Sunday, 19 January 2014

Fragments of Fame - Cigarette Cards & Forgotten Film Stars

One morning last summer, while watching The Wicked Lady, I found myself intrigued by the mischievous glint of the actress who'd been cast in the role of the supporting role of Lady Henrietta Kingsclere, sister-in-law to Margaret Lockwood's character in the film. A quick check of the ever-reliable (except when it's not) Wikipedia advised me her name was Enid Stamp Taylor, a name hitherto unfamiliar to me.

After first making her mark in Hitchcock's Easy Virtue, Taylor had enjoyed moderate success as a leading lady in British films of the 1930's before settling into smaller parts.  As it happens The Wicked Lady was her penultimate picture; she died as a result of injuries sustained in a fall (most likely caused by a seizure) just a couple of months after it was released, aged just 42. It was when I ran an image search for Taylor on Google that my attention was grabbed not by a photograph, but an illustration of her that adorned an old cigarette card.

Nothing terribly interesting or surprising about that, you might think. Possibly, but until then I'd always imagined that the screen icons depicted on cigarette cards were the leading Hollywood players of the day, not those of the somewhat more parochial British film scene. Spurred by this discovery it wasn't long before I was perusing the listings of old cigarette cards on eBay which, as it happened, were often available in full sets for quite reasonable prices. What fascinated me were not those cards bearing pictures of celebrities who remain familiar to us today, but those for whom posterity hasn't been so generous. 

And so it transpired that I started buying cigarette cards of film stars and have now built up quite a respectable collection. If there was any doubt before I think it's official: I'm a geek.

For those non cartophiles (as we're apparently known) out there it might help to briefly summarise the history of these papery ephemera. The precise origins of cigarette cards, and who first thought of the idea to print a picture on the stiffening card used to reinforce the flimsy early cigarette packs as a promotional tool, is something of a mystery. However there's a general consensus the earliest known cards are those of the American manufacturer Allen and Ginter in 1875 and that from the start pictures of actresses, as well as those of sportsmen and even Indian chiefs, were typical subject matter. 

Oddly enough cigarette cards didn't prove particularly successful in the US and it wasn't until the idea was imported to Britain a few years later that the story gathers momentum. Bristol-based manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills began distributing two-colour advertisement cards around 1887/88 and John Player & Sons took the next step with the first British general interest set, 'Castles and Abbeys', in 1893. It didn't take long for the other tobacco companies to cotton on to this enticement to brand loyalty.


The undisputed kings of those early days however were Thomas Ogden, whose Guinea Gold series of cards first appeared in 1894 and ran until 1907. Guinea Gold cards are almost a phenomena in themselves; a fascinating miscellany of the preoccupations of a Victorian Britain basking in the golden age of the Empire and with subject matter ranging from personalities involved in the Boxer Rebellion to Indian landscapes through to racehorses and ships.

It was Guinea Gold who, so far as can be ascertained, issued the first card to feature an individual associated specifically with the nascent wonder of the Cinematograph. It was not however an actor but one of its self-proclaimed inventor: Thomas Edison. 










Enter Cinema

As mentioned actresses, of the theatrical variety, were to be found on cigarette cards almost from their inception and the trend for featuring images of attractive ladies, or 'beauties' as they were typically described, was by no means diminished when the novelty migrated to Britain and its territories. Even in those less overt times sex sold and tobacco manufacturers were keen for their consumers to draw an association between the female form and the sensual appeal of smoking. It might be stretching a point to suggest cigarette cards were the internet pornography of the Victorian/Edwardian era but more risque material was harder to come by.

The stage, both legitimate theatre and music hall, continued to be a source of inspiration for the tobacco companies at the turn of the century, but as the general public remained clueless to the identities of the actors in those early moving pictures there were no film 'stars' to feature. By 1909 many would be familiar with the names of the major studios: Biograph, Vitagraph, Edison, Essanay and perhaps with Britain's most prolific film producer of the time, Cecil Hepworth. Most these companies maintained their own repertories of contracted actors and actresses, many of whom were drawn from the stage. However, they were rarely credited and it was left to the public to dimly perceive those players they may have seen in an earlier film.

Although the Edison Co began publicising their leading actors slightly earlier the decisive, if somewhat romanticised, moment came in 1910 when Universal Studios future founder Carl Laemmle poached Biograph's brightest talent, Florence Lawrence. After planting false information in the press that Lawrence had died in a train crash, then allowing the public time to mourn and eulogise her passing, Laemmle confessed his ruse and announced she would henceforth be appearing exclusively in films by his own company, Independent Motion Pictures (or IMP). 

The story crossed the Atlantic and Florence Lawrence became the first movie star whose name had currency with the British public. She was swiftly followed by others, such as her successor as 'Biograph Girl' Mary Pickford and the now sadly maligned Mabel Normand, another Biograph player, who defected to Mack Sennett's newly formed Keystone Studios in 1912. 


James Wilson aka Billy Quirk (apparently)
So it was that in 1913 London-based tobacconists Major Drapkin and Co. could issue the first series of cards exclusively dedicated to film stars, Cinematograph Actors, confident that the names and faces would be recognised.

I recently acquired a few cards in this series (a full set would likely cost upwards of £500) and they're a revealing insight into those early days of film stardom. A number of the early pioneers are present: Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford are joined by a few recognisable names such as Francis X. Bushman and the French comedian Max Linder (a formative influence on Chaplin) but the vast majority are mere ghosts, their work long since lost to the ravages of time upon brittle and volatile nitrate film stock.

It's notable that most the pictures display the idents of that particular actor's studio, suggesting these names were at least as commonly known as that of the stars themselves. For the film historian trawling the internet for any clues to who these people were (i.e. me) this can be invaluable. Typical of this is 'James Wilson' (pictured), an actor with Biograph who made a number of films with D.W. Griffith, who was actually better known by the moniker of Billy Quirk (and indeed usually sported a hairpiece).



Before long all the tobacco card manufacturers wanted a piece of this new novelty. A 25-card series called Cinema Stars issued by Wills in 1916 indicates British cinema had now started to develop a star system of its own. Alongside Gertrude Robinson and Ethel Barrymore are such home-grown talent as Queenie Thomas, Lily Ward and the exotically named 'Madame Pareva'. 

Many were 15 minute sensations; Lily Ward was a product of the short-lived Yorkshire film industry financed by Bamforth Films, the company better known today for Donald McGill's saucy seaside postcards, before the demands of the First World War curtailed their aspirations. The set is completely comprised of women; the issuers perhaps deciding their customers had no interest in pictures of men who make a living prancing in front of a camera while fathers and sons were being slaughtered on the battlefields of Europe.

By the dawn of the1920's there's an increasing number of familiar names. F. & J. Smith's 1920 series Cinema Stars, originals of which are much sought after today, has a roll-call including Chaplin (twice), Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Tom Mix, John Barrymore and British cinema's biggest star of the period Alma Taylor.


But there are also plenty of curiosities. Edwards, Ringer and Bigg's 1923 series Cinema Stars (get the impression there was a paucity of ideas when it came to naming these sets?) includes a rather distinctive figure they identify as 'Larry Seman'. In fact he was Larry Semon - stop tittering - a prolific comedian of the slapstick era who once drew comparisons with Keaton and Chaplin, worked with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy before they were teamed together, and also directed the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz

Like a depressingly high number of those early stars Semon's fate was not a prosperous one. His elaborate visual gags and special effects proved so expensive that his studio Vitagraph finally demanded that Semon produce and underwrite his own films. Even a switch from shorts to more lucrative feature films couldn't arrest his growing financial woes and he finally suffered a nervous breakdown before dying of pneumonia. A number of Semon's shorts can be found on Youtube and are worth a look, if only to ponder how some comedians are canonised by history while others are consigned to obscurity.





Tubby Phillips
If I had to pick a favourite series though it's a set of 50 cards called Who's Who in British Films issued by R. & J. Hill in 1927. The first card in the set is Betty Balfour, whom the blurb describes as "the Queen of British film stars", who she certainly was at that point, chiefly for starring in the 'Squibs' series of films. Balfour's career would nosedive with the advent of sound. Second is the series is a figure who remains remembered today as much for the songwriting awards that bear his name: Ivor Novello. 

There are one or two other familiar faces: the ill-fated Lilian Hall-Davis, Alma Taylor and the woman who started it all for me, Enid Stamp-Taylor. But for the main part it becomes a question of "Who Indeed?" and a voyage into the unknown... Adeline Hayden Coffin... Julie Suedo... Moore Marriot... Tubby Phillips... Pollie Emery... and more. These are British film stars and I feel I ought to know more of them and yet that's what makes it so intriguing. All that remains are these fragments of the fame that was.


Cigarette cards continued to be issued in dozens of sets throughout the 1930's. I find these later series, although sometimes beautifully illustrated, hold less fascination simply because the icons they depict are often such familiar ones, at least to a film enthusiast. Then in 1940 the paper and card rationing enforced by the Second World War brought about their abrupt demise. For whatever reason there was never any serious attempt to revive cigarette cards in the post-War years, although trading cards continued in other forms. So here they sit on my table, safely housed in plastic sleeves and ring binders, a vestige from a simpler time.

Let's finish on some cards of note...

Strictly speaking my favourite card, one of the Guinea Gold series circa 1900, shouldn't really be classed as a film star. George H. Chirgwin, otherwise known as the White-eyed Kaffir, was one of the most popular music hall performers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were numerous other minstrel acts doing the circuit but few quite as distinctive as Chirgwin, who seldom appeared on stage without his make-up. He made a handful of appearances on film including one short, The Blind Boy, which he wrote and directed (was based on one of his own songs). Only a few seconds of footage of Chirgwin are known to still exist.

I acquired this card after fending off an American bidder on eBay. In truth I paid more than I should but it's such a striking image it was worth it.








Part of British American Tobacco's Actresses series issued in 1910, Phyllis Monkman was a revue performer who made numerous forays onto the screen during a long career, including Hitchcock's Blackmail. However, history remembers her as the woman said to have taken the virginity of Prince Albert, or 'Bertie', the future King George VI during a private encounter. Historians have since debunked this, pointing to an encounter Bertie had with an unnamed woman in Paris (I love that serious historical debate is given over to the popping of royal cherries). 


Either way, Phyllis was never averse to publicity and in 1916, at the height of the First World War, the periodical Pearson's Weekly ran a competition in which male readers were invited to write and apply for the chance to win a series of dates with, and possibly even marry, Miss Monkman if she could find her ideal man. Concerned by the burden frustrated soldiers might put upon the Army postal system, the authorities ordered that the competition be ended before there was a winner.




Another from Wills's 1916 Cinema Stars set. Frankly I wouldn't have even heard of Mary Miles Minter but for reading Sidney D. Kikpatrick's book A Cast of Killers last year, which recounts King Vidor's investigation into the 1922 murder of fellow director William Desmond Taylor. Minter had been a successful child star several years earlier, at the time this card was issued, and her success continued with an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, directed by Taylor in 1919. 


A close relationship developed between the pair although opinions differ as to whether it was an affair or simply a teenage infatuation on Minter's part (Taylor was thirty years her senior). However, when romantic letters from Minter were found at Taylor's house after his murder her reputation was irrevocably tarnished and she retired from acting the following year. 

Kirkpatrick's book, which dramatises supposedly actual events, climaxes with Vidor confronting Minter decades after the murder, still convinced that she or her mother were in some way implicated. Minter is depicted as a pathetic, Baby Jane-like figure, who had never been able to adjust to reality. Personally I'm not sure whether to believe it's a faithful account of what happened, but it certainly casts Minter in a weird light.




From Edwards, Ringer and Bigg's Cinema Stars in 1923. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa will forever be remembered as Alec Guinness's nemesis Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai so it's perhaps surprising to see him gracing a cigarette card so many years earlier. In fact I was shocked to learn Hayakawa was one of the highest-earning stars in Hollywood at the turn of the 1920's, with a popularity to rival that of Chaplin or Fairbanks (says Wikipedia). Hayakawa's brooding good looks and potent sexuality gave him heartthrob status at a time when Valentino was still scraping a living as a dancing waiter in New York.

Hayakawa had originally arrived in the US to study political economics at the University of Chicago but grew disillusioned and quit. It was only while waiting for a transpacific steamship in Los Angeles that he developed an interest in acting and theatre which changed his life. He'd arrived at the perfect time; the film industry's migration west had only started a few years previously and opportunities were plentiful. By 1921 leading roles in films such as The Cheat and The Dragon Painter had taken him all the way to the top.

What went wrong? In short a profligate lifestyle and plain prejudice. By the time this card was issued he'd been forced out of Hollywood, but there were plenty more highs and lows to follow. Expect more on this fascinating figure in a future entry.


Wills's Cigarettes once again settled upon the imaginative title of Cinema Stars for this 1928 set which contains what might seem like an anomaly. Charlie Chaplin, who'd been somewhat quiet since the release of The Gold Rush three years previously (but would shortly return with The Circus) isn't included in the series, but his brother Sydney Chaplin is. Rather than concoct something original to say I'll copy the text from the back of the card...

Beginning his stage career as a child, he went to sea for a time, but later returned to acting. After being his famous brother's manager for some while, Syd Chaplin decided to act for the films himself, and also struck out in comedy. His type of comedy and his technique are different from Charlie's, as may be seen from his films, which include "Charlie's Aunt", "The Better '`Ole" and "A Little Bit of Fluff." To make the last, he returned to England, having been a member of Fred Karno's famous "Mumming Birds" on stage over here many years ago. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, on March 17th, 1887, he has black hair and brown eyes.

As it happens Syd was born in 1885 and was Charlie's half brother, his true paternity the source of some mystery. Syd had been enjoying some modest solo success as a comedy star back in England at the time this card was issued until claims of sexual assault (he was accused of biting off the nipple(!) of actress Molly Wright) in 1929 forced him to hightail it back to the US, leaving considerable debts in his wake. Thereafter he mainly focused on handling his brother's affairs and eventually settled in France, dying in 1965. From what I've seen of his work Syd has never struck me as more than a competent performer, but probably deserved better than to have a montage of moments put to a soundtrack of "The Wind Beneath My Wings" in a sickly Youtube tribute.

4 comments:

  1. I HAVE QUITE AN ACCUMULATION OF CIGARETTE CARDS, INCLUDING MOVIE'S.
    IF INTERESTED CONTACT ME AT lorenzomott@yahoo.it

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  2. Wonderfu! A treasure trove of the past. Sad thing is the proto Brit film industry kept going bust & it’s stars could become nobodies overnight. Britain has been aphetic about home-grown successes & there’s little nostalgia for the stars before Gainsborough, Ealing, Hammer etc

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  3. I hope you don't mind, I've mentioned your article in one of my YouTube videos on forgotten silent movie stars: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuCwc16Lymc

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    Replies
    1. Not at all! I enjoy your videos and they helped inform my piece, so glad to return the compliment. Thanks very much.

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