Picked Like a Rose: Silent Film Actresses

This summer, we are hosting a new exhibit, curated by Programming and Exhibitions Librarian Rhonda Rosen, “Picked Like a Rose: Silent Film Actresses.” Inspired by the song “Clara Bow” on Taylor Swift’s latest album, the exhibit showcases the lives of various silent film actresses who, like Bow and Swift, had to find ways to battle the publicity machines of their day, including the exhaustive amount of public attention, while striving to be an artist.

Silent film was a new and exciting venture: more of a “wild, wild west adventure” than a professional industry. There were few rules, few support systems, and fewer standards. Film making was in its infancy, and everyone was learning as they went along. At the same time, young women were leaving home to escape poverty, hoping to find a better life or a ticket to stardom. Some found fame and fortune, but many didn’t. Those that did those able to build a career worked incredibly hard and undertook significant physical and mental risks.

In his biography of Clara Bow, “Runnin’ Wild,” author David Stenn writes of the iconic “it girl” and shares this quote from Clara to a Photoplay reporter in 1929, “Work, work, work. Go home at night. Can’t sleep. Think too much [… ] Think ‘bout my life, ‘bout the new picture, ‘bout my lines… Really, my nerves is shot.”

The fan magazines were born during this period (circa 1913), and in their rush to increase profits, they dissected every aspect of these women’s lives whether factual or not. Every minute of their life was directed by the magazines and their fans, building them into unrealistic icons while at the same time assuring their readers that they were real people (“You too can be a star if you use the same mascara, the same way as Clara Bow!”). When the “talkies,” or talking pictures, came into fashion, many of these actresses were tossed aside as unacceptable to the now listening public.

Swift’s song “Clara Bow” is a cautionary tale of the fleetingly fragility of fame. This exhibit looks at many of the silent film actresses of the era, focusing on aspects such as typecasting, working conditions, image, the fans, and more, offering their stories, their struggles, and their successes.

The exhibition “Picked Like a Rose” is on display through July 22, 2024, on level 3 of the William H. Hannon Library. Visit our website for library hours (and note we are closed for July 4).