Short and Sweet
Charismatic silent film starlet Clarine Seymour was born on this day in 1898 in Brooklyn, New York.
She entered films at barely 18 to supplement her family's income following the onset of her father's illness, first appearing in a few Thanhouser films and a Pathe serial with Perils of Pauline star Pearl White. Eventually she settled into a series of routine slapstick comedy shorts in support of circus clown Toto, but she cared little for that job; after she refused to perform a stunt in a Toto film, she was sued by her studio, Rolin -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out; yet as a result of the ruckus Clarine thought she was all washed up in pictures at age 19.
Shortly thereafter, however, she took a screen test for famed director D.W. Griffith, who found her to be a charming, effervescent "modern" girl, a perfect counterpart to Griffith's stable of post-Victorian heroines such as Lillian Gish. In her first film for Griffith, The Girl Who Stayed Home (1919), Seymour played "Cutie Beautiful," a little modern American cabaret girl, attempting to straighten out her war-avoiding beau. Although the film itself was not particularly admired at the time of its release, Motion Picture Classic gushed that "Griffith has a genuine discovery in Miss Seymour, whose playing is vivid in every detail," adding that Seymour's "fascinating 'shimmie walk'" was a phenomenon unrivaled since "Dorothy Gish's little disturber came gliding across the silversheet with piquant boisterousness." (In those days, the hacks sure knew how to blather.)
Clarine Seymour's shimmying legs, incidentally, were apparently the star attraction around Griffith's little film company. At the end of each day, Griffith's crew would drop everything to watch her hike her skirt up a little to board the red Pacific Electric streetcars.
Griffith next tapped her to play the sophisticated, jazz-loving "other woman" to Lillian Gish's stoic True Heart Susie (1919) in one of Griffith's better films of the period, followed by a turn as "Chiquita" in Griffith's Western melodrama Scarlet Days, roundly considered to be Griffith's worst film. In 1920, Griffith gave Clarine her first (and unfortunately her last) starring role, as a half-breed South Sea pagan named "White Almond Blossom" in The Idol Dancer.
Critics were again impressed by the brown-eyed sprite. Photoplay proclaimed that Seymour "plays the dramatic scenes with enough fire and sincerity almost to convince you that she is what she pretends to be, a dusky island belle," while Variety noted that she had the "most charmingly photographic face" of the film.
She then went into rehearsal for a supporting role in Griffith's Way Down East. As studio hanger-on-turned-reporter Harry Carr remembered:
One day I met little Clarine Seymour as she was coming out of a rehearsal -- a breathing space between scenes. 'My Gosh,' she said, 'I'd rather die than rehearse this darn thing any more.' She never had to. In a week she was dead. She had been taken to the hospital for a minor operation to which no importance was attached. Her mother was smiling as she saw Clarine wheeled from the operating room. 'Everything all right?' she asked, smiling. 'Your daughter has not more than twenty minutes to live,' was the grave reply.
The cause of Clarine's death, which occurred on April 25, 1920, has long been described as "strangulation of the intestines" following routine surgery, but Lillian Gish insisted that Clarine fell ill from exposure to the winter elements during location shoots for Way Down East. She was poised for greater things, having just signed a 4-year contract with Griffith, rumored to be worth $2 million.
Critics of Griffith's work lament Clarine Seymour's passing because of what might have come from their association over the next several years. Without Seymour and some of Griffith's other stalwart repertory players (Gish soon left to pursue her career elsewhere), Griffith developed a schoolboy crush and a casting fixation on Carol Dempster, a mediocre actress at best, and went on to produce a serious of indifferent, increasingly anachronistic melodramas in the 1920s. Seymour's presence among his troupe may have inspired him to modernize his tales -- she had the soul of a flapper before the flapper became trendy -- or so such critics say. As critic Anthony Slide put it, somewhat indelicately, "Nowhere is the tragedy of Clarine Seymour's death more pointed than here: if only she might have lived and Carol Dempster died, how much better would Griffith have fared in the coming decade."
Labels: Silent Film