Many film personalities from the silent era show surprisingly little interest in their careers. Some of the most important silent stars--Alice Terry is an obvious example-have no time for the past. Such is the case with Ethel Grandin, one of the screen's first leading ladies, who once commented to me of her films that "they were all alike, and I've forgotten them. They're in the back of me." Today, Ethel Grandin is a spritely and very beautiful lady in her early eighties, whose concern for the problems of others is at times deeply moving. Knowing her in the present, I cannot help but wish that I might have had the privilege of her acquaintance when she starred for Carl Laemmle and Thomas Ince. She may have been only an ingenue, but as those of her films which survive indicate, she was one of the best.
Ethel Grandin was born on March 3, 1894, in New York City. She has never shied away from admitting her age. Today, it's something of which she is proud, and as far back as a 1914 interview with Photoplay she commented, "I'm glad I'm just the age I am, and I don't ever intend to make believe I'm younger than I am." With her family's theatrical background--her uncle, Elma Grandin, was a famous leading man on Broadway, and her grandmother was an actress and dancer--it was no wonder that Ethel should have embarked on a stage career at the age of six, appearing with Joseph Jefferson in Rip Van Winkle. (Perhaps it is not amazing that people such as Lillian Gish, Blanche Sweet and Ethel Grandin are as energetic as they are today when one considers that almost their whole lives they have known nothing but work. It might be enjoyable work, but work nonetheless it was and is.)
For three years, Ethel played in Chauncey Olcott's company, along with Mary Pickford's sister, Lottie. During the 1909-1910 season, Ethel toured with Olcott in Ragged Robin. Mary Pickford had been in Chauncey Olcott's company as a veteran five-year-old actress, and when Ethel joined the company it was Mary's mother, Charlotte, who took particular care of her.
Mary Pickford entered films in 1909, and Ethel Grandin followed her a little under eighteen months later. Not surprisingly, Ethel's first choice for her screen debut was the American Biograph Company, where Mary had made her debut. Upon arriving at 11 East 14th Street with her mother, Ethel was met by D. W. Griffith, who promptly pulled up her dress and inspected her legs. When the young Miss Grandin became outraged, the director explained that he wanted to make sure she was not bow-legged, as were so many girls in the Biograph stock company. However, Ethel was so upset by Griffith's behavior that she refused to return to the studios, as requested, the next day.
It cannot have been coincidence that Ethel and her mother next approached Carl Laemmle's IMP Company, where Mary Pickford was currently working. She was seen by Thomas Ince, recently returned from directing Mary Pickford in Cuba, and was immediately signed to a contract. Ethel spent many months at IMP's 56th Street studio, working under the direction of Ince and Herbert Brenon, and once playing Mary Pickford's sister in The Toss of the Coin, released on August 31, 1911.
In the summer of 1911, Thomas Ince signed a contract with the New York Motion Picture Company to direct its production in California. It was the beginning of Ince's rise to fame, and to accompany him on that fateful trip to California he chose Ethel Grandin as his leading lady and Ray Smallwood to be his cameraman. Ethel and Ray Smallwood were to marry in 1912. In California, Ince hired Anna Little, J. Barney Sherry and George Gebhardt to swell his acting ranks. He also hired the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Circus, with which he planned to produce "real" Westerns. The first such Western was the two-reel War on the Plains, released on February 23, 1912, and Ethel Grandin was its star.
The Moving Picture World of January 27, 1912 devoted a full page to commentary on War on the Plains, and noted, "It is a thrilling drama, portrayed amid natural surroundings by a capable company, and the photographic clearness is remarkable. Some of the scenes are sublime in their grandeur; others are impressive in the number of people employed; others are startling in realism and prolific in incident. While there is plenty of action, the dramatic element has been well sustained. Bravery and cowardice are sharply contrasted. Love and jealousy play a part, but the impression that it all leaves is that here we have looked upon a presentation of Western life that is real and that is true to the life, and that we would like to see it again and again so as to absorb more of the details."
Recalling "The Early Days at Kay Bee" in the March 1919 issue of Photoplay, Ince wrote, "One of the most exciting incidents of our early picture making was a grass fire that nearly wiped out everything we had. The fire was caused by a smoke pot igniting the grass and everyone, actresses as well, turned to with water buckets, blankets and other apparatus to fight the flames. I can visualize Ethel Grandin made up as a bride attired in the once fashionable crinoline, dashing madly about with her bridal veil wrapped about her neck, taking frequent swipes at the fire with a wet blanket."
One early Ethel Grandin production which has survived is Blazing the Trail, released on April 15, 1912. Playing opposite Ethel as Molly was Francis Ford, as Jack, and also in the cast were J. Barney Sherry and Anna Little. In two reels Blazing the Trail recounts an Indian attack on a lone covered wagon, Ethel's being taken captive by the Indians, and her rescue by Ford. There is a sophisticated use of camera angles--at one point a herd of horses gallops between the camera and the dramatic action--and the story, unlike later Westerns, ends on a note of sadness, as Molly and Jack visit the graves of those slain by the Indians. The director, of course, was not credited, but Ethel believes it was Ince, although she does point out that the action sequences in many early Ince productions would often be directed by others, in particular E. H. Allen. It is not surprising that productions such as Blazing the Trail should have evoked a three-page article, "The Bison-101 Headliners," by Louis Reeves Harrison in The Moving Picture World of April 12, 1912.
Of the making of these early productions, Ethel Grandin recalls, "They'd build a set, and Tommy Ince would get the locations, and you'd come in and do this and do that. You'd rehearse one or two times. We never read a script. He would tell us before each scene usually, and maybe once in a while we'd know the idea of a story."
Carl Laemmle was impressed by the work of both Ethel and Ray Smallwood, and in 1913 he asked them to return to his company. His offer came at a propitious time; Ethel's mother was seriously ill in New York, and Ethel was expecting her first child. She recalls that Laemmle paid her during the three months prior to the birth of her son, and also for the first six weeks after the baby was born, a sure indication that Carl Laemmle was not only a kindly producer, but also that he didn't want to risk the loss of a star of the magnitude of Ethel Grandin.
There can be no question as to Ethel Grandin's popularity, or of her attractiveness. In a 1914 Photoplay article, Mabel Condon wrote, "She's as radiant a girl as you could hope to see. She has a wonderful skin, the kind that is described in excitable novels as 'ivory white with a touch of sea-shell pink.' And her eyes, also, are wonderful. They're a warm, bright brown that seems to radiate light, and the eyelashes are long and black. Then there's her hair, which adds even more to her beauty. It is dark brown and curls naturally, and Ethel just pins up the curls and her coiffure is perfect."
Back at Carl Laemmle's IMP Company, Ethel was starred chiefly in one- and two-reel comedies, a far cry from the Western dramas of Thomas Ince. Week after week, her films were released, including The Gold Mesh Bag, released on September 8, 1913; Love versus Love, on December 1, 1913; Love's Victory, on February 20, 1914; The Opal Ring, on March 5, 1914; Forgetting, on March 30, 1914; Where There's a Will There's a Way, on April 9, 1914; Beneath the Mask, on May 18, 1914; Papa's Darling, on June 22, 1914; and The Adventures of a Girl Reporter, on June 29, 1914.
She portrayed the title role in IMP's two-reel version of Jane Eyre, released on February 9, 1914, with Irving Cummings as Edward Rochester. As The Universal Weekly of February 7, 1914 commented, "Who is there more capable of interpreting the sympathetic, unfortunate little miss than the petite fascinating IMP star?"
Possibly Ethel Grandin's most famous role for Carl Laemmle, although at the time he knew nothing about it, was as Lorna Barton in George Loane Tucker's 1913 production of Traffic in Souls. The making of Traffic in Souls has been discussed many times--and there is little point repeating here how the film was produced secretly without Laemmle's permission.
Ethel recalls, "I was on salary, of course, but they hadn't worked out my schedule. I was waiting for my pictures to be written. George Loane Tucker saw me in the studio and said, 'Ethel, would you like to do a few scenes with us?' He said he had to finish very quickly. I didn't even read the story. I had no idea what it was about. I worked one day, skipped a couple of days, did another scene, and so forth. I thought I was doing a favor! It was very cheaply made, with canvas sets, so that when you closed a door, it would shake the set. I think it was the Daly Theatre in New York where they had a preview of it. They had a full house, and I was there with my husband. I was so excited. I hadn't been to one of these showings ever before, because I was just a little girl really. Everyone that knew me came up and congratulated me, and I thought, 'Why?' I didn't know I was in an exceptional film. I didn't realize it was so big."
In April of 1914, it was announced that "the Imp of the IMP Company," as Ethel Grandin was affectionately known, would appear in future exclusively under the direction of her husband, Ray Smallwood. ( Smallwood, of course, had been one of her directors in the past.) It is not surprising that the idea gradually formed in the heads of star and director, husband and wife, that they might form their own company. Thus. the Smallwood Film Corporation came into being, with a rented studio at Central Park West and Amsterdam Avenue in New York. Ethel remembers, "It was the top of a building, and it had been a Turkish bath. It had a really large stage, with dressing rooms downstairs, and a glass roof which let in a certain amount of light. We thought it was very nice." On December 21, 1914, United Film Service released the first independent Grandin film, a three-reeler titled The Adopted Daughter, in which Ethel played a dual role. It was followed, a weekly intervals, by Cupid Kicks a Goal, The Burglar and the Mouse and His Doll Wife.
Ethel Grandin's independent venture was short-lived. The reasons why are clouded in obscurity, but I suspect Ethel was happier taking care of her home and infant son than starring in films. Also, the age of the feature-length production had arrived, indeed had been with us for some time, yet the Smallwood Film Corporation was still producing shorts.
In 1915, the screen might have said farewell to Ethel Grandin forever. Thankfully, as far as her fans were concerned, it did not, for she made two highly successful returns.
The summer of 1916 saw Ethel at the Erbograph studios on New York's 135th Street, co-starring with Maurice Costello in the serial, The Crimson Stain Mystery. Miss Grandin enjoyed working on the serial with director T. Hayes Hunter; it was her first and only work in this field, and she enjoyed the shooting, much of which took place out-of-doors among the traffic and crowds of New York City, and she delighted in the daring escapades involving automobiles and fight scenes.
The Crimson Stain Mystery involved a scientist whose experiments for good are turned to evil by one Pierre Le Rue, whose favorite occupation was apparently strangulation. It was released in sixteen two-reel weekly episodes, beginning on August 21, 1916, by the Consolidated Film Corporation. The episodes had such delightful titles as "The Brand osf Satan" (the first episode), "The Infernal Feud," "The Tortured Soul." and "The Restless Spirit," and each episode was published in the New York Evening World. As The Moving Picture World ( September 2, 1916) noted, The Crimson Stain Mystery is made of the material that ensures the success of the serial film production, the chief essentials of which are the marvellous impossibilities that thrill the nerves and fire the imagination."
After The Crimson Stain Mystery it was back to a life of domesticity for Ethel Grandin. In 1919 it was announced that she was to return to Universal in a film to be titled Beyond Price, but nothing appears to have come of it. However, in 1921, she did return to the screen in two comedy features for S-L Productions: Garments of Truth, released on October 5, 1921, and The Hunch, released on November 28, 1921. In each film, Gareth Hughes was the leading man and George Baker was the director. One further feature followed in 1922, A Tailor-Made Man, a Charles Ray vehicle, directed by Joseph De Grasse, and released on October 15, 1922.
While still a major leading lady, Ethel Grandin decided to retire to a life as a mother and wife, a life which quite possibly brought her more personal happiness than she ever found in making films. But in her case domesticity's gain was quite definitely the screen's loss. What Thomas Ince had written in 1919 seems very pertinent: "Had she remained in the business I believe that Ethel today would be among the highest paid stars."
Even away from the screen, Ethel Grandin was not forgotten. Many would echo the words of Daniel Blum on the dedication page of his 1958 edition of Screen World: "To Ethel Grandin, one of my favorite silent screen stars, with affection and admiration."