A Star is Born – Gloria Swanson at Essanay
“You ought to screen wonderfully, if you don’t screen terribly,” the director challenged the young woman touring the studio. The petite young girl was not intimidated. “Try me,” she fired back. And at only 15, Gloria Swanson was well on her way to becoming a star.
Born in Chicago on March 27, 1899, Gloria May Josephine Swanson was born just six years after Thomas Edison held his first public exhibition of Kinetograph films, and the Pathe-Freres was founded. She matured as the movies matured, but she did not intend on becoming a movie star. Her father was a civilian supply officer with the army, which caused the family to move from Chicago to Florida and even Puerto Rico. In 1914 they returned to Chicago, and by this time, the city’s own Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was a major contender in the film industry. One day, Swanson toured the studio with her aunt. It was this tour that, fellow Essanay star Rod La Rocque later said, inspired her to become a photoplayer.”
Even at 15, Swanson’s beauty was apparent with her smoky gray eyes and petite figure making her stand out. La Rocque later praised Swanson, saying she was the most fantastic thing they’d ever seen. So, it was on that tour she was noticed by one of the studio’s directors. “You ought to screen wonderfully, if you don’t screen terribly,” he told her. “I wanted to see if it was possible these others had something I didn’t have,” Swanson recalled. “It was a dare. ‘Try me,’ I said to him. He told me to report for a mob scene scheduled for the following week. I went and was selected to play a small part.”
Gloria Swanson film The Romance of an American Dutchess
She was hired in at the salary of $13.25 a week to play extra parts in comedies as well as dramas. Although much of the Essanay library has been lost to time, one of Swanson’s earliest appearances has been preserved, namely because of the film’s star — Charlie Chaplin. In “His New Job” — the only film Chaplin made while at the Chicago branch of Essanay — Swanson played the bit part of a stenographer. It was later remarked that she very nearly became Chaplin’s leading lady, but her complexion, stature and personality resembled his too much for her to be the perfect foil (an honor that would soon go to Edna Purviance). Instead, she continued as a bit player and extra, often credited as Gloria Mae. One of her most prominent early appearances was alongside Richard Travers and Ruth Stonehouse in “The Romance of an American Duchess,” but the films that, perhaps, had the greatest affect on Swanson’s life were “Sweedie Goes to College” and “The Broken Pledge,” for it was in these films that she cemented her romantic relationship with Wallace Beery.
Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson
Fourteen years her senior, Beery had already established himself as a popular comedic and character actor, with roles like Sweedie — the butch Swedish housemaid. Still, he was taken with the beautiful extra and the two fell in love on the Essanay lot. They would often drive around the city in his bright yellow roadster, causing quite a bit of racket. Although she was young, the two were in love and when Beery made the move to California to further his career, she followed him, leaving Essanay behind. In 1916, the pair married and she joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios. Although her time with Essanay was short, it was that fateful studio tour that drove her to become a film actress and, arguably, one of the greatest and biggest stars of her generation.
You can help save one of the first and last remaining silent film studios in the world. Act now and donate to the restoration and reuse of the historic Essanay Studios. Click here to visit the Essanay Indiegogo Campaign page.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
THANK YOU Janelle for sharing some of Essanay’s historic past with Classic Movie Hub. You can follow Janelle on Twitter at @Essanay .