The Name Game

       Silent film actors often gave themselves a new name, something more memorable, more alliterative, more modern than the one bestowed upon them by their parents. For example, one casting director advised a handsome young extra named Frank Cooper to change to a first name that sounded tougher. She suggested Gary after her rough-and-tumble hometown of Gary, Indiana. “Coop” took her advice. When little Gladys Smith got her first part in a David Belasco play, the famous New York director insisted she change her humdrum name. Together they settled on Mary Pickford. She became one of the country’s most famous film actresses, known all over the world as “Little Mary” or “Our Mary.” Her siblings were all too happy to piggyback on Big Sis’s fame. They change their names as well, from the almost comically boring John Smith to Jack Pickford, and from Charlotte Smith to Lottie Pickford.

       Foreign-born actors needed something less—well, less foreign, so that American audiences could pronounce and remember their names. So Greta Lovisa Gustafsson became Greta Garbo, the famous vamp. Wong Liu Tsong became Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American film star. My favorite? Get a load of this: Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Piero Filiberto Guglielmi who became Rudolph Valentino, the Latin Lover.  Here are a few more silent movie name changes:

 Mary Astor – Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke

Joan Crawford – Lucille Lesueur

Lon Chaney – Leonidas Chaney

Douglas Fairbanks – Douglas Elton Ullman

W. C. Fields – William Claude Dunkinfield

Buster Keaton – Joseph Frank Keaton

Stan Laurel – Arthur Stanley Jefferson



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.