Not too long ago I saw a discussion in a Facebook group about a silent era actor who, it was revealed, had strongly supported keeping his wealthy neighborhood “White People Only.” Naturally this was disheartening news, and more than one person declared that they would never look at him the same way again.
I could hardly blame them, but it got me thinking: What do we do if we love a star’s work onscreen, but discover that they were less-than-charming off screen? Is it reasonable to judge a star by their personal life?
This question has bugged me for awhile now, because I know exactly what it’s like to completely adore a star and then find out completely cringe-worthy trivia about their lives. Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and say, “People will still remember and love your work in the future, long after you’re gone–are you sure you want to do this thing? Are you sure? Please, stop swaying, give me that gallon of whiskey and blow out those matches you’re holding next to the School for Orphans of the Great War.”
Obviously, we can’t change how people acted in the past. They were human and they made mistakes just like everyone does. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to hear their version of events–why they acted “temperamental” on a set, why they were divorced no less than six times, and so forth. And yes, there are times when a certain shocking story has been exaggerated or simply isn’t true (and naturally those are the stories that circulate a hundred times over). But in many cases we will simply never, ever know exactly what was going through an individual’s mind way back when.
The only thing we really and truly have for sure is their work, also known as “the thing these people are remembered for in the first place.” And that work can reveal an awful lot about what they held near and dear, even if they didn’t always live up to their own onscreen ideals.
At times, those ideals did indeed reflect their creator: Lloyd really was an optimistic go-getter who doggedly worked his way up to success, and Lillian Gish’s life was virtually scandal-free. But others were decidedly not like their onscreen images. Playful Larry Semon, for instance, was a dour taskmaster. And some stars, while they may have been associated with wholesome films, struggled with one demon or another. Maybe it was alcoholism (practically the Hollywood occupational disease). Maybe they had affairs or experienced the pain of a spouse having affairs. But, here’s the key: whatever was going on behind the scenes, to the public many of them still symbolized positive things, whether it be romance, adventure, virtue, innocence, heroism, or just plain fun.
An example: Charlie Chaplin had approximately ten bazillion, err, girlfriends, which he freely admitted himself (reading that was not a fun moment). He was mixed up in scandals surrounding his divorce from Lita Grey and his relationship with Joan Barry, not to mention those very public accusations of communism. In his later years he could be described as arrogant. But what about his work, which was arguably the most important part of his life, which he poured his heart and soul into, to the delight of millions around the globe?
In Easy Street his character restores peace and order to a street riddled with crime. In The Kid he takes care of an orphaned child. In City Lights he gives what little he has to help a blind girl get surgery to restore her sight. He made incisive observations about humanity and the industrial age in Modern Times. And that’s just a few of his many films, brimful of thoughtful messages and positive morals (goofy Keystones notwithstanding).
To audiences, Chaplin was someone who made films anyone could see, whether they were very young or respectably old. They brought laughter to folks in every walk of life, from poor families who couldn’t afford higher-priced entertainment to soldiers in the trenches. So what, in the long run, is the most relevant part of Chaplin’s legacy for us, the fans? The details of his messy private life, which you can uncover after some digging…or his highly influential work?
There are other examples that could be made, of course. And you’ll find that there are various shades of gray everywhere you look. One star might’ve had a bunch of affairs, but was also noted for giving generously to charity. Another might’ve had an addiction to morphine, but only because he had been prescribed it by doctors (which wasn’t uncommon back then). And even many of these folk took care to appear genteel and put-together in public. Isn’t this an important thing to consider, too?
And then there are examples that are more complicated than others. Let’s take someone like Emil Jannings. He was an immensely brilliant, Expressionist actor, someone who could say more with just his posture than many actors could in a whole series of films. His performance in The Last Laugh is one of the greatest ever put to film. And, from 1933 to 1945, he chose to star in several German films that promoted Nazism. When the Allies invaded Germany it is said that he carried his Best Actor Oscar with him in hopes that his association with Hollywood would protect him.
So here we have a complicated example of an actor whose life offscreen did eventually influence his onscreen work. However, the most well-known period of his career, covering classics like Faust or The Last Command, has nothing to do with Nazi propaganda. I’d say that Jannings deserves appreciation…but it would be understandable if it was with some reservations.
So as you’ve probably gathered, since we know and love these people through the legacy of their work, it can–and arguably should–be considered separately from their private lives, as hard as that might be at times. Now and then we might be forced to use our best judgement, as in the case of someone who made at least one distasteful film and several brilliant ones (D.W. Griffith had just sprung immediately to your minds). But generally, it’s the work that shaped popular culture the way we know it that’s going to count the most.
After all, affairs, intrigues, and scandals might fade into the mists of time, only to be discovered by searching through books or archives. But those early films? (That is, the ones that have survived those mists of time?) They are perhaps the most intimate connection we have with the stars and directors of long ago. Through them you can get glimpses of what was important to them, what they found romantic or exciting…and perhaps a small glimpse of who they wish they could be.