Try to imagine a time when a deck of cards with movie star pictures was a novelty. It’s not easy, is it? We can hardly even imagine a time when a movie star was such a novelty that the word “movie” itself was in quotes. But here it is, courtesy of one M.J. Moriarty and the Movie Souvenir Card Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio.
The relative commonness of these decks at collector shows suggests to me that they were probably treated as collectibles from day one; people bought them to keep and look at the pictures, not to face the wear and tear of their Tuesday night whist clubs. (When was the last time you saw a 100-year-old deck of cards in perfect condition?)
That may be about to change. It’s becoming common practice among dealers now to break up the decks and sell the cards one at a time. At this moment in 2022, there are 54 individual cards available on eBay at prices ranging from five to twelve dollars. At that rate, a deck that Cliff Aliperti once said was worth no more than $150 (and which I’ve seen much lower) can bring a dealer as much as $630 or more. (Some cards are worth more than others, like this Charlie Chaplin Joker; it brings a premium because it’s the one instance where the card and the personality are perfectly matched — and probably also because Chaplin is the one person in the deck whom pretty much everybody recognizes.) This deck-splitting makes good business sense, but it probably means that decks that survived the last hundred years in near-mint condition are going to have a tough time making it through the next ten.
These decks first appeared in 1916 — at least that’s the copyright date on the card backing. Stars came, went, and changed positions in the deck, and some people (here, for example, at Cliff Aliperti’s Immortal Ephemera) have made a study of comparing and contrasting the decks that can still be found. Certain evidence of the cards themselves suggests that that they stopped production in 1922 at the latest: Wallace Reid appears on the 4 of Spades, and Reid died in January 1923; that’s not conclusive, though, because two other actors (Nicholas Dunaew and Richard C. Travers) occupied that card at one time or another. More persuasive is the case of Mary Miles Minter, the only occupant (so far known) of the 9 of Diamonds. Minter’s career was wrecked in the backwash of the William Desmond Taylor murder in February 1922, when her indiscreet love letters to the late director (30 years her senior) shattered her virgin-pure screen image. But even if the cards were still in production in 1922 (probably unlikely), they stopped pretty early. Many of the stars most associated with the silent era — Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Harry Langdon, Ramon Novarro, Bebe Daniels, Bessie Love — hadn’t made their big splash yet and don’t appear in any version of the deck.
Others might be expected to show up but don’t. Conspicuous by their absence are the King and Queen of Hollywood (even before their marriage made it official), Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — although their colleague in United Artists, Chaplin, is Clown Prince of the deck. Dorothy Gish (5 of Clubs) appears, but not her sister Lillian, much the bigger star. And we have Mabel Normand (10 of Clubs) but not her teammate Roscoe Arbuckle, with whom she made dozens of popular Sennett comedies between 1912 and ’16. When these cards hit the market, Arbuckle’s legal troubles were still five years in the future, but he appears in no extant version of the deck, although “Fatty and Mabel” were as much a team as Laurel and Hardy would later be.
Now a word about the card backing — “the famous painting, ‘The Chariot Race'”, as the descriptor card says. The cards show only a detail; here’s a more complete look at the painting. It was indeed pretty famous during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and was the work of Alexander von Wagner (1838-1919), a sort of Hungarian Norman Rockwell of the era. Von Wagner painted at least three versions of the painting, the first one in 1873 for the Vienna Exposition. A second version went on display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, and another — or perhaps the same one — at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The painting sparked a national craze, with etchings and lithograph prints for sale everywhere. Contrary to what some have said, it does not reproduce a scene from Ben-Hur, which wasn’t published until 1880; indeed, the painting and its pop-culture clones may have inspired Gen. Lew Wallace to include such a scene in his novel. In point of fact, the full title of the work is “Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus, Rome, in the Presence of the Emperor Domitian”, which would have been several decades after Judah Ben-Hur and Messala had their fateful showdown in Antioch’s Circus Maximus. Only one of von Wagner’s versions of the painting is known to survive; it hangs today in the Manchester Art Gallery in England.
But back to those 53 faces — “every one a favorite of yours”, according to the deck’s promo. So many of those favorites are forgotten today — victims of fickle audiences even in their own lifetimes, then victimized again by the passage of time and Hollywood’s too-little-much-too-late attitude toward film preservation. I thought it would be a fun project to take these cards one at a time and review what we can know now of the lives and careers behind those “beautiful halftone portraits.” Chaplin hardly needs it, of course, but what about House Peters, Mildred Harris, Wanda Hawley, George Larkin? I’ll be shuffling the deck from time to time, cutting the cards and seeing what comes up. Maybe we can uncover some sense of why these cards were bought, and enjoyed, and even cherished and preserved so carefully for a hundred years and more.
* * *
King of Hearts – H.B. Warner
Here’s an easy one for starters. Every true film buff knows Henry Byron Charles Stewart Warner-Lickford, although they might have to look twice to recognize the H.B. Warner they remember in this dapper, Arrow-collared, surprisingly youthful gent-about-town. This portrait may date from Warner’s entry into movies, when he was 38; that would have made the picture a couple of years old when the deck was published, but that sort of thing is not unheard of among actors’ head shots.
So film buffs know the name, even if the face comes as a bit of a surprise — but what about those less devout moviegoers, who don’t make a practice of memorizing the name of every Thurston Hall or J. Edward Bromberg who marches across the screen? Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think it just may be that H.B. Warner’s work has been seen by more people alive today than anyone else in the M.J. Moriarty deck. Yes, maybe even more than Charlie Chaplin.
Note I said “seen by”, not “familiar to”. So take another look. Try to add, oh, maybe 30 years to that face. Look especially at the eyes. Ring any bells? Well…
In 1937, Capra gave Warner the opportunity to deliver probably his best screen performance. The picture was Lost Horizon, from James Hilton’s utopian romance about a group of refugees from war-torn “civilization” who find themselves in the remote Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La. Warner (here with Isabel Jewell, Edward Everett Horton, Ronald Colman and Thomas Mitchell) played Chang, their mysterious escort from the snowbound wreck of their plane to the Edenic Valley of the Blue Moon, and their host after they arrive. Endlessly cordial, welcoming and polite, he nevertheless is inscrutably vague about when and how they will ever be able to return to their homes. Warner got an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor, but he didn’t win; he lost out to Joseph Schildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus in Warner Bros.’ The Life of Emile Zola. That’s a worthy performance, but I’m not at all sure the Academy made the right call. H.B. Warner’s other pictures for Capra were You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939, as the Senate majority leader) and Here Comes the Groom (1951).
But you don’t get your picture on a deck of cards for supporting and character roles in your twilight years, however memorable. What about his career earlier, when he appeared on the King of Hearts sometime between 1916 and 1920? Well, unfortunately, that’s something we’re going to bump up against over and over as we discuss this antique deck of cards — and for that matter, anything else about the silent era. The survival rate of movies made between 1890 and and 1920 is only a cut or two above snowball-in-hell level; for much of Warner’s career we have to piece together what information we can from secondary sources.
We know that he made his Broadway debut on November 24, 1902 at the age of 27 (billed as “Harry Warner”), in Audrey by Harriet Ford and E.F. Boddington. In 1910 he appeared in Alias Jimmy Valentine, one of the smash hits of the early 20th century stage, adapted from the O. Henry story “A Retrieved Reformation.” He must have made quite an impression in that, because in 1914, when he filmed another one of his stage successes, The Ghost Breaker, the laudatory review in Variety mentioned him as “he of ‘Jimmy Valentine’ fame.” The Ghost Breaker was his third picture in 1914, and was co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille. They would work together again, and would in fact make their last picture together — but more of that anon.
Warner was a veteran stage star by the time his movie career really got underway in the mid ‘teens, and he established himself (if we can believe his Variety reviews) as an appealing romantic lead in titles like The Raiders, Shell 43 and The Vagabond Prince (all 1916), Danger Trail (’17) and The Pagan God (’19). He continued to appear on Broadway until Silence in the winter of 1924-25 (which he also filmed in 1926); after that he was a Hollywood actor for good.
At least one of H.B. Warner’s silent movies has survived intact, and it’s a biggie: Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacularly reverent The King of Kings (1927), in which Warner played the title role. The movie was a triumph of prestige and box office for DeMille; in reviewing it, Variety’s legendary editor Sime Silverman was quite tongue-tied with awe; in 24 column inches, Silverman (normally so terse and pithy) fairly stumbles over himself groping for superlatives. The movie is a bit too earnestly pious for modern tastes, but its appeal for 1927 audiences is still understandable, and DeMille’s showmanship is at its smoothest. Most memorably, Warner’s performance, in an age when accusations of sacrilege were a very real concern, is excellent. Here’s a strikingly dramatic shot of him at the Crucifixion, seen from the viewpoint of Jesus’s mother Mary mourning at the foot of the Cross.
And here, just to give a flavor of the lavishness of DeMille’s picture, is a frame from one of King of Kings‘s two Technicolor sequences, showing the resurrrected Christ comforting Mary Magdalene (Jacqueline Logan) at the opening to the tomb on Easter morning. (On a curious side note: in King of Kings Judas Iscariot was played by none other than the self-same Joseph Schildkraut who ten years later would ace Warner out of that Oscar.)