In the 6 January 1920 issue of Exhibitor’s Trade Review, screen actress Olive Thomas gleefully announced during an interview that she had a movie projector in her home where she would run some of the latest movies. “I just shoot it up there on the wall and entertain my friends”, she said. But she added that she did not like to watch her own films. She went through a litany of reasons, from her face looking too big to her tears appearing unrealistic. Her bubbly delight in having access to movies in the home, and her overly critical reaction to her own screen appearance, were the sort of responses one would expect from a coy adolescent. But Olive Thomas was a 25-year-old movie star with a history that included New York modelling and experience in the Ziegfeld Follies. She was hardly a naïve schoolgirl. And yet her girlishly critical perception of her on-screen appearance somehow added to Thomas’ charm and appeal. Despite her myriad of experiences, the movie-going public liked to think of Olive Thomas as the cute, feisty presence she offered in her popular movies. The Exhibitor’s Trade Review article concluded, “Like Peter Pan, we can’t imagine that Olive Thomas will ever grow up.” It was a disturbing portent. Only a few months later, Olive Thomas was dead under mysterious circumstances.
During the late 1910s, Olive Thomas was a major star in American motion pictures. In 1920, only days before her 26th birthday, Thomas’ suspicious death added an element of tragic mystery to her already fascinating, albeit brief, existence in the public eye. Exhibiting an ethereal beauty and a captivating magnetism, Thomas was a presence that promised greater things as her career, and the motion-picture industry, evolved. Her public was forced to ponder what might have been as they lamented what had happened.
Milestone Film and Video has released on DVD The Olive Thomas Collection, which offers a recent documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart, as well as a restored copy of her most famous film, The Flapper (Alan Crosland, 1920). It introduces us to yet another former movie star whose image has faded from memory, this time one that achieved a lofty level of stardom during one of the least-discussed eras of American cinema. Unfortunately, there is a reason for the paucity of material written about the first two decades of 20th century moviemaking: precious little from that era has survived the ravages of time.
Being just over 100 years old, the motion picture’s short history still leaves many gaps that have been given little critical or historical attention. Since the silent era’s survival rate is somewhere around ten percent, much of the cinema’s important early works have no possibility for assessment.
The 1920s is sometimes looked upon as the first truly significant decade of the motion picture. Of course, the significance of that decade is not in question. Landmark films like Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov, 1925), Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) and The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin, 1925) offer clear examples of how cinema’s visual elegance had been perfected before the advent of the talking picture. But films made before the 1920s have arguably an equal significance, historically and culturally, as well as æsthetically.
We have a reasonably complete awareness of the earliest moving-picture experiments by Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter, Louis and Auguste Lumière, and Georges Méliès. We know about Keystone slapstick, Charles Chaplin’s emergence and D. W. Griffith’s epics. From these existing examples we can piece together enough of the puzzle of cinema’s evolution. But so many other bypaths that would offer further insight remain uncovered, disallowing our ability to examine this early period of filmmaking comprehensively.
Olive Thomas was a leading actress of the mid-to-late 1910s who possessed her own discernible measure of “It” before the following decade identified that term with actress Clara Bow. Had she lived, it seems certain Thomas’ star would have maintained its firm and lofty position throughout the roaring ’20s. It is evident by her existing photos and movies that had Thomas would have fit perfectly into the roaring decade alongside such cinematic examples of the era as Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd. She has been referred to as the antithesis of such melodramatic contemporaries as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. But her death in 1920 locked her into an earlier era. And the scarcity of her films allow us little evidence as to the major impact she had on moviegoers during the second decade of the previous century.
Milestone Film and Video has unearthed, and restored, what is perhaps Thomas’ best and most successful feature film, The Flapper (1920), and included it on The Olive Thomas Collection, along with Andi Hicks and Sarah Baker’s 2004 documentary, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart.
It is perhaps in the viewer’s best interest to screen the documentary prior to watching the feature. Baker and Hicks do a commendable job of using rare photos and appropriate interviews to present Thomas’ rise from a mining town in Pennsylvania, and an early marriage to an abusive husband, to winning a Most Beautiful Girl contest that she entered on a whim. This led to stardom with the Ziegfeld Follies, a film career that initiated the first real success for the Selznick studio, a tumultuous marriage to actor Jack Pickford and her eventual death by poisoning, which has been discussed as probably an accident, possibly a suicide, and maybe murder.
The interviews presented in the documentary are commendable in that Thomas comes from an era that is too far back in history for eyewitness accounts. One of the Ziegfeld heirs, a Selznick descendant, family members and film historians offer interesting information to accompany the many rare photographs and existing film clips that illustrate Thomas’ story. Actress Rosanna Arquette offers a clear narration throughout, the understanding and appreciation evident in her delivery. The film clips are especially impressive when one considers how little of Thomas’ screen work survives (an essential example is the sequence from a recently discovered piece of film that was found, among others, in a recent excavation of someone’s swimming pool).
Thomas was among the earliest examples of a movie star, helping to define this term for all time and generations. The documentary successfully offers a detailed and careful analysis of her career, and examples of her impact on some of the first moviegoers, and successfully brings this long-forgotten star back to life. It is a most effective primer for watching one of Thomas’ few existing features.
The Flapper is a classic, but not in the cinematic sense. It is essentially an entertainment vehicle for its star, and it is her personality that is the axis of the film. Released just as the Jazz Age was to begin, it has the appearance of a ’20s comedy with attractive cast, melodramatic plot, pleasant comedy interludes, and nuanced pantomime.
Frances Marion’s screenplay, like in most Olive Thomas movies, offers parallels to the actress’ real life. She plays Ginger, who is bored and oppressed by the dullness of her small-town existence, and her structured family life, until she is sent to a strict boarding school near New York city. Her close proximity to the Big Apple, allows a taste of New York, including a fleeting acquaintance with a much-older man who is the object of most of the girls’ fantasies. She eventually becomes unwittingly mixed up with thieves who have infiltrated the school and stolen expensive jewels. Right triumphs, and perhaps the ending is a bit pat, but the film itself is a most appropriate document of popular entertainment from a transitional period in film history.
While little more than a pleasant diversion, The Flapper is a portent to the era that almost immediately followed its release. The melodrama of the 1910s was soon to be eclipsed by 1920s drawing-room dramas where women were known to reach beyond their structured limits and assert their independence. Thomas was indeed an actress for a new generation. By 1920, the year that American women were given the right to vote, Thomas was at the height of her career.
Thomas had become very popular very quickly. By the time her modelling and stage success evolved into film roles by the mid teens, Thomas was determined to be “the best picture actress in the world”. She was painted by top artists, written about in magazines and newspapers, and was the subject of several popular songs. The public responded to her first screen appearances and it wasn’t long before she enjoyed a certain level of creative control over her films, most of which reflected her life and person.
Thomas worked hard during an era where it was not unusual for even the biggest stars to be making as many as two or three films simultaneously. Upon completing the feature Everybody’s Sweetheart, she and her equally busy actor husband, Jack Pickford (brother of Mary), decided they needed a rest. While vacationing and devouring its nightlife, Thomas arose from bed and groggily ingested a mercurial poison that blinded her and burned out her vocal chords. She died after an agonizing four days. Her marriage to Pickford had been notably difficult, so there was some speculation of suicide. Rumours also abounded that the hard drinking, volatile Pickford may have poisoned her. The official ruling indicated her death was accidental.
Thomas’ fans were overwhelmed by her death. Thousands were in attendance at her funeral, where several women fainted. Her final film, Everybody’s Sweetheart, was released a week after her death. It was a box-office smash, as Thomas’ fans came to see her one last time in this stirring melodrama that allowed deeper acting challenges and the chance for her to exhibit a flair for comedy.
Thomas is one of many once-famous stars from early American cinema whose work survives only in fragments. Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart carefully explains just how significant Thomas is to film history. Her transitional performances, bridging the melodramatic ingénues of the teens with the independent flappers of the ’20s, exhibit a substantial impact on the development of how the motion picture presents women.
The documentary also offers fascinating footage such as Thomas sitting with Chaplin’s leading lady, Edna Purviance, and the infamous Virginia Rappe, whose death would embroil Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a career-ending scandal. The presence of Rappe is especially compelling in that Thomas’ mysterious death is the first of many scandals that would rock the movie industry throughout the ’20s. The Arbuckle scandal, where the comedian was accused of rape and murder, the drug-related death of Wallace Reid, the murder of producer William Desmond Taylor and the untimely death of superstar Rudolph Valentino were soon to follow. The attitude towards movies would be changed forever.
Thomas had an extraordinary impact on all those who knew her. One of her producers, David Selznick, added the “O” middle initial to his name shortly after her death as an homage to the actress whose films helped finance his studio and lead to his later success. The current manager of New York’s New Amsterdam Theater has admitted that many believe Thomas’ ghost haunts the building where she had once enjoyed stage success with the Ziegfeld Follies.
Along with the feature and the documentary, The Olive Thomas Collection includes such special features as re-enactments from the memoirs of D. W. Griffith’s director of photography Billy Bitzer and the writings of Lenore Coffee. In these, Thomas is played by her great-grand-niece, Nora Erhardt. There is also a stills gallery of interesting and rare photos, as well as memories of Thomas from her first husband, Bernard Krug Thomas, as told to the Pittsburgh Press on 4 May 1931. Two of the many songs that had been written about Thomas are also included.
Milestone Film and Video does a beautiful job with the restoration of The Flapper that includes original tints and the restored artwork on the sepia intertitles, as well as a wonderful piano score by Robert Israel. The enlightening documentary helps us understand the actress who is described as a cross between an adorable ingénue and a streetwise kid, and another area of motion-picture history that furthers our appreciation of cinema’s evolutionary process.
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