A Life in Intertitles

THE FLAPPER, written by Frances Marion (THE SCARLET LETTER) and directed by Alan Crosland (BELOVED ROGUE), is an intermittently amusing, very watchable comedy, made both fascinating and melancholy by the appearance of star Olive Thomas. Not only is Thomas’s life at cruel odds with the lighthearted movie she stars in, the intertitles keep butting up against the facts of her story in a way that seems cruel, suggestive, mysterious and discomfiting. And since those are all emotions I can enjoy at times, I thought I’d bring you the Olive Thomas story, in illustrated intertitle form.

Information lifted wholesale from the IMDb and Wikipedia.

She was born Oliva R. Duffy, or possibly Oliveretta Elaine Thomas, in 1894. She was brought up in a working-class home in Pittsburgh. Her father died when she was young and she had to leave school to help support her family. She married at 16 but it didn’t take — she divorced two years later and went to New York.

Working in a Harlem department store, Olive responded to a newspaper contest seeking The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City — and won!

This led to a modeling career, including landing the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Artist Harrison Fisher recommended Olive to Florenz Ziegfeld, and she joined the Follies, and the racier Midnight Frolic, where she performed clad only in balloons. Alberto Vargas painted her nude.

Olive signed with the International Film Company and began her movie career appearing in the serial BEATRICE FAIRFAX, with Harry Fox, “inventor” of the foxtrot. She went on to work with directors John Francis Dillon, Frank Borzage, Ralph Ince and Alan Crosland.

In 1916 she became engaged to Mary Pickford’s brother Jack, eloping with him shortly after. It proved to be a stormy relationship.

In 1918, she signed with David O Selznick.

“But I want to create a certain role, you see Mary is the kid in pictures; Norma does drama; Constance is the flippant, flighty wife; Dorothy the hoyden; Nazimova is exotic and steeped in mystery, my Jack does boys, while I–I–why don’t you see, I am just nothing at all!” In fact, Olive was the first movie flapper, or “baby vamp”.

Olive’s tendency to drink and wild partying increased during her marriage to Jack, resulting in several serious car accidents.

Drugs were also rumoured.

In August 1920, the pair embarked on a second honeymoon in Paris, attempting to repair their strained marriage. On the night of September 9th in the Ritz Hotel, Olive drank what she apparently thought was a sleeping draught, but confusion with the labels of various bottles apparently meant that she took a mercury bichloride solution, prescribed for Pickford’s syphilis and not intended for ingestion. It can also be used as a cleaning product.

She died a few days later, aged just 25. It was the first time a young Hollywood star had died at the height of their fame. Rumours abounded of suicide or murder.

Although she died in Paris, her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Hotel Theater, New York.

“I think that you die when your time comes and not until then. I feel the same about other things as I do about death. I don’t think you can change anything that is going to happen to you any more than you can change anything that has happened to you. That’s why I never worry, and that is why I don’t think people should get conceited and think themselves better than others.”

“Life’s too short and fate too funny to get upstage, Today they may be showering us with roses on Broadway and tomorrow some fool director who used to be a waiter may be rejecting us as atmosphere in a five reel five cent feature…”

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9 Responses to “A Life in Intertitles”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Beatrice Fairfax,
    Don’t you dare,
    Ever tell me he will care.
    I’m certain–
    It’s the final curtain . . .

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    The Jack Pickford-William Haines romance in BROWN OF HARVARD (26) is really one for the ages. . .

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Jack went on to destroy yet another legend with his wicked, wicked ways: Marilyn Miller.

  4. Christopher Says:

    ah…I almost thought I’d miss those great intertitles this sunday.
    Funny the amount of emotion a few neatly drawn words can conjure up between the scenes..
    I recently picked up the Frank Borzage Vol.1 dvd of 7th Heaven and Street Angel from Amazon UK and enjoyed both immensely…the power of simplicity.

  5. Oh yes, simple ideas pursued with vigor and conviction, often more powerful than the most sophisticated nuances. And Borzage really means it.

    Jack Pickford supposedly would call out Olive’s name during his delirious moments… but I suspect he was basically bad news.

  6. david wingrove Says:

    Never seen a film with Olive Thomas, but she looks enchanting. A classier version of Clara Bow, perhaps?

  7. She has a similar way of play-acting, like it’s all make-believe, and her intent is to entertain rather than convince. It’s very sweet.

  8. Her ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theater, not the hotel. Disney has renovated the historic theater, and currently runs Mary Poppins there. In tribute to Olive, her portraits hang backstage and in the lobby. The Ziegfeld Follies made their home at the New Amsterdam for several years. The Midnight Frolic shows that she participated in, were staged on the roof of the theater…now that roof (deemed unsafe) is walled off, and no longer accessible.

  9. Thanks for the info and correction. If the roof is sealed off, that must surely be where her ghost is… cavorting naked with balloons, but no rich men to pop them with cigars…

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