Silent Memories

Silent-film stars Norma Talmadge, Augustus Phillips, Bliss Milford and Romaine Fielding were among the many actors to appear in Lillian J. Sweetser's "photoplays" filmed by East Coast Studios.

Movie acting was all about pantomime back then. Facial expressions, gestures and costumes were exaggerated to get the point across. The makeup was thick and so was the melodrama.

“The heroes wore loud-checkered caps, the vamps, lots of heavy jewelry, and the heroines, long curls, middy blouses and baby-doll slippers,” Sweetser recalled in a 1949 interview. “The villains mostly wore sinister leers.”

Although her first few stories fell flat, Sweetser hit pay dirt in 1912 when the Imperial Motion Picture Co. bought her script titled The Call of the Drum. Francis J. Grandon directed the short drama, which starred Harry A. Pollard and Margarita Fischer.

Just like that, Sweetser was a “photoplaywright.”

Then Vitagraph picked up her script for The Other Woman, and turned it into a 1912 romance featuring 17-year-old Norma Talmadge, one of the rising stars of that early era.

Sweetser watched with pride as her tiny tales came to life in the local theater. An organist provided musical accompaniment to set the mood for each scene.

“We then lived in Belfast, Maine, so I got to see only the ones that came to town,” she said. “Authors were not fussed over as they are now. We bought our own tickets to see stories I’d written.”

It is estimated that 90 percent of the motions pictures filmed before 1920 are lost today. The silver nitrate film decomposed, spontaneously combusted or was destroyed before it could be preserved. Regretfully, Sweetser’s movies are all from that era.

Her plot descriptions may be the closest we get to the movies.

“Some of my best tear-jerkers were An Unwilling Separation starring William West and Mrs. William Buchtel, and By Mutual Agreement with Frank A. Lyon and May Abbey,” she reminisced. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when these came on. Another tear-jerker was Just a Song at Twilight.”

She also enjoyed The Grandfather, which featured dark-haired beauty Bliss Milford and handsome Augustus Phillips, an actor who played the title scientist in Thomas Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein.

Her script Shifting Sands was retitled A Desert Honeymoon and starred brooding heartthrob Romaine Fielding.

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