Born 150 Years Ago Today: Sidney Olcott

September 20, 1872 was the natal day of actor, director and producer Sidney Olcott, a major mover and shaker of the silent era, especially the earlier days of the industry.

Olcott was essentially the D.W. Griffith of Kalem Studios, functioning as director, producer and studio head through 1915. His most notable achievement was the blockbuster story of Christ, From the Manger to the Cross (1912), which actually antedated The Birth of a Nation as both a feature (five reels) and a million dollar blockbuster, though it has become eclipsed in the popular memory. He also scored great success by shooting several films in Ireland, at a time when America’s urban audiences were full of immigrants from the Emerald Isle, primed to look at pictures of home.

Born to Irish immigrants in Toronto, Olcott had been a New York stage actor, and actually started in the film game at Biograph prior to Griffith. He moved to Kalem in 1907. When he left the studio it collapsed and was swallowed up by Vitagraph. Later he directed for Famous Players-Lasky and other studios. His notable films, among a couple of hundred, include the original screen adaptation of Ben Hur (1907), The Scarlet Letter (1908) with Ruth Roland, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), The Octoroon (1909 and again in 1913), The Collen Bawn (191), Arrah-na-Pogue (1911), The Shaughraun (1912), the 1913 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Diplomacy (1916). His last film The Claw (1927), was made for Universal. Apparently sound was not for him, for that was when he retired.

In 1914 Olcott married actress Valentine Grant (1881-1949) who appeared in many of his films, including The Idle Rich (1914), Nan O’ the Backwoods; All For Old IrelandBold Emmett, Ireland’s Martyr; and The Irish in America (all 1915), The Innocent Lie (1916) and many others. The couple died within a few months of each other in 1949.

For more on early silent film, please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.