Maurice Costello: Founder of a Dynasty

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Today is the birthday of Maurice Costello (1877-1950.). Costello is a major figure in early film history, sadly now forgotten, although his DNA remains very prominent in the contemporary movie industry!

The son of Irish immigrants, Costello grew up in Pittsburgh where he worked at various odd jobs before gaining a toehold in vaudeville in 1894 with a repertoire of Irish songs. Soon, he was touring in stock companies and melodramas. By 1905 he was in New York and taking film work by day at the Edison studios to supplement his income. In 1907 he moved to Vitagraph which is where he enjoyed his principal time in the sun.

In 1911 he became one of the first movie actors whose name was revealed to the public, and thus became one of the cinema’s first matinee idols. Among his many hits was this 1911 version of A Tale of Two Cities:

Adverse publicity from several domestic violence incidents negatively affected his career in the mid teens. By the end of end of the decade, he was more of a supporting player, although he continued to work through the 1920s. By that time, his daughters Helene and Dolores had become stage and screen stars — bigger stars than he was at that point. In the sound era, Costello was reduced to being an extra, literally a spear carrier in some films. His last credit is in 1945.

But in the meantime his daughter Dolores had become John Barrymore’s third wife (1928-1935). Through this bloodline, Maurice Costello is the great-grandfather of none other than Drew Barrymore. 

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn more about show biz history including vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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