European Silent Film Actresses You Should Know


The anniversary of the 1926 film Torrent is this weekend. It’s most famous for launching the American film career of Swedish actress Greta Garbo. Although it was the star’s first picture in the States, it was the 1924 Swedish film The Saga of Gosta Berling where Louis B. Mayer first spotted the silent screen stunner (he was entranced by her eyes).

Garbo experienced a successful transition to sound pictures, making her one of the most popular women in cinema. Not all of the European actresses were able to achieve Garbo’s level of fame (or even make the move to sound), but they played an important role in shaping the history of silent cinema. You might already be familiar with some of the bigger stars like Brigitte Helm and Pola Negri. Here are a few other women you should know.

Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney was nicknamed the “Black Garbo” and was best known as the beautiful dancer ”Chick” from 1929’s Hallelujah. She was one of the first African-American film stars in the States. McKinney was born in South Carolina, but left America after struggling to start her career due to prejudices and racism. She made a name for herself in Paris, Dublin, London, Budapest, and beyond.

Lya De Putti

Lya De Putti was born from Hungarian royalty and became a ballerina in Berlin before moving into vaudeville and eventually the German UFA studios to create movies (she later headed to Hollywood). The vampy actress’ best known picture was 1925’s Jealousy, in which she plays a seductive trapeze artist who gets caught in a love triangle at the circus.

Paola Borboni

You might recognize Italian actress Paola Borboni from 1953’s Roman Holiday. Her career spanned nine decades and started in the silents. Jacobo Ortis was her film debut, based on the Ugo Foscolo novel. Admittedly, she made our list more so for her fierce independent spirit than any one silent. Her 1972 marriage to 30-year-old actor Bruno Vilar when she was 72 made headlines. In theater, she worked with everyone from Luigi Pirandello to George Bernard Shaw. Audiences and critics gave her hell for exposing her breasts during a 1925 stage production. She played a mermaid and didn’t see the big deal.

Tilla Durieux

Austrian actress Tilla Durieux was a star of the stage and screen, and a beloved figure in Berlin’s social scene during the 1920s. Her film Woman in the Moon, directed by Fritz Lang, was banned by the Nazis after they destroyed the rockets in the movie, believing them to be too real.

Violetta Napierska

German actress Violetta Napierska, who made a name in the early German silents like 1921’s Der Verfluchte, was close to Béla Lugosi and became his mistress for a time. He even wrote a poem for her:

One [poem] I wrote while living in Germany, working in the Budapest Theatre. I had fallen in love with a very young girl by the name of Violetta Napierska. Regretfully, nothing ever developed from our acquaintance.” My Darling Violetta, Slumber envelops your beautiful face And a dream grips your soul in embrace; I will guard you. You are my dream every night, every day, And regardless of where you might stay, I will seek you. Then, when you want to forget all the world, And fly to my arms like a bird, I will love you. Signed, Bela.

Lya Mara

Lya Mara was discovered by director Friedrich Zelnik, who became her mentor and husband. They entertained all the biggest and brightest artists of their time at their home. The German actress retired early due to an accident and only made one sound picture. The 1929 film Mein Herz ist eine Jazzband, directed by Zelnik, was one of her more popular pictures.

Natalya Lisenko

Jean Epstein’s Double Love starred Russian actress Nathalie Lissenko who spent a large part of her life in Paris after the October Revolution. Her heavy accent prevented her from making the transition to sound pictures, but she was a big star in the German silents and often appeared alongside her husband, the actor Ivan Mozzhukhin.

Gladys Cooper

English actress Gladys Cooper was a screen star for seven decades, managed the Playhouse Theatre for two decades (and appeared in numerous productions), and was a popular postcard pinup. Most of the images involved her dressed as famous characters or with her family (as the public had a fascination with her private life). Her first film was 1913’s The Eleventh Commandment.