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Pauline Frederick,
Tragedienne of the Silent Screen

By Greta de Groat

Pauline Frederick
A pensive-looking Pauline Frederick at the height of her film career in the late teens


Pauline Frederick is one of the most interesting and individual stars of the American silent screen. In an era of gentle and sweet heroines--even among the "emotional actresses," Frederick stood out with her dramatic looks, commanding presence and worldly characters. While never a top box office draw, Frederick was always something of a connoisseur's star, and her subtle and cinematic acting technique was widely admired both by audiences and within the industry. Unfortunately for modern audiences, only a handful of her many silent films survive. Those survivors, however, appear to have been among her best and most memorable, though they give us a somewhat skewed and limited view of her career.

Pauline Frederick brought a charismatic personality and authoritative presence to the screen. An exceptional beauty, even as she aged, she was not afraid to take on painfully unglamorous roles. Her huge blue eyes dominated her face, giving her a nervous intensity unusual in that era. Later writers often compared her to Bette Davis, and in the silent era she is the American star who most parallels Davis in her acting, personality, willingness to take on parts as unsympathetic or flawed woman, and lengthy career that allowed her to age interestingly on screen. Ironically, she bears a striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, a fact often mentioned in Crawford's early publicity and not lost on Crawford herself, who idolized the older actress. They worked together in the 1931 talkie This Modern Age in which Frederick seemed to pass on the torch to the next generation. One can see much of Frederick's intensity in Crawford's later career, especially in the kind of parts she took on in the late 30s and 40s, and a hint of late Crawford in Frederick's final roles (if there had been an old actress slasher film genre in the 30's, Frederick would surely have been the first casting choice). But Crawford never came close to Frederick's powerful dramatic talents, and Frederick could summon up a lightness, wit, and self-aware irony which Crawford could never muster. Though stars like Davis and Crawford dominated the womens film genre of the talkie era, their type of personality was unusual in American silents, and Pauline Frederick filled a unique niche among the "emotional stars."

Pauline Frederick
Frederick during her early stage years, on a postcard mailed in 1907.


Those few modern viewers who are familiar with Frederick tend to think of her as a star specializing in aging women parts. This is largely a function of her surviving films. In her best available films, Smouldering Fires and Three Women, she plays women in their 40s losing out to younger women, and in her most famous film, Madame X, she ages 20 years into a doddering absinthe addict. Coincidentally, even her lesser known surviving silents deal with similar themes. In The Love that Lives she has a role akin to Madame X. The Moment Before begins with her as an elderly woman flashing back to her youth (though that sequence may now be missing), and In Devils Island, The Nest, and Her Honor the Governor, as well as Three Women, she plays the mother of adult children. Of course, her most widely seen films nowadays are her talkies, most made when she was in her 50s.

In fact, though many of her films deal with mother love and sacrifice, whatever age character she was playing, she could just as easily be called Queen of the Courtroom Dramas. Such scenes were present in many of her lost films, including her lost talkies, and are the climactic scenes of her surviving Madame X and Her Honor the Governor. She kills an alarming number of her co-stars, and is a chief suspect in several other films. However, her earliest film audiences knew her best for playing sophisticated women of the world--sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes tragic. Roles were selected to give her widest scope for the displays of extreme emotion at which she excelled.

Pauline Frederick
Frederick vamping it up as Potiphar's Wife in her stage hit Joseph and His Brethren


Pauline Frederick's personal life seemed as fraught with drama as her screen life, with an up and down career, a domineering mother who lived with her most of her life, and five unhappy marriages--one of which was to a terminally ill man and one to an alcoholic and drug addict. Born Pauline Beatrice Libby in Boston on August 12, 1883, she was the only child of a wealthy Boston couple. She received singing lessons early on, and at age 19 on a dare, she applied for a job at the Boston Music Hall and got it. She took the name Frederick from her audition accompanist to pacify her Father, but he was not pacified. It was the final blow to the Libby's already shaky marriage, and mother and daughter decamped to New York. Mrs. Libby eventually had her name legally changed to Mrs. Frederick. Mr. Libby never forgave his daughter and got his revenge later by cutting her out of his will in a manner that assured that all of the newspapers would jump on the story.

"Polly" and "Mumsie," as they came to be known, made the rounds in New York, and Frederick landed a job as a chorus girl in The Rogers Brothers in Harvard. With her striking looks and willingness to work, she was soon offered small parts and was understudying larger roles in Broadway musical comedies. Her big break came in 1904. She was understudying the lead in Lew Fields "It Happened in Norland, and leading lady Blanche Ring walked out. Frederick stepped in and was a hit. Though she had a fine singing voice, her ambition was drama and, through a rather suspicious doctor's order to stop singing, she thwarted Mumsie's operatic ambitions. This seems to have been one of the few times Mumsie didn't have her own way. Frederick started over again, working her ways up through small parts and up to leads in straight plays. After a two year hiatus for her first marriage, she returned to the stage and made her biggest hit as Zuleika, Potiphar's Wife, in Joseph and His Brethren, which opened on Broadway on January 11, 1913.

Daniel Frohman and Adolph Zukor recruited her to films in 1914 as a part of the Famous Players Company. Zukor had planned to build films around famous stage stars, but found many were less suitable to films than those who were already working in the medium. Frederick was an exception. Her first film was The Eternal City, shot in Rome and wrapped just as war was breaking out. Released early in 1915, the film was one of the most important and successful of that year, and she received rave reviews for her portrayal of the evil Baron's mistress, who falls in love with her childhood sweetheart, the Baron's arch-enemy. After shooting, she planned to return to the stage, but with the film's success, Zukor offered her a long-term contract for $1,000 a week. She went to the producer of the play she was contracted for and received a rare bit of good career advice--he told her he would release her from her stage contract if she would agree to ask Zukor for $2,000 a week for her second year and $3,000 for her third. She did, and Zukor didn't blink. Soon she was one of Famous Players brightest stars. Already in her early 30s, she had a mature and well-developed personality and was usually cast in sophisticated roles--sometimes glamorous kept women, occasionally as an out and out vamp. Though she eventually played a variety of parts for Famous Players, from virtuous heroines to misunderstood wives, the fallen women were her signature roles. A Variety reviewer objecting to what her perceived as an unsuitable gamine role in Audrey, declared her to be "essentially a "classy" film star, fitted for either 'vampire' or 'society emotional lead' roles that call for the finest of gowns." Many of her most successful films were adapted from sensational French plays, a few of which had already been adapted into Italian operas. Indeed, there is something operatic about many of Frederick's roles of these years. One assumes her mother would have been pleased.

Pauline Frederick
Frederick on a post card publicizing Famous Players


Unfortunately, little remains of Frederick's Famous Players films. Only two atypical roles--an incomplete nitrate print of The Moment Before (1916) as a gypsy who becomes an old woman, and The Love That Lives (1917) as a scrubwoman who becomes an old woman. A true picture of Frederick's career and screen personal is very difficult to assess with the loss of most of these films.

Sometime in 1916, she fell in love with writer/actor Willard Mack. He wrote and acted with her in Nannette of the Wilds (1916), apparently her worst Famous Players film. Their relationship was public enough for Variety to caustically observe that "there is a little story that has drifted from the studio, to the effect that the director who produced it met with so many difficulties placed in his path by the author and star, that he would not permit his name to be placed on the picture. Those that saw the feature cannot blame him." Undeterred, Mack promised her a film company of her own, to release through Goldwyn for whom he was head of the scenario department. The company never materialized, but she did eventually sign with Goldwyn with much fanfare. Moving Picture World reported on February 1, 1919 about her first Goldwyn film: "'The Women on the Index' provides Miss Frederick with the kind of story that she herself has wanted, that her producers have found for her, and that the public expects and prefers from her. She has bade good-bye under the Goldwyn name to the French and Russian drama and henceforth finds her stories containing modern American themes of tense emotional power..." One wonders who saw a problem with French plays, though in the increasingly conservative climate of the late 'teens as the film business made a bid for respectability, Famous Players had been sanitizing and even eviscerating many of those plays for film adaptation. They had even imposed an unimaginable happy ending on Fedora (1918), with Variety reporting that: "A statement from Paramount is to the effect that the alteration was made in keeping with the promise made by Jesse Lasky to exhibitors that unnecessary tragic and distressing scenes would be eliminated from Paramount and Artcraft pictures for the duration of the war."

Pauline Frederick and Mabel Normand
A photo which appeared in Photoplay Magazine, October 1921. The caption reads: "Mabel and Polly--pals, even if they are both movie queens. Miss Normand came over to help Miss Frederick with her rodeo for crippled children, directed by Polly at her Beverly Hills estate with an all-star cast. Both are wearing the costumes in which they appeared."


Generally, her Goldwyn films concern innocent wives caught up in some plot machinations--like some she had made for Famous Players, but less often and with better production values. She had married Mack in 1917, and early Goodwyn publicity made much of his involvement in her career, but as it turned out he was only involved in her first couple of Goldwyn efforts. The marriage had soon turned into a nightmare, for Mack was not only an alcoholic, but a drug addict, and was violent when under the influence. Interestingly enough, his last film with Frederick had alcoholism as a theme, as did her next film--timely around the time of prohibition, but also meaningful in their own lives. They divorced in 1919, with Mack ungallantly telling Photoplay it was because of "too much mother-in-law." Apparently she considered remarrying him in the 20s, but in a rare fit of good sense, he showed her his needle marks and declared that he didn't want to ruin her life again.

In 1920, Goldwyn opened a West Coast studio, and the newly divorced Frederick and her mother moved to California. Frederick, who despite her Boston upbringing was an outdoorsy sort, fell in love with Southern California, buying a house at 503 Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. A few years later she bought a beach house in Malibu as well. In her spacious house she had room to give parties for her many friends, and even held a Rodeo party for charity in 1921. She loved to ride, and soon started spending much of her spare time hanging around the rodeo circuit, earning the respect and friendship of the cowboys and cowgirls--to Mumsie's disapproval.

1920 also saw Frederick in the role of a lifetime in Madame X, the much-filmed story of a woman descended into the depths who is on trial for murder, but declines to reveal her identity to save her family from shame. It was a tour-de-force, and she was identified with the role for the rest of her life. Ironically, it was adapted from a French play. It is the sole surviving film from her Goldwyn period, and was by far the biggest hit.

Pauline Frederick and cat
A quiet moment with a friend, circa 1920


Before the release of her last Goldwyn film, she signed with Robertson-Cole company for $7,000 a week and story and director approval. Unfortunately, either Robertson-Cole didn't have access to good stories or she was not a good judge of material, because her work for this company was in trivial films which squandered her popularity, even though some of the early ones were directed by the up and coming Henry King. All of her films from this period are lost except for a sole unpreserved nitrate print of The Mistress of Shenstone, so it's difficult to say just how bad they were. Frederick confessed later that the move to Robertson-Cole was a mistake, and blamed herself for being a poor businesswoman, lamented that she had no one to turn to for advice. Her mother still dominated her, but knew nothing about how to manage an acting career, and her husbands appear to have been of little more help. After the widely reviled The Glory of Clementina in 1922, a discouraged Frederick decided not to renew her contract and to return to the stage. Honoring an old promise to the producer who had released her to sign with Zukor, she returned Broadway. Audiences flocked to see a movie favorite, and she was more popular than she had ever been. She toured the country, and was mobbed in Australia. In 1926 she first appeared in the stage version of Madame X, which was a popular hit all over the country.

Her film work in the 20s was sporadic and uneven, but included some brilliant films. She was off the screen for two years after she left Robertson-Cole and her screen career appeared to be at an end. She was 40 years old after all, an age when most women film stars are considered over the hill. Returning to Hollywood for the even more reviled Let Not Man put Asunder (1924) for Vitagraph only seemed to confirm her has-been status. Then that same year she was selected by Ernst Lubitsch for a major character role in Three Women and began a whole new phase of her career as an aging woman fighting the ravages of time and coping with the troubles of her children. She even got some endorsements, appearing in a Lux Toilet Soap ad with the cutline "I'm over 40!" She followed Three Women with two more excellent films, the now lost Married Flirts (1924) with her old friend and director Robert Vignola, and Clarence Brown's Smouldering Fires (1925). There were few actresses in the 20s who could successfully carry off the role of a woman business executive and make her sympathetic, but Frederick succeeded in memorable fashion. Then she left again on tour, and when she returned again to Hollywood, it was mostly the Poverty Row studies that offered work. These films are a mixed bag--Devil's Island is a waste of her talent, but Her Honor the Governor, back at Robertson-Cole, is excellent and fits her like a glove. She was considered for the role of Cassie in Universal's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but that never came to pass. The other films received generally poor reviews, and soon she was off again on tour, including a swing through England with Madame X, where she made her final silent, Mumsie (1927).

Pauline Frederick
Frederick in the 1920s


By the time she returned, talking pictures were seriously contending for attention, and Frederick made one of the earliest, Warner's On Trial (1928). It seems that her warm, throaty voice did not record well on the primitive sound equipment, but technology advanced rapidly, and she has a success the next year in Evidence, in which she even sang a song, and had good reviews in the mercy-killing drama The Sacred Flame. Photoplay noted that in this topsy-turvy time, "Pauline Frederick flares into first-magnitude stardom." All these early talkies are now lost.

As with many other silent stars who scored hits in 1929, this sudden comeback didn't last long. The new influx of stars in stars in the 30s wiped out old favorites, and though the same types of films continued to be made, younger stars stepped into "Pauline Frederick" roles--first Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis, and eventually Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who reigned in them for decades. Frederick still made the occasional film, but was quickly typed as a domineering matriarch, angry and contemptuous, sometimes sinister--and usually managed to steal any scenes she was in. It is at first surprising that she didn't receive more roles, and more roles in "A" pictures at that, but it seems that in the 30s, crotchety but "cute" character actresses received the lion's share of the meager older woman parts. Other character actresses with commanding personalities such as Louise Dresser and Marjorie Rambeau also found the going rough during this time. Interestingly, both these actresses had personal connections with Frederick--Dresser's film debut was in a Frederick film and she was present at her 20s elopement, while Rambeau had also been married to Willard Mack, and was originally scheduled for the part Frederick played in This Modern Age.

Frederick remained in demand in the theater, and it took up an increasing amount of her time and energy, particularly during the Depression. Bad investments, spendthrift husbands, and smaller movie roles left Frederick in need of a steady income to support Mumsie's lavish lifestyle, so she needed to keep up a demanding schedule of nearly constant touring, including such roles (more shades of Bette Davis) as Elizabeth I of England in Elizabeth the Queen, an Mary of Scotland opposite Helen Hayes. Her personal life remained stormy. In the mid 20s, she had eloped with a second cousin to get away from Mumsie, and in the early thirties married a wealthy man at Mumsie's insistence. Neither lasted more than a few months. In January 1934, she married for the fifth time to Colonel Joseph Marmon, and planned to settle down on Governor's Island and only do plays which appealed to her. By May, he checked into the hospital with what he thought was increasing trouble with arthritis. He was soon diagnosed with terminal cancer and the decision was made not to tell him. Frederick, now needing to work more than ever, commuted between the New York Stage performances and her performance at his Washington bedside, pretending nothing was wrong and making plans for the future. He died on December 4th. Willard Mack also died that year. Mumsie had long since become too frail to travel on the road with her, as she had for so many years, and by 1935 her health was declining so that she was confined to their Beverly Hills home with her widowed sister.

Frederick doggedly kept up her stage tours, though it began to take a toll on her health. During the run of Mary of Scotland, an old abdominal scar opened and became infected, but she kept going through the run. When she returned home, Mumsie took a turn for the worse, and after a few weeks of caring for her, Frederick collapsed and had emergency surgery for an intestinal obstruction. This left her with an increasingly serious asthmatic condition. She stayed in Hollywood for a while, nursing Mumsie and appearing in a few films, the most important of which was Henry King's Ramona (1936). At the end of 1936 she returned to the New York stage, then on tour--and collapsed again. She made her last appearance in San Francisco's Curran Theater in Suspect, during which she was rushed to the hospital and into an oxygen tent. But she still made it to the final performance.

Pauline Frederick
Frederick's home in Beverly Hills.


She returned again to Hollywood, but Mumsie no longer recognized her daughter, and died in February 1938. Frederick herself seemed to feel better with some months of rest, but the asthma attacks were increasing. On September 16, she went out to dinner with friends, but returned fighting for breath. She took to bed for the weekend, and Monday morning had another attack. Doctors were sent for, but by the time the inhalators arrived, she was gone. An autopsy revealed that the obstruction for which she had previously had surgery had never been completely cleared. A shocked theater world mourned, for she still had a large following and had never retired. At her death, she had been considering contracts for a radio series, a new play, and a film.

In 1940, Muriel Elwood published an affectionate biography of Frederick, which remains the main source on which later writers have drawn. It was apparently financed by subscription, and among the subscribers were friends, admirers, and former co-workers Frank Capra, Noel Coward, Joan Crawford, Dudley Digges, Dwight Frye, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Henry King, Francis Lederer, Frank Lloyd, Frances Marion, Allen Mowbray, Franklin Pangborn, Mary Pickford, Edward G. Robinson, Mrs. Will Rogers, Charlie Ruggles, Sophie Tucker, Robert Vignola, and Walter Wanger.

Though her name has been largely forgotten by later generations, Pauline Frederick was a pioneer in Hollywood. As one of the first "powerful women" on the screen, she was a model for later generations of Hollywood woman's film stars who came to dominate the genre in Hollywood's classic period. Pauline Frederick is a star well worth remembering.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

©2002, by Greta de Groat

Last revised, May 23, 2006

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