Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

In the silent picture era, actors–especially female ones–often lied about their age. Of course, actresses do that today: Sandra Bullock’s birth year has moved about so much from 1964 to 1969 that even she forgets her true age. But the practice was routine back in the 1910s and 1920s, when leading roles usually went to actresses in their late teens and twenties, and a thirty-something was all washed up.

For example, the famous actress Mary Astor was playing adult roles opposite John Barrymore at 17, and she was 18 when she starred with Douglas Fairbanks in his classic “Don Q: Son of Zorro.” Pola Negri, the femme fatale born in 1897, shaved her years until talkies came in and put her out of business—a lie couldn’t cover up that unappealing foreign accent. 

Mary Pickford, the screen’s first female super star, was an exception to this rule. She didn’t have to lie about having been born in 1892. She was so petite and youthful that she was able to play feisty 12-year-olds well into her thirties.

My favorite story about age is Shirley Temple’s. Her mother subtracted a year from little Shirley’s age when she began her film career in 1932 at the age of three. Supposedly, the truth was revealed to Shirley on her twelfth birthday—surprise! She was really thirteen.

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