At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Hollywood will have a golden opportunity to do good — in more ways than one. It could address both its problem with women, and its memory problem (did you even know it had a memory problem?), by honoring Blanche Walsh, the first American movie star.
Decades before Janet Gaynor’s star was born, before Mary Pickford became America’s Sweetheart, before Lady Gaga was a gleam in her great-grandfather’s eye, the acclaimed American stage actress Blanche Walsh starred in the 1912 film Resurrection, based on Tolstoy’s novel about love and social justice. The film helped Adolph Zukor — the grand architect of Hollywood — launch his first movie company, Famous Players Studio. Which later became Paramount.
Zukor elevated the status and prestige of “moving pictures” in ways hard to imagine today. Before him, movies were short, fluffy entertainments of 10 or 20 minutes in length. They were dismissed by the educated classes as a lowly art form. It was Zukor who introduced the concept of the feature film (at least 40 minutes long), with themes and storylines as rich and complex as a novel or play.
For inspiration, Zukor turned to the world of serious theater. After the success of a film he imported to the US from France, starring Sarah Bernhardt, he went in search of the greatest American actress to star in his first original film. He chose Blanche Walsh.
Born on Mott Street in NYC’s immigrant-teeming Lower East Side, Walsh had risen to the greatest heights possible on the American stage. She was one of the original advocates of an American National Theater, a rare female activist before women had the right to vote. Like Eva Le Gallienne in the 1920s and ‘30s, Walsh believed that a National Theater, where regular folks could see serious plays at a low cost, would preserve the integrity of the stage by curbing the scourge of formula plays.
Walsh was the Meryl Streep of her day. Wowing critics and audiences alike, she starred in one of the most sensational plays of the Belle Epoque, Trilby, adapted from the novel by George du Maurier. Trilby gave us the name of the trilby hat, the word “Svengali,” and strongly influenced Gaston Leroux, who wrote The Phantom of the Opera. (Walsh also starred in two important plays by Clyde Fitch: The Woman in the Case and The Straight Road.)
But it was Walsh’s career-defining performance as Maslova in the 1903 stage version of Resurrection, Tolstoy’s most political and popular novel — it outsold Anna Karenina and War and Peace — that captivated Zukor, who then catapulted Walsh into cinema history (or herstory). Zukor’s Resurrection heralded the birth of Hollywood as a serious art form. It also paved the way for the concept of “movie stars,” an idea that Zukor, a marketing genius, developed to promote and raise money for his films.
Resurrection arrived three years before Birth of a Nation, a film often decried as racist that is thought to be America’s original feature film. Not true. We can correct the historical record on Feb. 24, and let the world know about Hollywood’s more noble, spiritual and cultural birth movie.
Though largely forgotten by the public, in my family Walsh is something of a saint. Though childless, in a great act of love on the stage of her own life, she rescued my grandmother from a London orphanage, brought her to NYC, and became her dear second mother. Because this love story (a real life fairy tale) is connected to the birth of the movies, I feel compelled to share it publicly at a time when the achievements of women are emerging from the crusts of patriarchy to see the light of day.
Such “teachable moments” could make this year’s Oscar night a magical, memorable and educative event while rebooting the Birth of Hollywood narrative to align with the facts. When I called the Academy (and amazingly got past the secretary!), I spoke to a woman in charge who was astonished to learn about Walsh. She was so touched by my story, she asked me to pitch a proposal to the 54-member Board of Governors to honor her with the first “Forgotten Woman” Oscar.
Fingers crossed, I eagerly await their response. In the meantime, some of the world’s boldface cultural names have offered me their good wishes. They include actress Glenda Jackson, NY Times theater critic Jesse Green, Broadway producer Daryl Roth, film historian Foster Hirsch, and fiction writer George Saunders. I’ve also launched a “Who was Blanche Walsh?” Facebook page. And I welcome you to join in this exciting and emerging effort to remember the woman under whose star Hollywood was born.