Speaking of Silents: First Ladies Of the Screen

Speaking of Silents: First Ladies Of the Screen (The Vestal Press, Ltd, 1989) was among the first of the major “interview” books focusing on the silent era. In the past, most of the widely available information published on silent era players was dedicated to the male players as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, Rudolph Valentino, et al. Lillian Gish was well-represented, because she wrote her own autobiography, as was the case with most of the other female actresses who had representation in the literary market, such as Mary Pickford.

William Drew’s Speaking of Silents covers 10 of the major silent era actresses, who were Madge Bellamy, Eleanor Boardman, Leatrice Joy, Laura LaPlante, May McAvoy, Patsy Ruth Miller, Colleen Moore, Esther Ralston, Blanche Sweet and Lois Wilson. Other than Patsy Ruth Miller, Colleen Moore, Esther Ralston and Madge Bellamy, who wrote their own autobiographies, the interviews contained in this book provide the most comprehensive reference material on the market with regard to the actresses covered. Mr. Drew starts out with his own introduction and summation of various aspects of the particular actress. He then takes a back seat and reproduces verbatim what each actress told him – in her own words. You know in these interviews that this information is coming straight from the actresses themselves, and is not subject to what a third party interprets and decides to convey to us.

Included in these interviews are intimate details which you won’t find anywhere else. For example, for many years it was rumoured that silent screen actress May McAvoy (best remembered for her role as Esther in the Ben-Hur {M-G-M, 1925}) left the motion picture industry at the advent of the talkie era because she allegedly spoke with a pronounced lisp. What really happened is that May McAvoy was a victim of sexual harassment on the part of Darryl F. Zanuck – a sad reflection on what many hard working professional actresses had to face. In the section on Blanche Sweet we read about how she was personally able to recover a print of her original version of Anna Christie (Thomas H. Ince Corporation, 1923) from a Russian archive. She also relays the incident during the McCarthy hysteria in which her name was put on the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist, and how she dealt with it.

Speaking of Silents is beautifully put together. Printed on Sterling Litho Satin, a thick, semi-glossy paper make this book perfect for the reproduced photos that grace its pages. These illustrative photographs are of each actress from all periods of their lives. Many of these photos come from the actresses’s personal collections and have never before been in print anywhere else. In addition, the book features full filmographies for all 10 actresses. This elevates the book from great entertainment to a valuable resource.

There may be other books on the market with star interviews, but the interviews which appear in this book are by far the most detailed. William Drew is a renowned expert on the silent era, with a deep commitment to film history and preservation. Speaking of Silents is a fascinating, illuminating and impressive book, and is highly recommended.

Madison Morrison