07/09/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Silent Movies -- When the Stars Were Intriguing

You've probably heard old-timers talk about how movie stars aren't as good as they used to be. This is a little unfair -- plenty of fine actors are working in the movies -- but in one respect, the new stars really aren't a patch on the stars of yore.

From Friday, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present some of the world's great movie stars. Not in person, mind you. That would be asking too much. Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Emil Jannings, Pola Negri and Felix the Cat, among others in the festival, were at their peak over 80 years ago. Still, even if they won't be walking the red carpet, there are other reasons to see them.

Take Louise Brooks (whose best-known film, Pandora's Box, will be shown in San Francisco this weekend. How does she compare to, say, Nicole Kidman? Brooks' career lasted 13 years and she was washed-up at 32. Kidman is 45, her career has been going for 29 years and counting, and she has an Oscar. The only thing the two actresses have in common is that, while magazines have been obsessed with their private lives, their box office usually wasn't as healthy as you might think.

But what about the woman behind the image? You'd know all the headlines Kidman has made through marriage, divorce, remarriage, childbirth, moving house, smoking in public, making too much money for an advertisement, breaking her foot, and numerous other things. Even if she's doing nothing, we would still hear about her constantly, just as we hear about the latest events in the lives of Angelina Jolie, Katie Holmes, Lindsay Lohan or Jennifer Aniston.

At least their private life, as revealed (or invented) by numerous magazines and websites, is slightly more intriguing than most of their fellow tabloid stars, who give media interviews to say "I'm a normal, everyday person who's just like everyone else. I even drink Diet Coke." Frankly, the more that movie stars try to convince me that they're dead boring like the rest of us, the more I'm willing to completely believe them.

When did we think that movie stars' private lives were actually interesting? Well, here's the strange thing: the women of the silver screen used to be intriguing. It's true, but we might have to go back. The exploits of Nicole, Katie and Jennifer just don't compare to the lives of the silent movie idols.

Take the Canadian-born Florence Lawrence, America's first-ever film star, and the nation's most famous woman about a century ago. If that wasn't enough reason to make history, she also dabbled with automobiles (the wireless software for the geeks of 100 years ago) in her spare moments, and she invented an indicator switch. Yes, really! Two claims to fame. Which makes it all the more outrageous that, nowadays, she isn't actually famous. Sadly, like Erno Rubik and the inventor of the wheel, her genius didn't extend to filling in patent forms. Nor did she realize that popular film stars could demand ridiculously high salaries. She eventually died in poverty, killing herself by drinking ant paste.

The biggest star of the silent era was one of her protégés, fellow Canadian Mary Pickford, who was the most powerful woman in Hollywood. We're not talking powerful like Julia Roberts, but REAL power. She had her own studio (she co-founded the once-mighty United Artists), and was considered the "queen of Hollywood", with her husband and business partner, the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, as her king. She was the first of many Hollywood stars to go vegetarian, 60 years before Natalie Portman was even born. Not bad for a five-foot-tall, 30-something woman who specialized in playing children.

How about German siren Brigitte Helm (to be seen in San Francisco in The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna), who is now so obscure that when I once mentioned her to a well-avowed film geek and trivia junkie on his radio show, even he looked back at me with a vacant expression. She is best known as the robot girl from Metropolis (ah, now you know who I mean -- and so did the film geek), who of course became one of Hitler's favorites. Happily, she was not so impressed by Der Fuhrer, and her film career ended when she boldly married a Jew and was "found" guilty of "race defilement." Then, being no fool, she got the hell out of Germany.

Or Louise Brooks, of course -- one of Hollywood's most intriguing personalities (who became a major cult figure some 20 years after her retirement).

Obviously, the great silent movie stars are now well and truly gone, but they are still generally more interesting than most of the current crop. Have any recent stars become stock-market tycoons like 1920s party girl Colleen Moore? Have any of them made clever innovations to cars (or even software)? Have any of them gone vegetarian? (Well, yes, several of them. OK, bad example.) Apart from the gloriously eccentric Angelina Jolie, have any of them done anything unusual (and no, marrying Tom Cruise doesn't count)? Once they start doing something as interesting as their silent-era predecessors (and I haven't even mentioned Marion Davies, Renee Falconetti, Mae Murray, Gloria Swanson, Lottie Lyell or Mabel Normand), then I'll be interested in reading about them.

Yes, there were the guys as well. Valentino, Lon Chaney, William S. Hart, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin (naturally) and many others. That's another blog (or 10)...