It seemed the critics and the writers for the fan magazines
were more taken with her beauty than her acting. One writer said
she had the face of an early Italian angel. Another called her
the Toast of Hollywood. One summed it up by saying, "There
are pretty women and there are beautiful women and there are witty
women. And then there is Corinne Griffith."
Corinne Griffith was born in Texarkana, Texas, Nov. 21, 1894 (a date of 1898 was given by one fan magazine in 1925). She attended the local schools there, then went on to the Sacred Heart Convent in New Orleans, La., where she matriculated.
Griffith was a "popular society girl" in New Orleans winning first prize in a Mardis Gras beauty contest. Afterwards, Vitagraph director Rolin Sturgeon encountered her at a society affair where she "posed in tableaux and danced" and offered her a movie contract. Although her parents were reluctant at first, they finally gave their consent, and her mother accompanied her to California.
She made her first films in 1916, usually western two-reelers. She soon moved up to leading lady roles with established stars such Earle Williams and Harry Morey, and by 1918 became the featured star of her own movies.
Griffith spent her first year working in California, but Vitagraph then moved her to New York where she was introduced to the coldest weather she had ever experienced. While making "The Girl of Today" (1918), she was required to do location work on the ice blocks of the Hudson River, in the snow fields around Albany and at the Ashokan Dam, the heart of New York's water supply. It was described as "the coldest winter since Washington crossed the Delaware," and, one day, Griffith finally collapsed on the verge of freezing. It was reportedly quite some time before she returned to work after "a long illness."
From 1916 to 1922, Griffith made 35 features for Vitagraph. She began 1923 with one feature for Goldwyn and one for Selznick before entering into a long relationship with First National Pictures. From 1923 until 1930, she made 19 features for the company, straying only once when she made "The Garden of Eden" for United Artists in 1928. She is listed as executive producer of 11 of these films.
Griffith took an active role in the making of her films and devoted herself totally to a film project once it began. She reportedly worked ten-hour days, as well as many evenings to confer on scripts, production details, casting and more. She was one of the rare stars who would view the rushes of her films at the end of the day and have input into the cutting and titling.
It was pointed out by at least one contemporary writer that Griffith would not smoke, swear or wear make-up "in person." One of the most famous of the fan magazine writers, Adele Rogers St. Johns, said, " . . . she is innocence personified . . . no one would be apt to tell a risqué story in front of Corinne Griffith," adding, "furthermore, she is reserved. In a land where last names are forgotten overnight, she is still 'Miss Griffith'." Another labeled her as "calm and poised."
Griffith was also considered the most astute businesswoman in the silent movies this side of Mary Pickford. The fact that she was a "calm and poised" person complemented her business acumen and was evident, in at least one instance that was recounted, as she arrived at an appointed hour to close a $200,000 deal "without so much as disturbing the dog that yawned on her arm or removing her fawn-gray gloves." A 1927 article quoted "an old financier of Beverly Hills" as saying, "What a brain that girl has!" noting that she had amassed half a million dollars in real estate, yet still in her twenties.
Griffith was always careful with her money and never yearned for the extravagances of most stars. During the four years she spent working for Vitagraph in New York, she lived at the Hotel des Artistes which was also the home of such stars as Mae Murray, Dorothy Dalton and director George Fitzmaurice. When she signed with First National and moved to California, she did buy a large home, but with none of the excesses nor desire for social life that one would expect of a wealthy star.
Looking at Griffith's film output, one can see a steady succession of popular films that received notice in the fan magazines and were successful for the star, although none stands out as an enduring classic. Nevertheless, her popularity was consistently high with the fans from her first starring roles in 1918 through her final silent roles. In 1924, Film Daily conducted a poll of exhibitors to determine the top box-office attractions. Silent film fans today can gain some sense of perspective of her popularity in realizing that Griffith tied for sixth place with Rudolph Valentino in that 1924 poll. A 1928 article on fan mail provides an unusual indicator of Griffith's popularity. The magazine noted, "Of all the stars in pictures, probably none is the namesake of so many babies as Corinne Griffith. Never a Griffith mail arrives but what there very likely will be news of another Corinne. 'And,' says Miss Griffith, 'it's a thing of which I'm very proud.'"
The fan magazines, however, most often focused their stories on her exceptional beauty, an assessment on which her public agreed. In 1924, Photoplay magazine asked their readers to select the most beautiful actresses on the screen. Griffith placed fourth behind Mary Pickford, Pola Negri and Norma Talmadge. The article described her as "beautiful as a hot house flower. An orchid, robed in cloth of silver and glimmering chiffon." In a 1923 Photoplay article entitled, "Why Men Go Crazy About Corinne Griffith," writer Adele Rogers St. Johns said, "Her physical charms are too obvious to mention. In the old days, her little, slender feet, and her lovely hands -- have you ever noticed her hands? -- and her white teeth and her soft hair would have been the subject of poems. And, in passing, do you know she's the only woman in a long time whose hands any man has mentioned to me? In the old days, indeed, she would have been a belle and a toast." When Variety reviewed Griffith's "The Divine Lady" in 1929, it only gave her moderate praise for her acting, but added, "In general, she is simply the insistently beautiful, willowy creature born to drive men cuckoo."
In the mid-twenties, Griffith's height was 5 feet 4 inches. Her weight was listed as 120 pounds, and she had blue eyes and brown hair. As a matter of fact, in an earlier fan magazine interview, she asked the interviewer to make sure her readers knew that her hair was naturally brown. Apparently, this genuineness was important to her.
Corinne Griffith was one of those actresses whose life, in spite of being married and divorced twice during the time she was making silent movies, was free from scandal. She was a much more private person than many of the stars and was much more interested in her work life than her social life. She would sometimes be referred to as "aloof," but apparently not in a negative way. She was well-liked, particularly by the writers for the fan magazines who heaped praise upon her in every way, most often referring to her manners and hospitality to which they attributed her Southern heritage. For example, one writer noted that Griffith offered her chair when she arrived for the interview, and, when viewing the day's rushes, preferred to sit on a bench instead of a comfortable chair so she could "sit with the boys" and "talk about the picture." The interviewer closed her article with "And that's what Corinne Griffith suggests -- whether she's going thru a scene in the studio or talking with you in her dressing room -- she is the essence of the Old South with its ideals, its petty sentiments and its romance -- ever and always the gentlewoman."
Apparently, though, Griffith was not without some of the typical star temperament, as remembered by Colleen Moore in her later years. She said Griffith complained often that First National gave Moore more publicity. Also, when First National built Moore a new bungalow, Griffith "caused such a commotion" that they had to build one for her, as well. Moore said they planted a hedge between the two bungalows that gossipers referred to as "the spite fence," but she claimed they were "great friends" and "we had nothing whatsover to be jealous of each other about." She did add, however, that that it "irked" Griffith to see Moore's movies making more money than hers.
Griffith never appeared on stage as so many actors did before coming to the movies, however, at one point in her career, she did yearn for this experience. In an interview in 1921, Griffith admitted her desire to do a stage play, saying she favored light comedy over melodrama. She even went so far as to get permission from Vitagraph for time off to do a Broadway play and made all the arrangements, but then decided she couldn't do both stage and film work. She did, however, take dancing lessons in anticipation of going on the stage.
During the silent era, Griffith was married twice. She was wed to Vitagraph director Webster Campbell from 1920-1923, then to producer Walter Morosco from 1924-1934.
Griffith's final silent film was "The Divine Lady" (1929), a historical drama about the lives of Lady Emma Hamilton and Admiral Nelson. Author and silent film historian Anthony Slide claims "The Divine Lady" surpasses "Sunrise" (1928) in "the blending of German expressionism and technical virtuosity" and, therefore, is a more fitting example of silent film at its best at the close of the era. He noted the "brilliant romanticism" of the film, adding that "The Divine Lady" was "exemplary of the best in direction, scripting, and cinematography, and, above all, is dominated by a lyrical performance from its star." Slide's assessment is supported by the fact that "The Divine Lady" received academy awards for photography and direction. Variety said the movie had "sumptuous production, splendid acting, beautiful sets, costumes and photography," but thought the story "spasmodic, episodic and anemic." Nevertheless, the success of the film was doomed by the onset of sound. To make matters worse, First National released Griffith's first talkie, "Saturday's Children," just two months after the release of "The Divine Lady." Although it included sound effects and a song, it failed to make a profit for the studio.
Griffith's career with First National ended with two talkies in 1930 - "Lilies of the Field" and "Back Pay." Of "Lilies of the Field," Time Magazine said, "Pretty Corinne Griffith talks through her nose in her first sound film." The New York Times said, "Corinne Griffith in 'Lilies of the Field" is probably the saddest person on the screen. Her voice is sad, her manner is tear-drenched, her gestures are those of despair, and the onlookers' reaction to all this sorrowful business is decidedly negative . . . " The Times review for "Back Pay" a few months later wasn't any better with the reviewer commenting that the story had "no manner of suspense to relieve the quiescent performances of some of the players and only Miss Griffith's tired voice to listen to most of the time." After these two films, Griffith released First National from her contract on the condition she receive her full salary. She reportedly commented, "Why should I go on until I am playing mother roles? I have plenty of money. I want to improve my mind. Most of the time you'll find me bobbing around in Europe."
Griffith essentially finished her film career with a 1932 feature in England for Paramount-British entitled "Lily Christine," however, she appeared in a film for producer-director Hugo Haas in the late 1950's originally entitled "Stars in Your Own Backyard" which was released in 1961 as "Paradise Alley."
In 1936, she married Boston Braves owner George Marshall. They divorced in 1958. While married to Marshall, Griffith began her writing career with an article for the Saturday Evening Post about her experiences as a baseball fan. This was expanded into a book the following year entitled "My Life with the Redskins." She authored several more books in the coming years including Papa's Delicate Condition (1952), Eggs I Have Known (1955), Hollywood Stories (1962), This You Won't Believe (1972) and I'm Lucky - At Cards (1974). Papa's Delicate Condition was made into a motion picture in 1963 starring Jackie Gleason.
In the late 1950's, Griffith was the chairman of The Committee for Honoring Motion Picture Stars which sponsored a bronze statuary to be erected in Beverly Hills honoring some of the community's most famous residents -- Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix, Will Rogers, etc., but Griffith did not include herself among the honorees.
Her final marriage was in 1965 at the age of 71 to a realtor (one source says he was a Broadway actor) named Dan Scholl, 33 years her junior. They separated after six weeks and, following a messy and much publicized court battle, were divorced.
Griffith lived her later years very comfortably in her Beverly Hills mansion along with her servants. She was one of the wealthiest women in the world when she passed away July 13, 1979, leaving an estate of $150 million.
Although Griffith did leave behind 58 feature films between 1916 and 1932 to her credit, it appears only about 10 survive. A great appreciation goes to Flicker Alley for providing a superb copy of Griffith's "The Garden of Eden" (1928) on DVD. Unfortunately, only an incomplete print of "The Black Oxen" (1924) seems to be available on video, although a complete print does survive. What a sad loss to silent movie fans that more of this talented -- and, yes, it must be said -- beautiful star's films are not available for home viewing today so we can see for ourselves why she was consistently one of the top ten stars for movie fans in the twenties.
Below are Corinne Griffith's features that still exist
today. Thanks to Jon Mirsalis for providing this list.
"Back Pay" (1930) - Library of Congress
"The Divine Lady" (1929) - UCLA
"Outcast" (1928) - survives in Italy
"The Garden of Eden" (1928) - Eastman House
"Three Hours" (1927) - Eastman House
"Classified" (1925) - Library of Congress
"Black Oxen" (1924) - Eastman House
"A Virgin's Sacrifice" (1922) - Eastman House
"Thin Ice" (1919) - survives in France
"Transgression" (1917) - survives in France
copyright 2003 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
For more on Griffith, see our Feature of the Month -- "The Garden of Eden"
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