The smartest showgirl on Broadway in the 1910s, Justine Johnstone rocketed from a Hoboken beauty contest to the Follies chorus, to feature spots in the Princess Theatre musicals, to success on Broadway, to silent movie stardom. The lighting staff of the Princess honored Johnstone's magical presence on the stage by flickering the lights every time she made an entrance in "Oh Boy." At this juncture Johnstone opened up a club with one of the earliest jazz bands - it became the favorite watering hole of revue performers in late 1917.
Her statuesque figure and natural poise made her the go-to clothes horse of the fashion designers of the World War I era. She wore nine costumes as the lead in 1918's "Over the Top." "Betty" presented her with equal splendor. Her follow-up, "Oh Mama!" made her dissatisfied with the state of entertainment on Broadway. Though she could dance and sing, she wished to act. When she met resistance from managers, she went into the movies.
1920's "Nothing but Lies" was a comedy, but her second film, the crime drama "Blackbirds," was the first occasion in which she showed her abilities as a dramatic actress. Her third film, "The Plaything of Broadway," combined her ambition to show the travails of urban life with her reputation as a Broadway luminary and featured some of the most striking images of urban slums since the Biograph films of the early 1910s.
She suspended her film career in 1921 generally dissatisfied with the work she had done, consenting to return in 1925 only because Maurice Tournier whished to direct her in "Never the Twain Shall Meet," a romance of Polynesia. The scenery mattered more than her performance.
Having concluded that acting would forever be thwarted by compromise and stupidity, Johnstone enrolled in medical school, becoming a pathologist. Indeed, she enjoyed under her married name an extraordinary career of innovation and success, being part of the team that created the intravenous drip. Her marriage with Walter Wanger failed shortly before the twenty-year mark.
Though none of her silent films survived, she had enjoyed success of the highest sort in two greatly different fields - knowing both popular fame and professional respect. David S. Shields/ALS