In the 1910s, Charlotte Burton was a popular, successful and in-demand film actress. She was a part of a hugely popular serial, married to her equally popular (if not moreso) co-star, and earning great reviews for her acting. But by 1920 she was out of the film business, and by 1921 even Photoplay had mostly forgotten about her. What happened to Charlotte Burton? Let’s start at the beginning.
There’s a surprising amount of debate over several facets of Burton’s life, beginning with her date of birth. While magazines of the time cite May 30, 1890 and May 30, 1891 as the most common dates, other sources claim 1881 instead. She grew up in San Francisco, doing amateur stage productions and made her film debut in 1912 when she was signed with Flying A Studios. She showed versatility, playing working girls and ingenues just as ably as she played vamps, but it wasn’t until she found roles as villains that she found her niche. As she told Motography at the time, she doted on playing a "reg'lar villyun."
In 1915, she debuted the character that she would be best known for -- that of the villainess Vivian Marston in the 32-part serial “The Diamond from the Sky.” Among her co-stars were Lottie Pickford (Mary’s little sister) and William Russell. In December 1916, it was announced that Burton would be joining Essanay. Although it sounded like a major step up for her, Burton would soon come to regret the decision...so much so that she and Essanay's George K. Spoor would end up in court.
William Russell and Charlotte Burton
As a year, 1917 was a mixed bag for Burton. Midway through the year, she and co-star William Russell married. Around that same time, though, Burton filed suit against Essanay to the tune of $28,000 (some reports claim $28,200). In the suit, Burton claimed that Essanay had forced her to move from California to Chicago (the company had studios in both cities at that time) and then failed to live up to their contract. Burton was a dramatic actress and was under the assumption that she would continue playing such roles with Essanay. Essanay apparently had very different plans for her, and cast her in comedic roles instead. She refused and they discharged her. By the time the case landed in court, neither party was happy and neither wanted Burton to actually fulfill her contract.
Although the court found Burton’s complaint to be of “reasonable objection,” it’s debatable how much of a victory it truly was for Burton. Andrew Nosrati’s research suggests that Burton was only awarded $3,200. Her marriage also ended abruptly in 1918 when she filed for divorce, accusing Russell of having an inappropriate relationship with another actress. This is another case where sources vary greatly. Some say that Burton and Russell were married until 1921, but Photoplay themselves were reporting (in 1921, no less) that the couple had divorced “several years ago.”
Burton continued to work sporadically with more independent production companies, but by 1920 Photoplay was somewhat callously reporting to concerned fans that she had “dropped out” of pictures and that they should find another actress to admire. In fact, she was so forgotten by 1921, that when a fan inquired as to whether or not William Russell was married, Photoplay casually referred to his ex-wife as just “an actress.” She stayed in Santa Barbara and later married a contractor named Darrell T. Stuart. She died in 1942.
What is the story behind Burton’s exit from the film industry? Was she blacklisted by the major studies following her suit with Essanay? Were the other studios unwilling to take a chance on her following the case? When Mack Sennett took Gloria Swanson under his wing in an effort to make her into a second Mabel Normand, she famously refused, saying she didn’t want to be a second anyone. Instead of going to court, however, the contract was voided and she simply joined forces with Cecil B. DeMille where she was allowed to be a “serious” actress. If Burton had made a similar move, would her career have continued into the ‘20s and, perhaps, beyond? Or had she simply had enough of what Hollywood had to offer? What if?