She had many nicknames during the height of her fame. The Voiceless Prima Donna. The Venus of the Movie World. The Girl with the Search-light Eyes. The Selig Girl. Yet the one Myrtle Stedman liked the most paid tribute not to her looks so much as her incredibly expressive face and her talent as a subtle, intelligent silent actress -- The Girl with the Sweet Contralto Eyebrows.
Although several dates would later crop up during her career, Myrtle C. Lincoln was actually born March 3, 1883 in Chicago. She claimed to be a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln, but before she was a teenager, Myrtle was well on her way to claiming her own place in the spotlight. Her mother was a singer, and at 12 years old she joined the Whitney Opera Company doing solo dances. Not long after, the family left Chicago for Black Hawk, Colorado where Myrtle’s father pursued a career as a miner (some fan magazines claimed she may have tried the same). Eventually, Myrtle found her way back to Chicago and back to the Whitney Company. While there, she sang in opera, comic opera, and musical comedy productions.
It was around this time that she met and married an aspiring actor and director named Marshall Stedman. The couple were married in Chicago on January 23, 1900, Myrtle was 16 and Marshall was 25. The couple had a son, Lincoln, two years later and he would (secretly) follow in his parents footsteps, as we’ll later see.
In 1910, Otis Turner of Selig Polyscope approached Myrtle and offered her a position with the company. Myrtle, who was tired of traveling for her musical engagements, accepted, and was soon one of the studio’s most popular stars, along with Kathlyn Williams, Winifred Greenwood, and Adrienne Kroell. During the three years she was with the company, Myrtle worked at the main studio in Chicago as well as the Western studios in Arizona and Colorado (not exactly giving her the travel-free life she was hoping for). Although Myrtle typically took the leads in westerns, leaving Kathlyn Williams with the dramas, she could easily play dramatic leading roles. Her son Lincoln would later note, in the early days of film you were expected to be versatile. “In the summers you rode the plains as an outdoor girl and when the snow fell and winter came, ‘society dramas’ were made.” Myrtle could certainly handle both.
As her fame grew, Myrtle began embarking on personal appearance tours. In 1912, she and Marshall performed for the prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary, and in 1913, she performed at the funeral of a miner who was crushed when a tunnel caved in. She also showed off her voice in tours around the country, singing for audiences and speaking about her career.
In late 1913, Myrtle left Selig. She joined Bosworth and then Morosco, and continued to do excellent work. In 1915 she became the first female elected member of the newly organized Motion Picture Board of Trade of America. She told the magazines she was thrilled and that she was ready to work towards the betterment of conditions affecting women in film, as well as legislation and censorship threatening the industry.
In 1916, she gave one of her most memorable performances -- that of the mother and her abandoned daughter in “The American Beauty,” and won great praise. Shortly thereafter, though, things started to slow down for her. Her contract with Morosco expired and she decided not to renew it. Instead, she toured the country with singing engagements, and for the next few years only took films roles here and there. Her personal life also took a turn when she filed for divorce from Marshall in 1919 citing desertion. She attempted a bit of a comeback in the early ‘20s, but was met with mostly irregular supporting roles. But she found herself back in the limelight in 1923 thanks to the success of someone else -- her son.
Just like Myrtle, there’s a lot of confusion around Lincoln’s date of birth. According to the 1920 census, though, Lincoln was born in 1902, and according to interviews he entered film at just the age of 9. Photoplay believed he made his debut in "The Old Swimming Hole," and since it was released in 1912, Lincoln would've been the right age. Although he was performing in films as early as 1912, he wasn’t being recognized as Myrtle’s son. In fact, as late as 1917, the fan magazines were claiming Myrtle and Marshall had no children (despite the fact that as early as that year, Lincoln’s name was also gracing the pages of Photoplay and the like as a player in films).
Myrtle Stedman and Lincoln Stedman
As Myrtle’s career declined, Lincoln’s began to really take shape and suddenly the two were gracing the pages of every major fan magazine. Myrtle, now 40 (though claiming younger), was aging very well, and suddenly the idea arose to cast her as a youthful matron in 1923’s “The Famous Mrs. Fair.” This started a new career for her. Now, she was the youthful mother and character actress, not the western lead, and it seemed to help her career overall. She was priase for playing age-appropriate parts, while her contemporaries were denounced for chasing roles that were no longer in their wheelhouse. Although she was fudging her age (and, presumably, Lincoln’s too), she spoke of embracing age. “Growing old isn’t something to be dreaded. It is something to be enjoyed. Age isn’t a thief and a robber. He is a friend. It’s only an exchange.”
Although she signed a 3-year contract with First National in 1925, and performed very consistently in supporting roles to younger players like Blanche Sweet, by 1929, Photoplay was lamenting the fact that she had, once again, fallen into the shadows. “Why [is Myrtle], though still playing, submerged in a dim background? Capable, attractive, but inconspicuous...” That same year she made her talkie debut in “The Wheel of Life” and, unlike other silent stars, continued to act well into the ‘30s. She retired temporarily, but soon returned to the screen, albeit in mostly uncredited supporting roles. She suffered a heart attack and died January 8, 1938 at the age of 54 (though the New York Times obituary said she was 50). Lincoln died 10 years later from a heart ailment.
What is now available of Myrtle Stedman’s work is a pretty limited representation of her career. What is available, though, is the film she made with Lois Weber, the highly acclaimed “Hypocrities.” You can watch a clip below or purchase a copy of the DVD from the folks at Kino Lorber here.