Does your family lore include the story of an ancestor who ran off to make it big in the movies? The Motion Picture Studio Directories, 1919 and 1921, database that went live last week could be a fun place to take a look if you’re trying to vet that story about Grandma’s brush with Rudolph Valentino on the set.
In 1920, the U.S. motion picture industry was on a tear. By the end of the decade, movie tickets would be selling at a clip of around 100 million a week—and there were only 120 million people in the country. The star system was in place, and names like Mary Pickford were known worldwide.
The Motion Picture Studio Directory was the film industry Yellow Pages of the time. Of course, the bulk of the pages went to promoting actors and actresses, including plenty of publicity shots (which is how Louise Huff became my screensaver for an afternoon). But the real meat is the alphabetical listings of industry professionals. They start with actors and actresses, who might include everything from education and a list of credits to height and weight, home address, or telephone number in their biographies. Oliver “Babe” Hardy, for example, stood 6’1” and weighed 350 pounds, had brown hair and eyes, and enjoyed swimming and music.
And speaking of Valentino, it’s interesting to see how his entry changed from 1919:
The stars are fun, but you’ll find more than just the Charlie Chaplins and Gloria Swansons here. There are hundreds of actors and actresses listed in the Motion Picture Studio Directories, plenty of whom—like today—toiled in relative obscurity. You’ll also find pages of “Directors and Producing Executives,” followed by “Assistant, Art and Technical Directors,” as well as writers and editors, cinematographers, studio managers, costumers, PR people, casting directors, and company bigwigs.
So who knows, maybe Uncle Pete really did teach Tom Mix how to shoot or tie Lillian Gish to the train tracks. Check and see. Even if he’s not there, you might still come away from the Motion Picture Studio Directories with a new screensaver.