The FIR Vault

ANNA Q. NILSSON

By • May 30th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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The beauteous Anna Q.

WHAT Swedish-born actress achieved world fame on the American screen? Most people would immediately answer Greta Garbo, or Ingrid Bergman, in that order. Very few would name Anna Q. Nilsson, and yet the young American researcher, H.A. Pensel, correctly calls her “one of the first big stars of Hollywood.”

Anna Q. Nilsson enjoyed a long and successful career as a silent star until ’28, when a riding accident ended her best years, though she played on and off in films until ’50. She was a striking ash-blonde beauty, with dark blue eyes. She was five feet seven and weighed 135 pounds. Among her directors were J. Stuart Blackton, Robert Vignola. Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Cecil B. DeMille, Herbert Brenon, George Fitzmaurice and Raoul Walsh. She played with John Barrymore, William S. Hart. Richard Barthelmess, Wallace Reid, Milton Sills and Lewis Stone.

She was born March 30, 1888 in the little town of Ystad in the southermost province of Sweden. Her father insisted on naming her Querentia, meaning “longing, searching.” When she grew up, she thought it appropriate, fitting her character well. “I was always fanciful.” she said, “never satisfied with myself. But I knew what I was looking for.” The “Q” in her name always aroused people’s curiosity, and in fact helped her career. “The Q stands for Quality,” “Photoplay” wrote. Her friends in the movie colony called her Anna Q.

Her father is said to have been a policeman; her mother she described as a “wise and resolute woman.” When she was eight, the family moved to Hasslarp where her father became foreman in the sugar mill. At school Anna was good at mathematics and was fond of history. Her first whiff of acting was limited to Christmas pantomimes at school; Anna was usually an offstage voice. At twelve, when she was working in a bakery shop in Halmstad, her boss’ sister paid a visit from her home in America. Anna was at once bitten with the “America fever.” as the longing to settle in the USA was called by the Swedes at that time.

Five years passed before she would realize her dream about America. Finally her parents gave in and allowed her to accompany a family they knew, back to New York, where they lived. Anna was expected to return to Sweden after a while, but meantime she found a job as a parlor maid. She got sacked when the head of the family began casting eyes in her direction. When she went looking for another job, she was determined not to work as a maid again. One day a gentleman stopped her on the street and introduced himself as Mr. Beckwith; he asked her if he couldn’t do a portrait of her.

This proved to he her first real break. The pay for modeling in those days was modest. Frank Goodwin, an artist who later went out to Hollywood, said of Anna Q: “She used to model for me at 50 cents an hour.” Goodwin, a fine artist, became a fashionable and expensive portrait-painter. Not less known were the other artists for whom Anna Q. modeled. Among them: Harrison Fischer, Haskell Coffin, James Montgomery Flagg, C.D. Williams and Charles Dana Gibson. Penhryn Stanlaws used her as the original for his dainty “Penhryn Stanlaws Girl.” Stanlaws later had a career directing movies and made one starring Anna Q. – PINK GODS (’22). Others who painted her lovely face and form were Ben Ali Haggin, Howard Chandler Christy and Stewart Travis. Mabel Normand, Florence LaBadie and Alice Joyce were all colleagues of Anna Q. as models as well as her best friends. The best-paid modeling jobs were posing for advertisements and fashions. This was but a step from motion pictures, for which they were better groomed and in some ways better prepared than the stage actresses, who, in those days, shunned the movies as beneath them.

The first of her friends to go into films was Florence LaBadie at Biograph. Soon Mabel Normand went to Vitagraph, and Alice Joyce made it at Kalem.

By now Anna Q. was probably New York’s highest paid model. Her friends, especially Mabel Normand and Alice Joyce, finally convinced Anna Q. that the movies might he another career for her, but as an alien, she was very cautious, for she knew what she had in modeling and didn’t know what she’d get in movies.

Late in ’10 Alice Joyce was cast for a part in a movie about a painter. The director needed several models as extras and asked her to bring along some friends. Naturally she turned to Anna Q. who got her first film job as an extra. The director. Kenean Buel, later took his unit with him to California where Kalem had a studio in Glendale. When Buel returned to the main studio in Coytesville N.J., he needed a leading lady and asked his cameraman, L. Taylor, if he remembered the name of Alice Joyce’s friend they had used before leaving for California. A wire from Kalem reached Anna Q. at the hoarding-house where she was sick with influenza: they asked her to report at half past eight the next morning.

With Theodore Kostoff in ADAMS RIB

She dragged herself to the studio with a high fever, and was immediately accepted for the lead in MOLLY PITCHER. After the costume department fitted her out, she was told to he ready to act on the set the next morning. Still running a temperature, she reported for work as directed; thus began a famous career. During the filming of MOLLY PITCHER, under Sidney Olcott’s direction, she had her first riding accident. Offered a horse by the general in the film, she mounted while the soldiers shouted and shot off their rifles, whereat the horse bolted. Anna Q. fell head first into some shrubbery but was able to walk away, glad to he alive. She was never to he a horsewoman.

MOLLY PITCHER turned out well, and she was sent for again within the week, Kenean Buel needing her this time for a railroad movie. There followed many films with Civil War themes, using Kalem’s stock players – Guy Coombs, Alice Joyce, Hal Clements, Marian Cooper (who later changed her name to Miriam), Henry Hallam and others.

Kalem had literary ambitions, but they learned the hard way, through a trial they lost over copyrights, that it was a risky business. For example, they filmed J.M, Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton under the title SHIPWRECKED (’13), strictly a pirate venture, since there was no credit given the author.

Earlier than most companies, Kalem revealed the names of their players and Anna Nilsson as she was then billed, began to be well known. The Q. came in later. Her leading man at Kalem was usually Guy Coombs, He fell in lose with Anna Q. and they were soon married. Unfortunately it did not last.

Kalem’s ‘s serial. THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, starred Helen Holmes. Helen Gibson later took over the title role in this serial that seemed to run forever. What is less known is that Anna Q. Nilsson played the heroine in more than one installment, including episode 18, entitled “The Night Operator at Buxton.” Her blonde beauty lent itself perfectly as a foil to crime and dark deeds. She also played in an early horror film, THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF WILD ISLE (’15).

In the later part of ’15 Anna Q. left Kalem. The rift in her marriage to Guy Coombs may have accounted for her decision to leave, but finances were also involved. Beginning at forty dollars a week, she left Kalem four years later only earning ninety dollars a week. A raise at Kalem usually meant five dollars; her salary, as with most of the players in those years. Was quite modest, though one dollar then had the purchasing power of today’s ten.

Raoul Walsh directed the first of her many freelance pictures, released under the banner of William Fox. The setting was the Bowery, NY’s seamier side; its title was THE REGENERATION (’15). It was her longest film to date – six reels. In THE SCARLET ROAD (’16), fiImed by Kleine, her performance was described by “Moving Picture World” thus: “Anna Nilsson gives a forceful impersonation of the cabaret dancer, her simulation of the wiles of that feminine vulture being especially pronounced.”

With the tag-line WHO’S GUILTY? (’16), Arrow made fourteen short films starring Anna Q. and Tom Moore, all based on stories by Mrs. Wilson Woodrow and all with tragic endings. They were good 2-reel dramas and popular with audiences. Then she made three films with Erbograph, a technical equipment firm which under its president, Ludwig C.B. Erb, had gone in for film production. The titles were INFIDELITY, THE MORAL CODE and THE INEVITABLE all in ’17.

Her next assignment was with Paramount-Artcraft to play opposite George M. Cohan of Broadway fame in SEVEN KEYS TO BALDPATE (’17), based on the successful play by Cohan, his script in turn being based on the Earl Derr Biggers novel.

Miss Nilsson’s first real comedy part was in VENUS IN THE EAST (’18) for Famous Players-Lasky. Her leading man was Bryant Washburn. She handled her comedy scenes well, showing herself to he a versatile artist. The film was advertised with the slogan: “Where the polite East meets the rugged West and wins.”

With Conway Tearle & Jean Hersholt in THE GREATER GLORY

Her willingness to accept almost any role, however small, made her unique among the big names. Louis B. Mayer used her several times when his Metro Company had difficulty casting a certain role. He is quoted as saying: “Don’t you have any other actresses besides Anna Q. Nilsson?” As she was free-lancing, she was also highly competitive, and went hammer-and-tongs after the roles she wanted to play.

Allan Dwan cast her in several films, including CHEATING CHEATERS (’19) with Jack Flolt, Clara Kimball Young and Tully Marshall who were all scene-stealers. Anna Q. nourished plans to abandon acting for directing and talked to Dwan about her ambition. He said he would like to take her on as assistant on one of his films and teach her the business but for some reason nothing came of her directorial hopes.

James Cruze cast her opposite Wallace Reid in THE LOVE BURGLAR (’19) which he made for Famous Players-Lasky, turning out an amusing film about the underworld, bordering on satire. Anna Q. said she was particularly fond of Wallace Reid, finding him very easy and pleasant to work with, adding that “everything went smooth as a song on this production.”

For Allan Dwan she made three more films: SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE (’19), THE LUCK OF THE IRISH and IN THE HEART A FOOL (both ’20). All three were Mayflower productions, the first two released by Realart and the third by First National. SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE, a rousing story with a South American background, turned out as Allan Dwan hoped it would. The exteriors were filmed at the San Diego Fairgrounds, with Anna Q. and Pauline Starke playing the daughters of a wealthy American mine-owner, opposite Norman Kerry in the male lead. In THE LUCK OF THE IRISH she had James Kirkwood as her sidekick in adventures on a world cruise. “Moving Picture World” said: “Anna Q. Nilsson fits the character of Ruth Warren as if she were molded to it.”

William S. Hart often liked to use a new heroine in his films, and THE TOLL GATE (’20) represents Anna Q.’s co-appearance with this great star of the Westerns. She said she enjoyed playing opposite Hart in this film directed by Lambert Hillyer, who co-authored the story with Hart. It was well received by both press and public.

She next found herself playing opposite old-timer Hobart Bosworth in THE BRUTE MASTER (’20), based on a Jack London story of the high seas. The film was directed by J. Parker Read Jr., who was also an independent producer. Though Bosworth and Anna Q. were praised for their acting, the film was under par. (Some of her films were not wisely chosen, but like Greta Garbo, she often got rave notices for pictures that were mediocre.)

Her last Mayflower film, THE OATH (’21). again had Raoul Walsh as director. It was based on Wm. J. Lock’s novel Idols and involved the problem of “mixed” marriages. This then controversial subject aroused great curiosity and public response.

By now Anna Q. had not seen her parents for fifteen years. In ’21 she went back to Sweden where she was warmly greeted. Her mother told her she had to see Anna’s pictures three times as her eyes filled with tears the first two. Anna Q. was to return home many more times, now that she had made it in Hollywood. She bought her parents a house in Klippan, which they named “Querentia,” in honor of their daughter.

While in Sweden Miss Nilsson was offered the role of Anna in VARMLANNINGARNA, a love story, in a bucolic setting beloved by the Swedes. It was based on a folkloric musical and directed by Erik A. Petschler, who made Garbo’s first comedy, LUFFAR-PETTER, the following year. VARMLANNINGARNA came out a rather uninspired film. Anna Q. thought she gave a weak performance, blaming it on the director whom she found difficult. Later, looking hack on her career, she said: “I know that my popularity in my home country has never equaled what it has been in the United States.” However, a print of her only Swedish film was deposited with Varmland’s Museum in the city of Karlstad as a cultural document.

She was signed to act with John Barrymore and Colleen Moore in THE LOTUS EATER (’21) under Marshall NeiIan’s direction. Starting as a tragedy, the film becomes a pleasing romance, with Miss Moore ending up with Barrymore. (It was made but not released before Anna Q.’s visit to her native country.) While still in Sweden she received a cable from Paramount asking her to act in London in THREE LIVE GHOSTS (’22), under the direction of George Fitzmaurice, whose wife Ouida Bergere (later married to Basil Rathbone) had adapted it for the screen from the play by Frederic S. Isham. The film was made at Paramount’s London studios with the American know-how and exquisite pictorial taste of Fitzmaurice, who blended delicious humor with excellent drama. Norman Kerry had the male lead and the art director was the young Alfred Hitchcock.

With Maureen OSullivan et. al. in THE SILVER LINING

A Berlin producer now called Anna Q. and asked her to see Ernst Lubitsch in that city. He was about to lose his leading lady. Pola Negri, to America, and needed a replacement. She went to Berlin but her meeting with Lubitsch did not lead to a contract because Pola Negri postponed her plans about going to Hollywood.

From Berlin Anna Q. left for Italy and the shooting of THE MAN FROM HOME (’22), again under the Fitzmaurice-Bergere set-up at Paramount. The scenario was written from the Broadway success of Booth Tarkington and Harry Leon Wilson. Anna Q. started her voyage accompanied by Norman Kerry, his wife, daughter, nurse and 14 valises through a Germany still not recovered from WWI. There was no food or drink to he had for 36 hours and the train ride was a nightmare. In Rome the company was delayed by Fitzmaurice’s late rendezvous with his actors. He finally arrived and the exteriors were shot in Rome, Sorrento, Amalfi and Naples. It was the story of an Italian prince who wishes to marry a wealthy American girl (Cecil B. DeMille had done an earlier version in ’14.) The critics found the film wanting, but commented on its exceptionally beautiful frame. Through with the shooting, Anna Q. took off for Klippan and her parents again, before taking a ship back to the US where she landed in March, ’22.

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