Saturday, June 23, 2012
A tribute to Blanche Sweet
By 1927, when many of the leading ladies of the nickelodeon era had faded from the screen and their acting opportunities limited to supporting roles, Blanche Sweet was still a popular star.
When Blanche Sweet made “Show Girl in Hollywood” (1930) she had no reason to believe she did not have a career awaiting her. Even though she never recorded “There’s a Tear for Every Smile in Hollywood,” which she sang so well, it remains linked to her.
Born Sarah Blanche Sweet in Chicago on June 18, 1896, Blanche was on stage as a child, cared for by her grandmother, and at fourteen began working in film with D.W. Griffith in his second year at American Biograph.
Blanche Sweet was to remain with Griffith and Biograph for five years, replacing Mary Pickford as its leading player and, in turn, being replaced by Lillian Gish.
Blanche made her first appearance at Biograph as an extra in “A Corner in Wheat” (1909). “The Lonedale Operator” (1911) is undoubtedly Blanche’s best known one-reel short for the company.
“The Painted Lady” (1912) in which Blanche creates a complex character became her favorite Biograph appearance. Griffith’s and Blanche’s last film for Biograph was the feature-length “Judith of Bethulia” (1914).
When Griffith left Biograph, Blanche went with him as leading lady to Mutual, where she starred in “The Escape,” “Home Sweet Home,” and “The Avenging Conscience,” all released in 1914.
Blanche thought that Griffith would remain her director and would select her to play Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” (1915), but, instead he selected Lillian Gish.
Blanche accepted a lucrative offer from Cecil B. De Mille, but she had a terrible time working with him and was dismissive of both films she made with him, “The Warrens of Virginia,” and “The Captive,” both released in 1915.
Blanche preferred “The Ragamuffin,” “Blacklist,” and “The Sowers,” all released in 1916 and directed by Cecil’s brother, William De Mille, whom she had a great deal of admiration.
In 1922, Blanche married Marshall Neilan, and both of them joined forces in 1924 through a contractual arrangement with MGM to direct and star, respectively in a series of independent feature films, to be released through the studio for which the couple was to accept entire responsibility. There were problems in that Neilan and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer were enemies, but the arrangement did result in two major films, “Tess of the D’Urbevilles” (1924) and “Sporting Venus”(1925), both shot on location in Britain. When Blanche’s marriage to Neilan was over she returned to Britain to star in “The Woman in White” (1929) for Herbert Wilcox. In 1936, Blanche married actor Raymond Hackett and they were together until he died in 1958.
With the coming of sound, Blanche’s film career was approaching its close. At the end of her career there was not too much professionally ahead for the 34 year old actress. She occasionally found work in early television in the 1950’s, but for a while Blanche was reduced to working in a Los Angeles department store as a sales clerk. In the late 1950’s, Blanche moved to New York, where she became a fixture at events at the Museum of Modern Art. She was a devoted supporter of its staff in times of trouble and would always be on the picket lines during strikes. In her last years, Blanche had relied on Social Security and assistance from the Actor’s Fund of America.
Throughout her career Blanche was the stereotypical temperamental silent star, and she probably ruined her career through bad judgment and careless behavior. She was also an outspoken liberal in an industry that was increasingly conservative, and in the 1950’s she and her husband Raymond Hackett were blacklisted by the HUAC during the McCarthy era.
Toward the end of her life, Blanche remained witty and warm-hearted, and she thought her life had been a lovely world despite its troubles.