Today is the birthday of the great (and beautiful) Russian actress Olga Baclanova (1896-1974).
People of her day would be flabbergasted to know that in 2014 her best known screen performance would be Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), seeing as how the film was scarcely released in its own day, and you can barely understand the actress with her thick accent.
Baclanova’s true heyday, though a brief one, was in the silent period. An actress with the Moscow Art Theatre, she opted to remain in the States following a U.S. tour in 1926 as had Maria Ouspenskaya. In the silent days, it was a totally viable option for a person with very limited English skills to be an American movie star: Pola Negri and Alla Nazimova among them. Like Nazimova, Baclanova went by just her last name during her glory days, when she starred in such films as The Man Who Laughs (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). During the talkies though, her thick accent got in the way — she was relegated to playing the occasional Countess and by 1933 she was done in features. After this she concentrated on a stage career, and had one last cinematic hurrah in the movie Claudia in 1943.
As time goes on, and more and more people re-discover the greatness that was the silent era, Baclanova will (we predict) get a long awaited public reassessment.
To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.