Actor Biography

ELEANOR BOARDMAN

Born: 1898, Philadelphia, PA

Died: 1991, Santa Barbara, CA

Notable Films: The Circle (1925), Memory Lane (1926), Tell It to the Marines (1926), Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), The Crowd (1928)

Eleanor Boardman, a star of silent films, is best known as the second wife of famed director King Vidor and the star of arguably his finest film, The Crowd (1928).

In 1980 (at age 82), she discussed her career with film historian William M. Drew. The interview is recorded in his book, Speaking of Silents, First Ladies of the Screen (1989). This interview served as an important source of biographical information for this article.

Born in 1898 in Philadelphia, Eleanor Boardman was modeling for a local photography company from an early age. At 16 years, she was featured as the "Kodak Girl" in a nationally distributed ad. Standing in a field of flowers, she casually carries a camera. Throughout her career, she projected the youthful, wholesome and appealing image seen at an early age in this photo. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and in 1922 she went to New York to work in set and costume design for the theater. Her career goals soon changed. A screen test resulted in a studio contract and a trip to Hollywood.

By the end of 1922, she had appeared in her first film, Stranger's Banquet, a Marshall Neilan Production starring Hobart Bosworth and Clair Windsor. As a "Wampas Baby Star" in 1923, her career was promoted by the US Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as one of 13 young actresses on the threshold of stardom. She had her first starring part in her fourth film, Souls For Sale (1923), a story about the making of a movie star. Her co-star, Richard Dix, portrayed the star-making movie director. Three Wise Fools (1923), her first film directed by King Vidor, was made for Goldwyn Pictures. When Goldwyn merged into the new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Goldwyn's contract personnel, including Boardman and Vidor, were included in the deal. Her first MGM film, Wine of Youth (1924), co-starred Ben Lyon and William Haines and was directed by Vidor. Of her 24 silent films, she made six with Vidor, who she married in 1926. Their finest film, The Crowd (1928), ranks among the greatest American films of all time.

Boardman's first talkie, She Goes to War (1929) was mostly silent with brief talking sequences. She appeared in seven talkies between 1930-1931. She played the deserted wife of John Gilbert in his disastrous second talkie, Redemption (1929). She told William Drew that Redemption was one of her personal favorite pictures because she wore such pretty clothes. She was loaned to Tiffany Studios to star with Jean Hersholt and Ralph Forbes in Mamba (1930), one of the earliest Technicolor films. The Great Meadow (1931) is an elaborate production about a newly wedded couple settling in the wilds of Kentucky in the 18th century. She has a relatively brief role in her final Hollywood film, The Squaw Man (1931), directed by C.B. deMille. Her character, the true love of the hero, appears only at the beginning and the end of the film.

Boardman told William Drew that her film career ended in 1932 when MGM cancelled her contract. She was in Hawaii with Vidor trying to salvage their marriage. The studio cabled her to come back for a loan out to Paramount, and she refused. She was through with Hollywood. She had been working continuously for nearly ten years going from one film to the next and had apparently tired of making movies. She left California and moved to Europe in 1933. She made her last film, The Three Cornered Hat (1935) directed by Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, in Spain. The story, derived from a popular 19th century Spanish novelette, concerns a magistrate's attempts to seduce the miller's virtuous wife. Victor Varconi, a Hungarian who had migrated to Hollywood in the 1920s, played the miller.

In 1940, she married Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, a Frenchman, who had been in Hollywood from 1927-1933 and then returned to Europe. They lived in Spain until WWII when they returned to the US. After the war, they moved back to Europe. After the death of d'Arrast in 1968, she spent her final years in Santa Barbara, California. Eleanor Boardman died in 1991 at the age of 93.

Eleanor Boardman would have been a silent film star even without her association with King Vidor. She is a charming actress. Her acting is sincere, restrained, and intelligent and her personality warm and pleasing. She is good looking, but not a great beauty nor a glamour type. In her finest film, The Crowd (1928), which traces the life experiences of a typical American man, Boardman, deglamorized in makeup and dress, is outstanding as a middle class wife and mother. In addition to The Crowd, she starred in several first-rate, highly entertaining silent films. The Circle (1925), directed by Frank Borzage, depicts the situation and relationships of W. Somerset Maugham's eponymous play, a comedy of manners, without his witty dialogue. Memory Lane (1926), a sentimental and humorous romantic drama, costars Conrad Nagel and William Haines. In Tell It To the Marines (1926), Boardman has a relatively small part as the nurse loved by Lon Chaney and William Haines. The relationship between the two men forms the center of the humorous and dramatic story.

In sound films, her voice is fine, but her acting is somewhat stiff and unpolished. Her transition to talkies was relatively smooth, but after seven talking films, she had not developed a distinctive or effective acting style. The talking films she appears in are likewise undistinguished. The most interesting, Mamba (1930) and The Big Meadow (1931), are appealing only in a historical sense. Three years into sound films, her career faltered. Her studio, MGM, was loaning her out as much as they were using her.

By 1933, her marriage to King Vidor was ending, and she was tired of the seeming factory-like conditions of filmmaking. Although she liked Irving Thalburg, she had bad relations with Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. She was happy to end her career and move to Europe.

Late in life she had little respect for her films. She told William Drew that except for The Crowd she was not proud of any of them. Looking back on her career, she sometimes thought that she had not known what she was doing, just tried to act normally, and do what she was told. She went from one picture to another, and did not remember much about any of them. Her judgment was too harsh, as this examination of her career shows.