Silent Screen Actress Names: The Virgins and The Vamps

Silent Screen Actress Names: The Virgins and The Vamps

By Bree Ogle

In the first third of the 20th century, movies began to take hold in America and Europe. Although theatre was still prominent (and movie actors and actresses were considered ‘lowly’ by theatre people), the birth of the “star” only truly came about when motion pictures became popular. Today I’m looking at the female stars of those silent screen days.

In the early 1920s, movie theaters were slowly beginning to be built in cities and towns all across America, yet it was the youthful Canadian actress Florence Lawrence who is attributed as being the first movie star – and the first film actor to be named publicly. The Big Five, as the most prominent Hollywood Studios were called then, often gave their stars such strict contracts that it led to many irreparable breaks between actors and the actual moviemakers themselves. This included, but was not limited to: telling them how to dress, where to eat, and naturally, what was ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ behavior. Despite the fact that the Hays Code, which banned sex, suggestiveness, drinking, profanity, and a great many other things, would not be finely polished until 1930, the studios still expected a degree of respectability from their charges; they were free to live their lives how they wished, but only in the most secluded privacy.

Actors’ names of the silent era were mostly short and snappy and often exotic, with a few popular classics like Jane and Mary in the mix. Almost every one of the female stars changed her name drastically, sometimes to a nickname for their real name, like Pola Negri, or just picking a nickname that would stand out on marquees, such as Bebe Daniels.

There was less variety with the male stars, who usually stuck to their given traditional masculine appellations like John Barrymore and John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks and William Haines. Some were , like their female costars, known by often derogatory nicknames, like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (a name he hated), but others were catchy, like Buster Keaton (born Joseph Frank Keaton and nicknamed by Harry Houdini)), and Monte Blue (born Gerard Montgomery Bluefeather).

A few had romantic, foreign names, like the “Latin Lover” Rudolph Valentino (born Rodolfo Alfonzo Raffaelo Pierre Filbert Guglielmi di Valantina d’Antondguolla), Ramon Novarro (aka José Romson Gil Samaniego), and Antonio Moreno (born Antonio Garido Montegudo).

While all of these seem evocative of their particular time, some of those listed below are usable today. I decided to only list women, as they had more interesting and unusual names. Most of these women had as interesting lives as they did names, and I encourage everyone to do a little reading on the ones that appeal to them most. Of the names below, I bold-faced the most unique and exotic.

Gloria Swanson

Lillian Gish (born Lillian Diana de Guiche) and Dorothy Gish (born Dorothy Elizabeth de Guiche)

Marion Davies (born Marion Cecelia Douras)

Clara Bow

Mae Murray (born Marie Adrienne Koenig)

Bebe Daniels (born Phyllis Virginia Daniels)

Blanche Sweet (born Sarah Blanche Sweet)

Mabel Normand (born Mabel Ethelreid Normand)

Norma Shearer (born Edith Norma Shearer)

Renée Adorée (born Jeanne de la Fontein)

Vilma Bánky (born Vilma Koncsics) (shown)

Pola Negri (born Barbara Apollina Chalupiec)

Dolores del Río (born María de los Dolores Asúnsolo López-Negrete)

Leatrice Joy (born Leatrice Johanna Zeidler)

Theda Bara (born Theodosia Burr Goodman)

Jobyna Ralston (born Jobyna Lancaster Raulston)

Billie Dove (born Bertha Bohny, later legally changed it to Lillian Bohny)

Lupe Vélez (born María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez)

Jetta Goudal (born Julie Henriette Goudeket)

Fay Wray (born Vina Fay Wray)

Nita Naldi (born Mary Dooley)

Madge Bellamy (born Margaret Derden Philpott)

ZaSu Pitts (born Eliza Susan Pitts—ZaSu was a combination of her two aunts’ names, Eliza and Susan)

Mary Pickford (born Gladys Louise Smith)

Alla Nazimova (born Marem-Ides [Adeleida Yakovlevna] Leventon)

Asta Nielsen

Carmel Myers

Greta Garbo (born Greta Lovisa Gustafson)

Lya De Putti (born Amalia Putti)

Viola Dana (born Virginia Flugrath)

Olive Thomas (born Olive R. Duffy)

(Co-written by Abby Ogle)