Friday, March 7, 2014

Mr. Elmer Clifton

I remember first seeing Elmer Clifton's face in a book about silent film stars and thinking, "Whoa! That is one good looking dude!" When you think of silent film actors you think of the suave and exotic Rudolph Valentino or the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, but then you see a good looking boy next door and interests are piqued! Am I alone here?? Unfortunately, one of the things that Elmer is most well known for now is being the director of the film Warrens of Virginia, which is the film Martha Mansfield died while making. Tragic situation for all involved. But, let's explore more of who this man really was and why he really should be remembered.

Elmer Clifton was born Elmer Forsyth on March 14, 1890 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was the only child of Cecil and Margaret Forsyth. 

There is some discrepancy about how Elmer Forsyth became Elmer Clifton. There is some speculation that his mother married a man with the last name of Clifton who later adopted Elmer, but this is unconfirmed. Margaret Forsyth did in fact marry again later in life, but it was to a man with the last name of Owens.

Elmer first appeared on stage in 1907 and it was only a couple years later that he would be on the big screen. He had his film debut in the 1912 short, The Lake of Dreams. 

Like pretty much every actor during the early days of film making, Elmer appeared in both of D.W. Griffith's epics, Birth of a Nation (1915) as Phil Stoneman, brother of Lillian Gish, and and Intolerance (1916) as the warrior singer, Rhapsode. 

Dorothy Gish and Elmer

The following year Elmer began working behind the camera as a director. His feature film directorial debut was Her Official Fathers, starring Dorothy Gish. (Technically, his first directing job was in 1915 with the short, The Artist's Wife, but he really caught his stride starting in 1917).

Elmer continued working with Griffith, even helping him shoot scenes for the 1920 film, Way Down East. Elmer also worked as a stunt man for leading man Richard Barthelmess in a few scenes.

Besides working with Griffith, Elmer also had the chance to direct both Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino in their earliest films. Lucky guy.

In 1924, he signed on to direct the war film The Warrens of Virginia starring screen ingenue Martha Mansfield. One day during a break in shooting, a lit match was carelessly tossed toward Martha's direction and lit her period costume on fire. The flames were extinguished by her co-star throwing his coat over her but she was already badly burned. Martha was taken to the hospital where she died the next day from severe burns. Although this was just a tragic accident and in no way Elmer Clifton's fault, he was still fired by the studio and his career went downhill from there. 

Elmer did manage to keep working when the talkies came to Hollywood, but his films were mostly so-so Westerns and other B-movie types. The last film he directed was 1949's Not Wanted, but it had to be finished by the film's star Ida Lupino after Elmer suffered a heart attack during production. 

Elmer Clifton passed away on October 15, 1949 in Los Angeles from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

Although Elmer never married, it didn't mean that he didn't do his share of comparison shopping. In a 1917 Photoplay article, Elmer said that lovemaking was his favorite recreational activity. Way to be, sir, way to be! Gotta admire that bravado!

"An epic picture is produced, I believe, when (1) a great thought (2) is told in a simple and understandable way (3) by expert motion picture technicians...Unless every man working on the picture, from director to the man who runs the projection machine in the smallest village theater, executes his work efficiently, the greatest theme can never get over to the public in epic form." ~~ Elmer Clifton [asked what made an epic picture] (Motion Picture Magazine, 1926)


  1. Hi Jessica! I just stumbled across your blog when I was reading something about Norma Shearer...your blog was listed under 'Silent Stars'. I have just begun reading your blog from the very beginning and I can't put it down! I so appreciate what you're doing to preserve the history of those amazing silent film stars. Keep doing the great work that you are doing!!

    I tried to find you on Facebook to send you a message, but there are a lot of people with your name.

    Anne in Colorado

    1. Thank you, Anne! I am always curious how people happen to come across my blog.
      I am so glad you enjoy it though. That is why I do it! To share a love of these wonderful people with others who love them too.
      Try looking for Jessica Wahl...Keaton is my blog and "Wish I was married to Buster Keaton" name lol

  2. wow-he is good looking! His looks would be making the girls go hubba-hubba today! what a shame about his career and he died young in my book

    1. I know! His good looks can be appreciated in any century!
      I could have sworn I read in a book once that he shot himself, which is not how he died at all. I have no idea where I read that, and for all I know, I made it up lol

  3. Thank-you for your information and pictures of Elmer Clifton. I am related to him through his mother, Margaret Nicolle. I was very interested to see that you have his correct information regarding his place of birth and his father. As an adult, he applied for a passport and gave his father as John Clifton and his place of birth as Chicago. It is unclear why he hid his true birth details. I received a scan of a picture of him when he was about 6 years old. The photo was taken in Monteith, Ill. He had a head of beautiful blonde curls! He did marry and may have been married twice. He was married to the actress Helen Kiely and had three children, Patricia, Michael and Dorinda. I have read Dorinda's book, "Woman in the Water" which tells of her life growing up in an old-time Hollywood family. You will find it very interesting. It is clear though that she and her brother knew very little about their father's origins. It was a wealth of information for me as the book includes pictures of other members of my Nicolle family.

    1. Thank you so much, Sandra! What wonderful information! Sounds like I need to get a hold of that book! I will update the entry to include the information you provided. So glad you stopped by and read my blog!

    2. Dorinda sent me a copy of her book when it came out and we kept in touch until she died. I have not been able to find Michael, but I was under the impression he was living in LA. Any idea? Would love to talk to him. I was unaware there was a third child. I don't recall her being mentioned in the book.

    3. Hello, Anonymous! Patricia is mentioned many times in the book but I believe she passed away several years before it was written. I did find a Michael Clifton in the LA area through a Google search while I was reading Dorinda's book. I made email contact with Dorinda but she was unwell and did not participate in any Nicolle family history discussion. As far as I know, she was unaware of her father's Forsyth family. Interestingly, his father was a musician and made his living playing in an orchestra in Ontario, Canada. I hope you are able to contact Michael. If he is interested, I would be happy to share my information. I am curious if you are a relative as well.