Top Actors of the 1920's

Posted on 9 May 00:00


Hollywood witnessed a film boon in the 1920s because of the economic prosperity in the era. people had the time and resources to spend on leisure activities, and movies became their preferred choice. People preferred movies because they were an affordable form of entertainment. The classic movies produced in the 1920s were the first color films. In 1927, the pioneering talking pictures (talkies) were produced.

The 1920s was the era that saw the rise of super talented actors such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin and Rudolf Valentino. 

  1. Douglas Fairbanks (May 23, 1883 to Dec. 12, 1933, age 56)

Douglas Fairbanks was born in Denver Colorado in May 23, 1883 and originally named Douglas Elton Ulman. Fairbanks was a renowned American screen writer, actor, director and producer. He is best known for his iconic role in major blockbusters like Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Baghdad (1924), and The Mark of Zorro (1920).

Douglas Fairbanks was one of the founding members of United Artists studio. He was also a founding member of The Motion Picture Academy. In 1929, he hosted the pioneering Academy Awards. Fairbanks married Mary Pickford an actress and film producer and the power couple were known as 'Hollywood royalty'.  Fairbanks was nicknamed “King of Hollywood.”

Douglas Fairbanks kick started his acting career at an early age as an amateur on stages in Denver. He performed at the Elitch Gardens Theatre and in other productions by Margaret Fealy, the owner of a school for budding actors in Denver.

Fairbanks was considered one of the greatest stars in Hollywood in the 1920s. However, his career declined sharply when movies with characters that talked were produced.

  1. John Barrymore (February 15, 1882 to May 29, 1942, age 60)

John Barrymore originally named John Sidney Blyth was born on February 14 or 15, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He performed in theater, on screen and radio. He was a member of the Drew and Barrymore theatrical families. John was not interested in acting earlier in his life, in fact he tried to avoid it and worked as an artist. However, this changed in 1900 when he co-acted on stage with his father. Barrymore appeared on another screen play with is sister the following year.

John Barrymore formally began his career in 1903 and became famous for his roles in light comedy and drama. This earned him a spot in classic movies such as Justice (1916), Hamlet (1922) and Richard III (1920). His role in Hamlet resulted in his fans calling him the “greatest living American tragedian.”

The success Barrymore enjoyed after the production of Hamlet was the last in his stage career. He quit the stage for 14 years to concentrate entirely on films in the era of silent movies. Barrymore appeared in films such as the Sherlock Holmes (1922), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), and The Sea Beast (1926). His excellent performance in these films earned him the nickname the 'The Great Profile' for his acquiline proboscis, and continually posed himself in a manner to not let the audience forget it.. When sound films were introduced, Barrymore’s stage-trained voice set him apart from the rest.

  1. Gloria Swanson (March 27, 1899 to April 4, 1983, age 84)

Gloria Swanson was born Gloria May Josephine Swanson in March 27, 1899 and was an American actress and producer. Swanson was the highest paid star in the silent screen film era. She was earning a whopping $20,000 per week in the mid-1920s! Miss Swanson was a lavish spender. She spent all the $8 million she earned from 1918 to 1929 to the last cent.

Swanson was a star in many silent movies, which were mostly directed by Cecil B. DeMille. She was nominated for the first Academy Award ever for the Best Actress. Swanson was among the first women to produce their own films in Hollywood. She made The Love of Sunya (1927) and Sadie Thompson (1928).

In 1929, Swanson started doing movies with sound and was one of the actresses in 'The Trespasser'. Changes in movie fads in the 1930s dealt a blow to Swanson’s popularity. She adjusted accordingly by venturing into television and theatre. 

For more than half a century, Swanson denied having an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the father of future-President John F. Kennedy. Swanson later admitted to the affair, and wrote about it in her best-selling 1980 autobiography, Swanson on Swanson.

Swanson disappeared from the screen for 16 years. However, in 1950 she was recognized for her role as Norma Desmond in the popular silent classic movie Sunset Boulevard. She was nominated for the Academy Award for the role and won the Golden Globe Award. In 1989, Sunset Boulevard was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation because of cultural, historic and aesthetic significance of the film.

  1. Mary Pickford (April 8, 1892 to May 29, 1979, age 87)

Mary Pickford was a Canadian-born American movie star and producer. She was formerly known as Gladys Louise Smith. She had a career that lasted over 50 years and co-founded the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio together with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks. She later joined forces with the United Artists film studio owned by Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks, and D.W Griffith.

During her prime Pickford was called “America’s Sweetheart” or sometimes the “girl with the curls”, even today by many movie buffs. She was among the first Canadian to appear in Hollywood and one of the key characters in the development of actor’s careers. Pickford was among the first independent stars who handled her own affairs including paychecks. From 1910 to 1920, Pickford was the most popular actress and was called by her fans “Queen of the Movies.”

Pickford won the second Academy Award for Best Actress for her iconic role in Coquette (1929) and received an honorary Academy Award in 1976. The American Film Institute ranked Pickford the 24th in a list of 1999 greatest female stars in classic Hollywood Films.

  1. Marion Davies (January 3, 1897 to September 22, 1961, age 64)

Marion Davies was born on January 3, 1897 and originally named Marion Cecilia Elizabeth Brooklyn Douras. She was an American screenwriter, actress, producer and philanthropist. Miss Davies starred in many Broadway Musicals and one blockbuster Runaway Romany (1917). The publicity she received attracted the attention of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who became her lover and manager.

Hearst paid for Davies’ photo shoots and publicized them in his newspaper and his television channel Hearst Newsreels. Davies founded the Cosmopolitan Productions in order to produce her films. Hearst was interested in seeing Davies acting in historic dramas, but she preferred comedies. Davies was considered Hearst's mistress until his death. Together, she and Hearst hosted many of the most lavish parties in Hollywood.

However, Davies was involved in a famous controversy. She was linked to the 1924 scandal that led to the death of film producer Thomas Ince who was one of Hearst’s guests on his yacht. Davies stopped acting in 1937 and she instead chose to focus on charity and supporting Hearst emotionally and financially.

  1. Charlie Chaplin (April 16, 1889 to December 25, 1977, age 88)

Charlie Chaplin was born sir Charles Spencer Chaplin on April 16, 1889. He was an English comic actor, composer and filmmaker. Charlie Chaplin became famous in the era of silent movies. His screen persona soon became a worldwide icon called “The Tramp.” Chaplin is considered one of the greatest actors and important figures in the film industry.

Charlie Chaplain career lasted for 75 years from the time he started acting as a child in the Victorian era to the time he died in 1977. Chaplin’s career is marked by both admiration and controversy. Chaplin grew up in London in poverty and hardship because his father was absent and his mother struggled to make ends meet.

When Chaplain turned 14, his mother was detained in a mental asylum. Consequently, Chaplain started acting at an early age, touring music halls before acting on stage and as a comedian. At 19 years old, Chaplin landed a contract with the prestigious Keystone Studios. He soon came up with the “The Tramp persona”, which acquired him a large base of fans.

Chaplin also directed his own films, and by 1918 he had become one of the most famous actors on earth. In 1919, Chaplin together with other prominent actors co-founded the United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. The first film Chaplin produced was The Kid (1921) which was closely followed by A Woman of Paris (1923),The Circus (1928) and one of his most popular movies, City Lights (1931).

  1. Rudolf Valentino (May 6, 1895 to August 23, 1926)

Rudolf Valentino was an Italian actor based in the U.S who played an iconic role in several silent films. Some of the notable films Rudolf starred in include The Eagle (1925), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Sheik (1921), The Son of the Sheik (1926), and the Blood and Sand (1922). Rudolf was a pop icon and sex symbol of the 1920s. In Hollywood he was known as the Latin lover or Valentino. The tragic death of Rudolf at only 31 years caused mass hysteria among the fans and resulted in him becoming idolized as a cultural film icon.

The top actors discussed above are the most notable ones. Other great actors of the 1920s include:

  • Gary Cooper
  • Buster Keaton
  • Greta Garbo
  • Joan Crawford

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