Sweethearts of the Silent Cinema

maemarshDuring the formative years of silent films, the major filmmakers and studios had “stock companies”. It was an idea based on theatrical traditions, one that supplied a ready-made cast for almost any production. D.W. Griffith especially liked the idea of a stock company so that he could play the actors against one another. One might be a “star” in this week’s film and be a bit player in the next. Even stars like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish played bit parts in Griffith films as well as starring roles. But audiences quickly identified favorite players and clamored for their names. Biograph Studio broke the unwritten agreement (ensuring the anonymity of actors in films) by releasing the name of early favorite, Florence Lawrence, who is generally recognized as being the first “movie star.”

Despite Griffith’s dislike of stars, several players in his company stood out and became audience favorites. Aside from Pickford (who succeeded Lawrence as “the Biograph Girl” until her name became known), Gish (her sister Dorothy), and Blanche Sweet, there were two players who were often teamed as a naïve, romantic pair: Mae Marsh and Robert Harron.

Mae Marsh
Mae Marsh was born in Madrid, NM, in 1895. Her family migrated to San Francisco (after the death of her father) where an aunt got the children involved in theater. By the time Marsh had attracted the attention of Griffith and joined his Biograph company of players, she had been supporting herself as a sales clerk in a department store. At this point, Pickford was the de facto star of the Griffith players and later remembered (to her shame) disregarding Marsh as an actress because she did not have the same long stage experience that she’d had. But Griffith saw something natural and un-actressy in the waif-like Marsh that even the ethereal Lillian Gish couldn’t match.

Pickford had left Griffith before the great director filmed his first feature-length film, Judith of Bethulia, in 1914. Although 18-year-old Blanche Sweet landed the title role, Marsh got the pivotal part of Naomi. The Gish sisters had smaller roles, and Robert Harron played Nathan, the love interest of Naomi. Between 1914 and 1916, Harron and Marsh appeared in 61 films together. While Marsh and the Gish sisters stayed out of the line of fire, Griffith and Sweet battled throughout the over-budget production because Griffith thought Sweet was stiff and unemotional (but she looked right for the part of sultry Judith).

Next up for Griffith was the landmark The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Notably, Sweet is not in the cast (she had already bailed from Griffith’s company) of this sprawling Civil War film. Continuing in Griffith’s way, Lillian Gish landed a major role this time and so did Marsh. While Gish played a fairly standard-issue Southern belle, Marsh had a memorable sequence in which she thinks she’s being pursued though the woods by a crazed man. In a cinematic moment of high melodrama, she hurls herself off a cliff rather than be caught by the man. The film was a smash hit.

In 1916 Griffith made his most ambitious film, Intolerance. Marsh again landed a plum role. She played “the Dear One” in the modern arc of the massive film. Gish played a small part (endlessly rocking that cradle) in the interlinking sequence that tied the arcs together. Griffith once stated that Pickford would have been his first choice for the part of “the Mountain Girl,” but he hired relative newcomer Constance Talmadge. This is the film that gave Marsh her greatest role. The little sales clerk from New Mexico turned in a breathtaking and heartbreaking performance as the young woman who marries a young man (Harron) but gets framed for murder and sentenced to be hanged. In the meantime, a pack of “do-gooders” descends on the frantic Marsh and rips the baby from her arms (she can’t support it), leaving her in hysterics. By today’s standards the scene is a bit “over the top,” but within the context of the film (and for 1916), it’s a stunning performance.

Also in 1916 Marsh starred in the feature, Hoodoo Ann, which was written by Griffith. Here she plays an orphan born on Friday the 13th (hence the hoodoo). Bad luck follows her everywhere. But after the orphanage burns down and she saves another girl, she is adopted and meets a boy (Harron again). Notable in Hoodoo Ann is the sequence where the couple goes to the movies and watches a hideously acted melodrama (a great spoof). This movie spurs the impressionable Ann into re-enacting some of the scenes. She finds a gun and waves it about but it goes off. Because she is a hoodoo she thinks she’s killed the neighbor. The wedding scene is pure Griffith with the gawky groom and blushing bride stammering through the ritual until Marsh finally asks, “Is it over?”

In 1917, Harron and Marsh co-starred with the Gish sisters in Griffith’s Hearts of the World, a film that shows the horrors of war. The film was a smash hit until the Armistice. Griffith was always sorry he made the film because of its hysterical depiction of all Germans as dirty beasts. His famous quote about this film: “War is the villain, not any particular people.” Yet Hearts of the World gave Harron one of his best roles.

By the end of the decade Marsh followed Pickford and Sweet and left Griffith to try for better roles. But in 1923, amid much Hollywood fanfare, Marsh returned to Griffith to star in The White Rose with Ivor Novello and Carol Dempster. Marsh again plays a naïve woman who gets a job at an inn and tries to become a “flapper.” And as always in Griffith’s world, she gets involved with a man (a preacher this time) and has an illegitimate baby. The major appeal of this film was in seeing Mae Marsh spoof the current-day flappers.

If the legitimate actors in Griffith’s company dismissed Marsh because of her humble acting roots, what must they have thought about Robert Harron? He was born in New York City in 1893 and started with Biograph as a 13-year-old messenger boy to help his family. He also worked as a prop man and bit-part boy actor.

Robert Harron
Harron was 21 when he landed one of the male leads in Judith of Bethulia. Sensitive and photogenic, Harron was the perfect Griffith leading man, especially in innocent roles or bucolic stories like True Heart Susie or The Romance of Happy Valley (both with Lillian Gish). Part of Harron’s success in Intolerance (even with a mustache) was due to his look of total innocence. Seeing this young man dragged off by the police and convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed tore at the hearts of the day’s filmgoers.

In Hoodoo Ann, Harron’s character is rather naïve but seems to be making a success selling cartoons to a magazine publisher. Again Griffith was careful to write the role to match Harron’s rather wistful and boyish persona. Harron’s innocent image was vastly popular in the late teens, an era that also worshipped clean-cut Wallace Reid and Charles Ray.

In 1919 Harron and Gish starred for Griffith in the dramatic The Greatest Question, a film about an orphan girl who is taken in by a farm family only to learn their terrible secrets. Harron did not work for Griffith again. By this point in time, Harron had become something of a matinee idol, and Griffith was looking for a new face. In 1920 Griffith began casting for one of his most famous films, Way Down East. Gish was signed for the female lead. But Griffith had discovered a new boyish actor, Richard Barthelmess (2 years young than Harron), who was signed to play the young hero. Harron was toying with the idea of quitting Griffith anyway (he was also bypassed for the male lead in Broken Blossoms, which also went to Barthelmess). Harron started his own production company and went to Metro for a low-budget film called Coincidence.

But on September 1, 1920, Harron was (ironically) in New York City for the premiere of Way Down East, which was scheduled for September 3. At some point and for no known reason, Harron purchased a revolver from a man, put it in his dinner jacket pocket, and forgot about it. Later, the gun fell to the floor and discharged, striking him in the left lung.

Those who maintain that Harron’s death was a suicide claim that he was depressed when Griffith bypassed him for the lead role in Way Down East. However, legendary cameraman, G.W. Bitzer, gave this first-hand account of Harron’s death though it’s not mentioned that he was on the scene: “He lived long enough to make his confession and receive the sacraments from a priest. Bobby would not have lied to him.” Harron’s tragic death remains a mystery, but was officially classified an accident.
But that doesn’t explain why he had bought a gun.

The contemporary news stories that ran in the New York Times offer some interesting information. While staying at the Hotel Seymour when he was shot, he called the hotel office for help, saying “I’m in a devil of a fix; I’ve shot myself.” But Harron refused to call for an ambulance and wanted a local doctor. Finally, after no doctor could be located, he allowed the hotel people to call for an ambulance. By that time police were on the scene and Harron was taken to prison because he had no permit for the gun; he was arrested for violating the Sullivan Act. An uncle later got him out on bail and sent to the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital.

On September 3, the Times published a small piece, stating Harron’s condition as “critical” because of the large amount of blood lost. Then on September 6, the Times printed the terse announcement of Harron’s death. Had he lived, he would have faced charges for violating the Sullivan Act. There’s no mention of whom, if anyone, was with him when he died. Were Bitzer and the priest with him?

Several questions beg to be answered. The most obvious one is why Harron bought a gun and did not have a permit. Why was the gun loaded? Why did he refuse an ambulance? With a profusely bleeding gunshot wound to the chest, why would the actor want a local doctor? Why did the police jump to place charges against the actor despite his obvious need for immediate medical attention? When Harron’s uncle finally got bail for him, had the actor been in a jail cell all day?

It’s easy to see why the failed suicide attempt story survives; none of the events following the shooting seem to back up the idea that it was all an accident. But we’ll never know.

Marsh had an up and down career through the 20s and the early talkie period. She had a success in The Rat in 1925, a film she made in England with her White Rose co-star, Novello. Marsh made one final silent film in 1928; she returned to the screen in 1931 for her talkie debut in Over the Hill and then settled into another 30 years of playing small parts (especially for John Ford). She appeared in 197 films. Harron’s career was obviously much shorter than Marsh’s, but he amazingly appeared in more than 220 films as well as working behind the camera in a variety of functions: prop boy, cinematographer, and 2nd unit director on The Birth of a Nation. The Metro film, Coincidence, was released after his death.

Although their names are now remembered only by film buffs, Mae Marsh and Robert Harron were, for a time, the sweethearts of the silent cinema. They had amazing luck in coming from obscure and non-theatrical backgrounds and landing in the middle of the silent era’s most remarkable company of actors and filmmakers. And because of Griffith’s uncanny eye for talent, they rose to prominence in some of the greatest silent films ever made.