The Enigma of Carol Dempster, or D.W. Griffith’s Folly


Today is the birthday of silent film actress Carol Dempster (1901-1991). We tend to think of her as D.W. Griffith’s equivalent of Linda McCartney. Griffith fell for her hard, the rest of the world couldn’t understand why, and they could understand even less why he insisted on foisting her upon the public as the star of his movies. Somewhat plain and lacking in the histrionic gift, she seemed a dubious if not insane replacement for the likes of Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh as Griffith’s leading lady. Whatever she possessed, it was something that he alone saw.

He discovered her when she was a pupil in Ruth St. Denis’s dancing school, casting her as an extra in Intolerance (1916). By the 1920s she was starring in his films, including his Revolutionary War epic America (1924), and Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924). We bother with her at all because for the next several months we’ll be giving heightened attention to W.C. Fields. Fields fans are aware of her because she appears in The Great Man’s Griffith-helmed features Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and That Royle Girl (1925). Upon introduction to these films, the newbie is always possessed of the question, “Wait…you mean she’s the star of these films and not W.C. Fields?” Yes! Welcome to the world!

Both critics and the public were unimpressed by Dempster’s abilities. She made one last film for Griffith The Sorrows of Satan in 1926 (with Adolphe Menjou and Ricardo Cortez) and then retired to marry a wealthy banker.

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