I remember first seeing Elmer Clifton's face in a book about silent film stars and thinking, "Whoa! That is one good looking dude!" When you think of silent film actors you think of the suave and exotic Rudolph Valentino or the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, but then you see a good looking boy next door and interests are piqued! Am I alone here?? Unfortunately, one of the things that Elmer is most well known for now is being the director of the film Warrens of Virginia, which is the film Martha Mansfield died while making. Tragic situation for all involved. But, let's explore more of who this man really was and why he really should be remembered.
Elmer Clifton was born Elmer Forsyth on March 14, 1890 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was the only child of Cecil and Margaret Forsyth.
There is some discrepancy about how Elmer Forsyth became Elmer Clifton. There is some speculation that his mother married a man with the last name of Clifton who later adopted Elmer, but this is unconfirmed. Margaret Forsyth did in fact marry again later in life, but it was to a man with the last name of Owens.
Elmer first appeared on stage in 1907 and it was only a couple years later that he would be on the big screen. He had his film debut in the 1912 short, The Lake of Dreams.
Like pretty much every actor during the early days of film making, Elmer appeared in both of D.W. Griffith's epics, Birth of a Nation (1915) as Phil Stoneman, brother of Lillian Gish, and and Intolerance (1916) as the warrior singer, Rhapsode.
|Dorothy Gish and Elmer|
The following year Elmer began working behind the camera as a director. His feature film directorial debut was Her Official Fathers, starring Dorothy Gish. (Technically, his first directing job was in 1915 with the short, The Artist's Wife, but he really caught his stride starting in 1917).
Elmer continued working with Griffith, even helping him shoot scenes for the 1920 film, Way Down East. Elmer also worked as a stunt man for leading man Richard Barthelmess in a few scenes.
Besides working with Griffith, Elmer also had the chance to direct both Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino in their earliest films. Lucky guy.
In 1924, he signed on to direct the war film The Warrens of Virginia starring screen ingenue Martha Mansfield. One day during a break in shooting, a lit match was carelessly tossed toward Martha's direction and lit her period costume on fire. The flames were extinguished by her co-star throwing his coat over her but she was already badly burned. Martha was taken to the hospital where she died the next day from severe burns. Although this was just a tragic accident and in no way Elmer Clifton's fault, he was still fired by the studio and his career went downhill from there.
Elmer did manage to keep working when the talkies came to Hollywood, but his films were mostly so-so Westerns and other B-movie types. The last film he directed was 1949's Not Wanted, but it had to be finished by the film's star Ida Lupino after Elmer suffered a heart attack during production.
Elmer Clifton passed away on October 15, 1949 in Los Angeles from a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
Although Elmer never married, it didn't mean that he didn't do his share of comparison shopping. In a 1917 Photoplay article, Elmer said that lovemaking was his favorite recreational activity. Way to be, sir, way to be! Gotta admire that bravado!
"An epic picture is produced, I believe, when (1) a great thought (2) is told in a simple and understandable way (3) by expert motion picture technicians...Unless every man working on the picture, from director to the man who runs the projection machine in the smallest village theater, executes his work efficiently, the greatest theme can never get over to the public in epic form." ~~ Elmer Clifton [asked what made an epic picture] (Motion Picture Magazine, 1926)