It’s not often you get to witness history from 100 years ago like it’s happening before your eyes, but you can—right now—watch a young woman who grew up in Mansfield embrace one of the greatest actors from the early days of cinema, and her tears will be as moving right now as they were in 1920 when she stood in front of the camera.
And your heart will move in one common timeless moment with millions of witnesses all over the world and all through the last century, because in the movies, the past is always right now.
So Martha Mansfield is just as vital today as she ever was.
Her career was as unscripted as that of all performance artists: one job to the next, one stage to the next, one theater, one movie set and on to wherever someone was wanting to hire her. In the 1920s, all the entertainment moguls wanted to hire her because the American public loved to watch her.
Had her career been that of a showgirl only, we may not have had much reason to think of her a hundred years later because stage appearances are especially ephemeral, but fortunately for us she was captured in time by many cameras.
She was in short films and long films—measured by the number of reels they projected in theaters. Not all of her movies have survived the last century, but fortunately for us one of them is ranked in the top 100 Silent Era Films, so it will be watched for many ages to come.
That is the kind of immortality our city was privileged to hitch a ride on. Mansfield was proud to be represented—and perhaps even personified—by a sweet young woman full of life and promise.
Her Mansfield Connection
Martha’s family moved to town from Ireland a generation before she was born.
Her mother went to Mansfield Senior in the 1880s and then married a man from New York, so when Martha was born in Brooklyn in 1899 her name was Martha Erlich.
Mr. Erlich died when she was young, and Martha spent most of her childhood in Mansfield staying with various aunts and uncles and making herself at home. She later said,
Martha’s acting career started in Mansfield with a kid’s production of Robin Hood that was staged amid the shrubbery of Blymyer Avenue with the audience in folding chairs lined up on a tennis court.
By the time she was 14, her mind was set on the stage, and with her sweet demeanor and her mother’s fierce determination she got into a musical at New York City’s Winter Garden, and an Irish melodrama at the Manhattan Opera House.
Once she had stepped into the spotlight, however, her career took on its own momentum because photographers and artists recognized the universal clarity of her beauty and poise that seemed to emanate wholesome American virtue. She became a favorite of the two most famous illustrators of the day who put her face in magazines and national war posters until she became easily recognizable to everyone in show business looking for pretty girls to light up the stage.
It was natural that the Ziegfeld Follies and Frolics would find her for a couple seasons among the ‘Ziegfeld Beauties.’
Martha’s movie career began in Chicago where the comedian Max Linder turned away a hundred leading ladies from his silent short films until he chose her to play opposite him. She left New York and rode the train to Chicago as Martha Erlich, but 1917—right during WWI—was not a good time in this country have a German name, so she signed into the credits with an Americanized version of the name: Martha Early.
Soon she was signed by Metro Pictures, but before she headed to Los Angeles she needed a new American name.
She was eager to tell anyone that the name she adopted was that of her hometown: Mansfield.
The name stuck so well that her mother adopted it too, and spent the rest of her life as Harriet Gibson Erlich Mansfield.
Martha Mansfield appeared in 31 movies between 1917 and 1924. A half-dozen of them can be seen on YouTube at the moment, and there will be more in the future, though several of the films did not physically survive the last century.
She would have made more but her last film production proved fatal when a flouncy costume dress she wore caught fire. Her life and career ended just before movies started talking, so she is remembered in the histories as an icon of the Silent Era.
She was young when the movie industry was young.
And like so many of the American film immortals who didn’t live past their own youthful beauty, she will be lovely forever.