The other day, I found myself wondering how names of characters (in books, movies, tv shows, etc.) differ from the real names of people from the time and place the story is set. I was especially interested in the process of choosing character names for a contemporary story – I feel like those names should tell us something about how the writers think about their present moment, but in a different way than baby names from the same year would. I decided to look at names from 1923 movies, and how those differ from the names of the actors portraying those characters, to see what it says about name usage and perception in the 1920s. I’m not really sure that the following post actually even begins to answer this question, but I thought it was an interesting first attempt.
I thought of looking at the early era of film because I thought it would be a more tractable dataset (vs. something like “novels from the 1980s”), and I picked 1923 in particular because going exactly 100 years back sounded fun. My main source was Wikipedia, specifically starting with the page 1923 in film. I looked for American productions, telling stories that were set relatively close to the release year of 1923. I only included films that had enough of a plot summary on Wikipedia for me to determine who the main characters were, and then, for each main character, I wrote down the character’s name, the actor’s stage name, and their birth/legal name (if different from their stage name).
In the lists below, you’ll see that the character names list is shorter than the actor names. One reason is because I eliminated things like “The Boy” or “The Heroine” where the character is not actually given a real name in the story (this seems to have been more common back in the era of silent film, although of course it still happens in some movies today). The other reason is that I eliminated character names for movies set in another country (e.g. A Woman of Paris), because I was interested in what names writers came up with when they were trying to write American characters, but I kept the actors’ names from those movies, because they were American productions, so those actors were largely living and working in the US.
One thing that surprised me looking at all of three lists of names from 1923 was how popular Mildred was at the time – there are three actors and one character named Mildred. I had a vague sense that it was an old fashioned name, but until I assembled this list, I never really understood that it was a top 10 name from 1903 to 1926 .
A lot of the other things I noticed were more in line with what I expected. For the most part, I would say that the stage names list is the most fanciful and elegant, while the character names are a little bit more down to earth, perhaps even more so than the actors’ birth names. I also think there’s sort of a gradient where the birth names are the most diverse in terms of language of origin, and then the stage names are more anglo, and the character names are most anglo of all. My choice to eliminate character names for movies set in other countries probably amplified this effect, but on the other hand, the actor names show us that there were people living and working in the US who had names from other languages, so I think it’s interesting that the fictional names don’t really reflect that. I don’t think anybody would be surprised by this observation, but it was interesting to see it in action.
Given the observation that the stage names seemed to be more English than the actors’ birth names, I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the stage names that various actors used with their birth names. For this list, I didn’t include a couple very obvious nicknames (for example, I don’t think it’s very interesting that Charlie Chaplin’s legal name was Charles), and I focused on given name changes, with the exception of Norman Kerry changing his family name from Kaiser, which I included as a pretty obvious example of trying to sound less German in the wake of World War I.
Stage name-birth name pairs
Arthur Edmund Carewe — Hovsep Hovsepian
Ben Turpin — Bernard Turpin
Bessie Love — Juanita Horton
Buster Keaton — Joseph Keaton
Conway Tearle — Frederick Levy
Creighton Hale — Patrick Fitzgerald
Derelys Perdue — Geraldine Perdue
Edna Purviance — Olga Edna Purviance
Eleanor Boardman — Olive Eleanor Boardman
Hope Hampton — Mae Elizabeth Hampton
Lew Cody — Louis Joseph Côté
Lon Cheney — Leonidas Cheney
Mabel Normand — Amabel Normand
Mary Pickford — Gladys Smith
Monte Blue — Gerard Montgomery Blue
Norman Kerry — Norman Kaiser
Ramon Novarro — José Samaniego
Richard Dix — Ernst Brimmer
Rod La Rocque — Roderick La Rocque
Stan Laurel — Arthur Jefferson
Wyndham Standing — Charles Wyndham Standing
An interesting movie that I did not include is Miss Suwanna of Siam. It was an American production, but set and filmed in Thailand (Siam), with a Thai cast, so it didn’t really fit my question about American names. Here are the characters’ and actors’ names exactly as Wikipedia lists them:
Sa-ngiam Navisthira (Later Anindhita Akhubutra) as Suwanna
Khun Ram Pharotsat (Yom Mongkhonnat) as Klahan
Luang Pharotkamkoson (Mongkhon Sumonnat) as Kongkaew
The thing about this that was interesting to me is that all three actors have two full names listed. I couldn’t figure out why or what “Later” meant. Wikipedia’s sources weren’t very helpful, and there’s not a lot of information about these people available online in English. If you have any idea, please please please leave a comment.
Something else that stood out to me while I was making this post is how many films from this era have been lost. There were so many movies where all that remains is some promotional material and no one actually has a copy of the film. I wonder how that compares to the survival rate of successful stage plays from the same era.
Making this list was a lot of fun! I might do it again for a different era.