Today is the 125th birthday of the silent movie actress Blanche Sweet. She made over 160 movies, nearly all of them silent and was one of the many actors that did not make the transition to ‘talkies’. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Blanche Sweet
DATE OF BIRTH: June 18, 1896
PLACE OF BIRTH: Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH: September 6, 1986
PLACE OF DEATH: New York City, U.S.
REMAINS: Ashes spread at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens
HUSBAND: Marshall Neilan (m. 1922; div. 1929)
HUSBAND: Raymond Hackett (m. 1935; died 1958)
BEST KNOWN FOR: Sarah Blanche Sweet was an American silent film actress who began her career in the earliest days of the Hollywood motion picture film industry.
Born Sarah Blanche Sweet in Chicago, Illinois, in 1896, she was the daughter of Pearl, a dancer, and Gilbert Sweet, a wine merchant. Her mother died when Blanche was an infant, and she was raised by her maternal grandmother Cora Alexander – and known as Blanche Alexander.
Cora Alexander found her many parts as a young child. At the age of four she toured in a play called The Battle of the Strong with Marie Burroughs and Maurice Barrymore.
A decade later, Sweet acted with Barrymore’s son Lionel in a D. W. Griffith-directed film. In 1909, she started work at Biograph Studios under contract to director D. W. Griffith. By 1910, she had become a rival to Mary Pickford, who had also started for Griffith the year before.
Sweet was known for her energetic, independent roles, at variance with the ‘ideal’ Griffith type of vulnerable, often fragile, femininity. After many starring roles, her first real landmark film was the 1911 Griffith thriller The Lonedale Operator. In 1913, she starred in Griffith’s first feature-length film Judith of Bethulia. In 1914, Sweet was initially cast by Griffith in the part of Elsie Stoneman in his epic The Birth of a Nation but the role was eventually given to rival actress Lillian Gish, who was Sweet’s senior by three years. That same year Sweet parted ways with Griffith and joined Paramount (then Famous Players-Lasky) for the much higher pay that studio was able to afford.
Because the Biograph company refused to reveal the names of its actors, the British distributor M. P. Sales billed Sweet as Daphne Wayne.
Throughout the 1910s, Sweet continued her career appearing in a number of highly prominent roles in films and remained a publicly popular leading lady. She often starred in vehicles by Cecil B. DeMille and Marshall Neilan, and she was recognised by leading film critics of the time to be one of the foremost actresses of the entire silent era. It was during her time working with Neilan that the two began a publicized affair, which brought on his divorce from former actress Gertrude Bambrick. Sweet and Neilan married in 1922. The union ended in 1929 with Sweet charging that Neilan was a persistent adulterer.
During the early 1920s Sweet’s career continued to prosper, and she starred in the first film version of Anna Christie in 1923. The film is also notable as being the first Eugene O’Neill play to be made into a motion picture. In successive years, she starred in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Sporting Venus, both directed by Neilan. Sweet soon began a new career phase as one of the newly formed MGM studio’s biggest stars.
Sweet’s career faltered with the advent of talkies. Sweet made just three talking pictures, including her critically lauded performance in 1930’s Show Girl in Hollywood, before retiring from the screen that same year and marrying stage actor Raymond Hackett in 1935. The marriage lasted until Hackett’s death in 1958.
Sweet spent the remainder of her performing career in radio and in secondary Broadway stage roles. Eventually, her career in both of these fields petered out, and she began working in a Los Angeles department store. In the late 1960s, her acting legacy was resurrected when film scholars invited her to Europe to receive recognition for her work.
In 1975, she was honored with the George Eastman Award for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
In 1980, Sweet was one of the many featured surviving silent film stars interviewed at length in Kevin Brownlow’s documentary about the silent film era Hollywood.
Sweet is the subject of a 1982 documentary by Anthony Slide, titled “Portrait of Blanche Sweet,” in which she talks of her life and her career. On September 24, 1984, a tribute to Sweet was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Sweet introduced her 1925 film The Sporting Venus.
Sweet died of a stroke in New York City on September 6, 1986. Her ashes were later scattered within the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.