Today marks the 120th birthday of Carol Dempster, best remembered as DW Griffith’s leading lady of choice throughout the 1920s. While only known to silent movie buffs today, she starred alongside luminaries such as WC Fields, Richard Barthelmess, and both Barrymore brothers during her heyday. Her legacy is a controversial one, though in recent decades, she’s gained more defenders– or at the very least, more people who are willing to examine her brief career in a more nuanced light.
Minnesota-born and California-bred, Dempster’s background was in dance. She was remarkable enough to be singled out by modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Dennis during a school program. She would later boast in an interview that, “I was the youngest pupil to graduate in her first class.”
Her connection with St. Dennis is what brought her to the attention of DW Griffith. St. Dennis staged the dancing scenes in the Babylonian segment of Intolerance and Dempster was included among this company. Griffith was impressed with what he saw of her and would recruit her for small parts in rural dramas such as A Romance of Happy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, and True Heart Susie.
By 1919, she had her first major role for Griffith in the bizarre western Scarlet Days where she played the convent-schooled daughter of a saloon hostess. Called “Lady Fair ” in the title cards, Dempster’s character is the usual Griffith waif: delicate, respectable, and naive. She almost made her leading debut earlier: Griffith considered giving her the role of the abused Lucy Barrows in Broken Blossoms when Lillian Gish came down with the Spanish Flu, but Gish fought to retain the part.
With the dawn of the 1920s, Dempster would become a Griffith mainstay as well as his lover. The filmmaker became obsessed with her, which baffled just about everyone else. Many professionals in the industry found Dempster unremarkable on a good day. Journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns called her mediocre, Colleen Moore thought her talentless, and cinematographer Karl Brown found her professionally “inept” and personally “over proper.” Critics Anthony Slide and Richard Schickel essentially paint her as a full-time impersonator of the earlier, greater Griffith leading ladies.
That last description is not without accuracy. Dempster often essayed the same kinds of roles that made Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh stars in the 1910s, sometimes even using the same mannerisms and tics, only to much lesser effect. Rarely was she outright bad in these parts, but they never played to her strengths as a performer, which tended more towards the athletic, practical type than the ethereal girl-children Griffith favored.
Reaction to Dempster was mixed from the very beginning. In the first half of her career, she was usually accused of being a copycat. Many resented her displacing Lillian Gish, who made her final collaboration with Griffith in 1921. Both fans and critics stoked this notion of a Gish-Dempster rivalry.
However, Dempster did have her champions. While she never procured a huge following, there were movie goers who made their appreciation of her known in fan magazines. The running trend in these positive notices is that Dempster was unconventional in both appearance and screen presence.
Towards the end of her career, the critics also grew kinder to her work. Miracle of miracles, they were sometimes even enthusiastic—the Moving Picture World review of Isn’t Life Wonderful singles out Dempster’s lead performance as “one of the finest performances ever seen on the screen” and her turn in the now-lost That Royle Girl won her raves from Photoplay, where the reviewer claimed she was among “any ten best list of players.”
The Sorrows of Satan, a 1926 melodrama in which she acted alongside Adolphe Menjou and Ricardo Cortez, proved to be her swan song. Many critics past and present have felt this movie represents her best work: Morduant Hall thought the part displayed more of her untapped acting talent than in any of her films to date and later on, Anthony Slide (by no means a Dempster fan) felt her turn in Sorrows was the first to actually show she had any talent at all.
However, Dempster retired from movies after the film’s premiere. With both her professional and romantic relationships with Griffith ended, she married a banker and lived the rest of her life away from the Hollywood scene, entertaining friends and supporting the arts. In 1928, she told Photoplay that she wanted to pursue singing, but nothing came of that. She died in 1991 at the age of 89, but her legacy lives on in critical debate and sparring matches on classic movie message boards.
My initial interest in Dempster came from how much irritation she tends to generate among silent movie buffs. The long-standing narrative is that she was a stone around Griffith’s neck, hastening his artistic decline. This narrative puts a lot of blame on Dempster and ignores that the writing quality of several of these later projects was not up to the same standards as Griffith’s earlier work (not even Gish was going to save the nightmarish mess that is Dream Street— I don’t think anyone could have!). As with any widely accepted theory, I had to see for myself if Dempster actually was the acting talent abyss some claim.
My conclusion? She wasn’t that terrible. Clumsy when trying to be winsome and innocent, sure, but I never shudder when she’s on-screen even if I can also see why she never became the mega-star Griffith wanted her to be. I think Dempster suffered most from Griffith’s Pygmalion tendencies. He wanted her to be another Gish, but her angular looks, athletic body, and “no-nonsensical” manner (to borrow Schickel’s description) were more suitable for flappers and everyday women than dainty ingenues. Unfortunately, Griffith wasn’t that interested in those kinds of roles for her and Griffith was the only filmmaker she wanted to work with.
Dempster is served far better by movies like Isn’t Life Wonderful, where her character is a cautious optimist trying to make sure her loved ones don’t starve to death. Here, her unconventional looks strengthen the illusion that we are watching an ordinary person, not just a movie star impersonating one. Dempster’s best scene, where she stands in a butcher shop line, watching in suspense as the prices inflate before she’s even able to step a foot into the door, is fully put over by the fleeting expressions of hope and dawning horror on her face. Her swimming scenes in The Love Flower also show a side to her that Griffith rarely took advantage of, making one wonder if it was a declining Griffith not doing Dempster’s career much good rather than it being the other way around.
Whatever any critic or fellow film professional has had to say about Dempster, good or bad, she seems to have been indifferent. Once her movie career was over, she rarely reminisced about her brief tenure as a leading lady (according to her associate John McGee, many of Dempster’s friends had no idea she was ever an actress) nor did she ever shoot back at those who had nasty things to say about her. She famously insisted she was blessed with a real-life “happy ending.” What more could any of us ask for than that?
DW Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel
The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee
The Griffith Actresses by Anthony Slide
“I Don’t Care If I Make Another Picture” by Ruth Biery, Photoplay, August 1928, Vol. 34, Issue 3
“Remembering DW Griffith” by Alanna Nash, Take One, September-October 1973, Vol. 4, Issue 7
Silent Star by Colleen Moore
Up From the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s by John T. Soister
The WC Fields Films by James Neibaur