JUNE 12, 2020
FILM HISTORIANS HAVE long viewed Florence Turner, the “Vitagraph Girl,” as the first movie star. A new study, however, argues that Maurice Costello was the first widely recognized film star. Terry Shulman’s Film’s First Family: The Untold Story of the Costellos cites a 1912 poll in Motion Picture Story Magazine showing not only that Costello was the “most popular player” but also that he had more votes than notable stars Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner combined. In 1924, Photoplay named him “the most recognized star in motion pictures.”
Maurice Costello was born in 1877 in Pittsburgh, at a difficult time for the city. Poor, sick mill workers abounded, and famine was rampant. His father died at 25; his mother was a widow who rented a large house and took on boarders — all Irish Catholic mill workers. Pittsburgh had been a town that championed theater; by the 1860s, however, the famed Pittsburgh Theater “was off limits to polite society” because it had become “the exclusive domain of local rowdies — working class toughs who drank openly during performances and behaved disruptively throughout.” The town was in desperate need of a cultural overhaul.
Drawn to the stage, Maurice found his first entertainment job singing “The Mick Who Threw the Brick” in 1894. Many Irish immigrants were taking to vaudeville, which was quickly becoming the people’s theater. The majority of these acts were comedy, with a dash of athletics such as boxing. Maurice also worked for Harry Davis, an entertainment entrepreneur who ran everything from museums and theaters to the early nickelodeons. It would take Maurice many years of grinding out gigs in saloons, playhouses, and “seedy auditoriums” in order to prove his value as a performer.
In 1902, Maurice married Mae Altschuk, whose father detested the acting profession. Though Pittsburgh had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country, Mae gave birth to two healthy daughters, Dolores in 1903 and Helene in 1906, both destined for show business. Maurice was an established stage actor, but movies were the growing — and better paying — trend. Unfortunately, working on film was seen by the high-minded theater crowd as an “artistic felony.” Intrigued by the new medium, Maurice began working for Vitagraph director Van Dyke Brooke in 1907.
Maurice quickly set out to change the film business. On the stage, the actor’s job was solely to act, but when Maurice arrived at Vitagraph, he saw actors doing many other tasks when not in front of the camera. Florence Turner, the famed “Vitagraph Girl,” recalled that, when she wasn’t performing, she was keeping books, attending business meetings, and writing checks in the main office. Paul Panzer, who played Romeo in the studio’s version of Romeo and Juliet, had to build his own balcony. When Maurice was hired as an actor, he was quickly put to work building sets. As Helene remembers, “Maurice surveyed this ignoble scene with flaring nostrils. In cold disdain, he rejected the claw hammer offered him by one of the Vitagraph partners.” Maurice would have none of it, and Vitagraph executive J. Stuart Blackton finally gave in. It was not long before carpenters were hired, and actors could focus fully on acting. This did not mean the screen talent was running the show: Dolores remembers a director telling her that the film stock was still worth more than the actors.
Shulman argues that “what D. W. Griffith did for film direction […], Maurice did for screen acting: that is, he raised the bar to a higher standard that quickly became the norm. And he did it a year before Griffith, who didn’t come work for Biograph until 1908.” Maurice transformed how players acted in front of the camera. Because cranking speeds varied by cameraperson, just as projection speeds varied by cinema, there was a wide range of movement on the silent screen. Some exhibitors even sped up their prints so as to fit more screenings into a day. As Shulman shows, Maurice was hailed — locally in the Pittsburgh Gazette and nationally in Photoplay — as the star who implemented a slower style of acting that played back onscreen more realistically. By 1910, Vitagraph was billing Maurice as the star of the program, with promotional blurbs such as, “A Vitagraph Night with Maurice Costello.” Helene and Dolores were also getting screen time as extras whenever children were needed.
Maurice’s popularity began to wane once publications started taking note of his family life. The throbbing hearts of fangirls worldwide had to find a new, unmarried matinee idol. His reputation also suffered when news broke of his violent alcoholism. By 1913, his star was fading fast, and after 1914, Vitagraph no longer used him as a primary player. Maurice jumped between film and theater, finding lower billing with each production. The family soon found themselves isolated in their Long Island estate, with only the recent memory of celebrity-studded parties to sustain them. The stark juxtaposition between excess and poverty was something his daughters would never forget.
Their fortunes changed again when a talent scout from Warner Bros. reached out to Dolores and offered her a screen test. Dolores, Helene, and Mae hopped on a train for Los Angeles while Maurice stayed behind to nurse his ailing stage career. Both Dolores and Helene landed small roles. They warmly remembered meeting Rin Tin Tin, the first star at Warner Bros., along with some of his puppies. In 1925, the Costello girls were given one-year contracts with the studio. Shulman’s narrative of the Costello women’s career adds useful context to our knowledge of the early Warner Bros. studio.
Dolores was cast alongside John Barrymore, the studio’s biggest star, in The Sea Beast (1926). Barrymore, who was then having an affair with Mary Astor, was smitten with Dolores. Maurice could not have been more jealous to see his daughter being courted by the type of star he believed he still should be. To make matters worse, at least for Maurice, Barrymore and Mae became fast friends. While the monumental celebrity of the Barrymore family has been solidified in film history for decades, Shulman’s book adds a long-missing layer to the tale, with its excavation of the prior fame of the Costellos. Moreover, without the screen chemistry he achieved with Dolores, Barrymore likely would have self-destructed much sooner than he did.
Maurice was well ahead of Barrymore in the game of self-sabotage. His jealousy led him to keep tabs on the family’s doings in Hollywood, especially after Barrymore moved in with them. Dolores and Barrymore wed in 1928, after she had briefly dated Lewis Warner, son of studio president Harry Warner. At the same time, Helene landed a role in Lights of New York (1928), the first feature-length all-talking film. “For all Dolores’s glamour and popularity,” Shulman observes, “it was Helene who made history.” Unfortunately, the film was not enough to win her stardom, and her career quickly fizzled. For her part, Dolores, bored to tears over the types of scripts being sent her way, voluntarily left the studio to play wife to John Barrymore. The couple soon gave birth to Dede, who is still alive today and who was interviewed for the book. Dolores, who became absorbed in domestic life as Barrymore’s career continued to take off, was eventually let go from her contract at Warner Bros. Like many other studios, Warners had a clause that legally allowed them to fire actresses if they got pregnant. While Dolores didn’t much care to return to the screen anyway, this stands as a startling reminder of the draconian control the studios had over their talent.
Dolores and Helene would get their Warner Bros. sendoff in Show of Shows in 1929. After Mae’s death, however, the family began to unravel. Shulman takes readers on several strange journeys, in one of which a young piano teacher, Vivienne Sengler, sues Maurice for $100,000 after he supposedly broke off their engagement. It’s unclear whether or not there was ever a proposal, but Shulman, who sees Sengler as harboring “an oedipal obsession with a washed-up movie star,” cites one letter in which she threatened to kill herself if Maurice didn’t write back. This strange episode shows how quickly the movies evolved, where someone could be a major silent-era star but washed up by 1930, yet still have a kind of lingering celebrity.
Helene went on to marry actor/director Lowell Sherman, who was many years her senior (and probably best known for directing Mae West in She Done Him Wrong ). Their marriage fell apart in 1932, during a divorce proceeding that Shulman calls “one of the most damaging marital smear campaigns in Hollywood history.” First, Sherman stole $100,000 worth of Helene’s jewelry before ultimately returning it; then he accused her of having a drinking problem, which certainly ran in the family. Finally, and most aggressively, he exposed Helene as a reader of pornography, submitting 14 of her books to the court, including The Memoirs of Fanny Hill. The ownership of these texts was never clearly established, and the books strangely went missing from the courthouse. Shulman details the entire bizarre series of events that followed. As Movie Classic wrote in 1932, “It was a good, old-fashioned divorce with fireworks, tears, accusations ‘n’ everything — that is, until some of the Movie Powers stepped in and pushed down the soft pedal.”
Helene had a string of bad luck that followed her for the rest of her life. Episodes of depression, botched surgeries, drug abuse, and time spent in sanitariums would define her later life. Maurice and John Barrymore would go out in similar fashion, by way of the bottle. Dolores hung on much longer, though her stint in Hollywood would be over by the mid-’40s, with her last two roles in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and This is the Army (1943).
Unlike many histories of notorious Hollywood families, Shulman’s does not wallow in the downfall of its stars. Instead, Film’s First Family shows the strengths that led to the Costellos’ accomplishments, during some extraordinarily difficult times and amid the birth and growth of an entirely new medium. Maurice, Helene, and Dolores were among the first film celebrities to run the complete gauntlet of a Hollywood career, from youthful fame to scandal and oblivion. While the Barrymores will be remembered forever, the Costellos have yet to share in their enduring celebrity. Shulman’s biography goes some distance toward rectifying this neglect, showing that there are still many forgotten stories of old Hollywood left to be told.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication in the department of arts and humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His next book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into War Mongering in Motion Pictures, will be published in September 2020 by the University Press of Mississippi.