Iconic Silent Film Stars That Shaped Cinema As We Know It

During the silent film era between the mid-1890s and the late 1920s, movies were almost always accompanied by live music. What made them truly “silent” was that there was no audible dialogue, with the plot usually being conveyed using title cards, and relying on the skill of the actors to portray emotion. It was during this time the first movie stars began to shape the film industry into what we know it as today. Take a look and see who these pioneers were.

Max Linder Is Considered One Of The First Movie Stars

Picture of Max Linder
Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Harlingue/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Gabriel-Maximillien Leuvielle, known professionally as Max Linder, was a French actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and comedian. His onscreen personae “Max” became one of the first recognizable characters in film, leading to people calling him “the first international movie star” and “the first film star anywhere.”

He enlisted in the First World War, where he served as a dispatch driver and an entertainer. However, he was injured on several occasions and began experiencing serious bouts of depression. Upon coming to the United States, he saw little success, but with the help of Charlie Chaplin made the two successful films – Seven Years Bad Luck and The Three Must-Get-Theres.

Harold Lloyd Was Known For His Incredible Stunts

Llyod hanging from a clock
Evening Standard/Getty Images
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Considered one of the most influential comedians of the silent film era alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd appeared in almost 200 comedy films between 1914 and 1947.

Lloyd was best-known for his “thrill sequences, which usually involved long chase scenes or impressive stunts,” with the trick shot of Lloyd hanging from a clock in Safety Last! being considered to be one of the most iconic images in cinema. While Lloyd’s films were not as successful as Chaplin’s on average, he released more films and made more money overall.

Theda Bara AKA “The Vamp”

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Mondadori via Getty Images
Mondadori via Getty Images

Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, Theda Bara was a successful silent film and stage actress. She is identified as one of cinema’s first sex symbols, with her femme fatale roles earning her the iconic nickname of “The Vamp,” in reference to a vampire.

Between 1914 and 1926, Bara was in more than 40 films, although many of them were unfortunately lost in the 1997 Fox vault fire. She went on to marry Charles Brabin in 1921, and appeared in two more films before retiring from acting, never appearing in a sound film.

Greta Garbo Was Personally Brought To Hollywood

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API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Greta Garbo was a Swedish film star from the 1920s through the 1930s. In 1999, she was ranked fifth on the American Film Institutes list of the greatest female stars of classic Hollywood cinema.

Her first film was The Saga of Gosta Berling in 1924, where she caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, the chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who brought her to Hollywood in 1925. Over her career, she received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, and after retiring, completely walked away from film, choosing to live a private life.

Lon Chaney Helped Bring Horror To The Silent Screen

Lon Chaney in costume
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Leonidas Frank “Lon” Chaney, commonly referred to as Lon, was a jack of all trades when it came to the film industry working as a screenwriter, make-up artist, actor, and director.

Regarded for his incredible ability to transform himself using makeup, he was groundbreaking in early cinema for his portrayal of tortured and disfigured characters in silent horror films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. His skill with these intense transformations using complex make-up techniques earned him the nickname of “The Man of a Thousand Faces.”

Douglas Fairbanks Was “The King Of Hollywood”

Douglas Fairbanks in The Iron Mask
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Douglas Fairbanks was an American actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. As an actor, he is best remembered for his swashbuckling roles in silent films such as Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, and The Thief of Baghdad, although he got his start in comedies.

On top of his acting, Fairbanks was also a founding member of United Artists, The Motion Picture Academy, and hosted the 1st Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Over the years, he earned the title of “The King of Hollywood.”

William Hart Is Still A Popular Figure Today

william s hart film actor
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John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

William S. Hart was an American silent film actor, screenwriter, director, and producer. He has gone down in history as one of the biggest western stars of the silent era who “imbued all of his characters with honor and integrity.”

Between the 1910s and 1920s, he was one of the most popular stars in the industry and is often at the top of the list when it comes to the most famous male actors of all time.

Louise Brooks Helped Popularize The Bob Hairstyle

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John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A famous actor and dancer in the 1920s and 1930s, today, Louise Brooks is referred to as a Jazz Age icon as well as a flapper symbol, mostly due to the bob hairstyle that she helped popularize.

Starting out as a dancer when she was 15, she eventually caught the eye of Walter Wagner, a producer at Paramount Pictures, who offered her a five-year contract. After failing to achieve the stardom she desired in the United States, in 1929, she went to Europe where she starred in three films that turned her into an international star.

Rudolph Valentino Died Far Too Young

Valentino with a flower
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Rudolph Valentino was an Italian actor based out of the United States that starred in some of the silent film eras most notable films such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Blood and Sand, The Sheik, The Son of the Sheik, and The Eagle.

Known in Hollywood as the Latin Lover, The Great Lover, or just Valentino, he died at the early age of 31, which caused hysteria among his friends and solidified him as a cultural film icon.

Lillian Gish Was “The First Lady Of American Cinema”

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Bettmann/Getty Images

Lillian Gish had a film acting career that spanned over 75 years from 1912 in silent film shorts to 1987. She was associated with director D.W. Griffith and had a leading role in his film The Birth of a Nation, the highest-grossing film of the silent film era.

Referred to as “The First Lady of American Cinema,” at the beginning of the sound era, Gish began appearing in films less frequently. In her later years, she was a known advocate for the appreciation and preservation of silent film.

Charlie Chaplin Was The Best Of The Best

Picture of Charlie Chaplin
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Charlie Chaplin rose to fame during the silent film era, becoming a worldwide sensation through his on-screen persona “The Tramp,” and is today considered one of the most influential individuals in the history of the film industry.

Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for almost all of his films. Plus, his economic independence allowed him free reign to take as long as he wanted, as well as make the films that he wanted to make. To this day, many of his films are considered to be the greatest of all time.

Mary Pickford Was “The Queen Of The Movies”

Mary Pickford with a camera
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Gladys Louise Smith, professionally known as Mary Pickford, was a Canadian-born American actress with a career spanning over an impressive 50 years. Known as “America’s Sweetheart,” she was one of the most popular actresses in the 1910s and 1920s, earning her the nickname of “Queen of the Movies.”

She was the second woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, one of the original 36 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and was a co-founder of Pickford-Fairbanks Studios and United Artists.

Gloria Swanson

Swanson at the beach
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At the peak of her career, Gloria Swanson was the silent screen’s most successful and highest-paid movie star, earning $20,000 a week in the mid-1920s. However, this doesn’t mean that she was necessarily frugal with her money, earning an impressive $8 million between 1918 and 1929, she spent almost all of it.

Furthermore, she was also nominated for the first Academy Award ever for Best Actress. She was one of the earliest female stars to produce her own movies, although a change in taste eventually led her to transition to television and theater.

Clara Bow Gave Up Acting To Become A Rancher

Clara Bow sitting on a bench
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Although Clara Bow may have had her start in the movie industry during the silent film era, she is also notable for successfully making the transition to “talkies” in 1929. Known as “The It Girl” after her performance in the 1927 film It, she quickly achieved global fame, becoming a symbol of the Roaring Twenties.

Two years after marrying Rex Bell in 1931, Bow retired from acting and became a rancher in Nevada until her death at the age of 60 from a heart attack in 1965.

Jackie Coogan Was One Of The First True Child Stars

Jackie Coogan as a boy
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Bettmann/Getty Images

Jackie Coogan began his career as a child actor in silent films, with Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Kid. After his child acting days ended, Coogan continued his career, coming into the limelight once again, portraying Uncle Fester in the 1960s television series The Addams Family.

Coogan also had an impact on politics, after suing his parents regarding the wealth he earned in his youth, which led California to establish legal protection for the earning of child performers known as the Coogan Act.

John Gilbert Couldn’t Make The Transition To “Talkies”

Colored picture of John Gilbert
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

John Gilbert was an American screenwriter, actor, and director, who made a name for himself during the silent film era as “The Great Lover.” He was often in a fierce contest regarding popularity with fellow leading man Rudolph Valentino.

However, his popularity began to fade with the introduction of talkies in the late 1920s. While Gilbert is identified as a primary example of a successful actor that couldn’t make the transition, it had little to do with his voice, which would have been perfect for such films.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle Had And Then Lost It All

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Imagno/Getty Images

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle got his start at the Selig Polyscope Company before moving to Keystone Studios, where he made quite the name for himself. On top of mentoring Charlie Chaplin and discovering Buster Keaton, he was one of the most popular movie stars of the 1910s, becoming one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, a scandal involving the death of a young woman essentially destroyed his career until his death in 1933.

Stan Laurel Was Quite The Comedian

Stan Laurel in a sailors outfit
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

A part of the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, Stan Laurel was an English comic actor, writer, and film director. Interestingly, Laurel and Charlie Chapman arrived in the United States on the same ship, with Laurel beginning his film career in 1917, which lasted until 1951.

In 1960, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award for his work in comedy as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Today, he is considered one of the greatest British comedians of all time.

Much Of Colleen Moore’s Work Has Been Lost

Colleen Moore in a dress
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Colleen Moore earned a name for herself as an American actress during the silent film era in which she rose to become one of the most highly-paid, fashionable, and popular stars of her time. Unfortunately, many of her films, her most popular included, were lost over time, including her hit movie Flaming Youth, in which one reel remains.

She took a brief break from making movies with the introduction of sound, with the four films she made upon her return, never receiving the same praise as her previous ones.

Tom Mix Was Another Silent Cowboy

Tom Mix on a horse
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Tom Mix was an American actor and the star of many Western films between 1909 and 1935, appearing in 291 films, with all but nine being silent films.

Regarded by many as Hollywood’s first Western star, not only did he help define the genre, but he also set the pace for what it meant to be a Western leading man. Although he had a successful career, he died in a tragic way, losing his life in a car crash as a result of a flash flood.