An itinerant actor and fledgling playwright, Griffith joined Biograph in early 1908, first as a writer and then as an actor. Later that same year, he directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie. Over the next 18 months (from June 1908 to December 1909), Griffith personally directed all of the Biograph pictures, an incredible 200 shorts, averaging one 10-minute film every two-and-a-half days. Thereafter, as Biograph’s general director until the end of 1913, he supervised the company’s entire output and directed all or most of its major productions. In total, he personally directed some 460 films for Biograph before moving on to features and Birth of a Nation in 1915, a film that ranks in first place in silent film earnings having made a remarkable 10-million dollars. During his time with the company, Griffith developed a stock company of players that at one time or another included all the major female stars of the silent screen—Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, and his Canadian contingent: Florence Lawrence, Mary Pickford (pictured on a Biograph postcard) and Florence LaBadie.
It was not only Canadian beauties who achieved cinematic immortality at Biograph, however. A number of Canadian-born actors also made films with the great director. One of the earliest male stars of the American silent screen, Wilfred Lucas, appeared in his first Griffith film, The Marked Time-Table, in June of 1910. Virile and dignified, he played a variety of leading roles including the title character in Griffith’s first two-reel film, Enoch Arden (parts one and two, 1911). In total, he appeared in 45 Griffith films between 1910–12. During that time he also developed as a writer and director.
Dell Henderson (b. George Delbert Henderson in St. Thomas, Ont., 1883; d. 1956), a stage actor for several years, joined Biograph in 1910 as a leading man, making his first appearance in Griffith’s The Last Deal. He appeared in 69 Griffith films before moving behind the camera and directing many Biograph films. He left the company at the end of 1913. There was Jack Pickford, Hollywood’s first bad boy (he died at 36 of multiple neuritis, had syphilis and had used alcohol and cocaine to excess) who followed his more famous sister’s footsteps, first on stage and then into film, starting with Biograph in 1909. And there was also Charles Arling who was born Charles Parr and acted both for Griffith at Biograph and Thomas Ince at the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP), and Charles Hill Mailes who began with Biograph in 1909 and appeared in over 290 films until his retirement in 1935, including Griffith’s first feature, Judith of Bethulia (1913).
Next to Pickford, the most famous Canadian to work at Biograph was the great and gregarious Mack Sennett, the actor/director/producer/writer who would become known as “The King of Comedy.” Sennett, the son of Irish immigrants, was an itinerant vaudeville actor when he presented himself to the Biograph Company in 1908. Between July of that year until the end of 1910, Sennett appeared in virtually all of Griffith’s films. Displaying a natural talent for comedy, he directed his first short, Comrades, in 1911, and proceeded to churn out comic shorts at a rate comparable to the master himself. In early 1912, he left Biograph to set up his own studio in Hollywood with the financial backing of his New York bookies. He took Lucas with him and one of Biograph’s greatest assets, the very popular Mabel Normand, for whom Sennett had a lifelong affection (although they never married). Dell Henderson would later join them when Biograph suspended production at the end of 1913 (the company was formally dissolved in 1915).
With this solid base of talent, Sennett’s Keystone Studios soon built a reputation as the silent screen’s foremost comedy mill, launching the careers of such comic geniuses as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Ben Turpin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and, of course, Mabel Normand, the best comic actress of her time. His studio mainly produced two–reelers (Chaplin made 35 for him in 1914), but from time to time he also made features, including the first feature-length comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance with costars Charlie Chaplin and Canadian Marie Dressler. He kept up his grueling pace, directing 90 films in 1913 alone, most of which he also wrote and produced. Henderson and Lucas thrived under Sennett, becoming two of his key directors, and soon they were joined by a handful of other talented Canadians.
Marie Dressler, the glorious comic actress, was a popular light-opera singer and star on the vaudeville stage before moving into silent pictures. She made her screen debut in Sennett’s 1914 version of Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Chaplin. With the advent of sound, this homely woman of enormous girth, who was blessed with perfect comic timing, became one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses – MGM boss Louis B. Mayer declared her one of his greatest stars – delivering several commanding performances in the early 1930s. She is pictured in a still from Anna Christie (1930) which starred Greta Garbo. She costarred with Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (1933) and won an Oscar® in 1930 for her tragicomic performance in Min and Bill opposite Wallace Berry. It was Dressler who, in her autobiography The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling, coined the phrase, “You’re only as good as your last film.”
Kanuck Kops and Bathing Beauties
Del Lord (b. Grimsby, Ont., 1894; d. 1970) ran away to join the circus at an early age and landed in Los Angeles in 1912. He joined Keystone and was one of the original Kops. He gained a reputation for perfect comic timing and the most accurate actor with the custard-pie-in-the-face routine. He graduated to producing and directing at Keystone and later directed many of the Three Stooges shorts for Columbia Pictures. Wallace MacDonald (b. Sydney, N.S., 1891; d. 1978) was a mainstay in Hollywood for almost 45 years first as an actor, then as a director of hundreds of B-movies. He began his career in 1914 as one of the Kops and made seven shorts with Chaplin.
Harry Edwards (b. London, Ont., 1888; d. 1952) entered films in 1912 as a prop boy and gradually worked his way up the ladder at Keystone. He developed into one of the best comedy directors of the silent period, working with Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Carole Lombard and many others. Marie Prevost (pictured in 1922) was educated in a convent school in Montreal and later at a Los Angeles high school. By the time she was 18 years old she had become one of Keystone’s bathing beauties. She stayed with Sennett until 1921 when she went to Universal, where she was promoted to leading lady status and starred in three films by Ernst Lubitsch: The Marriage Circle and Three Women in 1924 and Kiss Me Again in 1925. Depressive and concerned about her weight, Prevost went on a crash diet, which unfortunately led to extreme malnutrition and an early death at 38.
Other Canadians in Early Hollywood
Like his better-known countryman Mack Sennett, Albert Christie (b. London, Ont., 1886; d. 1951) was in Hollywood almost from the beginning, first as a writer then as the producer and director of comic shorts. By 1915 he had set-up his own production company, a virtual laugh factory that turned out a great many inexpensive, simple-minded but popular two-reel comedies and a few full-length features. His brother Charles (1882–1955) ran the business but was not involved with the actual production. He is credited with building Hollywood’s first luxury hotel. Albert ended his career in the 1930s producing for Columbia and other studios.
Allan Dwan left Toronto with his family at 11 years old to settle in Illinois. He studied electrical engineering at Notre Dame University and landed a job in New York City as a story editor with Essanay Films in 1909. He was sent out to Hollywood where, between 1911 and 1913, he turned out more than 250 one-reelers for the American Film Company, mostly Westerns. His engineering background was useful in solving early technical problems and he is credited with inventing the dolly shot (using a car) in 1915. In 1917, he set up one of the most famous shots in all of silent film, the camera swooping down and taking in all of the huge Babylonian set in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. It was Dwan’s suggestion to put an industrial crane on railway tracks, so the camera could move forward and backward and up and down at the same time. Dwan’s career peaked in the 1920s with a series of highly successful Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson vehicles. He continued directing well into the 1950s, and shot his last film at the age of 76.
Raised in Boston, Joseph De Grasse (b. Bathurst, N.B., 1873; d. 1940) began an acting career through a chance meeting with Canadian producer Ernest Shipman, who was staging a play in Boston. He entered films in 1910 as an actor in early silents then switched to directing, turning out melodramas and action pictures until the mid-1920s. His younger brother, Sam De Grasse, turned to an acting career after training to be a dentist. While on the set of The Half-Breed (1916) with Douglas Fairbanks, Fairbanks had a toothache and De Grasse performed some impromptu surgery, earning him a lifetime personal contract with the silent film star. Sam De Grasse played the villain in many of Fairbanks films, and his performance as Prince John in Robin Hood (1922) earned him this praise from The New York Times critic: ‘Sam De Grasse steals the show. He is surely the meanest, slimiest, most evil villain in the motion picture industry.’ The image is of the Pickford-Fairbanks studio just after Robin Hood was finished.
Henry MacRae (b. Toronto, 1873; d. 1944) directed his first short in 1912, and had a prolific career, directing over 130 films. He began producing in 1926 and continued to work in Hollywood into the 1940s. Ernest Shipman hired him to direct four of his Canadian movies: God’s Crucible (1921), Cameron of the Royal Mounted (1921), The Man from Glengarry (1922) and Glengarry School Days (1923). An energetic, prolific director of shorts in the silent era, Sidney Olcott (pictured) was first an actor, then manager of the Biograph Studios. He co-directed the original film version of Ben Hur in 1907 and the first version of Way Down East in 1908. He was the first director to shoot regularly on location and is still recognized as a pioneering director of Westerns. In 1915, he joined Aldof Zukor’s Famous Players and directed several Mary PIckford films.
Edward Earle (b. Toronto, 1882; d. 1972) was a handsome leading man of numerous silents who entered films with the Edison Company in 1915 after extensive stage and vaudeville experience. He starred in many films opposite Mary Pickford and played hundreds of supporting roles and bit parts in the talkies right up to The Ten Commandments in 1956, his last film. Ned Sparks, a comic character actor with a dour countenance and raspy voice, was featured in numerous Hollywood silents and talkies after a long career on the vaudeville stage. He played the caterpillar in the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland.
Other Canadian silent film pioneers include William Bertram (b. Walkerton, Ont., 1880; d. 1933), actor and director who made his first film for IMP in 1912; Maude Eborne, a character actress who appeared in over 100 films between 1918–51; Julia Arthur (pictured) an accomplished Broadway and West End actress who appeared in the early films produced by Vitagraph, her first in 1909; and last, but not least, Nell Shipman, actress, writer and producer, who co-wrote and starred in Canada’s most successful feature in the silent period, Back to God’s Country in 1919, produced by her then husband, Ernest Shipman.
Many think that with the coming of sound in the late 1920s, the silent era was over. In fact silent films continued to be made for almost another decade. One of the last was Modern Times, the Charlie Chaplin classic released in 1936 by United Artists, a company he had helped form with Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford.
Also see: Canucks in the Golden Era of Hollywood
Also see: Canucks in Post-War and the Second Golden Era of Hollywood
Wyndham Wise is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Take One: Film in Canada. He is a contributing editor with Northernstars.ca and consultant with The Canadian Encyclopedia online. Visit wyndhamsfilmguide.ca.