Apparition Made Real: How Film Preservation Saved Olive Thomas

When I first starting researching the life of Olive Thomas, I knew all my work would culminate in a biography. Over time, I knew this biography would have to be told on film, because Olive belonged to one common little society of silent film stars. This group contains all the stars who have virtually no film known to exist, or no film readily available to the public. Their star power has lasted over the decades, fueled only by static photographs and breathless stories handed down generation to generation.

Perhaps no one embodied this sad group better than Olive Thomas. Her tragic death and several almost iconic photographs, as well as one very racy Vargas print, made her the stuff of legends. Her photos (always with long brown ringlets, maybe a straw hat, and usually with her famous string of pearls gifted by an awestruck German ambassador) hinted at a personality beneath the sepia tone, but never really gave her…life.

Over the years, fueled by Hollywood Babylon and the internet, she garnered a cult following that rivaled anything that followed Valentino’s wake.  Poor haunted Olive Thomas. Poor mistreated-by-the-Pickfords Olive Thomas. Her grave doesn’t have her name on it! No one ever visits it! Adding insult to injury, none of her films were available; in fact, rumor had it that all but one (Love’s Prisoner, 1919) were lost.

Of course, all of this was just slightly off, as I realized when I researched her life. She wasn’t mistreated by the Pickfords. She may haunt the New Amsterdam, but she was never haunted herself. And as for final resting place, the staff at Woodlawn Cemetery will testify that no grave attracts more attention than Olive’s stately mausoleum. And as for her films, once I started calling around to different archives, they did too exist. Many people simply didn’t know what they had. One footage house was renting out Betty Takes a Hand (1918) for stock. Once they understood the gem they owned, they transferred it to the Library of Congress. During the making of the documentary, two more of her films surfaced overseas–Indiscreet Corinne (1919) and Out Yonder (1918).

What surfaced, too, was the portrait of a ghost as an actress. The films that emerged showed her amazing development in just 4 short years. Fortunately, the two bookends of her career, Beatrice Fairfax Episode 10: Play Ball! (1916) and Everybody’s Sweetheart (1920) survive. Watching these films is like watching Olive graduate from drama school. In her first appearance in Beatrice Fairfax,  she made the gaffe of looking directly at the camera within the first few seconds of being onscreen. Watching her in Everybody’s Sweetheart, I got verklempt as she grieved over the death of her beloved pet chicken.

In between, with the Triangle mellers that have surfaced, her few bright but homespun comedies for them, and the all-too few Selznick pictures, Olive becomes human. She learns to cry, from choking gasping giggly hiccups in An Even Break (1917) to profoundly moving grief in Everybody’s Sweetheart (1920). She was a natural comedienne, a fact that Myron Selznick was canny enough to exploit in most of her Selznick pictures, but none so winningly as in The Flapper (1920).

As a biographer, I had been lulled by those static photos and the gruesome details of her death into believing that Olive was a victim, a vague apparition that was too beautiful for this earth. As I saw film after film emerge, I realized that she was no mere ghost, but a stunning and vivacious girl who lived too fast and died too young, and was actually a really good actress to boot.

That’s why I made her story into a documentary rather than a book–it was so necessary to see her alive and moving, to dispel the image of Olive as Mere Apparition. In addition, it was crucial to release her film The Flapper (the holy grail of Olive Movies among her fans) to DVD so that everyone could have a least one glimpse of what made her great. I wish I could have released them all, made a complete boxed set that encapsulated her career.

If this was possible for one actress with one film release, I wish it were so for every other member of that sad silent film society. Ghosts no more, their films released to a new generation of fans ready to pass on the word to others.

This blog is part of a series for the For the Love of Film Preservation blogathon. Please consider making a donation to help rescue these films for a new generation:

The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Please also visit the blogs of our generous hosts, who made this possible:

Thanks for reading.


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