Silent Star of March 1997

Eleanor Boardman

Shot between December 1926 and March 1927, The Crowd so puzzled the marketing executives at MGM that it sat for nearly a year while the studio tried to decide how to bill it. The film was distinctive, not just for its technological use of the positive light scale, which bathed the film in contrasts of light and shade, but for its story, which lacked a villain, a happy ending, an action sequence, or a conflict.

The Crowd was director King Vidor's "experimental" film for MGM, a slice-of-life film that chronicled "ninety minutes in the life of the average man." A critical and modest commercial success, it starred unknown extra James Murray as well as Vidor's then-wife Eleanor Boardman. A departure from the roles she usually played -- elegant, patrician women -- it is for the role of the plain, simple, unnamed Wife in The Crowd that she is best remembered. "Yes, The Crowd, The Crowd, it haunts me in the best ways, and I suppose when I pop off, I'll be kind of happy it is what's left behind."

Eleanor Boardman was born August 19, 1898 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to strict, Presbyterian parents. Accounts vary; according to Eleanor, she attended the Academy of Fine arts, studying art and interior design, while according to King Vidor she left home to pursue a career in theatre. Regardless, Eleanor left Philadelphia for New York "to set the world on fire," and while still a teenager was selected as the "Eastman Kodak Girl." Appearing in a series of print ads, it is a photo of Eleanor, in a striped dress, standing on a hill of wheat, hair flying, that attracted the young King Vidor.

By 1922, Eleanor eventually came to the attention of Robert E. McIntyre, a casting director for Goldwyn Pictures. So successful was her screen test for him that producer Abe Lehr came from Hollywood, bearing a long-term contract. Eleanor signed, and with a starting salary of $75.00 per week left New York for California. That same year she made her film debut in The Stranger´s Banquet, co-starring Hobart Bosworth and Claire Windsor, and directed by Marshall Neilan. For her second film, Souls for Sale, she was personally chosen by writer/director/producer Rupert Hughes, uncle of Howard Hughes, to star in the film adaptation of his novel. On the set of her fourth film, 1923's Vanity Fair, Eleanor met Vidor, who was surprised to discover she was the girl in the ad.

She made Three Wise Fools with Vidor, also in 1923, and along with other up-and-comers such as Evelyn Brent, Laura La Plante, and Jobyna Ralston was named a WAMPAS Baby Star. The married Vidor separated from and divorced his wife, actress Florence Vidor. He and Eleanor went on to make five more features together during the next four years: Wine of Youth and The Wife of the Centaur in 1924; Proud Flesh in 1925; and Bardelys the Magnificent and The Crowd in 1926. During this period, Eleanor also starred in 1924's Sinners in Silk and The Silent Accuser, and The Way of A Girl and The Only Thing in 1925. In 1925 Eleanor was given the distinction of being named "The Most Outspoken Girl in Hollywood" by Helen Carlisle of Movie Magazine.

Eleanor and Vidor finally married September 8, 1926, in what was to have been a double wedding with John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Legend has it that when Garbo failed to show, Louis B. Mayer, MGM studio boss, pulled Gilbert aside and asked why did he have to marry Garbo -- why not just sleep with her? Gilbert punched Mayer, and it was retribution for this incident that was the basis for Mayer's "sabotaging" Gilbert's career.

In 1928, the Vidors went to Europe, sailing on the same ship as the F. Scott Fitzgeralds. While in Europe, sound technology began its revolution in Hollywood, and Vidor cut their trip short. Eleanor's first sound film in 1929 was not at MGM but at United Artists, for whom she was loaned out to for She Goes to War, also a story by Rupert Hughes. In 1930 she was again loaned out, this time to Tiffany Studios, starring in Mamba, a technicolor feature. Back at MGM she filmed 1930's Redemption and The Great Meadow, then loaned once again to Columbia in 1931 for The Flood. Her final film for MGM was Cecil B. DeMille's third remake of The Squaw Man.

Divorced from Vidor in 1930, Eleanor retained custody of their two daughters, Antonia and Belinda. When her contract with MGM expired in 1933, Eleanor began what was "the best part of her life," leaving Hollywood for a 12-year stay in Europe. While in France, she met and fell in love with Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast. Following him to Spain, she made her final film, 1934's The Three Cornered Hat, directed by d'Arrast.

Although Vidor had allowed Eleanor to take the girls to Europe, by the 1930s a contentious custody battle turned bitter. With talk of war circulating throughout Europe, and hoping to keep them from their father, Eleanor enrolled the girls in a private boarding school in Switzerland. In 1940 Vidor took the girls back to the U.S., and while following them back, Eleanor's boat was detained by the Germans while the ship was still at sea. Ordered into lifeboats, the passengers spent an hour and a half in the pouring rain until the Germans were satisfied it was an American passenger ship.

Eleanor spent the 1940s and '50s moving between the U.S. and Europe with d'Arrast, still fighting with Vidor over the children. She worked for a year in Paris as a correspondent for Harper's Bazaar, but returned to the U.S. in the late 1960s, living for a time in the gatehouse of Marion Davies' Beverly Hills estate. In 1968 she moved to Montecito, California, a suburb of Santa Barbara, where she died December 12, 1991.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1997 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431