Madison, Cleo (1883–1964)

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Madison, Cleo (1883–1964)

American silent-film actress and director . Born in 1883; died in Hollywood, California, in 1964.

One of the first women directors in the film industry; acted in and directed, or acted in only, at least 80 silent films, including Captain Kidd (1913), Shadows of Life (1913), Dolores D'Arada, Lady of Sorrow (1914), The Love Victorious (1914), Unjustly Accused (1914), The Trey O' Hearts (1914), Sealed Orders (1914), Alas and Alack (1915), A Woman's Debt (1915), Extravagance (1915), The Mystery Woman (1915), Her Bitter Cup (1916), The Severed Hand (1916), Priscilla's Prisoner (1916), Her Defiance (1916), A Soul Enslaved (1916), The Daring Chance(1917), The Girl Who Lost (1917), The Romance of Tarzan (1918), The Great Radium Mystery (1919), The Price of Redemption (1920), The Lure of Youth (1921), The Dangerous Age (1922), Souls in Bondage (1923), The Roughneck (1924), Discontented Husbands (1924).

Born in 1883, Cleo Madison spent most of her life in show business, beginning as a vaudeville performer in her teens around the turn of the century. She made her vaudeville debut in the Midwest and spent a good deal of time performing in Bloomington, Illinois, not far from Peoria. The growing popularity of the "flickers," as motion pictures were known in the early years, lured Madison away from vaudeville and into the world of silent film. In 1913, at age 30, she began making films for Universal. A short time after her film debut, she became involved in serials, continuing stories told in short episodes, each of which ended with a cliffhanger that left the audience in doubt as to the survival of the hero or heroine, or of both. The reigning monarchs of the serial films at Universal were Grace Cunard and her partner, Francis Ford, brother of John Ford. In addition to her work in serials, Madison made a number of films with Lon

Chaney, who was later to become known the world over as "the man of a thousand faces."

In the early days of the silents, movies were generally made quickly, and so Madison had over a dozen films to her credit by the time she achieved stardom with a double role as twin sisters in the 1914 serial, The Trey O' Hearts. In the wake of the acclaim for her performance, the actress determined that her ultimate goal was to direct herself, therefore achieving near-total control of the productions in which she was involved. But Hollywood was not yet ready for a woman director, and she experienced rejection in her early attempts to gain that position.

Undaunted, Madison devised a relatively simple strategy. She would make life so miserable for directors that no one would be willing to work with her. Since Madison's temperament had already caused consternation for executives at Universal, she soon found herself in charge of her own production company. Before taking on the responsibility of writing, directing, and starring in a film, Madison first directed at least three films in which she did not appear. One of her earliest westerns was 1914's Sealed Orders, which was replete with roof-top chases and a fierce gun-fighting episode. She felt as comfortable directing a western as a romantic drama.

Madison, who felt women filmmakers were seriously needed, told Moving Picture Weekly:

Every play in which women appear needs the feminine touch. Lois Weber 's productions are phenomenally successful, partly because her woman creations are true to the spirit of womanhood. I believe in doing most of the work before the camera is called into action. It should never be necessary, exception in the case of accident, to retake a scene.

Asked by reporters if she was intimidated by the responsibilities placed on a director, she replied: "Why should I be? I had seen men with less brains than I have getting away with it, and so I knew that I could direct if they'd give me the opportunity." Back in her vaudeville days in the Midwest, she had acted as the stage manager of the Cleo Madison Stock Company, which served as some preparation for the new duties she was assuming in Hollywood. She garnered the following backhanded compliment from an assistant cinematographer: "Cleo has taken up the methods of the best directors…. She's second to none. There isn't a director on the lot that's got the flow of language or can exhibit the temperament she can."

Her Bitter Cup, which Madison wrote, directed, and starred in, was one of the earliest films to take the women's suffrage movement as its theme. The film was released in 1916, as American women moved closer to winning their decades-long battle for the vote. A reviewer for Photoplay, in a breathless burst of benignancy, assessed the movie and Madison: "With the lovely but militant Cleo at their head, the suffragettes could capture the vote for their sex and smash down the opposition as easily as shooting fish in a bucket. She is so smart and businesslike that she makes most of the male population of Universal City look like debutantes when it comes right down to brass tacks and affairs."

Cleo Madison continued to direct herself in films until 1921, when a nervous breakdown forced her to take a hiatus. A year or two later, she returned to make a handful of films, the last of which was released in 1925, before fading from the scene altogether. She died in obscurity in 1964, but, through her work in silent films, left behind mute testimony that women could play a significant role behind the cameras in Hollywood. While still at the height of her fame in the early 1920s, she had remarked, "One of these days, men are going to get over the fool idea that women have no brains and quit getting insulted at the thought that a skirt-wearer can do their work quite as well as they can. And I don't believe that day is very far off."


Acker, Ally. Reel Women. NY: Continuum, 1991.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

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Madison, Cleo (1883–1964)

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