Of the women considered great stage beauties in the beginning decades of the 20th century, Pauline Frederick is the least intelligible to 21st-century eyes. Her long almond face, asymmetrical smile, and Byzantine eyes do not form an alluring ensemble. Yet she was hailed as one of the most glorious of women from her youthful Broadway debut in 1902 to her final screen performance as Madame Chung in a Mr. Moto movie in 1937.
Born in Boston and trained in the theatrical companies there, Frederick was twenty when she first won laudatory reviews on Broadway in 1903's "A Princess of Kensington." She enjoyed success on the stage from 1903 until 1915 when she decided to investigate film. Her acting technique was curiously modern for someone given to melodramatic over-emoting. She was a modal actress, trying to explore the written limits of her roles. She could do comedy and possessed a light manner as well as her more usual heavy roles. She had a talent for quick memorization, a willingness to take direction, and a capacity to project into the most commonplace of roles, which kept her stock high among directors and producers on both coasts.
Frederick was, however, a difficult human being. Her father disinherited her. Her business partners went into bankruptcy rather than deal with her on a long term basis. She contracted multiple short-lived marriages. Yet her emotional volatility produced some noteable screen performances: "Evidence" and "The Phantom of Crestwood" being the most remarkable. After her installation in Hollywood, she would periodically return to the stage when her patience with film producers wore thin. None of her later Broadway roles, either in the 1920s return or the 1930s return, was a smashing success. Yet when she went to London in 1925 in "Madame X," the positive response verged on hysteria. David S. Shields/ALS