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The First
Female Stars

Women of the Silent Era

By David W. Menefee

 

BOOK REVIEW

The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era
By David W. Menefee

Praeger Publishers : Westport, Connecticut : 2004
ISBN 0-2759-8259-9 : 238 pages : hardcover : $44.95

Reviewed by Eric L. Flom
Historically speaking, the women of early film have not aged well. In terms of lasting popularity, the big names from the silent era are almost exclusively male: Fairbanks, Valentino, Chaplin, Keaton, Mix, Barrymore — the list is a lengthy one. Silent cinema brought us many talented women, but setting aside the Pickfords, Swansons, and Gishes of the world, few today have retained their ‘star power.’

In The First Female Stars, part of author David W. Menefee’s contention is that these actresses have been ill-served by Hollywood. Not only was the industry run by men, who often favored their male stars with larger, meatier roles, but it was also very selective in preserving its own history — and what’s painfully obvious today is that the ‘popularity’ of any silent star has much to do with the accessibility of his or her films. Virtually anyone can lay their hands on the Chaplin catalogue, for instance, but the same cannot be said for pictures starring Constance Talmadge or Dorothy Gish, whose work (if prints exist at all) is scattered amongst various archives or private collections. How would their reputations be enhanced if we were allowed (or able) to view the whole of their filmography?

The First Female Stars is out to rectify this slight. With essays on 15 actresses from early Hollywood, David Menefee wants to give these women their just due and reintroduce them to a generation unfamiliar with their screen work. It’s a commendable goal, but it is unfortunate that the topic warrants such a slim volume as this — a book that fails to delve very deeply into what made these talented women popular with moviegoers.

The disappointment with The First Female Stars starts with Menefee’s selection of profiles. You won’t find chapters devoted to any of the silent era’s major figures, ostensibly because personalities like Pickford, Swanson, Bow, and Brooks have been covered elsewhere. But in their place are some very odd choices — Sarah Bernhardt and Laurette Taylor, for example. Few would consider Bernhardt a significant figure in motion pictures; while Queen Elizabeth (1912) holds an important place in early film history, that has less to do with the actress than it does to Adolph Zukor’s import of the French film for his fledgling Famous Players Company. And Laurette Taylor? Her entire ‘career’ in pictures was a mere three films, with 1922’s Peg o’ My Heart (based on the stage play that established her theatrical reputation) being the only major release. Significant box office draws like Pola Negri, Marion Davies, Delores Costello, and Bebe Daniels are overlooked, replaced with profiles of minor actresses such as Carol Dempster and Pauline Frederick. (It could have been worse: The dust jacket, which seems to have been designed before the manuscript was finished, promises insights into the ‘lasting and significant’ film contributions by, among others, Hope Brown, Ina Claire, and Dorothy Phillips.)

Menefee’s approach is also problematic. Each essay typically revolves around a single film, deemed by the author to be characteristic of his subject’s output. But the pictures he selects are typically lost films, forcing Menefee to rely on period newspaper and trade journal articles for his source material, some of which do not necessarily focus on the actress in question. The results are frustrating — in the chapter on Beverly Bayne, one arguably learns more about Francis X. Bushman and the production details of Romeo and Juliet (1916) than about Bayne herself.

Other aspects of the book make it a disappointing read. The author makes little effort to document the early careers of these talents (Theda Bara goes from birth to A Fool There Was in two paragraphs), or to describe the qualities that made them stand out from their screen peers. Menefee often quotes from period articles, and on occasion an entire page or more is devoted to reproducing work that originally appeared elsewhere. Fewer, more carefully selected quotations, coupled with a more thorough approach in documenting the professional lives of these women, would have made The First Female Stars a more valuable piece of research. The manuscript also seems to have been put together rather haphazardly, and could have benefited from additional editing.

Reading The First Female Stars, if anything, has reinforced my admiration for Jeanine Basinger’s 1999 book Silent Stars. While Basinger’s effort covered stars of both sexes and profiled only the era’s major figures, her thorough research and candid observations shed new light on these (sometimes) familiar personalities. The same cannot be said of Menefee’s book, which can offer only glimpses of his subjects.

 
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