charlie-oscar2A weekly feature in which my four-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier.

Not only did Charlie make a beeline for former matinee idol Carlyle Blackwell on the Walk of Fame yesterday, he wouldn’t stop saying his name for the rest of the afternoon. “I picked Carlyle Blackwell,” he proudly informed everyone, from the Starbucks barista to the four-year-old kids at the birthday party we attended later in the day. I feel safe in saying that it’s the first time this name has been spoken by anyone under 60 in at least half a century!

I know what you’re thinking. Who the hell is Carlyle Blackwell? Would you believe me if I told you that a hundred years ago, he was one of the biggest movie stars in the world? Right up there with Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks? Talk about not withstanding the test of time! Born on January 20, 1884, in Syracuse, New York, Blackwell first appeared on film in the 1910 Vitagraph version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the first “full-length” films ever made (about 45 minutes long). By 1914, Blackwell was playing opposite Mary Pickford in Such a Little Queen in which Blackwell’s King of Bosnia falls in love with Pickford’s Queen of Herzegovina (if only modern diplomacy in the Baltics could be that easy!). He soon became known as “Picture-a-Day Blackwell” because of the enormous number of films he managed to churn out.

cb-motionpicturemagThe handsome actor was one of the first true screen idols of the movies. He started receiving fan mail by the ton from women who couldn’t get enough of the prolific actor. They sent him love letters, marriage proposals, and even sonnets about his long eyelashes. “Versatility is success to Carlyle Blackwell,” wrote a reporter a century ago, in March 1914. “He has the happy faculty of playing all parts with equal ability. He can be an excellent villain, a brave courageous hero, a know-nothing but handsome juvenile or a comedy character with the same ease and efficiency. Blackwell is running the business and the picture-making departments of his own ‘movie’ company at Hollywood, California.” Note that Blackwell’s fame came so early in the film industry that the word “movie” was still written in quotes. He was the first movie star to make $2,000 a week.

blackwell-brotherswifeWhen he first returned east in 1916 after gaining stardom, he was greeted by more than 20,000 women at a special welcoming celebration at the original Madison Square Garden. It’s amazing he made it out of there alive! Several women were injured at the event and one “elderly dowager” was knocked down and trampled by the crowd. He went on to appear in His Brother’s Wife (1916) with Ethel Clayton, he starred opposite Marion Davies in The Restless Sex (1920), he became the first of many actors to play Bulldog Drummond (1922), and he appeared as Lord Dudley in the silent version of The Virgin Queen (1923). When he went to make a film in London, Blackwell stayed for almost a decade and worked there as an actor, director and producer. He started Picadilly Pictures with Michael Balcon and produced one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films, The Lodger (1927).  Blackwell played Sherlock Holmes in the German production Der Hund von Baskerville (1929) but by then, talkies were taking over the film industry and the matinee idol, now in his 40s, no longer interested younger moviegoers.

Blackwell found some success again on the stage but not everyone was ask taken with his skills. When he announced that he would be starring in a new play in London, one reporter wrote, “Carlyle Blackwell, one of the world’s worst actors, is returning to theatrical meanderings. He says that he absolutely will not come to America with his play. If we only could depend on that.” Ouch. Carlyle was frequently in the news, planning various movie comebacks, but he never made another film after the failure of Beyond the Cities in 1930, which he also directed.

Not that he was suffering financially. “In fiction, former matinee idols usually wind up on the breadline or in some other humiliating downgrade berth,” wrote the L.A. Times in the late 1930s, “but hardly so with Carlyle Blackwell who your elders will recall as the cinematic Adonis of his day. It has been a while since the Blackwell profile and amorous pose has been revealed in celluloid and his exploits as a matinee idol are things of the past. But he did not go the way of most former stars and is quite solvent today, thank you!”

When he appeared as the MC in a lavish Billy Rose stage production in New York that featured former silent screen stars such as Mae Murray and Nita Naldi, the reviews said that he was still “extraordinarily handsome” and suggested that he be “embalmed and preserved in this city’s archives as Exhibit A of what the genus homo can achieve.”

carlyleblackwell-olderCarlyle Blackwell’s love life was as dramatic as many of his films. As he was first achieving stardom, he dealt his female fans a bitter blow by marrying actress Ruth Hartman. The couple had two children. While making movies in England, he fell in love with diamond heiress Leah Barnato, whose father was worth an estimated $500,000,000 (in the 1920s!). Their marriage was rocked by scandal when it was discovered that Leah had never actually divorced her previous husband. By the early 1930s, Blackwell had accused his rich wife of “great cruelty” and hours after their divorce was granted, he married former Ziegfeld showgirl Avonne Taylor. Sadly, that marriage also ended in divorce. Wife #4 was a wealthy widow named Nancy Emmons who promptly died and left Blackwell with a sizable inheritance. His final wife, Ann Enoch, had been Carlyle’s personal secretary 30 years earlier when he was at the height of his movie fame. They stayed married until Carlyle Blackwell’s death on June 17, 1955, at the age of 71.

marilyn-blackwellBlackwell’s son, Carlyle Blackwell, Jr., also worked in films, appearing in small roles in movies such as the Norma Shearer version of Romeo and Juliet, This Is the Army, Destination Tokyo and Objective, Burma! His biggest movie achievement, however, may have been giving teenaged Shirley Temple’s her first screen kiss. The younger Blackwell was far more successful as a photographer in the 1950s and today is remembered for a series of color photographs he took of 26-year-old Marilyn Monroe.

Charlie is still talking about Carlyle Blackwell a day after stopping on his star — pretty unusual for him. I just noticed that one of Blackwell’s silent hits from the 1920s, She, in which Blackwell finds out that he is the reincarnated lover of the 2,000-year-old White Queen (Betty Blythe) is available on YouTube. I guess I know what we’ll be doing after pre-school!