Blanche Sweet, original portrait photo by Hartsook, c. 1915
Blanche Sweet, American stage and film actress 1896-1986, active 1898-1960, in an original studio photo portrait by Fred Hartsook Studio, Los Angeles, circa 1915. Blanche Sweet began her career in theater before age two, and as a child actress worked with Maurice Barrymore (father of John, Lionel and Ethel and great-grandfather of Drew). She toured with Chauncey Olcott's company from age 6 to 9, entered movies with Edison and Biograph briefly in 1909, making her first appearance working for D. W. Griffith in his early short masterpiece, "A Corner in Wheat" (1909). Sweet spent most of 1910 with a dance company, then rejoined Biograph in early 1911, appearing in seminal dramas directed by Griffith such as "The Lonedale Operator," "The Last Drop of Water" (both 1911),"The Painted Lady" (1912) and "Death's Marathon" (1913).
As Griffith made the transition to multi-reel and feature films, she had major roles in "The Massacre" (1912), "Home Sweet Home" (1914), "The Avenging Conscience" (both 1914), and the four-reel Biblical epic, "Judith of Betulia" (1913, Griffith's last Biograph, released in 1914). Her performance in the title role made her a major star and cemented her place in film history. After leaving Griffith when she failed to get the lead role (which went to Lillian Gish) in "Birth of a Nation" (1915), she worked for nearly every major studio. Highlights included her roles in "Anna Christie" (1923, Ince Studios, dir. Thomas Ince), praised by playwright Eugene O'Neill as an outstanding adaptation of his stage drama, and "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" (MGM, 1924), directed by Marshall Neilan, her husband and production partner in the 20s.
Her film career wound to a close after several sound films in the early 1930s, even though her speaking and singing voice were both well-suited for sound. She continued working on stage and in radio in the 30s and 40s, as well as television in the 50s and 60s. As a film pioneer, she provided much valuable source material about early filmmaking and film acting, giving numerous interviews to writers, historians and documentarians, including the monumental "Hollywood" documentary series produced in 1980 by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill. Blanche Sweet died in New York City at age 90 in 1986, not long before a career retrospective of her work was held at the Museum of Modern Art.
Because most of her post-Griffith work does not survive, and she was never closely identified with a particular image or style, Blanche Sweet is not as well-known or remembered as her contemporaries Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, but her contributions to the development of the art of film acting are considerable, and arguably just as important as any of her contemporaries.