Olive Thomas had a lovely career and a horrible, tragic early death, and really, what more can you ask for in a movie star?
—Eve Golden, Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart
Long before OJ, James Dean, and William Desmond Taylor, the mysterious death of 25-year-old film star Olive Thomas caused a scandal in 1920. A star of print (winning a newspaper’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest launched her career), stage (a Ziegfeld Follies “lovely”), and the silent screen, her short, steep trajectory is captured in The Olive Thomas Collection, a mixed bag DVD that is equal parts valuable film history, nepotistic fluff, and armchair speculation.
The undiluted history comes in the form of 1920’s The Flapper, one of the few Thomas films not lost. (Another, The Spite Bride, recently resurfaced in France.) Directed by Alan Crosland (The Jazz Singer) for Selznick Pictures, the comedy casts Thomas (who’d made more than 17 films by then) as Ginger King, a “baby vamp” whose romantic illusions get her into madcap trouble. Sent off to boarding school in the east, she chases after an older man who thinks her a silly kid, inadvertently becomes the pawn of jewel thieves, and then returns home pretending to be a woman with a past.
If the plot is as common today as it was 85 years ago, the visuals are a bracing treat. Many of the title cards are Selznick Pictures original illustrations, and the scene of Thomas’ arrival in “the wicked city” shows horse-drawn buggies sharing the road with cars as she gazes in excitement from her perch on a double-decker bus. Here The Flapper morphs from film curiosity into archived history. At the time of the film’s release, Thomas was the focus. In the accompanying documentary, narrator Rosanna Arquette describes her performance: “Although Olive’s antics may seem tame when compared with flappers from the late 1920s, she was in fact the anti-Lillian Gish, the anti-Mary Pickford… She was a new type. With one role, Olive set the tone for a new generation.”
Taking its title from Thomas’ last film (released just after her “chaotic” funeral at New York’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church), Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart is full of fascinating anecdotes about the film and social circles she navigated. Though bogged down by some blind guessing (as when distant relatives speculate whether her death was accident or suicide), the film is sure on one point: Thomas won male admirers everywhere she went—and haunted them even in death. Such was the rumor regarding David O. Selznick, who added the middle initial to his name shortly after her death. Was that single letter, rumormongers wondered, an homage to Olive?
Born in a Pennsylvania mining town, she married Bernard Krug Thomas at 16. By 20, she was a New York divorcee working a department store gingham counter. (While the documentary calls her divorce “messy,” her ex-husband paints a more amicable picture in a 1931 Pittsburgh Press interview included on the DVD.) The “Most Beautiful Girl” contest introduced her to popular commercial artist Howard Chandler Christy, whose continuing assignments with Thomas led her to artist Harrison Fisher. While Fisher’s analysis of her appeal leaves something to be desired (“I was struck first with her eyes. I admired the way they were set, neither too deeply nor too prominently”), the pair were rumored to be lovers. Thomas said only, “You can say that I adore him.”
Fisher adored her well enough to write a letter recommending her to Florenz Ziegfeld for his Follies show at the New Amsterdam Theatre. She was soon a hit on Broadway, and with Ziegfeld. Much to wife Billie Burke’s chagrin, he made Thomas his new mistress and moved her into his racy late-night show, Ziegfeld Frolics, before losing her to films. In 1916, she secretly married Jack Pickford, another actor, and Mary Pickford’s fast-living brother. As the documentary describes them, they made a wild pair:
Their high-flying lifestyle was punctuated with spectacular fights and passionate reconciliations. Jack and Olive made up by exchanging extravagant gifts. Jack would give Olive a diamond bracelet and Ollie would counter with a new car for Jack. Ollie would lose the bracelet and Jack would smash up the car. They lived in a constant, chaotic whirlwind reminiscent of the world of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
When his stint in the Navy necessitated time apart, Thomas kept filming, first for Triangle Pictures, then for the new Selznick Pictures. One of the documentary’s more interesting talking heads is producer Daniel Selznick, son of David O. Selznick. As he tells it, his uncle Myron was smitten enough to talk his father Lewis into starting a whole new film company just to make movies starring Thomas. “If we’re to believe the legends, other companies were offering her twice as much, but she told Myron she’d sign with Selznick Pictures for half what the other companies were offering her. I don’t know what that was all about.” Indeed, it seems Thomas had all three Selznicks wrapped around her little fingers. “I’d love to know what my grandmother Selznick thought about it,” Daniel says.
As in The Flapper, all Thomas’ films for Selznick (including Youthful Folly, for which she wrote the story) play up her “innocent sexuality.” Her real life followed a murkier path. In late summer 1920, she and Pickford journeyed to Paris for a second honeymoon. They spent nights carousing in Montmarte nightclubs and dedicated their days to costume fittings—until 5 September 1920. Sometime after 3am, Thomas dropped mercury bichloride tablets—a disinfectant, as well as an external treatment for syphilis—into alcohol and drank. The solution blinded her and burned through her vocal cords, but she lingered in the hospital four days before dying. Her sudden, gruesome death rocked Hollywood and, according to the documentary, the world. Rumors swirled about her last active hours: some believed Pickford killed her rather than let her divorce him, others believed she committed suicide, either because Pickford had given her syphilis or in despair over her failing marriage. Pickford claimed it was a horrible accident—his wife had reached for sleeping pills in the dark—and the Paris police officially concurred.
Dedicated as it is to Thomas’ story from cradle to grave, the documentary details her funeral (arranged, though not attended, by Ziegfield, as he had a horrible fear of death) and internment in the Pickford mausoleum in Brooklyn’s Woodlawn cemetery. But the talking heads disagree about the circumstances of Thomas’ poisoning. While a grand niece suspects suicide, director Allison Anders, who has a mini-shrine to Thomas in her home, believes it was a mistake. She goes on to voice dismay over the Pickford clan’s failure to move Thomas beside her husband when he was buried in their private plot in the ‘30s. “I can’t keep them apart in my own house,” Anders says.
And yet, it’s hard for the casual viewer to invest too deeply in any of Thomas’ romances. Think of the three Selznicks, heartsick at losing her, but also flush with cash thanks to her films. “Selznick Pictures had arrived,” Daniel Selznick says, “and Olive Thomas had helped them get there.” In Hollywood, then and today, that’s what they call a happy ending.