By John Bredin
Born on Mott St., Blanche Walsh was America’s first movie star. She also played a key role in my family story.
I’m on a mission to re-write Hollywood history. A very important woman has been left out. But don’t the women usually get left out? Well enough, I say, of this patriarchal nonsense; that’s bastante in Spanish (my wife hails from Bogota, Colombia).
The first American movie star, in case you didn’t know—and unless you’re a film scholar you probably wouldn’t, so go easy on yourself—was Blanche Walsh. Already a queen of the Belle Epoque stage (she was America’s version of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse), Walsh’s only film was a 1912 adaptation of Tolstoy’s most provocative, political, and best-selling novel, Resurrection. More radical than War & Peace or Anna Karenina, Resurrection got Tolstoy booted from the Russian Orthodox Church and, just for fun, helped foment the 1917 Russian Revolution. I’m telling you, this story is deep.
Prior to Resurrection, which was Hungarian immigrant Adolph Zukor’s original production, films were mostly short—20 minutes or so (“one or two-reel jobs” in the film biz lingo of the day). They lacked a plot or unified story. There was just basic pie-in-the-face slapstick or Billy Bronco jumping on his horse—that sort of thing. Film actors weren’t taken seriously as artists, and the notion of a movie star was still an alien concept.
Enter Adolph Zukor. The canny former fur peddler, who made his bones on the Lower East Side (and lived to 103, the old codger), felt movie audiences were ready for an authentic, complex story—similar to a novel, play, or magazine article. As for creating the notion of a “movie star,” Zukor’s financial instincts told him that banks would lend him more money for projects if he had a “bankable star.” He was right. His Famous Players Studio, launched in 1912 with Blanche Walsh “starring” in Resurrection, eventually became Paramount.
But, you might be thinking, what about the love part of the story? This is the Village, after all, the Bohemian capital of peace and love. Ok, here comes the love.
When I was a little boy, my grandmother taught me all the fairy tales. But my favorite story that she told was a real one. Blanche Walsh, who you just learned was the first American movie star, also did something extraordinary on the stage of her real life, proving the wisdom of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” theory. Though childless, Walsh rescued my seven-year-old grandmother Doris Bredin from a London orphanage, brought her to NYC, and looked after her like a second mother. I still get weepy when I recall this amazing act of empathy which played a key, magical role in my family story: a story connected, amazingly, to the birth of cinema.
Maybe Tolstoy, whose pacifism influenced Gandhi and MLK, was right when he said “Love is the fundamental law of human life.” My own existence is proof of this. I wouldn’t be here to write this if America’s first movie star hadn’t engaged in an unselfish act of kindness toward my young grandmother. Love is still the answer, as John and Yoko (who once lived on Bank Street) sang.
In the current bleak political moment, though with signs of hope emerging as women, students, and teachers find their voices, I hope this unusual story—where empathy and literature intermingle with cinema and politics—might resonate with people who are tired of the endless “breaking news” cycle. I’d like to use it as a teaching tool to spark visions of a transformed cultural landscape moving forward: one that cares more about people, and saving our planet, than box office receipts.
As a living beneficiary of the first American movie star, I even think the very concept of fame—which has given us Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump—ought to be reimagined in a less vapid and more ethical way. No more fame for the sake of fame please. Remembering the radical, loving, and forgotten origins of cinema might help us (moving forward) to imagine a Hollywood for the greater good one day. I am currently on a lecture tour to explore this possibility; I hope to present the lecture in Greenwich Village soon.
John Bredin is an educator, writer, and host of the nonprofit TV show Public Voice Salon: an open dialogue on education, the arts, and social change. The author of 15 books, John lectures widely on media, culture, and education. His current talk, “Imagine a Hollywood for the Greater Good,” can be given at schools, theaters, civic spaces, art galleries, churches, or people’s homes. John welcomes your reactions, in dialogue, at email@example.com.