Carol Dempster

Carol Dempster (December 9, 1901 – February 1, 1991) was an American film actress of the silent film era.[1]

Carol Dempster
Carol Dempster signed.jpg
Dempster in 1920
Born(1901-12-09)December 9, 1901
DiedFebruary 1, 1991(1991-02-01) (aged 89)
Resting placeForest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.
Years active1916–1926
Edwin S. Larsen
(m. 1926; died 1978)

Early yearsEdit

Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Dempster was the daughter of a captain on the Great Lakes and the youngest of four children. The family moved to California when her father decided to change careers. While dancing in a school program, Dempster was noticed by Ruth St. Denis and went on to become the youngest graduate in the first class of St. Denis's school of dance.[2]


Dempster got her start in films as a protégé of legendary film director D. W. Griffith alongside other Griffith actresses of the mid-1910s, Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Mae Marsh. Griffith gave Dempster her first role at age 15 in his 1916 film Intolerance playing one of the Babylonian harem girls alongside another teenaged newcomer, Mildred Harris. Dempster eventually became one of Griffith's "favorites"; he cast her in nearly every one of his films throughout the 1920s, allegedly to the irritation of Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish. Dempster became romantically involved with the much older Griffith during the early 1920s while Griffith was estranged from his wife, Linda Arvidson.[citation needed]

Dempster's first feature role came in 1919 in the Griffith directed The Girl Who Stayed at Home opposite Robert "Bobby" Harron. Dempster followed this with Griffith's The Love Flower (1920), Dream Street (1921), One Exciting Night (1922) and Isn't Life Wonderful (1924), America (1924), Sally of the Sawdust (1925), and That Royle Girl (1925). Dempster appeared opposite such notable actors as John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, William Powell, Ivor Novello, and W. C. Fields.

In 1926 Dempster acted in her final film, a Griffith vehicle entitled The Sorrows of Satan (1926), co-starring Adolphe Menjou, Ricardo Cortez, and the Hungarian vamp Lya De Putti. Dempster then retired from the screen to marry wealthy banker Edwin S. Larson in 1926.[1]

"Griffith made three films at Paramount's Astoria Studios, each marked by his increasing obsession with his then inamorata, another ex-Denishawn dancer named Carol Dempster...her talents have received as little respect from historians as they did at the time from her co-workers. To Griffith's biographer Richard Schickel, Dempster was a 'mildly attractive young woman' who moved well but photographed badly. Actress Louise Brooks described her as unfriendly and withdrawn. Ed Falherty, a longtime studio gaffer who observed everything and everyone from high up in the grid, remembered iciy: 'she had nothing.'"—Film historian Richard Koszarski in Hollywood on the Hudson (2008).[3]

Dempster's critical stock was never very high, in part because she was unable to live up to the performances of Lillian Gish, whom she replaced as Griffith's leading lady. Her somewhat "ordinary" appearance and animated acting style were frequently criticized.[4] Also, with a few exceptions, the films she appeared in were not among Griffith's more popular works. In recent years, however, viewers and critics alike have slowly begun to appreciate her performances, particularly in two later films, Isn't Life Wonderful and The Sorrows of Satan.[5][6]


Dempster died in La Jolla, California, in 1991 at the age of 89 from heart failure and was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery in Glendale, California. Upon her death, Dempster left $1.6 million to the San Diego Museum of Art, which was used to expand the museum's collections of prints and drawings.[7]


Carol Dempster in The Love Flower (1920)

All features were directed by D. W. Griffith except Sherlock Holmes, which was directed by Albert Parker. The Hope Chest, a product of the New Art Film Company from 1918, was produced by Griffith but directed by Elmer Clifton.

Year Title Role Notes
1916 Intolerance Dancer Uncredited
1918 Lillian Gish in a Liberty Loan Appeal Lillian's Sister Short
The Greatest Thing in Life Dancer Uncredited
The Hope Chest Ethel Hoyt Undetermined / presumably lost
1919 A Romance of Happy Valley Girl John Logan meets in New York Uncredited
The Girl Who Stayed at Home Acoline France
True Heart Susie Bettina's friend
Scarlet Days Lady Fair
1920 The Love Flower Stella Bevan
Way Down East Barn dancer Uncredited
1921 Dream Street Gypsy Fair
1922 Sherlock Holmes Alice Faulkner
One Exciting Night Agnes Harrington
1923 The White Rose Marie Carrington
1924 America Miss Nancy Montague
Isn't Life Wonderful Inga
1925 Sally of the Sawdust Sally
That Royle Girl Joan Daisy Royle Lost
1926 The Sorrows of Satan Mavis Claire (final film role)


  1. ^ a b "Carol Dempster". Variety. March 3, 1991. Archived from the original on October 3, 2017. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  2. ^ Menefee, David W. (2004). The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era. Westport, CT.: Praeger Publishers. pp. 41–51. ISBN 978-0-275-98259-1. Retrieved October 3, 2017.
  3. ^ Koszarski, 2008 p. 52
  4. ^ Koszarski, 2008 p. 52: “...gradually Dempster came to replace Gish and Mae Marsh in Griffith’s starring lineup.”
  5. ^ Schickel, Richard (1984). D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-671-22596-4.
  6. ^ Koszarski, 2008 p. 52: “...Her performance in Isn’t Life Wonderful is, in fact, quite good...”
  7. ^ Freudenheim, Susan (October 26, 1991). "Actress Leaves $1.6 Million to Art Museum". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 12, 2021.


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