You don’t have to be a full-fledged silent film buff to have seen Anna Q. Nilsson (1888-1974) on screen. Today her most widely seen performance is as one of the “waxworks” in Sunset Boulevard (1950), alongside Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. Like them, and Gloria Swanson, Nilsson had been a major star of the silent era. She was in fact, considered one of the screen’s first great beauties. Her middle name was Quirentia (March 30 is St. Quirinius’s Day — why aren’t you celebrating?) Retaining the “Q.” in her name is inidicative of her early vintage in the movie industry, comparable to the “X.” in Francis X. Bushman.
Nilsson was 17 when she emigrated to America from her native Sweden with her family. She initially found employment as a nanny, but rapidly replaced that with work as a model. By 1907, two years after arrived she was named “Most Beautiful Woman in America” in a national contest. Nilsson was hired by Kalem Studios in 1911; her first film was the title character in Molly Pitcher. These were the days before features; Nilsson was in scores of short films for the studio through 1915; one of the more notable from these years is the 1913 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Notable features of the silent era include Raoul Walsh’s The Regeneration (1915), an adaptation of Belasco’s Barbara Frietchie (1915), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917), Allan Dwan’s The Luck of the Irish (1920), The Lotus Eater (1921) with John Barrymore and Colleen Moore, Ten NIghts in a Bar-Room (1921), Hearts Aflame (1922), The Spoilers (1923), and Broadway After Dark (1924). During these years, she continued to be a favorite with audiences. She was voted “Most Beautiful Actress in the World” in 1914, named “The Ideal American Girl” by Photoplay magazine in 1919, and polled to be Hollywoods’ most popular actress in 1926.
But there were also setbacks. She had suffered burns during a shoot in 1923. Worse, she broke her a leg in 1928 in an equestrian accident, requiring operations and months of therapy. This was very bad timing, as it had occurred at the dawn of talkies, halting her career momentum at a time when it was required. On top of this, she had a Swedish accent. This wasn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. After all Garbo, also Swedish, certainly transcended it, but then that also meant that Garbo was competition. Garbo was also nearly 20 years younger, with a much hotter career. It wasn’t until 1933 that Nilsson was able to return to the screen. Now 45 years old, she was relegated to the stratus of a minor supporting actress, with parts ranging from fairly decent (she was fifth billed in 1942’s Girls Town) to, more commonly, extra roles, walk ons and bit parts. One of her more notable late roles (beyond Sunset Boulevard) is that of Loretta Young’s mother in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947). Nilsson’s last screen appearance was a small role in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.