterans, film historians, user-edited websites and blogs, and contemporary fan magazines. Today’s focus will be on the moguls, stars and directors whose memories may not be all that they seem.

I should state before beginning this that I am not a big follower of silent star’s personal lives. I know enough to write my reviews but as to who romanced who… Well, all I can say is that I do not really care so long as they didn’t scare the horses.

I don't care what he and Natalie were up to. At all.
I don’t care what he and Natalie were up to. At all.

So this is me when the conversation gets… personal.

What they are saying: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret love child with Marilyn Monroe because she lied about her age and besides she had a time machine and…

What I hear: Well I think it is obvious that Rudolph Valentino had a secret lovezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

And off I go to my happy place.

All of these rumors lead to the big question: Who can you trust? Well, surely the people who were there can be believed, right? Right? Oh, you poor innocent kid.

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Before you jump to conclusions based on what a silent veteran tells a journalist or historian, stop and consider the evidence. Some questions to ask when an interviewed star, director or member of the crew makes an eyebrow-raising claim:

1. Is there any corroborating evidence? (Scripts, photos, train tickets…) Do other silent era figures have similar accounts?

2. Do they have anything to gain from their story? Are they saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear? Are they claiming credit for something important? Are they polishing their reputations or engaging in myth building? (Refer back to question 1)

3. Are they speaking about another silent era figure? Do they have a past with them? Do they have a reason to paint this person as a louse or a saint? Was there a divorce, a custody battle or a paternity suit? Were there nasty contract negotiations? Are they friends with their target’s ex?

4. Does the story mutate or get better with each passing interview? Does it match what they said earlier in life. (Remember that later interviews may be more accurate since the interviewee may have less to lose and fewer people to worry about offending.)

5. Have they been incorrect about other matters before? Are they known to fib or hold grudges?

It can be somewhat upsetting to realize that a very persuasive and heartfelt interview was all part of an act. It can be especially upsetting if it is a star you admire. However, I think viewing the star in question as a real human being actually makes them more interesting and admirable, not less. Looking at a star with an honest, open attitude is not an attack.

This is an attack:

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One of the most infamous examples of this unreliability can be found with Lina Basquette, Sam Warner’s widow. Most silent movie fans know the story: Her acting career was in the dumps in the 1937 when she got a call from the Third Reich. It seemed that the fuehrer was a fan. So off she went to Germany where she found Hitler to be a bit grabby for her taste. She kicked him in his naughty bits, said her grandfather was Jewish anyway and fled.

Miss Basquette was by all accounts a perfectly charming interview subject.  Feisty and fun to talk to and a natural storyteller. And the Hitler story was too good to pass up. So, it was printed and repeated and presented as the gospel truth. It had everything: A plucky American girl busting Hitler in a very tender spot, what’s not to love?

Lina Basquette
Lina Basquette

The problem is that there is zero corroborating evidence that this actually occurred. No ticket stubs from the journey, no letters to or from Germany, no UFA letterhead, no postcards from Munich, no diaries from the date in question, no friends or family who recall her trip, no passenger lists with her name. The first commercial transatlantic flight was made in 1938 so the alleged trip would been by ship following a long train journey from California to New York. That kind of trip would generate a nice stack of paperwork. None has surfaced. (Ship passenger lists are incredibly valuable. For example, they show us when Rudolph Valentino came to America.)

Further, Basquette’s half-sister, dancer and model Marge Champion, said that the first she heard of the story was in the 1970s, some forty years after the event in question. She further intimated that her sister had a way of playing fast and loose with the facts. Miss Basquette also claimed to have been a secret agent in South America, though she was never quite clear as to which side she was working for.

Kind of takes the wind out of the story, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it is impossible that it occurred, though I find it highly unlikely. What I am saying is that film writers need a small caveat before they repeat the tale. You know something like, “Miss Basquette stated that (insert Hitler narrative here). However, no supporting evidence has surfaced.”

(While some major news outlets recited the Hitler narrative in their obituaries, others chose to politely ignore it. A wise decision.)

John Gilbert
John Gilbert

The same goes for Eleanor Boardman’s recollection of John Gilbert slugging Louis B. Mayer and the latter vowing revenge. Mayer is a very common bogeyman in these sort of tales. (His great-niece, Alicia Mayer, has an excellent blog called Hollywood Essays, which debunks many of the common myths.) While hardly a saint, he was not the devil that many of the stars make him out to be. The problem with Boardman’s account? Mayer had dealt in scrap metal before becoming a movie mogul. The guy was tough. And we are to believe that he was slugged by an employee and took it? (Scott Eyman thoroughly takes apart this rumor in his wonderful biography, Lion of Hollywood.) Boardman similarly stuck her foot in her mouth regarding Cecil B. DeMille and Julia Faye. I pretty much take all her interviews with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Please also be on the lookout for “dog whistle” antisemitism in tales of woe. Very common if you know what to look for. No, I will not be listing stereotypes here. Also, you would do well to memorize the common targets of odd rumors. Rudolph Valentino, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Mabel Normand, the list goes on…

On a final note, be particularly wary of accounts that rely on conspiracies. Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Very true. Most conspiracy theories fall apart because said conspiracy relies too much on numerous people keeping their mouths shut. It may be easier to believe that a star’s career tanked because of a wicked scheme but the truth is usually far more complex.

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12 Comments

  1. Emily

    I’ve come across extremely biazrre silent film star rumors, from Valentino’s nephew secretly being his bastard son to all sorts of nasty claims about Lon Chaney from Chaney Jr. fans.

    I enjoy reading about the lives of the actors and directors I’m really interested in (I can count those people on one hand, though). I care more about their work than their sex lives, family lives, and whatnot.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Yes, the “behind closed doors” rumor mill seems to be churning in overtime, thanks to the internet. I always say that what is on the screen is what matters.

      PS, I always find it humorous when proponents of the “Valentino’s nephew was his son” rumor point to a family resemblance as evidence. Um, yeah, he was his uncle. That’s kind of how things work.

      1. Emily

        What really kills me about these rumor mongers is that if you show your skepticism in the least little bit, they go insane. I think that’s part of why I don’t visit message boards anymore.

      2. Fritzi Kramer

        Silent movie message boards are not for me either. From my experience, too many of them get mean very, very quickly.

  2. Steven R

    You left out one of the reasons for wrong info from old stars: they liked gossip just as much as most of us do. And Hollywood being small in size, stories certainly made the rounds.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I think gossip is pretty clearly covered in the categories mentioned. It is almost certainly the reason behind Eleanor Boardman’s fictions.

  3. Carter Burrell

    What’s your take on the writings of Adela Rogers St Johns and Anita Loos? I’ve heard that they could be rather, um, creative with the truth at times.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I object less to their exaggerations and more to their super mean girl attitude, which often bordered on the racist. (I also find Loos’ scripts to be fairly sexist, even for their time)

  4. Westell Rhodes

    I enjoy your comments about the exaggeration of events in the lives of some silent stars, but what about the flip side of the stories: the studiuos would cover up any mis-deeds by these pampered actors. If some star had a run-in with law the studios were quick to cover it up with a pay-out or calling in favors. In some cases the “star” was hustled across the border to Mexico until problem died down or a few bucks would change hands to keep things quiet. How about covering those aspects of old Hollywood some time in the future? Keep up the good work.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      Thanks for your comment! As crimes, coverups and scandals already get plenty of press (and as I am not terribly interested in them) I generally try cover tamer aspects of the silent era. My purpose with this article is to encourage a healthy critical and skeptical look at the reminisces of silent veterans.

  5. Lea S.

    Articles like this address such a very, very important subject. I am repeatedly dismayed by the fact that, for example, lots of very enthusiastic Buster Keaton fans really do believe a ton of tripe about him. It’s just ridiculous. A lot of it, I believe, it due to not having a good grasp on how to distinguish good sources from bad ones. Hence why they should really be asking themselves the sort of questions you outlined in this article.

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