Silent Film Sex Symbols: The Men


Ebertfest, an annual film festival founded by late movie critic Roger Ebert (now hosted by his wife and fellow film lover Chaz Ebert), brought the sexy to Illinois audiences this year. One of the festival highlights was a screening of Rudolph Valentino’s 1926 drama The Son of the Sheik, which was the silent screen legend’s last picture. A sex symbol of the ‘20s, whose life and death created a national frenzy, Valentino’s reputation as Hollywood’s “Latin Lover” was solidified by his “Sheik” roles. The actor was the most talked-about sex symbol of the silents, but he was hardly the only male star to make audiences swoon. Here are ten other silent film heartthrobs who didn’t need dialogue to heat up the silver screen.

Francis X. Bushman

Francis X. Bushman was the “King of the Movies” before Clark Gable (an epitaph engraved Bushman’s headstone) and became a hunky silent screen star thanks to his muscular physique. The actor was cast as the villainous Messala in 1925’s Ben-Hur (he even knew how to drive a chariot), the most expensive silent film ever made and his most popular role. The former athlete — whose marriage was kept secret to boost his popularity (at least until his affair with actress Beverly Bayne became a public scandal) — was cast as romantic and tough types, but he had a quirky personality. Bushman could be seen around town in a Marmon limo with his name on the sides and owned dozens of dogs.

John Barrymore

Nicknamed the “Great Profile” for his prominent nose and teardrop chin, John Barrymore was admired for his good looks and sophisticated air as much as his acting. He embodied his roles wholeheartedly, making him the perfect Hamlet and Richard III. The Barrymores were acting royalty (Drew Barrymore carries on the family’s place in Hollywood). Despite the star’s struggles with money, alcohol, and marital problems (Barrymore was a four-time divorcé), he was a distinguished screen idol loved by audiences.

Douglas Fairbanks

Swashbuckling hottie Douglas Fairbanks performed most of his own stunts in films like The Thief of Bagdad, Robin Hood, and The Mark of Zorro. His athleticism and spontaneity made him an audience favorite. Author Eve Golden writes:

Through the 1920s, Fairbanks’s public image morphed more and more into wild sexual fantasy, and in his publicity stills he often looks like a male stripper or a participant in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade: sexy half-naked pirate, sexy half-naked Arab, sexy half-naked gaucho. Particularly in The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate, his impressive physique was set off by wisps of chiffon and lame, torn bites of black leather, and high boots. His marriage to America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford [making them Hollywood’s first celebrity couple] only helped cement his status as a sex symbol.

Fairbanks was the visual inspiration behind the original illustrations of 1938-era Superman/Clark Kent and his role as Zorro inspired the creation of DC Comics character Batman. He was also a founding member of United Artists and The Motion Picture Academy.

Ramon Novarro

MGM’s great “Latin Lover,” Mexican screen star Ramon Novarro arrived in America with his family as refugees of the 1916 Mexican revolution. He started in silents while working as a singing waiter, rose to fame in his role as the title character in 1925’s Ben-Hur (those revealing costumes did wonders for his sex symbols status), and became one of the great romantic leads of his time. Novarro’s sexuality was a source of struggle for the actor, who drank to deal with feelings of repression due to his Catholic upbringing. Sadly, Novarro was brutally murdered in a homophobic rage by Paul Fergusson in 1968.

Sessue Hayakawa

Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa made a name for himself in international films, becoming the first Asian actor to find mass popularity in the United States and Europe. Before audiences gave Rudolph Valentino the goo-goo eyes, they were drawn to Hayakawa’s brooding good looks and darkly sexual roles — most of them portraying the actor as a villain or forbidden lover. A large part of this had to do with the Production Code, which prevented Hayakawa from engaging in on-screen romances with female co-stars (even Asian actresses). His disgust with the laws later inspired him to establish his own production company. Hayakawa won an Academy Award nomination for his role as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

John Gilbert

John Gilbert went head-to-head with screen rival Rudolph Valentino at the box office and won the nickname ”The Great Lover.” His transition to talkies was unsuccessful, but he stole the spotlight during the silent era, appearing in the war epic The Big Parade, which became the second highest-grossing silent film. This brought his salary from two dollars a day to $10,000 a week by 1926. His relationship with Greta Garbo was the talk of the tabloids (he wanted to marry, she didn’t), adding to his high-profile desirability.

Wallace Reid

Wallace Reid’s blue eyes and strong build made him the Paul Newman of his day. The ultimate matinee idol of Vitagraph Studios, referred to as “the screen’s most perfect lover,” Reid was known for his thrilling race car driving roles in movies like The Roaring Road, Double Speed, Excuse My Dust, and Too Much Speed. You can also see Reid in D.W. Griffith’s silent epic The Birth of a Nation as a blacksmith. Reid had ambitions behind the camera, so it wasn’t unusual to watch a movie that starred the actor as lead, writer, cameraman, and director.

Charles Boyer

From TCM on French film star Charles Boyer:

With his dark good looks and resonant, deeply accented murmur, Charles Boyer personified European romance in his native France and Hollywood for over four decades in such films as “Algiers” (1938), “All This, And Heaven Too” (1941) and “Gaslight” (1944). Though a studious, retiring figure off-screen, Boyer left female moviegoers swooning in the 1930s and 1940s, earning him four Oscar nominations as dashing, boundlessly erotic men whose lives, spent either in pursuit of crime, fortune or royalty, made them unavailable to the women who fell hopelessly in love with him. He stepped gracefully into character roles in the 1950s, scoring a triumph on Broadway with “Don Juan in Hell” (1951) and moving into production as a co-owner of the successful television company Four Star Pictures. He remained active as a symbol of old Hollywood courtliness throughout the 1960s, earning a final Oscar nod for “Fanny” (1961) before retiring to care for his wife in the late 1970s. Her death in 1978 spurred the grief-stricken actor to take his own life that same year, forever enmeshing his life with his screen image as the tragic lover whose tremendous heart was his greatest burden.

Paul Robeson

African-American acting great Paul Robeson was an athlete, Civil Rights activist, and international star with a rich theatrical background. The handsome actor, who appeared in the silent race film by legendary director Oscar Micheaux, Body and Soul, embodied “a new type of black man. Robeson — dark-sinned, dignified, cosmopolitan — represented the possibility of black political independence . . . [and] a composite of black desire for the emerging black societies,” write authors Ian Gregory Strachan and Mia Mask. “Arguably one could say that Paul Robeson was the first black leading man, playing central or leading roles in both American and foreign films until he was blacklisted in the 1940s.”

Nils Asther

Born in Denmark and raised in Sweden, Nils Asther (The Wings) was a hit thanks to his exotic looks and romantic roles opposite the most powerful women of his day — including Greta Garbo (Asther is sometimes referred to as the male Greta Garbo, and he proposed to the actress during the ‘20s), Joan Crawford, and Pola Negri. His foreign accent and suave mustache added to his dashing sex appeal.