BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Her father was a traveling champagne salesman who just kept traveling when his beautiful blonde daughter Blanche was born in Chicago in 1896. Her life would be one of melodrama with a surprise ending worthy of the plots of the nascent silent film industry she helped ignite. Blanche Sweet would be Chicago’s first movie star.
Unlike Mary Pickford and others who played their roles as childlike waifs with ringlets swirling, Blanche always played the modern woman she was, gorgeously grown up even at 13, a career girl, a charmer; thoroughly in charge.
Blanche would give film scholars the greatest gift: nearly 80 years after her first film, she told the story of the nickelodeons (theaters so named for the nickel price of admission, begun in 1905 in Pittsburgh). She told stories of movies shot at sites like the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, which were dirt roads at the time; cowboy shootouts in what is now downtown Malibu—her memories of the early days of film in Hollywood as early as 1911 brought to life for scholars the world of D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and cameramen Billy Bitzer. Candid and genuine, she told it like it was.
In 1909, at the age of 13, Blanche made her first movie, A Corner in Wheat. The D. W. Griffith portrayal of Chicagoan Frank Norris’s short story of the same name was loosely based on the grain monopoly created by Joseph Leiter and his struggle with Philip Armour. Shot both on the rural plains of Jamaica on Long Island and in a converted mansion at 11 East 14th Street in Manhattan, D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat was considered by film critic James Agee as “the birth of an art” not only because of its camera techniques but also for the emotion it portrayed. A YouTube glimpse of the film shows a beautiful Blanche in the background.
Her grandmother raised her and encouraged her love of dance, launching her stage and film career. Blanche’s mother, an 18-year-old actress and dancer, had died soon after she was born. It was her grandmother that took her to New York where she made her Broadway debut, carried on the stage by Maurice Barrymore, father of John, Lionel, and Ethel.
Her father, the roaming champagne salesman Gilbert Sweet, called her to San Francisco for a reunion and a promise of her passion: dancing lessons. She arrived as the 1906 earthquake occurred, killing 3,000 people and leaving 400,000 homeless. The reunion didn’t go smoothly either, and she headed back to New York with her grandmother to continue her career on the stage where D. W. Griffith discovered her.
Called “The Biograph Blonde,” Blanche was once as famous as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin, and Buster Keaton, but her name is familiar only to silent film enthusiasts today. Unlike Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, she could never play the child-woman Griffith preferred. Blanche always looked more modern than her times.
Although she was recognized for her energy and independent attitude, at variance with Giffith’s image, he chose her to star in The Lonedale Operator in 1911, considered the landmark film of the early movie days. The plot involves a young girl forced to take over the telegraph office when her father becomes ill, and she foils a robbery of the town mine’s payroll. Griffith cameraman Billy Bitzer mastered the close-up shot, never used in films before then, and lovely Blanche became a star.
She vamped in Judith of Bethula, D. W. Griffith’s first feature film and, in 1924, was the first Anna Christie, way before Garbo made the role famous. It was the first of Eugene O’Neill’s plays to be made into a movie.
She prided herself doing roles where she was a courageous working woman or plucky shop girl—sometimes victim, sometimes vamp. As Ginger Rogers would do in the 1930s, she loved changing hairstyles and fashions.
She married director Mickey Neilan, a friend and possibly something more for Chicago actress Colleen Moore. During their childless marriage, Mickey had numerous affairs and Blanche’s mysterious retreat to a cabin in the high Hollywood Hills during that time was rumored to be alcohol or drug-related (but was probably depression). She made three “talkies” before retiring and supported herself afterwards with radio, TV, and even a gig working at Bloomingdale’s.
During her career she made hundreds of films. In 1914 she was cast in the iconic starring role of Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation, but it eventually went to Lilian Gish—some said for the reason that she was three years older than Blanche. That same year, she left Griffith’s Biograph to go to Paramount, where she would receive more money. She appeared in the films of Cecil B. DeMille and Mickey Neilan throughout the 1920s, the golden days of silent movies.
What separated Blanche from so many of her from other legends of the silent screen were her longevity and her memory of those times. Known both for flying a kite in Central Park just before she died at almost 90, she became the most articulate chronicler on the silent film days, willing to talk candidly on many occasions, particularly about D. W. Griffith. She sat on the board committee at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose archives includes a print of The Lonedale Operator and other rare silent films, including several others from Blanche’s oeuvre.
The film historian Anthony Slide spoke to me recently about his friend Blanche Sweet, whom he first met in England in the early 1960s. Describing her as a great dramatic actress in films such as Anna Christie, he commented:
“Although there was a big age difference, we became fairly close friends in New York. She was an authority on early American cinema and delightful in that you never knew what she would do. She was one of the few silent stars who would always reply to people’s questions.”
Blanche became the historian of that time. While Lilian Gish was always accompanied by her manager in later years and was guarded in her comments, Blanche brought the time back to life with her truthfulness.
“Lillian always knew how to behave. Blanche never behaved, which made her delightful, and she was always willing to give of herself. I made a documentary of her that was shot on 16 mm and has never been released. She always called it her autobiography.”
Blanche’s ashes were scattered in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens amidst the lilies and the pale blue early-blooming lilacs, both named in her honor. She never returned to Chicago to live but will always be Chicago’s first movie star.
Blanche Sweet is the subject of a new book in progress by this author.