The Illustrious Life and Mysterious Death of Olive Thomas

By Jossalyn Holbert

Olive Thomas died at twenty-five years of age, thanks to the accidental ingestion of mercury bichloride. She had acted in approximately twenty films over four years, but sadly, her career ended as quickly as it had begun. While Thomas’ death essentially created the first Hollywood scandal ever, I feel that she should be remembered for her expressiveness and liveliness that she brought to her acting.

Olive Thomas won the “Most Beautiful Girl in New York City” contest in 1914, launching her modelling career. She joined the Ziegfeld Follies shortly thereafter and remained with the Follies until 1916. That year, she signed with the International Film Company, and her acting debut was in an episode of “Beatrice Fairfax,” called “Playball.”

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Olive Thomas

In “Playball,” Rita Malone’s (Thomas) lover has another girl on his docket, and the devastation on Thomas’s face comes off beautifully, her eyes as doe-like as a deer’s.

After “Playball,” Thomas starred in “A Girl Like That” in 1917. Before transitioning to an agreement with Triangle Pictures later that year, though, Thomas married Jack Pickford. His sister was Mary Pickford, famed silent-film actress and contemporary of Thomas. Thomas refrained from taking the Pickford name in fear of riding on the coattails of her sister-in-law’s fame.

 

“While Thomas’ death essentially created the first Hollywood scandal ever, I feel that she should be remembered for her expressiveness and liveliness that she brought to her acting.”

A contract with Triangle brought to the screen “Madcap Madge,” “Indiscreet Corrine,” “Limousine Life,” “Toton the Apache,” and “The Follies Girl.” In 1919, Thomas transitioned to Selznick’s Pictures Company. Within two years, she starred in such films as “Upstairs and Down,” “Love’s Prisoner,” “Out Yonder,” “The Flapper,” and “Everybody’s Sweetheart.”

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Publicity Still for “Everybody’s Sweetheart”

We will focus more on “The Flapper” later on.

Just prior to Thomas’ death, her marriage to Pickford was on the rocks. They took a second honeymoon to Paris to attempt to repair what had been falling apart for years. Part of the issue stemmed from Jack Pickford’s infidelity, leading to his contracting syphilis. A doctor prescribed him mercury bichloride as a topical medication, not meant to be ingested, which is how Olive Thomas so fatefully died in 1920.

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Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford

“Oh my god!” She cried, and rushing into the room, Jack saw the fatal mistake that Olive had made. She died five days later with Pickford by her side.

“Thomas’ story demonstrates an uglier side of Hollywood that was starting to form around the time of her death, but also the opportunities for growth and fame within Hollywood as well.”

The press, for more or less the first time ever, took the story of Thomas’ death, speculating as to why the actress ingested the poison in the first place. Some swirling ideas included suicidal ideation, thanks to disagreements with Jack over his infidelity or his syphilis. Drug addiction appeared as another potential reason and, perhaps most gruesomely of all, the possibility that Pickford convinced Thomas to poison

After an autopsy, authorities ruled Thomas’ death to be an accident. However, this was the first Hollywood scandal to sweep the nation, putting a sour taste in the mouths of consumers of film.

It is easy to remember the legacy of Thomas’ death and the scandal that followed it. My hope is to also remember her acting and the expressiveness she brought to silent film.

Many of Thomas’ films have been lost or are difficult to find. That being said, I will focus my article mostly on Thomas’ performance in “The Flapper” in 1920.

One of the first depictions of flapper attire and flapper mindset ever, “The Flapper” follows Genevieve “Ginger” King (Thomas), from Orange Springs. A bit of a rebellious girl, Genevieve’s father sends her to boarding school, under the rule of the brutal Mrs. Paddles (Marcia Harris).

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Olive Thomas in The Flapper (1920)

Ginger has a bit of a flirtationship with military academician, and truly awkward fellow, Bill E. Forbes (Theodore Westman Jr). Ginger leaves Bill behind for Richard Channing (W.P. Carleton), a handsomely suave gentleman who is far too old for her affections. When Channing rebukes her, she ‘vampirizes’ her style (and also ‘flapperizes’ her style) to gain her revenge.

“Thomas’ actorial transition from schoolgirl to flapper girl shows great theatrical acumen on her part. She grows on-screen just as her character does.”

Her plans are interrupted when a fellow boarding schoolgirl elopes with Tom Morran (Arthur Housman). Several twists and turns occur along the way to the end of this film, with Hortense (Katherine Johnston) and Morran being busted for thieving jewellery from Mrs. Paddles’ collection.

Ginger’s transformation from sweet and silly schoolgirl to full-fledged flapper reflects a sharp transition from the 1910s to the 1920s. Fashion dramatically changed to feature feathers, headpieces, shorter dresses, and shorter hairstyles. Not only that, but Thomas’ actorial transition from schoolgirl to flapper girl shows great theatrical acumen on her part. She grows on-screen just as her character does. The transition also reflects growth in Hollywood taking place in the early ’20s.

Thomas’ story demonstrates an uglier side of Hollywood that was starting to form around the time of her death, but also the opportunities for growth and fame within Hollywood as well. Her tale is truly one of Hollywood glam and tragedy and remembrance in perpetuity.

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