29¢ Silent Screen Stars
Issue Date: April 27, 1994
City: San Francisco, CA
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Lithographed and engraved
Color: Red, black and bright violet
Artist Al Hirschfeld's incredible caricatures give life to the actors and actresses who dominated the silent film era on these unique stamps. The delightful characters those highly-talented performers created were as timeless and endearing as any created before or since, and each has a special place in the history of the entertainment world:
Idolized as the “Great Lover” of the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino gained enormous fame for his passionate, romantic roles. Born Rodolfo d’Antonguollo in Castellaneta, Italy, he moved to New York City in 1913 where he worked briefly as a gardener, dishwasher, and vaudeville dancer before beginning his film career in 1918.
Although his performance in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) established Valentino as a star, it was his role as the desert warrior in The Sheik (1921), that gained him a national following - making him the most popular romantic star of the silent film era. Following his lead, men learned to tango and tantalize women with smoldering, sensuous stares. And college men, imitating their idol, slicked back their hair and called themselves “sheiks.”
Valentino went on to make several other films including Blood and Sand (1922), The Eagle (1925), and The Son of the Sheik (1926). His sudden death at age 31 from a ruptured ulcer ended his brilliant career.
Billed as “The Hottest Jazz Baby in Films,” Clara Bow personified the vivacious, emancipated flapper of the 20s. Like the other stars of her day, she symbolized the romantic ideals of the nation, and young girls emulated her by copying her clothes, hairstyle, and seductive ways with men.
Born in a poor section of Brooklyn, New York, Bow entered a beauty contest at age 17 and won. Among the prizes was a Hollywood screen test and a bit part in the movie Beyond the Rainbow. Although her performance ended up on the cutting room floor, she persevered and within three years had become a successful actress.
In 1927 she played the lead in the box-office sensation It. Dubbed the “It Girl,” Bow rocketed to stardom, turning the innocent little pronoun ‘it’ into one of the most suggestive words in the English language. A huge success, the film was followed by other hits, including Wings (1927) - the first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Voted America’s most popular female star in 1929, she retired just four years later.
One of the best-known stars in the motion picture industry, Charlie Chaplin won international fame with his portrayal of the pathetic, yet humorous and endearing “Little Tramp.” During the silent film era he was often hailed as “the funniest man in the world.”
The son of British vaudeville performers, Chaplin began acting at an early age. In 1913 he signed on with the Keystone Film Company. Instantly popular, his box-office appeal had become so great by 1919 that no studio could afford to hire him. So together with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith, he formed the United Artists film corporation and began appearing only in films produced by himself, including such classics as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).
Although he lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years, Chaplin never became an American citizen. In 1972 he received an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards, and in 1975 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
Called the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney’s macabre characterizations have become classics of the silent screen. Born of deaf-mute parents, Chaney learned pantomime at an early age, and later became a prop man, director, and actor in his brother’s traveling show.
Beginning his film career as an extra, he became an overnight success after starring in The Miracle Man (1919). During the next ten years Chaney earned a reputation as the finest character actor in films, playing such memorable roles as Quasimodo the hunchback in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the dual role of police inspector/vampire in London After Midnight (1927). But his greatest achievement was his characterization of Eric, the demented, acid-scarred musician who haunted the subterranean passages of the Paris Opera in The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
A versatile actor, he also won acclaim for his realistic performances in Tell It to the Marines (1927), While the City Sleeps (1928), and Thunder (1929).
Beginning his film career in 1915, John Gilbert learned everything there was to know about the movies - building sets, lighting, hand-tinting film, writing scripts, and directing - before he became an actor. In 1924 he joined the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio, starring in many of the blockbuster movies of his day.
The Big Parade in 1925 was his greatest triumph. Gilbert’s performance as a doughboy in World War I not only established him as the all-American boy, fearless hero, and romantic lover, but also earned him the Photoplay Award for 1926 (the predecessor to the Academy Award).
In 1926 he starred in Flesh and the Devil with Greta Garbo. This seething melodrama established them as the greatest romantic team in Hollywood. They made films together, including a version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, released under the title Love. Over Gilbert’s strenuous objections ads read “Gilbert and Garbo in “LOVE!” An innovative actor, Gilbert starred in over ninety films before his untimely death in 1936.
Unbeknownst to her, ZaSu Pitts was discovered one rainy day in 1915 on a crowded Hollywood trolley. Born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, Pitts had moved to Hollywood that year in search of a career as an actress. Her big break didn’t come however, until two years later when she co-starred in several movies with America’s sweetheart - Mary Pickford. By 1919 she had made 28 movies.
The following year she was hired by director King Vidor. Exclaiming “I discovered you,” he went on to explain how he had seen her on the trolley on that rainy day in 1915. “Had I not been just a struggling screenwriter at the time,” he told her, “ I would have hired you on the spot!” Pitts went on to make four movies with Vidor.
In 1924 she starred in her most important role - the leading lady of Erich von Stroheim’s psychodrama Greed. He also cast her in his 1928 film The Wedding March. Called “the screen’s greatest tragedienne,” Pitts went on to star in numerous comedies. Her brilliant career ended in 1963 when she fell ill from cancer.
A close rival of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd was one of the most popular comedians of the silent film era. A member of Mack Sennett’s comedy troupe, he experimented with various comic characters before creating the role of “Harold.” By 1918, the white-faced man in horn-rimmed glasses and straw hat had become Lloyd’s trademark.
The first comedian to use physical danger as a source of laughter, he was known as the screen’s most daring star, often performing his own stunts. In his 1923 film Safety Last, he dangled from the hands of a clock several stories above a busy city street. In Girl Shy (1924) he took a thrilling ride atop a runaway streetcar. And in The Freshman (1925) - one of the most successful of all silent films - he stood in for the football team’s tackling dummy.
Although his peak of popularity was during the silent film era, Lloyd made numerous sound motion pictures as well. In 1952 he was honored with a special Academy Award for his contribution to motion picture comedy.
In August 1912, so the story goes, the Keystone Film Company’s troupe of comic actors arrived in Hollywood the same day as the town’s annual Shriner parade. Seizing the opportunity, Mack Sennett, the Keystone’s director, sent his star comedienne Mabel Normand into the parade. Clutching a baby doll, she began searching the ranks of Shriners for the child’s supposed father. In hot pursuit was Ford Sterling, playing the part of Mabel’s irate, two-timed husband.
When a brawl erupted between Sterling and an embarrassed Shriner, the police came charging in to break it up. Meanwhile Sennett, who had set up his camera, captured the entire ruckus on film and sent it off to New York as the first Keystone comedy.
A master of comic timing, Sennett used this formula of spontaneity and controlled confusion to create more than 1,000 short comedies. Oftentimes these slapstick skits featured the famous Keystone Kops, who instead of imposing order, added to the chaos.
This incompetent police force kept viewers laughing as they bungled their way through frantic chases, collided with one another, and became entangled with clotheslines, ladders, and folding tents. But through it all, their serious expressions remained unchanged.
To millions of moviegoers, Theda Bara was evil incarnate. Fatally alluring with her death-white face, snaky black hair, and heavy-lidded eyes, she seemed born to trap unwary males and lure them to their destruction.
Moving to Hollywood as an extra, she began her film career in 1915 with the movie A Fool There Was, an adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Vampire.” Released with an intense publicity campaign, the film made her an overnight success and established her as “The Vamp.” Within three years she had made more than 40 films.
Rumored to be the daughter of a French painter and his Egyptian mistress, her name was said to be an anagram for Arab Death. In reality though, Theda Bara was a young lady named Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio, whose main ambition was to be a conventional romantic heroine. However, Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), her one attempt at a role other than the irresistible, heartless woman living only for sensual pleasure, was a resounding flop.
The stoic manner and poker face of Buster Keaton was as familiar to movie-goers of the 1920s as Charlie Chaplin’s baggy trousers and derby hat. Born Frank Joseph Keaton, he began performing in his parents’ vaudeville act as the “Human Mop” when he was only four. A zany combination of acrobatics and miming, their act, known as “The Three Keatons,” helped him develop his life-long trademark - a never-smiling face.
Following a successful stage career, Keaton entered filmmaking in 1917. Creating some of the most elaborate gags in silent film history, his movies were both harrowing and hilarious - usually centering on his collision with natural disasters and mechanical monsters. But whatever befell him, Keaton’s classic deadpan character “The Great Stone Face” never showed fear or alarm. A writer, director, and actor, he produced and starred in 19 short films and 10 full-length features, including such masterpieces as The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).