|Mark Lynn Anderson,
Twilight of the Idols
University of California Press, 2011
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)
The recent trend in cinema studies to “look past the screen” has occasioned all kinds of interesting work on distribution, exhibition, regulation, reception, and star studies taken in their own right, not just as supplements to the textual analysis of films. That is the good news. The less good news is that what passes or is billed as “cultural studies” or “American studies” in this scholarship turns out on closer inspection to be mostly old-fashioned film history, resolutely centered on institutions of cinema (mainly Hollywood), with only a few gestures toward broader contexts thrown in here and there via “modernity” and other big words. Old habits die hard. Unlike these works, Mark Lynn Anderson’s book marks a step in a new direction, connecting changes in the Hollywood star system during the early 1920s specifically to developments in the human sciences, especially psychology and sociology. In his superb introduction to the book, he lays out his argument clearly and succinctly, relating Hollywood stardom in the wake of a series of scandals to wider cultural transformations in concepts of social deviance that emerged in popular and academic discourse shortly after the First World War. As Anderson notes, “the very notion of personality was being contested within mass culture at this time” (8) – a contestation that both shaped and was shaped by the film industry’s regulatory publicity machine.
What follows is a series of case studies focused on the interplay between celebrities and their public that illustrate different aspects of this contentious cultural terrain. His first chapter centers on the sudden death of film star Wallace Reid at the age of thirty-one while attempting to withdraw from narcotic addiction. Carefully examining the various narratives Reid’s wife, working in conjunction with studio publicists, proposed to account for the tragedy, Anderson deftly traces a transformation in the popular understanding of Reid’s drug use, from originating in a work-related accident, to a more privatized explanation that depicted Reid as a victim of the excessive demands of stardom itself, an overly generous soul who did not know how to say no. Such an explanation (reinforced by a thinly-veiled filmic version titled Human Wreckage [USA 1923]) allowed the industry to both salvage Reid’s reputation as a compelling personality as well as put itself out front in dealing honestly with a pressing social problem, in keeping with Progressive Era reformist ethos.
Anderson’s second chapter, and to my mind the best, shifts from Hollywood scandal to a Chicago crime, the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case. This national drama turned the defendants into versions of cinematic celebrity, not only in relation to their mass media public, but also in relation to each other, with psychoanalytically-inspired court experts construing Leopold’s relation to Loeb as analogous to an adoring audience who falls in love with its star. The value of Anderson’s interpretation is to show how this fan/star relationship cut in a variety of incoherent and sometimes conflicting ways, so that the criminals’ presumed sexual deviance ended up serving a variety of ends for both the defense and prosecution.
Leopold and Loeb’s homosexuality sets up Anderson’s next chapter, simply titled “Queer Valentino.” In expansive and somewhat meandering fashion, with throw away references to everything from the 1919 Red Scare to the de-skilling of American workers, Anderson arrives at the not surprising conclusion that “Valentino’s star personality helped establish a queer space for the reception of mass culture” (90). Beyond this, he seems as confounded by Valentino’s enigmatic sexuality as everybody else, despite his best efforts to situate the star historically and culturally. Part of the problem is that rather than draw directly on the discourse of 1920s human sciences, as in the previous two chapters, this one mainly engages the work of contemporary scholars, both film critics like Miriam Hansen, Gaylyn Studlar, and Marjorie Garber, who have all written extensively and smartly on Valentino, as well as historians of sexuality (Foucault, Chauncey, Carter), so that his argument has something of a second-hand feel to it, as it works its way through familiar territory, citing, tweaking and qualifying the scholarship of these others.
Then too, the case of Valentino hinges on neither a particular scandal nor crime, but rather on, well, Valentino. Anderson does offer a very interesting new analysis of the infamous 1926 “Pink Powder Puff” editorial, suggesting that its meanings and intentions are less self-evident than most people assume. But by dwelling almost exclusively on the question of Valentino’s sexual identity (following Richard deCordova’s influential claim that that is what stardom is fundamentally about), Anderson risks duplicating the very problem he sets out to analyze, reifying a concept, or cluster of concepts that he otherwise asserts (but does not adequately show) were in a process of historical transition. His next chapter on Valentino’s racial identity fares a bit better, in part because Anderson returns to 1920s human sciences, in this instance, ethnographic discourse on Arabs. But given the terrific material on Reid, Leopold and Loeb, and Mabel Normand (the subject of the final chapter, focused on her fans’ interest in her reading habits), it does seem something of a shame that fully half the book is devoted to Valentino. Just because fans found him irresistible in the Jazz Age does not mean we must continue to do so today.
A larger question might also be raised about the relation between Hollywood as an institution and progressive social science during the 1920s. At times Anderson does seem comfortably committed to a relatively self-contained version of film history, referring to “the internal logic of the [star] system” (26), for example, when discussing the threat posed by Fatty Arbuckle. But at other times, he’s willing to talk about mass media celebrity more generally, in which cinema is only one of many venues for stardom (and scandal), such as when he quotes NAMPI president William Brady who insisted that immoral details “be kept from the public in the papers, on the screen or in the courts” (28). Here a public sphere is constituted by press and court in concert with the screen. As Anderson’s incisive reading of the Leopold and Loeb trial demonstrates, stardom need not begin or end in Hollywood, insofar as it entails broader structures of interpersonal relations (attachment and identification) played out in public.
Well before Hollywood, stage actors, authors (such as Mark Twain), politicians, and sports figures were all understood as celebrities, if not yet part of a “system” – a word we might want to dissolve into a larger matrix of mass media effects. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, human scientists like Walter Lippmann and Robert Park (both given only fleeting mention by Anderson) sought to understand how these media effects could come to shape or construe a public (an idea itself under contestation); I would go so far as to contend that the Progressive Era as a whole could be defined as fundamentally preoccupied with publicity, the manufacturing and regulating of public opinion on a range of fronts, cultural and commercial as well as political. It might be enlightening, for instance, to compare the development of film star promotion and damage control with the techniques that public relations counsel Ivy Lee deployed to spin the scandalous behavior of his patron John D. Rockefeller Jr. during the Ludlow Massacre of coal miners in 1914, or to consider how Hollywood, business, and government all worked together to drum up support for the war under the Committee for Public Information, an immense and remarkably efficient propaganda apparatus that helped launch the careers of producers like Walter Wanger.
This is not to ask Anderson to write a different book from the one he has written. Twilight of the Idols is a first-rate study, full of provocative insights. But imagine being able to evoke “Hollywood” without automatically organizing a set of scholarly assumptions and approaches. That might spell the end of film history as we know it, but the beginning of something else.