Silent Stars as Archetypes: A 1922 Explanation of the Appeal of Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Mary Miles Minter and More

Last week, we looked at a 1922 attempt by Motion Picture Magazine to explain the appeal of six male stars. Now we are doing the same in in the ladies division.

Frederick van Vrancken puts forth his theory that six stars represent “the strong instinct of humanity.”

The truth is that every one of the big motion-picture stars represents some fundamental instinct in mankind. A star is not only an individual, but also a symbol of some profoud psychological impulse and universal emotion. Each one stands for an ideal.

That is what makes them great. That is why they appeal to us so strongly, when other actors, just as good-looking and just as capable, fail to hold us.

Okay, let’s go! Feed us some more of that yummy circa 1922 pop psychology!


In every man there is the hire of purely romantic love for some ideal woman ; and this unreal, seductive Golden Girl is bodied forth for him in the personality of Gloria Swanson. She is more than an alluring individual — she symbolizes the eternal quest of love, with all its dangers and adventures and rewards. She epitomizes the warm romance of youth. Man sees in her not merely a beautiful sensuous girl, but the beautiful sensuous girl of whom he has always vaguely dreamed. She is the far-away Princess of the fairy tale, and he is the brave knight who goes bravely forth to battle, with her silken, scented glove beneath his armor. She stands for feminine charm and witchery thruout (sic) the ages. She is Everyman’s phantom sweetheart; and she represents the mystical allure of women everywhere. In short, she is the symbol of sex.

Note: “Sweetheart” seems a bit mild for someone called the “symbol of sex” don’t you think?


There is a type of girl that, for want of a better term, we call the “clinging vine.” Thruout all life and literature she is constantly appearing — sometimes as a waif, sometimes as a step-child, sometimes as an orphan. But whatever her role, she always takes a strong hold upon the sympathetic human heart. This type of frail appealing woman is perfectly represented by Lillian Gish, whose dominating characteristic is a sweet and yielding feminine weakness. She does attract by her beauty or physical charms ; and she is without the sensuous sex appeal of many other stars. Rut in every man she arouses an emotion of pity, and calls forth his protective instinct. Her fragile, wistful nature appeals directly to his primitive manhood. Indeed, she appeals to everyone because she is the symbol of the eternal “clinging vine.”

Note: Tongue well and truly bitten.


There is a certain type of woman that is called the marrying type, because she embodies those qualities which men look for in the future mother of their children. And this type of the wifely woman is epitomized in Alice Terry. There is none of the “vampire” in her make-up. Tho pretty, she is not over-sensuous ; and beneath her external attractiveness, there is the leven of common sense. Men feel that she is trustworthy — that she would love but once, and that her home and children would be her entire world. She recalls their own mothers when young, for she herself has much of the maternal about her. And every man, when he dreams of his future wife, pictures a girl more or less like her — sweet, tender, substantial, loyal, and practical. And herein lies her strong appeal. She is the symbol of the eternal wife and mother.

Note: In all fairness, Mare Nostrum was a few years from release but I wonder if statements like this inspired Terry to go the Mata Hari route on film.


Aristocracy and patricianism have a universal appeal. The “grand lady” is always admired, for the things she stands for — poise, courtesy, breeding, good taste — are rightfully admirable. Democracy does not mean that these things should be done away with, but that they should belong to everyone — not merely to a limited class. Elsie Ferguson represents the woman of true culture and refinement, and epitomizes those finer qualities which go with social breeding. She possesses dignity and reserve. She dresses in excellent taste. She carries herself well ; and her manners and social graces are both natural and charming. Above all, she represents the intellectual type of woman. She has a great personal drawing power; but her strongest appeal is due to the fact that she is the symbol of the “grand lady” who inspires emulation and respect.

Note: This is the only archetype in the women’s section that talks about brains. Mm-hmm.


Every man has a distinct kind of love which he confers on his young sister ; and it is an entirely different emotion from that which is called forth by his sweetheart, his wife, his daughter, or his mother. This particular kind of emotion — this sweet, tender, protective, brotherly love — is invariably aroused by Mary Miles Minter. Her attraction is but slightly sexual, and altho she is pretty and alluring, the appeal she makes does not depend on her physical charms so much as on her simple, feminine, girlish temperament. Every man in the audience is her potential “big brother,” eager to look out for her and help fight her battles. This fraternal instinct of love and protection is in all men ; and Mary Miles Minter symbolizes the sweet, domestic girl who has ever been man’s ideal of the younger sister and boyhood friend.

Note: But not for long, alas… Minter was caught up in the William Desmond Taylor murder scandal.


Constance Talmadge represents the type of girl which every normal man would like to have for a friend and comrade. She is jolly and good-natured, vivacious and talented. At any gay gathering she is always the most popular girl present. Love-making is by no means all there is in the relations of the sexes. There is companionship, admiration, sympathy and understanding. And it is this friendly attitude — this intimate good-fellowship — that Constance Talmadge immediately calls into being. She is man’s ideal “pal”; she knows how to amuse him, how to lift him out of himself, and banish his troubles. He feels better and happier for being with her. She is, of course, admired tremendously for herself ; but her hold goes much deeper, for she is the symbol of that rare and desirable person — a feminine friend and goodfellow.

Note: Friendship? With a woman? How utterly mad.

Dale Fuller in The Canadian

So, what do you think? Actual science or just fan magazine bunk? Leave a comment and let me know.

All clippings courtesy of the Media History Digital Library.


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  1. Larr Dickerson

    Well I suppose they couldn’t really break down the stars into categories of the kind that men wanted to sleep with, fall in love, etc.

    But regardless of how you classify them for the life of me I can’t understand the appeal of Gloria Swanson. But obviously she had something to snare Joe Kennedy.

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I think it’s definitely telling that the categories are considerably more strained than when the author did the same with the men. I like Gloria myself but to each their own.

  2. Shari Polikoff

    I don’t know much (anything!) about Elsie Ferguson, but the comments about social breeding, quiet reserve, etc got me thinking that there aren’t any actresses today who fit that ‘type.’ From what I’ve observed of the few modern movies I’ve looked at or read about (vintage films are my thing), the closest current examples might be Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep as she ages, but the society matron as a character is virtually non-existent. There really haven’t been any since TV’s Margaret Drysdale and Mrs. Chatsworth Osbourne!

  3. Marie Roget

    Oh, my goodness. Your italicized comments are certainly spot on.

    This, from van Vrancken’s piece on Constance Talmadge: “She is man’s ideal ‘pal’; she knows how to amuse him, how to lift him out of himself, and banish his troubles.” Ah yes, the sunny gal pal archetype, so amusing, so selfless, who wants nothing more from a relationship than to please a fella, sort of like a cute, eager puppy. This fits Dutch Talmadge on screen? Not in my book.

    And Gloria Swanson as ” phantom sweetheart” (but in a really sexy way…of course?). Watch out, van Vrancken, here comes La Swanson as Zaza flattening your archetype good and proper in 1923!

  4. Birgit

    I wonder if Constance liked to be thought of as a friend…most women don’t care for always being called the friend. Poor Elsie…her name not being considered intelligent because that’s cool, that name is just..blecchhh. Sorry. Lillian a clinging vine….hahahaaaaa. We still like to place people in certain types…the virgin, the fr8end, the sexpot yadda yadda. Quite interesting

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