Since 2013, I’ve made a tradition of looking back at the top American film industry stars of the previous century but this year will be a little different. I don’t have results from a fan magazine contest to help me out so I am going to rely on a smaller contests and a good deal of context.
This will be interesting because it will give us an idea of regional tastes and how they can change rankings. For the sake of ease, I will be referring to all the stars of American cinema as “American stars” but, obviously, big names like Mary Pickford were from further north.
Okay, so why were there no contests?
There may well have been contests but none that I could find in the research material I have access to. That being said, there seem to be several reasons.
First, there were some “new star” contests running that took up column inches. Second, there were some contests running that started in 1919 but did not conclude until 1920, so I am not using them.
Third, well, there were some contests being held but the influenza epidemic changed everything. Popular favorite Harold Lockwood (April 12, 1887 – October 19, 1918) fell victim to the disease, as did some judges working for The Photo-Play Journal.
Lockwood was a heartthrob who regularly was named the handsomest man in pictures. Here’s a little GIF from David Harum in honor of the late star and all the victims of the deadly epidemic.
Winnipeg Picks Its Favorites
While no major film magazine published a contest in 1919, from what I can tell, there were smaller contests held all over the United States and Canada. The one that received the most coverage was a contest held by The Winnipeg Tribune. It also published its top ten vote-getters so let’s allow Canada to lead the way for 1919.
10. Lillian Gish
After years of being way, way, waaaaaay down in the popularity lists, Gish finally breaks the top ten. One’s first instinct might be to credit Broken Blossoms but that film was released after this contest ran. Instead, we should count Hearts of the World as the reason for her bump in popularity. Propaganda pictures were huge and it was one of the biggest, being filmed on location and all.
9. Charlie Chaplin
This may be surprising given the international Chaplin fever and the fact that the comedy legend had been releasing steadily more brilliant pictures but funnymen and women always fared badly in these contests. Unless there was a specific category for comedians, they usually were ranked far lower than their actual fanbase and box office clout would indicate.
8. Marguerite Clark
Considered a rival to Mary Pickford, Clark retired from the movies in 1921 and few of her films survive. She’s quite a charmer, as you can see in Snow White.
7. Dorothy Phillips
Another star to benefit from the propaganda boom, Dorothy Phillips starred in The Heart of Humanity, a ripoff of Hearts of the World that featured some decidedly sleazy touches from Erich von Stroheim. It’s the one where Erich tears off Dorothy’s clothes with his teeth and throws a baby out of a second floor window. (Yikes!) I found Phillips to be, frankly, bizarre in her eccentric performance and that’s saying something next to von Stroheim but it clearly caught on.
6. Douglas Fairbanks
No surprise here as Fairbanks was continuing to crank out delightful action-comedies and westerns that showcased him wonderful abilities as a stunt performer.
5. William S. Hart
Oh yeah, this pleases me. Hart was producing top quality westerns, the kind that are usually credited to John Ford in the 1930s or the Italians in the 1960s. Dark, stylish and, at times, apocalyptic.
4. Pauline Frederick
Frederick’s films from this period are not as easy to find but from what I can tell from contemporary fan magazines and the like, she was seen as an actress’s actress and she certainly has impressed me when I have seen her act.
3. Mary Pickford
Naturally America’s Sweetheart placed well in her native Canada. Pickford had steadily been number one in these contests but third place ain’t bad either.
2. Anita Stewart
Like fellow popularity contest fixture Earle Williams, Anita Stewart is extremely underrepresented on home video. I wish I had more experience with her performances so that I could appreciate what so obviously charmed audiences.
1. Pearl White
Reigning serial queen Pearl White was the queen of hearts for this contest and good for her. Relatively little of her work is available to the general public but at least we have access to The Perils of Pauline, her signature serial.
This list is 70% female and four of the top five stars are women. How do you like them apples?
Future Contests Give Clues
Those contests I mentioned with a 1919 start and a 1920 end date? One of them mentioned several stars in its advertisement and I think this gives clues about the most popular stars in 1919.
“Is it CHARLIE CHAPLIN or ELSIE FERGUSON? Is it RICHARD BARTHELMESS or WILLIAM S. HART?
Concerning this matter there is great difference of opinion. Every fan, in fact, has his own idol. The Wall street broker swears by MARY PICKFORD; his wife thinks TOM MIX is the best actor the cinema has produced; the office boy has a “crush” on THEDA BARA and the stenographer collects photographs of DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS.
What do you think? If you had a vote would you give it to NAZIMOVA or to LILLIAN GISH? Would you vote for a man or a woman or for little BEN ALEXANDER?”
Hmm, so in list form we have:
- Charlie Chaplin
- Elsie Ferguson
- Richard Barthelmess
- William S. Hart
- Mary Pickford
- Tom Mix
- Theda Bara
- Douglas Fairbanks
- Lillian Gish
- Ben Alexander
Sounds pretty solid in this modern fan’s opinion, though Theda Bara was teetering on the brink as the vamp craze was fading fast and her last picture for Fox was released in November of 1919. And, yes, Ben Alexander is the Ben Alexander of Dragnet fame. He was a child actor in major pictures like The Little American.
Of these talents, only Elsie Ferguson does not have a silent film available on home media. To my knowledge, The Witness for the Defense is her only surviving silent and it is preserved in Russia.
Everyone else? Big names with at least one film available for the public to enjoy. Not bad at all.
Other contests received less coverage but are nonetheless interesting.
Wally in Cincinnati
A theater owner in Cincinnati, Ohio held a popularity contest for local moviegoers and Wallace Reid walked away with top honors. Mary Pickford took second place.
Minneapolis is Violet
Violet Mersereau was voted the most popular star in the Minneapolis Journal. I have never seen Violet in a movie but I have made the sandwich she inspired. Mary Miles Minter, Constance Talmadge and Norma Talmadge ranked behind Mersereau.
Los Angeles for Kathleen (Maybe?)
Kathleen Clifford was voted top star at an LA fundraising event for war torn France. It was usual for popularity contests to inflate numbers by counting each ballot as 5 or 10 or more votes, so if the numbers seem a bit high, just whack them back a few decimal places.
Kathleen Clifford 150,000
Mary Miles Minter 58,000
Anita Stewart 43,000
Charles Ray 40,000
William S. Hart 35,000
Clara Kimball Young 30,000
Mary Pickford 25,000
The contest seemed a bit fishy to me given that Clifford, who was a broadway star and had recently made the jump to the screen, didn’t place on any of the other contests going before, after or during 1919. Granted these things were hardly scientific but I have never seen one where the winner had more than double the votes of the runner up. I think that either Clifford was extremely active with the cause and this was a polite way of showing appreciation or her studio stuffed the ballot box.
More international love for American stars
In my rummaging for news about popularity contests, I ran across records for other international competitions in 1919.
Japan ❤ Theda
Unfortunately, the entire list was not published but Theda Bara won the hearts of Japanese filmgoers in a popularity contest, scoring the most votes from enthusiastic fans. As stated above, vamp craze was on the wane in the United States but it was clearly still going strong in at least one international market. (And there was a considerable delay in some films heading overseas. Synchronized wide release was not yet a thing.)
But Tokyo ❤ Naomi
A shame more details were not included but the Theda Bara victory seems to have been national while the city of Tokyo gave their hearts to Naomi Childers. I regret to say that I have not seen Childers in a film but she was quite lovely.
Kerrigan in Malaysia
A “convent for girls” in Malaysia voted J. Warren Kerrigan to be the handsomest man in pictures. Again, only the winner is listed and not the other choices, which is a pity.
Cuba Goes Universal
Three Universal stars won top honors among Cuban film fans. Eddie Polo (whom I have, alas, never seen act in a silent) took the #1 slot with Priscilla Dean and Dorothy Phillips coming in at #2 and #3 respectively.
Pearl + Chile
Pearl White was announced as the longtime darling of Chilean moviegoers. Another feather in Pearl’s cap.
Priscilla in Argentina
Universal also boasted that Priscilla Dean was also a top star in Argentina. Dean specialized in tough gal roles and is probably best remembered today as the leading lady of The Wicked Darling, the first collaboration between Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning.
Puerto Rico and Dorothy
The Right to Happiness (you can watch it for free with Dutch titles courtesy of EYE) and The Heart of Humanity, both starring Dorothy Phillips, were doing big business in Puerto Rico. Regarding the latter picture… it was a huge hit everywhere but good heavens is it a strange one.
(The placement of Puerto Rico on this list was a subject of considerable thought. The island was considered an unincorporated territory by the United States government and therefore should probably be included with U.S. cities but the article I am using as reference lists it with Cuba, Argentina and the continent of South America. In the end, I opted to keep the order of the original article.)
Elmo and Harry in South America
Universal’s top box office draws on the South American continent were named as Elmo Lincoln (star of Tarzan of the Apes) and Harry Carey (star of John Ford’s first feature, Straight Shooting). Obviously, lots of satisfied action-adventure stars in South America!
So there we are, the top American stars of 1919 as selected by popularity contests. Who are your favorites?