King Baggot, the First Movie Star
King of the Movies. The Most Photographed Man in the World. The Man Whose Face Is as Familiar as the Man in the Moon. These were just some of the accolades heaped upon St. Louis native King Baggot, the nation’s first male movie star. Baggot was the first actor to have his name appear above the title in a film’s credits, and his stardom marked the first time audiences went to see a movie because a certain actor was in it.
Born in St. Louis in 1879 and raised in a house on Union Boulevard, Baggot attended CBC High School and at one time worked in ticket sales for the St. Louis Browns. He was tall and handsome, a blue-eyed Irish boy with a distinctive white streak through his dark hair. Bitten by the acting bug, Baggot made his way to New York in 1909, when the city was the epicenter for both theatre and motion pictures.
Most silent films are long gone now, scrapped for their silver nitrate content, destroyed by fire, left to decompose, or simply abandoned by an industry so lacking in foresight that it neither knew nor cared about its own products’ value to the future. Scant documentation of early film pioneers exists, so it’s hard to tell exactly how many films Baggot acted in. He likely appeared in over 300 films between 1909 and 1916, most of which were probably one-reelers that ran about 15 minutes. Films such as Sweet Memories, The Temptress, and The Fair Dentist were all popular Baggot one-reelers costarring his frequent leading lady, Mary Pickford. All of these films are lost now, but they packed movie houses a century ago.
Baggot was involved in all aspects of the filmmaking process, directing and writing many of the films in which he appeared. Between 1911 and 1914, he wrote, directed, and starred in the King the Detective series, American cinema’s first private-eye film series. But this wasn’t the only “first” he was known for. He also starred in the first horror film released by Universal Studios, a 1913 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Baggot’s turn in this dual role is one of few of his performances that can still be viewed.)
Also in 1913, Baggot starred in the epic film Ivanhoe. This was the first time an American studio sent a cast and crew to a remote venue to film on location. Director Herbert Brenon, leading lady Leah Baird, and Baggot traveled by ship 3,000 miles to Wales to film at Chepstow Castle, atop cliffs that overlooked the Wye River. They filmed with 50 horses and a cast of 500 extras. The end result was an epic three-reeler that ran 50 minutes and was filled with pageantry and excitement. Ivanhoe became a global hit for Universal and made Baggot a worldwide star.
After his acting career faded, Baggot became a successful director for Universal Studios. The 1925 western Tumbleweeds is considered Baggot’s greatest directorial triumph. In it, William S. Hart—the first great star of the movie western—played Don Carver, a “tumbleweed” (drifter) who decides to settle down after falling in love with Molly (played by Barbara Bedford) but first joins the Cherokee Land Rush of 1889 in Oklahoma, where the American government had thrown open a large tract of land to the public for the taking. The exciting action sequences in Tumbleweeds—with hundreds of horses, wagons, and riders tearing across the plain and Hart racing past them on his horse—are still thrilling. Film historian Kevin Brownlow went so far as to call them “among the finest sequences of pure action in film history.”
Because most of Baggot’s films are long gone, he is now somewhat forgotten, even here in his hometown. In fact, he’s the only actor from St. Louis with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but not the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a sad turn of fate for a man who was the most popular film actor in the world 100 years ago.
—Tom Stockman, editor of We Are Movie Geeks