Even long-lasting fame is fleeting. In the 1920s, “everybody” would have known, to pick two unrelated examples, Warner Baxter and Aileen Pringle. In the Film Daily Yearbook for 1929, they each had a full page publicity ad. But who knows them today?
If you’re an aficionado of classic film, maybe you recognize the name Warner Baxter. But did you know he won an Academy Award for Best Actor a year or so after this ad was published? Even Hollywood’s top honor doesn’t guarantee lasting fame. Luise Rainer won two Best Actress Oscars in a row, but her name only comes up today in trivia questions about who won two Best Actress Oscars in a row. It’s unfair, but in a world is fixated on Robert Pattinson, who’s got time to remember Hollywood’s first generation?
Baxter was lucky, though, in that he survived the transition to sound film and maintained an active acting career right up until his death in 1951. But what would you have seen him in today? Perhaps he is best known for playing The Cisco Kid in 1928’s In Old Arizona, for which he won the Oscar, and its three sequels. (Can you imagine such a role winning an Oscar today? Or even a decade later? Oscar hasn’t been kind to westerns since the early 30s.)
Audiences of the day would have also known him for 1933’s Penthouse, but his co-star (Myrna Loy) and director (W. S. Van Dyke) would reteam the following year for a much better-known mystery — The Thin Man.
Ironically, his most famous movie today — strictly in relative terms — was probably his last, released posthumously in 1952. It was O. Henry’s Full House, an excellent anthology of five adaptations of O. Henry short stories, each segment having been directed by a different big name director — Howard Hawks, for example. Warner Baxter’s role in that film? Archive footage of his Cisco Kid role.
But Baxter’s longevity, such as it was, was the exception. Aileen Pringle, like so many others, fell victim to the transition to sound. Overnight, Hollywood’s top stars were replaced by a new generation.
I love this photograph of her: more so than any other publicity photo in the 1929 yearbook, this one illustrates how dramatically fashions change over time. Can you imagine a time when this look was the epitome of contemporary glamor? Today, this exact look could be used for a film about Cleopatra, and modern audiences wouldn’t know the difference. One of the reasons I love older movies, though, is to see these old-fashioned standards of glamor and beauty. I am no enthusiast of costuming or hairstyling on their own, but the overall looks of fashions from the 1920s to 1940s are so evocative. One of the reasons I think a lot of remakes of classic films fail is that many classics depend upon the fashions of the day to set the proper tone for the material. Meg Ryan in a movie about women? Yeah, whatever. Norma Shearer? Okay, now you’ve got something.
For that matter, would 2002’s Chicago have had anything close to the same appeal and impact without its rich 1920s costumes and hairstyles? Even then, Chicago finds its look with deliberate and conspicuous effort. In the actual 1920s, it’s just the way things were.
Pringle became a star with a supporting role in the 1920 Rudolph Valentino film Stolen Moments and solidified that status in 1924’s Three Weeks. You won’t have seen those films, but maybe you’ve heard of the Thomas Ince scandal from 1924: jillionaire and media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane) and an exclusive group of friends were on a yacht together, during which time Thomas Ince fell ill and died shortly after being brought ashore. Though the cause of death was ruled gastro-intestinal illness, the incident escalated into a scandal, and more lurid stories began circulating to explain the death. One of these was that Hearst shot Ince after mistaking him for Charlie Chaplin, whom he suspected of having an affair with Hearst’s lover, actress Marion Davies. This legend is beautifully dramatized in the 2001 film The Cat’s Meow, by Peter Bogdanovich.
Aileen Pringle was one of the guests on the yacht and thus tainted by the scandal. She overcame that but, as I say, was unable to survive the transition to sound. She continued to work, however, and appeared in several great and relatively well-known movies: the great comedy Nothing Sacred (1937), the great drama The Women (1939), and the great noir Laura (1944), for example — but all three roles were uncredited bit parts. The modern equivalent would be, I dunno, Geena Davis or Rene Russo taking work as extras. (And not as “celebrity cameos,” either, a concept which wasn’t invented until 1956’s Around the World In 80 Days.) Although her last film was Laura, she lived right up until 1989.
It is common wisdom that Hollywood is kinder to aging male stars than female stars. The contrast in the careers of Baxter and Pringle (although I picked them to write about purely at random) illustrate the principle. There were exceptions on both sides, of course, but there is one constant: Fame is fleeting.