The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone
Lillian Walker has graced the screen in over 170 productions – an incredible amount even by the standards of the day. Like many of her peers, she had her own moniker (two, in fact), and her appeal was packaged by the Hollywood brass with finesse to such an extent that she became one of the more popular young starlets of the day.
Lillian was born Lillian Wolke on April 21, 1887 in Brooklyn, New York. As we know from many of the other silent screen biographies, New York was the original hub of the image-making industry. From early Edison Motion Picture Production to films made by the emerging studios, like Paramount, cinema’s early years were based on the East Coast, where new technologies were invented, the first sets were built, and the first films chronicling street life in motion for the first time were captured. Edison’s very first studio, the Black Maria, was perched atop a building in New York, enclosed by glass.
The very year after Lillian’s birth, in fact, cinematic history was made: Thomas Edison made a decision not to collaborate with technological wizard and entrepreneur Eadweard Muybridge to invent something visual out of the phonograph. Instead, he contacted the Patents Office in the United States to describe to them his new idea for what would become a motion picture camera, something that would be the visual equivalent of the phonograph, in his words. From here, the Kinetoscope was born.
Lillian entered the scene in 1911. This is another interesting year from a historical perspective. Edison’s company was in trouble; for all his technological innovations, other companies had caught up and were actually making better films in terms of storytelling. Edison reacted by reorganizing his assets and creating a new company, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. which included a number of his ventures and ideas; this was also the year he began making films more than one reel long (18 minutes maximum). He also launched his Home Projecting Kinetoscope using a different type of film stock. All this, however, did not help save the reputation, in the end. As we know, the heady days of Hollywood studios were not far off.
All of this was lost on young Lillian, however. She started making films with the Vitagraph company, which was also located on a rooftop in Manhattan – they were in direct competition with the Edison Company. Vitagraph was eventually bought by Warner Brothers in 1925. For now, however, they were thriving, and were starting to use feature and regular actors.
In 1911 alone, she made 17 films, worth mentioning in their entirety to provide the flavour of films being made and presented at the time: Testing His Courage, The Husking Bee, Their Charming Mama, Second Daughter, By Way of Mrs. Browning, A Ballerina, The Wager, The Tired, Absent-Minded Man, Cherry Blossoms, The Ambassador's Daughter, The Other Sweetheart, The Willow Tree, A Friendly Marriage, Lillian Colton, The Prince and the Pumps, The Second Honeymoon, The Wife, In the Arctic Night, Teaching McFadden to Waltz, The Inherited Taint, The Coquette, A Widow Visits Springtown, The Wild Cat Well, and A Tale of Two Cities.
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The latter, one of many versions of the Dickens classic, was directed by noted actor and director William Humphreys. Lillian came to work with many emerging talents. Genres varied, as did her personas, but her allure and girl-next-door good looks were winning audiences over in spades. Over the next few years she starred in countless productions, including: Working for Hubby, Leap Year Proposals, Pandora’s Box and The Miracle (1912); Bunny’s Dilemma, The Carpenter, When the Press Speaks and Our Wives (1913); Fanny’s Melodrama, Eve’s Daughter, Lillian’s Dilemma; Miss Tomboy and Freckles and The Methods of Margaret (1914).
Many of these films, as you can see, are women-centered films – in other words, star vehicles for Lillian. Her glory years lasted until 1915, a year she made over twenty films, including: A Lily in Bohemia, Lillian’s Husbands, A “Model” Wife, The Honeymoon Pact and Dimples and the Ring, perhaps the film that gave her one of her monikers, Lillian “Dimples” Walker. She was also known as the Dresden Doll, and the images you see of her on this page indicate why – Lillian’s adorable face and short, curly blonde hair make her look exactly like a fragile doll.
Lillian often co-starred with another overlooked silent screen legend, John Bunny, who was tremendously popular in the teens of last century but who has been cast aside by many writers of early cinema history.
As for Lillian, she made several more movies, including: Mrs. Dane’s Danger, The Kid and Her Bad Quarter of an Hour (1916); Kitty MacKay, Dimple’s Baby, Lust of the Ages and The Princess of Park Row (1917); The Grain of Dust (1918) and The Joyous Liar (1919).
The roles were becoming fewer and far between, and virtually tapered off by 1920, a full seven years before the coming of sound, which destroyed the careers of so many silent legends. In 1918, however, she founded her own company, Crest Productions, which gave her the remainder of her starring roles until the early 1920s; her last of these was Love’s Boomerang in 1922.
Lillian made two more films, 1929’s Pusher-in-the-Face (1929, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and 1934’s Enlighten Thy Daughter, and then officially retired.
Ever the performer, she attempted a comeback by eking a career out on Broadway as well as several vaudeville venues, to moderate success. Not long after her last film in Hollywood, Lillian made an exotic move, to Trinidad, where she lived until her death on October 10, 1975.
Lillian was in some ways utterly unique – all the screen sirens were, in that they each had their own “brand’ and became household names for their own unique personas. But she also fell into that category of once-luminous stars nearly forgotten, and little written about, in the annals of history – perhaps it is through her films that she’ll be remembered most.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.