Despite critical and popular success for Oscar darling The Artist, the silent film era remains for many a dim, flickering curiosity. Perhaps those early Hollywood days would be more real if we knew that studio chiefs and countless silent stars were our neighbors.
Wisconsinites produced Intolerance and Birth of a Nation; directed the Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton; mothered Tarzan; starred with Charlie Chaplin; and defined early Westerns - and much more.
The silent cinema began in 1894, with projected snippets of trains arriving, workers leaving factories - anything that moved was novel. Over the next three decades, the language of film was created from scratch and mastered - except for sound. The first practical talking pictures were introduced in 1927. Within two years, silent movies were all but dead.
But not forgotten. It's time to celebrate Wisconsin's contributions to silent film.
Before it moved to Southern California, American film production and distribution was centered in New York, Florida and especially Chicago. That's how Wisconsin's studio founders got their start, by operating Chicago film distributing companies, then known as "exchanges."
Harry and Roy Aitken of Waukesha were farm boy visionaries who attempted the first vertical integration of cinema, owning exchanges, multiple studios and theaters.
Harry produced D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, the original and perhaps all-time blockbuster that grossed $50 million in 1910 dollars. Inspired by success, the brothers created the Triangle Motion Picture Corp. in 1915. It was a creative powerhouse that set up Griffith in his own studio to create Intolerance. Triangle also signed Thomas Ince and created a new studio for his Westerns, and took over Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, home of Charlie Chaplin and custard pies.
Caught short when Intolerance failed, Triangle folded. The distinctive portico entrance of its Culver City lot became the public face of MGM. It stands today as home to Sony Pictures.
The Aitkens never recovered. Harry died in 1956, and Roy returned to Waukesha to eke out a living by reissuing the studio's films to colleges and 8mm home-movie enthusiasts. He died in 1976.
More successful was a competitor of the Aitkens, Carl Laemmle of Oshkosh (1867-1939). "Uncle Carl," as he was derisively known, formed an exchange and in 1912 created Universal Studios to provide product. It's likely that Laemmle's favoritism (and nepotism) is one reason so many Wisconsinites figured prominently in early Hollywood. Ogden Nash once quipped:
Uncle Carl Laemmle
Has a very large faemmle.
In 1910, Harry Aitken helped found the American Flying A Studio in Chicago. It was created to film Westerns...in southern Wisconsin. The idea doesn't sound so far-fetched once you know that earlier Westerns had been filmed in New Jersey. Unfortunately, our winters forced the company to open a unit in Santa Barbara, Calif. Louise Lester (1867-1952) of Milwaukee moved with the studio to make a series of Calamity Jane films.
Flying A passed into Hollywood legend when it literally got lost in the California desert. Canadian-born technician Allan Dwan was sent from Chicago to find it. (He would later move easily into talking pictures, notably as the director of Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949.)
When he discovered the troupe, he found that its director had disappeared on a bender. Dwan telegraphed home and was told to take over. He recalled, "So I got the actors together and said, 'Now either I'm a director or you're out of work.' And they said, 'You're the best damn director we ever saw.'"
Little is known today of Molly Malone, a tremendously versatile actress. She was born either as Violet Malone or, more likely, the more commonplace Edith Greaves, in 1888, somewhere in Wisconsin; the name of her hometown has been lost to time. She entered motion pictures at Universal in 1916. After a few outdoor adventure films, in 1917 she starred with horror legend Lon Chaney Sr. in The Rescue. Incidentally, Chaney's last silent film, Thunder, was filmed in and around Green Bay.
But Malone's talents lay elsewhere than drama. In 1919 she was signed by Fatty Arbuckle's Comique Film Corp. As Arbuckle's leading lady, she appeared in countless films alongside Buster Keaton, who took over the studio in 1920.
Malone left Keaton but remained in demand. Goldwyn Pictures, one of the forerunners of MGM, paired her with Mary Pickford's brother, Jack. She appears not to have made the transition to talkies and never acted on film after 1929. She died in Los Angeles in 1952.
Keaton meanwhile found great success with director Eddie Cline (1891-1961), a native of Kenosha. He started as an actor in 1914 at Keystone and was directing there within two years. He later directed half of Keaton's silent classics, including The Playhouse and Cops. After talking pictures arrived, he became W.C. Fields' favorite director.
William Nigh of Berlin (1881-1955) was another longtime director at Keystone before moving to Warner Bros. and MGM. He must have known Keystone clown Ford Sterling of La Crosse (1882-1939). Before Chaplin, Sterling was the leading comedian in the world, appearing in more than 280 short subjects and features. Born George Ford Stich, he made his first film with Keystone in 1911. Sterling's most famous role was that of chief of the Keystone Cops. Chaplin credited him with graciously helping him choose the wardrobe that would make his Little Tramp character even more famous than Ford.
Wisconsin-born Lew Harvey (1887-1953) was an early contract player at Hal Roach Studios, home to Laurel and Hardy, debuting with comedian Harold Lloyd in 1918. His comedy career faltered in the early 1920s, and in the sound era he moved into gangster dramas at Fox and Warner Bros.
Stars and directors
Wisconsin's first film star was already a star on stage. Harry Houdini grew up in Appleton. Two years before the first American dramatic film, The Great Train Robbery, history's greatest magician made Merveilleux Exploits du Célébre Houdini à Paris for the nascent Pathé studio in France, in 1901.
In 1920 Houdini starred in a 15-part serial, The Master Mystery. After two more films for Paramount, in 1921 he formed the Houdini Picture Corp. in New York. Houdini closed it in 1923 to return to a far more profitable career on stage.
Tarzan's first film mother grew up in Wisconsin, though exactly where is unknown. Kathleen Kirkham, "the woman you love to hate" played Lady Greystoke in Tarzan of the Apes, in 1918. She often played sexy "vamp" characters in the silent era. She left film in 1926 and died in 1961.
The Blystone brothers of Rice Lake were a remarkable trio in silent Hollywood and into the television age. John Blystone started in 1914 as an actor at the Nestor Film Corp., the first studio in Hollywood. He began directing the next year. Keaton tapped him in 1923 to direct Our Hospitality. Over the course of his career he directed more than 100 films. He died in 1938, after directing Laurel and Hardy's Blockheads.
Stanley Blystone acted with Laurel and Hardy in the sound era and appeared as the father of Charlie Chaplin's love interest in 1936, in Modern Times, a very late silent film. He began at Universal in 1924. In the second half of his career he was typecast in Western roles in both film and television. He died in 1956.
In 1925 John Blystone formed his own production company for cowboy star Tom Mix. He hired his brother Jasper as assistant director, a position he would fill at Walt Disney Productions before being relegated to 1940s Charlie Chan mysteries at 20th Century Fox. He died in 1965.
Edward Peil of Racine began his screen career in 1913 at the Majestic Motion Picture Co., another of the Aitken holdings, located in Jacksonville, Fla. He was one of the stars of D.W. Griffth's Broken Blossoms in 1919. In the sound era he often costarred with a young John Wayne. He died in 1958, after a career that included more than 200 films. His son, Edward Jr., debuted in a series of light silent comedies in 1920. Later he appeared in Citizen Kane. He died in 1962.
There are many more Wisconsin cinema pioneers. Lillian Leighton, of Auroraville, appeared in a very early Wizard of Oz film, in 1910. She was in more than 200 movies. Charles Morton (1908-1966) was a beefcake actor who grew up in Madison. Like many others, as he aged he drifted into low-budget Westerns. Milwaukeean Russell Bassett debuted in 1911 with Nestor. In 1912 actor William Scott (1893-1967) started at Selig Polyscope, a Chicago studio that had moved to Los Angeles in 1909. After his vaudeville career, Ben Bard (1893-1974) joined the Fox Film Corp., precursor to 20th Century Fox, in 1927. Later he was straight man to radio's Baron Munchausen.
Land of dreams
Finally, there is a true silent giant, William S. Hart (1864-1946), an early Western star known for his extremely authentic films. He was born in New York but grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, then on America's frontier. His father was an itinerant miller who set up shop in Trimbelle, in Pierce County. As a boy he befriended Native Americans, particularly an aged woman who provided him an epiphany.
"As I look back, it seems as if she was giving me a message that in later years I could tell," Hart recalled. "'I can only think and live in the past,' the Indian woman said."
After a successful Broadway career, as the frontier pushed further West and eventually vanished, Hart would dedicate himself to re-creating that past on film - with six-gun embellishment, of course.
Hart's Los Angeles county ranch is now a museum, a tribute to the old West as he recalled it from his Badger youth, and by extension a remembrance of Wisconsin's role in the silent days of Hollywood.
In the closing of his 1929 biography, Hart summarized his life in the words of a Native American he knew here. He spelled it:
"Mite oihanple canku ksan ksan, ye yin na i hanke."
Or, as Hart translated it, "Trail...long...winding...to land of dreams."
Silent dreams, surely.