The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone
Henry B. Walthall was enough of a dazzler to endure for decades and decades after he adorned the silver screen for the last time. He now graces a whole new kind of screen – the computer screen, in the form of tribute pages to this handsome icon of golden silent era.
Although it sounds kind of strange to hear about people swooning over someone who hit his physical peak in the second and third decades of last century, all it takes is a look at photographs of this man to understand what all the fuss is about. As a bonus, he was also an excellent actor, which, along with his appearance, made for a potent elixir of movie magic and stardom.
How many actors can boast being so famous that they were written about on the back of cigarette cards? Henry Brazeale Walthall can, although admittedly, smoking was less controversial back then. In 1916, just such a card claimed that, “Mr. Walthall is probably seen in more pictures and places than any other screen artist [and] is considered by many the best actor in the motion picture world to-day.”
It’s no wonder Henry was so popular; he certainly knew how to put himself on the radar. Although he died at a relatively young age, he worked right until the end, and has a staggering 250 or titles to his credit (it’s hard to be sure of exactly how many), as H.B. or Henry Walthall.
Born on March 16, 1878 in Shelby City, Alabama, Henry entered the film business in 1909. Not a moment too soon – iconic and maverick film director D.W. Griffith discovered him and took him under his wing (by today’s standards, that’s akin to Steven Spielberg hand-picking you out of a crowded street for a screen test).
Henry’s young life, while not terribly exciting to write about, was by and large a happy and fortunate one. He had many siblings (ten brothers and one sister, Anna Mae, also an actress), and seemed born to perform. He presented plays, recited poetry, and also had a flair for the mandolin. He loved sports, and was a skilled horseback rider, marksman and swimmer. Like the great Jimmy Stewart after him, Henry was an intellectual and a patriot; he served in Spanish-American War, and also began law school before the acting bug got the better of him.
Griffith, the grandfather of the cinematic close-up, practically invented early American cinema; he was a master of technique, and also had visionary ideas about acting. Trained in the very gestural and expressive stage medium, Henry needed to learn how to act for the movies, and Griffith, at his Biograph stock company, showed him the way. Most important, he taught Henry that less is more, that subtlety is everything.
Henry was a great learner, and empathized very naturally; it wasn’t long before he was able to pull off toned down performances that drew people to him like a magnet. Which is a good thing, for Griffith put him right to the test, and fast! Henry made no less than 30 films in 1909, among them the short classic A Corner in Wheat, and Pranks and The Better Way.
From the few films of his still available, one can see how effective Henry was in his craft; he “spoke” not with words or melodramatic actions, but with the glance of an eye, or a small movement of the hand. Griffith was very pleased with his protégé, and the two of them turned out to be a powerful duo indeed. Throughout the 1910s, they released several major films together, some of which turned into instant classics and forever influenced the direction of film entertainment and film art. Highlights among these are: Judith of Bethulia; Home, Sweet Home; and The Avenging Conscience (all 1914).
Henry was by all accounts a major star by this time. But in 1915 the role of a lifetime presented itself to him, and he leapt upon the chance to seize it. The result was Griffith’s brilliant, three-hour masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. There is scarcely a film class that does not view this film, both for its textbook rendering of then-new editing techniques and for its controversial subject matter (including racial issues). Henry starred as Little Colonel, one of the great heroes of what turned out to be a failed attempt on behalf of the Southerners to win the American Civil War.
If Henry had made only this film, he would still be remembered today.
Surprisingly, he and Griffith parted ways after this experience, but Henry continued to work until the end of his life.
He also married, twice – his second wife, actress Mary Charleson, gave him a daughter in 1918.
Henry had a lot of clout due to his talent and popularity, and he also beat the odds that upset most of the idols of the silent screen: he survived cinema’s transition to sound. He had a deep, rich voice, and had already learned how to emote subtly from Griffith, so he proved a perfect casting choice for sound film directors eager to exploit talent that already held star status. He worked, mainly doing supporting roles, with several of the biggest names in Hollywood, from John Wayne and Will Rogers, to Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Humphrey Bogart.
Still, he was of an older generation, and the world was looking for a new type of hero, one who, like Bogart, carried with him the burdens of unknowable pasts. This was a gritty charm that Henry, matinee idol extraordinaire, did not embody.
Henry was famous, but he didn’t live life on the edge like many of his contemporaries did. He had no skeletons in his closet, and remained a tempered Southern gentleman to the end. His life, like his art, was full of grace: some of his later career highlights include Klondike (1932), Villa Villa! (1934), Men in White (1934), The Scarlet Letter (1934), Dante's Inferno (1935) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
But he didn’t go down without a fight; he in fact died while filming China Clipper in 1936. He collapsed on set and died and suffered both influenza and exhaustion from working so hard and so continuously. He died on June 17 at Pottenger Sanatorium in Monrovia, California. He was 58.
Although he didn’t finish the shoot the film was still completed, a fitting testament for a man died doing what he loved best and who would live on in the hearts and minds of film lovers everywhere to this day.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She was a regular contributor to what was formerly The Movie Profiles & Premiums monthly newsletter between 2002-2009.