Stars and Audiences in Early American Cinema


Uploaded 20 September 2002

Historians have often approached the emergence of the star system in the U.S. via a single event, focusing on the controversial move of the actress Florence Lawrence from Biograph to the Independent Motion Picture Company (Imp) in 1910. This move, accompanied by “the first publicity stunt on behalf of a motion picture star,” is seen to thus mark “the beginning of the star system.” [2] The story, as told by Terry Ramsaye (1926), John Drinkwater (1931), Lewis Jacobs (1939), Alexander Walker (1970), Richard Dyer (1979), David Cook (1981) and others, looks like this: [3]  Carl Laemmle, head of Imp, lured the “Biograph girl” Lawrence to Imp by promising her a higher salary and greater personal publicity. He publicised this by planting a false story of Lawrence’s death in the St Louis post-dispatch and this was followed up with an announcement in the trade press denouncing the story as a “black lie” circulated by “enemies of the Imp” – coincidentally announcing that her next Imp film was just about to be released – the appearance of Lawrence in St.Louis, “whole and sound and in person on the stage to let the world know that ‘the Biograph girl’ is now an ‘Imp’.” [4] Through this “master-stroke,” and “Laemmle’s acute sense of popular mentality,” the “screen star was born;” [5] Lawrence gave an interview to the St Louis post-dispatch – “probably the first substantial interview given by such a star,” Walker claims – and this was “the first occasion that a film actor’s name became known to the public.” [6]

This narrative of derring-do and of Laemmle’s Barnum-like ability to generate publicity was enmeshed, for a number of these historians, with a broader conflict between independent production companies such as Imp and the production companies within the Motion Pictures Patents Company. This was an alliance of manufacturers, including Biograph, who had banded their patents together in late 1908 in an attempt to gain control of the industry. This conflict is seen as central to the emergence of the star system. The Patents Company was allegedly reluctant to publicise actors and concentrated instead on the use of trade names as a basis of commercial exploitation and differentiation. This reluctance has traditionally been seen as a result of a concern that named actors would demand higher salaries (and/or that legitimate actors “slumming” in the movies did not want their names publicised because of the low cultural status of cinema). [7]  The Patents Company thus ignored public demand because of financial concerns and is portrayed in many of these accounts – perhaps most noticeably in Benjamin Hampton’s A History of the Movies – as a structure that opposed progress, creativity and public desire. [8]  Laemmle, on the other hand, emerges as both a visionary and as a conduit for public desire, his “master-stroke” in inventing the star part of a strategy of commercial differentiation but also of realising and accepting public demand. The emergence of a star system is thus told as a narrative that would become increasingly common in the Hollywood star-vehicles of the coming years, complete with a focus on the triumph of individual action and creativity (as opposed to the broader economic context) and with the eventual victory of good over evil.

Recent revisionist historians such as Janet Staiger, Richard deCordova, and Eileen Bowser have challenged this narrative in a number of ways, both on the level of detail and at the broader level of its mode of historical explanation. [9] Lawrence, it emerges, had actually been working for Imp for six months before the publicity stunt and had been named and pictured in advertisements from late 1909 onwards. Likewise, the clear division between the stance of the Patents Company and the Independents is also challenged in recent scholarly work, which has demonstrated that the Patents Company had also begun to publicise actor’s names by early 1910. For example, the Edison Company publicised the appearance of Miss Cecil Spooner and Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin in late 1909 and Kalem released a poster of its players for lobby display in January 1910. For these scholars, the pertinent question becomes: what broader conditions made it possible – and desirable – for the ‘star” to emerge at this moment? These historical accounts register a shift away from nineteenth century models of historiography, and the focus on events as the consequence of individual agents, towards an understanding of cinema as an institution, determined by overlapping and often contradictory economic, technological, ideological and socio-cultural demands. The Lawrence event is thus inscribed into a broader industrial and social context in this work, which utilises an increased access to archival collections alongside models of cultural history to delineate the effect of industrial, textual and discursive transformations on the emergence of the star system.

This article will map out the parameters of this recent scholarly work, suggesting along the way some revisions to these accounts, some shifts of emphasis, and some areas that may well merit further research (principally, I will suggest, the necessity of situating film stardom in the wider context of a culture of celebrity and of linking discourses about film acting more closely to reform and regulatory concerns about cinema that proliferated from 1907 onwards). Alongside the focus here on the emergence of the star system, this paper also begins to sketch in an account of some of the particular star images that emerged through the early teens and early 1920s. Scholarly interest in star images has proliferated subsequent to Richard Dyer’s important book Stars, which initiated a semiotic notion that stars should be studied as clusters of signs, as systems of signifiers or texts, that communicate meaning to a spectator. These star texts are highly manipulated and have been fabricated through the work of the star, his or her representatives and other cultural workers (such as gossip columnists); for Dyer, star texts are produced across the categories of promotion, publicity, film texts and criticism and commentary. [10]  Work on star images has increasingly sought to contextualise such images within larger discursive structures and within the broader parameters of social history, often taking a lead from Dyer’s own subsequent work and in particular Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society(1986) where Dyer sought to bring “together the star seen as a set of media signs with the various ways of understanding the world which influenced how people felt about that star.” [11]  For Dyer and others, stars thus become major definers of ideas about such things as gender, race, ethnicity, work and sexuality at historically specific moments. In this sense, stars are ideological images that work to resolve pressing ideological contradictions and in part to foster images of ideal selves that are promoted as sources of identification. [12]

The shift towards a cultural history of star images initiated by Dyer has recently been pursued by Gaylyn Studlar in her important book on male stars of the 1920s, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age. Studlar pursues a reading of star images against the backdrop of the extraordinary transformations of the early years of the twentieth century, situating male stars such as Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino in the context of the periods key social concerns about gender, sexuality and ethnicity. [13] This work can be extended here by a consideration of the diversity of images of femininity in the period from the teens through the 1920s, through analysis of the star images of Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Lilian Gish, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow. [14] Such analysis will pay close attention to the specificity of individual star images and to the relation of star images to one another. The star system as a system of differences effectively maps out accepted definitions or “styles” of femininity at this particular moment, visible in the broader representational context and clearly linked to important social transformations in this period and, perhaps centrally, to the changing parameters of public and private space. My account of the key star images of the period concludes with a brief consideration of Charlie Chaplin.

The notion of star images as ideological texts has recently been readdressed in contemporary scholarly work on fan culture, which has begun to investigate more seriously the productive engagement of audiences with stars, moving beyond a critical position on audiences as passive spectators to explore how audiences have used mass media to shape their identities, attitudes, and behaviour. Audiences can, to borrow a term from Henry Jenkins, “poach” star styles, and in doing so “construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture-images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media.” [15] The historical examination of film audiences and their relation to film stars in the early twentieth century has been pursued recently by Kathryn H. Fuller in her book At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture, which draws on sources such as surveys, autobiographical accounts, letters, fan publications and other past representations of fans in popular culture. [16] Such work exists on the cusp of film studies and cultural studies, evidencing a further shift in traditions of film history towards engagement with the productive desires of audiences (for example, to know more about Florence Lawrence or to utilise the image of Pickford to construct parts of their own identity).

This article thus seeks to set in place an explanatory framework for the emergence of the star system in America in the early twentieth century, considering the broad context of a wider preoccupation with celebrity before outlining how film actors became enmeshed with this. This is linked with industrial transformations, textual transformations and – I suggest – with reform contestations over cinema. The article sketches in the subsequent development of the star system through the teens and early 1920s, paying close attention again to the industrial, textual and reform context but also outlining the emergence of a participatory fan culture. The final section focuses on popular star images of the period.

Celebrity Culture

The phenomenon of celebrity clearly underpins the star system in cinema though this is rarely addressed in accounts of the rise of the star system. Scholars outside cinema studies have linked the emergence of notions of celebrity both to wide-ranging historical transformations and to more precise shifts in the early to mid- nineteenth century. Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, for example, traces the roots of Western preoccupation with fame and the public person back to Roman times. [17] Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man argues that the fall of the ancien regime and the formation of a new capitalist, secular, urban culture led to profound changes in personal and public life, principally a lessened social participation and greater psychic absorption. In this context, Sennett argues, the “performer’s social rise was based on his declaration of a forceful, exciting, morally suspect personality, wholly contrary to the style of ordinary bourgeois life.” [18]  Performers became celebrities in a sort of compensatory fashion, so that the phenomenon of celebrity is enmeshed with broader changes in social and psychic life (Sennet, incidentally, also sees the rise of electronic media more generally in this light). More specifically, scholars have suggested that a series of technological developments, economic imperatives and cultural trends all conspired to direct an unprecedented amount of media attention on public figures in the nineteenth-century. The roots of this “culture of celebrity” can be traced back to the 1830s, Charles L. Ponce de Leon has suggested, when the penny press began publishing gossip and brief human-interest stories about local and regional notables. [19] By the 1850s, the interview had become a regular feature of mass-circulation journalism and by the 1880s Joseph Pulitzer had begun to use famous individuals as the focus of stories about complex institutions and issues (a trend followed by early cinema historians, notably as we have seen when writing about the emergence of the star system). By the turn of the century, then, newspaper stories insistently focused on public figures and with the development of wire services and the syndication of feature stories information about celebrities flowed out to provincial newspapers across the country, such that by the 1920s celebrities had become almost ubiquitous.

The notion of celebrity in this sense is broadly conceived, including politicians and other public people. There are though specific developments in the entertainment sphere that led to a focus on entertainers as celebrities. Theatre historian Benjamin McArthur, in his book Actors and American Culture,1880-1920, has argued that the star system in American theatre grew out of the shift from “stock” to “combination” theatre companies in America in the early nineteenth-century. [20]  Stock companies had hired thirty to forty actors for a forty-week season, producing a wide repertory of short-run plays performed at a permanent theatrical venue. The star system began to emerge during the 1820s when well-known performers undertook tours in which they played the same role in different cities, with a local stock cast taking supporting roles. McArthur argues that these local star tours transformed American theatre, for by the end of the century the stock companies were gradually replaced by combination companies which toured regional venues with a single play fronted by a star name.

This focus on the personality of the performer was also central to vaudeville, the dominant entertainment form of the late nineteenth century, as Henry Jenkins has shown in What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. [21] Intermedial relations between theatre, vaudeville and cinema are critical for an understanding of how film quickly became enmeshed with this wider focus on celebrity performers. Moving pictures were after all initially principally exhibited in the U.S. as one act in the context of an evening’s vaudeville entertainment and this variety context was already centred on a focus on individual celebrity performers. It is no surprise then that early films frequently represented celebrities, particularly initially those of the vaudeville stage – Edison filmed vaudeville and sports stars from as early as 1893 – but also celebrities from the broader sphere of public life (politicians such as Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and various royal figures in the “actuality” genre that was dominant until around 1904). Film quite clearly offered the opportunity to disseminate these images and star performers (and performances) more widely than was hitherto possible.

However, these figures cannot be regarded as film stars because they were famous for what they did elsewhere; film simply functioned as a kind of photojournalism or as a way of recording theatrical performances and making it available to a larger number of people. These representations did not then mark out the conditions for the later emergence of the film star, but simply participated in pre-existing celebrations, representations and structures of celebrity. A specific focus on film actors as part of this broader culture of celebrity did not emerge until a later moment, certainly until after 1907 when – as Richard deCordova observes – there emerged a gradual focus on the film actor that would lead to the publicity surrounding Florence Lawrence in early 1910. [22] The question that needs to be posed precisely then is this: how did film actors become constituted as celebrities? That it is to say, given that a celebrity culture was already in place, how did this catch up – as it were – with the filmic medium? How was it possible for film actors to be conceived of as celebrities?

Fiction, Acting, Reform

The answers to these questions are to be found initially in the work undertaken by early cinema scholars on the reorganisation of the film industry in the U.S. from around 1905 onwards. The emergence of “nickelodeons,” cheap moving picture houses, as the dominant means of exhibition from 1905 and their proliferation from 1906/1907 created a great demand for film production, which was partly fulfilled by a shift to the production of fiction films which rapidly began to outstrip the production of actualities because they were easier and often cheaper to plan and produce (in 1908 the percentage of dramatic production increased from 17 to 66). [23]  The dominance of fiction filmmaking simply led to an increased use of film actors, further mandated, with the development of permanent stock companies of actors by film companies after the nickelodeon boom. Film acting became salaried employment at this moment, requiring full-time commitment. Prior to this, as Charles Musser has shown, production personnel and non-professionals had taken turns with actors in performing before the camera, a practice which continued until at least 1904. [24] The increased importance attached to acting and the expansion of stock companies was further enabled when the creation of the Patents Company in late 1908 brought a measure of stability to the industry and enabled increased investment in production and exhibition. The upshot of these stock companies and the regularisation of production meant that actors began to appear in numerous films and in turn became recognized by audiences for their regular appearances, leading to audiences forming emotional attachments to these actors in similar ways to those they had with theatre and vaudeville performers (and other celebrities). deCordova quotes from fan letters to Florence Lawrence from as early as December 1908. [25] Lawrence was not known prior to her appearances in films and the interest shown in Lawrence was clearly predicated on these industrial shifts which led to the dominance of fiction filmmaking, the creation of stock companies, and the regularisation of production that enabled actors to appear in acting roles on a regular basis.

For the film industry it became increasingly important to exploit the growing fame of film performers, for both economic and cultural reasons. Catherine Kerr has argued that an industrial focus on individual actors evidenced a drive to produce “personalized” commodities that was more widely visible in business strategies of the period and that the star system provided a way for production companies to differentiate their products from those of other companies and, at a later moment, to introduce different pricing structures based on the star commodity. [26]

The discursive focus on film acting was also quite clearly linked to attempts to “uplift” the cultural status of cinema in the face of the concerted reform and governmental concern about cinema that emerged most prominently in early 1907, linked closely to concerns about the effects of the space of the nickelodeons and the representations within them on vulnerable and dangerous audiences. These concerns led to the creation of a Police Censorship Board in Chicago in November 1907, to the temporary closure of nickelodeons in New York City in December 1908 on orders from the mayor, to the creation of a Board of Censorship in early 1909, and to the proliferation of state censorship boards from 1911 onwards. The discursive emphasis on acting from 1907 onwards drew on theatrical intertexts to demonstrate the cultural status of cinema and this reached a certain culmination with the formation of Famous Players Company by Adolph Zukor in 1912, advertised with the slogan “Famous Players in Famous Plays” and initiated with the importation of the first film performance of the famous theatrical actor Sarah Bernhardt in Queen Elizabeth. This strategy persisted in the coming years, when well known actors like James Hackett, James O’Neill and Minnie Maddern Fiske starred in adaptions of films such asThe prisoner of Zenda, The Count of Monte Cristo and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Other celebrities such as acclaimed soprano Geraldine Farrar starred in films (bringing what Sumiko Higashi describes as “the aura of high culture patronised by European royalty” to film). [27] The discursive focus on acting as a high cultural intertext was clearly part of the wider “drive for respectability” of the U.S. film industry that has been documented in detail by William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson, who see it as linked both to an attempt to assuage reform and governmental concern and to broaden the audience base to the middle classes. [28]

The emergence of a discourse on acting as a critical underpinning of the star system in American films was thus closely linked to contestation over cinema beginning in 1907 and to the response of the industry in turning to high cultural intertexts to uplift the cultural status of the cinema and to broaden its audience base. Closely linked to this focus on the role of the actor in film and to the industry’s attempts to link itself with the theatrical star system around 1908-1909 was a transformation in actual acting style that was most noticeable, Roberta Pearson suggests, in the Griffith Biograph films. In her book Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Acting Style in the Griffith Biographs, Pearson argues that cinematic acting from 1909 began increasingly to resemble the acting of the Broadway stage, rejecting the codified conventions of an older performance style that had come to be associated primarily with cheap melodrama. This shift from what Pearson terms a “histrionic” to a “verisimilar” style of acting accorded with the strategy of emulating respectable entertainment [29] Furthermore, it increasingly focused attention on the psychology of characters, thus engaging audiences with characters through structures of alignment and allegiance. These processes of engagement led to audiences becoming increasingly interested in the actors portraying characters and to what theatrical producer David Belasco described more generally as “that indescribable bond of sympathy between the actor and his audiences.” [30]

The emulation of stage performance style coincided also with a transition to narratives that centred around a psychological approach to character, a development that further mandated emotional attachments to film actors. The emergence of the star system was then also tied together with transformations in filmic practice that early cinema scholars see as emerging from around 1909, and which are outlined in detail by Kristin Thompson in The Classical Hollywood Cinema and Tom Gunning in D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film. Thompson suggests that there was in fact a “parallel rise” of the stuttering emergence of the “classical system” from 1909 through to 1917 and the star system. [31]

The Narrator System, Characterization, and Picture Personalities

Prior to 1907, most film narratives were not self-sufficient, leading film manufacturers and exhibitors to employ a variety of devices to effect narrative coherence (for example, sound effects, lectures, the predictability of the chase, or intertextuality such that stories were already familiar to audiences). [32]  This system of representation became increasingly problematic in the face of the high demand for product from nickelodeons after 1907, and a new system arose based on strict linear temporality and the subordination of such things as editing, camerawork and composition, to the demands to tell a story. This emergence of what Tom Gunning terms “the narrator system” around 1908-1909 was enmeshed with the presentation of psychologically individuated and internally motivated characters, who drove narratives forward in the production of a causal chain of events.

The approach to characterization in the narrator-system asserts its hold on story through an expression of psychology, by which I mean the portrayal of interior states, such as memories or strong emotions, which are then seen as motivation for the action of characters. [33]

This growing dependence on character psychology was emphasised in titles and also in a developing tendency to represent mental states visually (dreams, visions, and memories become narrative staples in the teens). The narrator system reveals the motivation and desire of characters to the spectator and thus draws spectators into the unfolding action and intensifies the “bonds of sympathy” between characters/actors and audiences. For Gunning, it is worth noting, the emergence of the narrator system was closely linked to attempts to make cinema respectable in the face of the reform and governmental anxieties briefly sketched in above.

This focus on characterisation led in turn to a burgeoning emphasis on stars whose familiarity to audiences helped the processes of characterisation. David Bordwell writes:

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. The story ends with a decisive victory or defeat, a resolution of the problem and a clear achievement or non-achievement of the goals. The principal causal agency is thus the character, a discriminated individual endowed with a consistent batch of evident traits, qualities and behaviours. Although the cinema inherits many conventions of portrayal from theater and literature, the character types of melodrama and popular fiction get fleshed out by the addition of unique motifs, habits, or behavioural tics. In parallel fashion, the star system has as one of its functions the creation of a rough character prototype for each star which is then adjusted to the particular needs of the role. The most “specified” character is usually the protagonist, who becomes the principal causal agent, the target of any narrative restriction, and the chief object of any audience identification. [34]

The developing textual system of American film from 1909 through the teens thus meshed with a focus on individuated actors. Indeed, from 1911 screen credits became common.

Expressions of character psychology were further enabled by other developments in filmic discourse, most notably the development of closer shots of actors from around 1909. Prior to this, American films maintained what Eileen Bowser has termed “stage distance,” whereby the actors were at least twelve feet away from the camera in compositions that showed part of the floor or ground in front of their feet and the top third of the frame above their heads. [35] This began to change around 1909-1910, when the camera was increasingly moved to within nine feet of actors. This contributed to changes in acting style, for as long as the actors remained at stage distance then broad and stylised gestures were needed to make the spectator understand what was going on. The shift towards closer-views, and, slightly later, close-ups (dated by Bowser to around 1912), literally brought audiences into closer contact with actors. Thomas Bedding, editor of The Moving Picture World, noticed when reviewing a film in 1909 that when the cameraman “puts his camera near the subjects … you see what is passing in the minds of the actors and actresses.” [36] Alongside the shift to closer views, it was strongly argued from 1909 that actors should never acknowledge the presence of the camera so as not to destroy the voyeuristic pleasure of spectators and the belief that they were “inside” the film world, participating in a real event. The intensification of emotional attachments to characters, and to the actions within the film, were the basis for audiences becoming attached to the actors who played those characters. Florence Lawrence, you will recall, had received “fan letters” from as early as December 1908. Other actors such as Florence Turner, Marion Leonard, Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, King Baggot, Francis Bushman and so on became more widely known, principally from 1910 onwards.

The emergence of narrative codes alongside transformations in acting style clearly led to an increased focus on character psychology and a heightening of the processes of audience engagement with characters and thus with actors. The intensification of discourse around film acting from 1907 onwards that deCordova sees as “the incipience of the star system” was thus linked to transformations in industrial structures, textual production, reform contestations and textual practice. [37]  At this stage, it’s worth briefly pausing around 1910 to consider further the actors who became well known at that time. These actors differed from the theatrical actors who acted in film, such as Bernhardt, because they were mainly known for their work in film and not the theatre. Lawrence, Turner, Leonard, Pickford, Moore, Baggot, Bushman and others became recognisable because of the regularity of their work in film. Furthermore, as deCordova has briefly observed, these actors were almost invariably a great deal younger than stars of the theatre. The cinema was a central part of a new urban leisure world that historians have suggested was increasingly geared to youth and vitality; the conjunction of the promotion of young actors in this context may well merit further research (it is worth noting that Anthony Slide has observed that “during the ‘teens years, there were more children visible on our cinema screens than at any other period in film history”). [38] Aside from this, the actors who were promoted most intensely in early 1910 were all women and it is not until late 1910 that male actors began to be given equal attention. Why was that? Could this focus on beautiful women actors be related to the emerging voyeuristic and patriarchal tendencies of cinema? Or might it be linked to the commercial strategy to appeal to women spectators who cinema historians are increasingly regarding as central to the industry in that period (and indeed to efforts to gain respectability)? Certainly it is apparent that at a slightly later moment, as Gaylyn Studlar has noted, women’s spectatorship “worked primarily to sustain female stars.” [3]  It is clear more generally that leading actors were frequently cast in the roles of idealized representations of masculinity and femininity, that actors who frequently played villains were not heavily promoted and, further, that the actors promoted were white (there is certainly some cross-over here, for villainy in early cinema is often racially or ethnically inflected). Stardom was, for quite some time, restricted to white people. [40]

Finally here, is it important to ask the questions: can these actors simply be labelled film stars? Does, then, the star begin in 1910? deCordova suggests not, arguing instead that actors such as Lawrence, Turner, Leonard, Moore and so on are better understood as “picture personalities.” There is for deCordova a regulation of knowledge specific to the picture personality which distinguishes it from the star. “Although there was an incredible proliferation of discourse about picture personalities during this time,” deCordova observes, “all of this discourse fell within a fairly narrow range, repeating certain patterns, exhibiting certain obsessions, and excluding a number of concerns that would later define the “star”.” [41]  The most important point to be made is that knowledge was restricted to the textuality of the films the actors appeared in, so “The site of interest was to be the personality of the player as it was depicted in film” and “Differences between actor and character were to a large degree disavowed.” [42]
For deCordova, the picture personality thus differs from the star, who “is characterised by a fairly thoroughgoing articulation of the paradigm professional life/private life” and where “the question of the player’s existence outside his/her work in films entered discourse.” [43] This is not clearly visible until around 1913/14 and can again be linked to a series of complex and interrelated developments in textuality, industrial practice, and in discursive practices.

Feature Films, Stars, Fan Magazines and Scandals

The advent of the feature film from around 1912 intensified the practices of audience engagement with characters. These longer films permitted more leisurely characterization and in turn engaged audiences for longer (and arguably more deeply); the increased use of classical stylistic devices through the teens such as eyeline matches, shot/reverse shot and point of view constructions helped guide audiences through the film and served in part to optically align spectators with characters and thus with the actors playing them. The fact that feature films were exhibited for longer spells than one-reel films, which often changed daily, meant that they could be advertised more prominently and that there was thus a focus on individual films in advertising discourse. Much of this advertising would be linked to the actors playing in them.

The star-led feature film also had profound implications for the rationalization of studio production practices. Says Tino Balio:

The star system affected the economics of the industry by becoming the prime means of stabilization. Producers discovered that the unique personalities of certain actors could attract a large and faithful following through the use of advertising and publicity, including ballyhoo and hokum. A star become a production value unto himself, a trademark enhancing the prestige of his producer and an insurance policy guaranteeing success at the box office. [44]

This “ballyhoo and hokum” included buying advertising space in newspapers and the first press-books (guides for exhibitors), which emerged around 1913. [45] Producers and distributors realised that they could use the guaranteed appeal of star vehicles in forcing exhibitors to take a series of less attractive films alongside those of – for example – Mary Pickford, a practice called “block-booking.” The movie star product thus became the focal point for production and distribution strategies through the teens and beyond. By 1917, Benjamin Hampton has suggested, fewer than 5 percent of films did not feature stars. [46]

The commercial importance of the star performer in this period can be simply illustrated by the rise in Mary Pickford’s salary. Pickford started off at Famous Players in 1914 on $20,000 a year, which quickly became $1000 a week. In 1915 the contract was renegotiated to $2000 a week and half of the profits of her productions. In June 1916 a separate production unit called the Pickford Film Corporation was set up so that in essence Pickford became an independent producer and partner to Famous Players-Lasky. Pickford was to gain numerous bonuses, further control over the filmmaking process, $10,000 a week and 50 percent of the profits. In late 1918 Pickford moved to First National, where she was granted a salary of $675,000 a year to make three films of her choosing, along with 50 percent of the profits. [47]  These excessive star salaries could actually function to the benefit of studios, for they constituted a “barrier-to-entry” into the film industry and thus buttressed oligopoly control. “Producers trying to break into the system,” Kerr notes, “had to either exceed rival offers or create their own stars – an expensive proposition given the huge start-up costs of orchestrated nationwide promotional campaigns.” [48]  Moreover, studios could pass these increased production costs on to the exhibitors in the form of increases in fees, and exhibitors could in turn raise box-office prices.

The growing commercial importance of film stars and their increasing control over the filmmaking process through the teens led to the creation of United Artists in 1919, a distribution company set up by Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W.Griffith, to fully exploit and market their own feature films. These stars, later joined by Constance and Norma Talmadge, Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton, maintained complete autonomy over their work, not only in the creative stage of production but also in the exploitation stage of distribution. The formation of United Artists is described by Tino Balio as “the apex of the star system;” [49]  in the ten years from 1909 to 1919 actors had moved from the periphery of the industry to a position of absolute centrality.

Concomitant with the centrality of star performers to industrial strategies and developments through the teens was an intensified focus on the private lives of actors. “In a very short period of time,” deCordova observes, “the journalistic apparatus that supported the star system became geared toward producing an endless stream of information about the private lives of stars.” [50] This development was closely linked to the growth of fan magazines and recent scholarship has begun to pay more attention to these magazines, seeing them as mediating forces between the movie fan and the screen and star and as central to the emergence of movie fan culture. [51]  The primary focus of fan magazines, Gaylyn Studlar suggests, was in “selling stars” and scholars have thus begun to pay attention to them to discern how stars and ideal identities were “sold” to readers principally through discourses of romance, marriage and sexuality – functioning in many ways like Hollywood films – and in turn how readers responded and at times reworked those identities, “poaching” star styles to construct alternative cultural and social identities through movie fan culture. By the late teens and 1920s fan magazines were also quite clearly directed principally at female readers and thus offer a privileged site for understanding the historical and theoretical complexity of women’s reception of cinema, issues that have historically been of central importance to feminist work on cinema. Much more work can clearly be undertaken on these fascinating historical documents, which offer one of the few extant sites of audience engagement with cinema in the 1910s and 1920s. Such work will perhaps inevitably operate at the borders of traditions of film studies and cultural studies, mediating questions of ideology, power and resistance.

The first fan magazine was issued in February 1911 and entitled Motion Picture Story Magazine. Its success was testament to the growing interest of audiences in film stories, filmmaking and film actors and it paved the way for Photoplay in 1912, Picture Play and Motion Picture Classic in 1915 and a series of titles throughout the 1920s (including Screen SecretsScreen PlayScreenbookFilm FunScreenland and others). Motion Picture Story Magazine was set up by J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph, initially principally as a short-fiction magazine based on film story lines. The magazine began though to publish a photo gallery of actors in April 1911 and interviews with actors, principally at this stage concerning their professional activities, and an “Answers to Inquiries” column in August 1911 which became, in Kathryn Fuller’s words, “a forum for active fan readership.” “By 1912,” Fuller contends, “Motion Picture Story Magazine became a lively, interactive colloquium for the sharing of movie fans’ knowledge and creative interests,” encouraging readers to contribute poems and drawings and to take part in contests and polls for favourite stars and films. [52] There were limits on what kind of knowledge was allowed regarding film actors, and the “Answer Man” of the “Answers to Inquiries” column initially declined to answer readers questions about actors marital status and personal habits. Likewise, the “Answer to Inquiries” column in Photoplay told readers in 1912 that “Information as to matrimonial alliances and other purely personal matters will not be answered. Questions concerning the marriages of players will be completely ignored.” [53] This quickly changed, as the magazines began to focus increasingly on the private lives of stars. In February 1915, for example, Photoplay initiated a series of articles entitled “Who’s married to who in the movies” and in 1917 “Who’s whose – when the lamps are focused on the dinner tables instead of the sets.”

As scholars such as Studlar, Fuller, and deCordova have suggested, this focus on the private lives of stars revolved in the main around discourses of romance and marriage and frequently allowed glimpses into the happy domestic lives of film stars by showing them at their (“dream”)home with their partners/children/parents. In her classic study Hollywood: The Dream Factory, anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker observed this in the context of suggesting that stars function in much the same way as totemic heroes in other societies:

The relationship of fans to their stars is not limited to seeing them in movies, any more than primitive people’s relationship to their totemic heroes is limited to hearing a myth told occasionally … In our society the identification of fans with their movie heroes may be equally intimate, but for different reasons. Fan magazines give details of the star’s domestic and so-called private life, with pictures of his home, his garden, his swimming pool, his family, his dogs and his cats. The columnists in the daily paper expand this with what type of underwear he wears, whether he prefers noodle soup or tomato. [54]

The function of detailing or fabricating the private lives of stars was also taken on by the studio-publicity departments that emerged through the 1920s. This mechanism of fabrication might be regarded as a process of “making up people,” to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Ian Hacking – of presenting people in certain ways to tap into both the broader currents of myth and of concurrent debates about personhood. [55]

This focus on domesticity in the discourse of the star “worked to assert,” deCordova suggests, “that the cinema was, ‘at its source’, a healthy phenomenon,” [5] [56]  that it was indeed moral and respectable (and thus of course it need not be externally regulated). Fan magazines frequently featured stars offering advice to readers about romance and etiquette and positioned stars as ethical exemplars, as the embodiment of ideal selves that would in turn enable audiences and readers to shape their own conduct and identity in line with prevailing norms of morality. This is apparent in articles like Screen Secrets“Why not get married: happy husbands of Hollywood answer the bachelors” and Picture Play’s “Love makes the man.” This role as ethical exemplar was at times consciously invoked by the stars themselves. Mary Pickford wrote a newspaper column and, later, two religious books. In Why Not Try God?  she writes:
I found out about the power of right thinking. And my discovery has brought me so much joy and given me so much spiritual light in the hardest hours of my life that I want to share it with all who care to try. [57]

Likewise, Douglas Fairbanks wrote a series of self-help books, telling readers the right way to live. For example, Fairbanks instructed readers in “Building up a personality” in his book Laugh and Live and in Making Life Worth While stated that “recreation, a good appetite, a healthy body, and the proper amount of sleep are positive requirements in making life worth while.” [58] The star as an ethical exemplar could function as a guide to readers/viewers in negotiating the complex transformations of social and moral order of the first decades of the twentieth century, in particular in relation to the negotiation of shifts in gender relations attendant upon women’s entrance into the public sphere around the turn of the century.

Scholars have also suggested that stars functioned as role models for consumer behaviour on the screen, in advertisements, and in articles in the fan magazines, coaching fans in the use of the new consumer products that proliferated in the early years of the twentieth century. Lary May has argued that stars were a privileged site for the promulgation and solidification of new consumer ideals, vividly demonstrating the idea that satisfaction was not to be found in work but in consumption and leisure. [59]  Advertisements specifically attempted to appeal to women, who were seen by many as the principal players in the new culture of consumption. Female movie stars were paid to endorse mascara, face powders, skin bleaches and other beauty aids, products that promised to lend the consumer the glamour and physical beauty of film stars (Pickford, for example, advertised Pompeian Skin Cream regularly from 1916 to 1921); articles like “How to keep girlish figures” proliferated and it is clear that stars, and consumer culture more generally at this moment, disseminated ideals of beauty and bodily perfection. The images of stars went on to become commercial objects in their own rights, with the proliferation of photographs, posters, dolls, cigarette cards and so on. Charlie Chaplin dolls and comics, for example, were produced as early as 1915.

The positioning of stars as ethical exemplars was profoundly problematised in the early 1920s however, when a series of scandals involving stars suggested to many the immorality and debauchery of both stars and Hollywood more generally and initiated a new round of reform concern about cinema. The scandals included Mary Pickford’s divorce in 1920 and quick remarriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s alleged murder of Virginia Rappe in 1921, William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious murder in 1922, and Wallace Reid’s death by drug overdose in 1923. [60]  These events were only the most visible signs of a more general shift in the representation of stars, deCordova suggests, which increasingly began to focus on the “darkside” of stardom and on the disreputable lives and morally suspect personalities of films stars in line with Sennett’s view of the role of the public performer more generally. This shift in representation, it should be noted, took place principally in tabloid newspaper gossip columns, for Studlar’s research has suggested that the fan magazines largely ignored the scandals. [61] These events and the growing emphasis on the immorality of celebrity life in Hollywood strengthened censorship efforts, with critics of the film industry now suggesting that audiences engagement with stars was deeply problematic. For example, in a Congressional debate about censorship:

At Hollywood is a colony of these people where debauchery, riotous living, drunkenness, ribaldry, dissipation, free love seem to be conspicuous … These are some of the characters from whom the young people of today are deriving a large part of their education, views of life, and character forming habits. From these sources our young people gain much of their views of life, inspiration and education. Rather a poor source, is it not? It looks as if censorship is needed, does it not? [62]

The crisis engendered by the star scandals contributed to the creation of The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, more commonly known as the Hays office after Will Hays, the Presbyterian elder who had been hired to “clean-up” the industry (and to counter the threat of governmental intervention). Hays urged the banning of the distribution of Arbuckle films and supported the industry’s initiation of “morality clauses” in star contracts that permitted the dismissal of any actor whose conduct hurt the studio or the actor’s own marketability. The star, discursively willed into place around 1907 in part as a response to mounting reform concern, had by the early 1920s become an object of reform concern, a contested site around which debates about the morality of cinema revolved.

Star Images

The rise of public performers and celebrities, Richard Sennett’s work has suggested, was linked to broad shifts in the configuration of identity such that the celebrity exemplified the imagination of individuality. [63]  Public performers and celebrities participated in the process of what I am terming “making up people,” linked for Sennett to broad transformations in public and private space. Within this broad schema, a more precise account of the function of stars and individual star images in the early twentieth century can emerge if linked closely to the important body of social historical work carried out on this period. Such work has focused on the effects of the increased presence of women in the public sphere of work and leisure, the emergence of a heterosocial leisure world increasingly geared to the young, the changing complexion of middle-class economics to consumer values, and the emergence of a bureaucratised (and feminised) white-collar workplace. [64] Star images of the period must necessarily be contextualised in relation to these historical shifts and in relation to the discourses that accompanied these transformations, read in part as responses to the myriad transformations that are associated with these years of industrialisation, urbanization and immigration.

This stance underpins Gaylyn Studlar’s work on male star images of the period, which begins with the premise that the transformations of the early years of the twentieth century deeply problematised pre-existing definitions of masculinity and that the male stars of the period thus participated in a wider redefinition of masculinity in a society in transition. This is exemplified for Studlar by the figure of Douglas Fairbanks, whose films frequently presented themselves as lessons in the attainment of manhood just as Fairbanks would himself in the series of self-help books he wrote in the late teens and early 1920s. “Fairbanks’s stardom,” Studlar suggests, “became Hollywood’s exemplar of an idealized, boyish masculinity that cheerfully reconciled felt tensions between many of the era’s contradictory impulses.” [65] Fairbanks’s films through the 1910s and early 1920s frequently overtly emphasised the reconciliation of “opposites,” with Fairbanks most often playing a young man of a certain patrician quality and privileged Eastern upbringing who “ran, jumped, punched and smiled his way into and through a vigorous, ‘red-blooded’ manhood,” [66] thus joining notions of East and West, class, and of the rural and urban environment. Fairbanks’s film The Molllycoddle (1920) exemplifies this.

Richard Marshall V (Fairbanks) is the son of a Sheriff who had won the West. Marshall though has had a European upbringing and has become an effete molycoddle (mistaken even for an Englishman!). Through a series of events Marshall is slowly transformed, ultimately ending up in Arizona in cowboy clothes, “regenerated by a spell in the American West” (this notion of the regeneration of masculinity in the West was of course a wider trope, central also to the star image of William S. Hart). [67] Fairbanks promoted the “revitilisation” of a masculinity troubled by urbanization and industrialization, insistently valourising stamina and bodily strength. Such a valourisation of the physicality of masculinity became more apparent after The Molllycoddle and through the 1920s, after Fairbanks had participated in the setting up of United Artists and after he began to produce and star in a series of “swashbucklers” such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdhad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). These films evidence a nostalgic evocation of a time when traditional gender arrangements ruled and – as the introduction to The Three Musketeers (1921) stated – “When life was life, and men were men.” Fairbanks functioned then, Studlar argues, “as an appealing mediator between America’s nineteenth-century past and its twentieth-century future, between the body and the machine, wilderness and urbanization, intensified social control and a nostalgic desire for a mythically free, childlike past.” [68]

Fairbanks’ assertion of an increasingly defensive ideal of normative masculinity can be regarded as a response to a growing cultural preoccupation with apparent changes in female sexual and social identity and their effects on masculinity in the 1920s. This preoccupation is perhaps most visible in the stardom of, and controversy surrounding, Rudolph Valentino. The Italian born Valentino was presented as a threat to traditional sexual relations and American ideals of masculinity, in part through his associations with dancing and “tango teas” (afternoon dances where women hired male escorts to take them through dance routines). Miriam Hansen has suggested that Valentino “inaugurated an explicitly sexual discourse on male beauty” and destablised “standards of masculinity with connotations of sexual ambiguity, social marginality and ethnic/racial otherness” and Gaylyn Studlar has similarly shown how the positioning of Valentino as a star for women audiences led to reactions within popular discourse, where Valentino was described as a “‘pink powder puff,’ a ‘wop,’ and … the most influential instructor in Hollywood’s effeminate ‘national school of masculinity’.” [69]  Valentino’s films clearly played on these controversies and this is exemplified by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), with its mixture of scenes of tango dancing, aggressive sexuality (with Valentino frequently semi-naked), seduction, rejection and reconciliation. Valentino effectively functioned then as the polar opposite to Fairbanks, as an example to many of the dangers besetting masculinity in the period and of the effect of transformations in gender relations in turning the (frequently semi-naked) male body into an erotic object of contemplation. The extension of the sexual gaze to women spectators was visible also in relation to “matinee idols” like John Barrymore but the fact that with Valentino this gaze was directed at a “foreign body” was deeply troublesome to many in this period of heightened nationalism and of the proliferation of notions of racial purity.

The distinctions drawn between the star images of Fairbanks and Valentino suggests that stars function as part of a system of differences – in relation to discourses about stars, performance strategies, audience identifications and tastes, production strategies – and in turn as part of a broader mapping of the possibilities of identities and personhood at particular moments. Furthermore, Studlar’s analysis has suggested the importance of broader contextual factors in relation to gender, sexuality, ethnicity in the early years of the twentieth century in understanding the production and dissemination of certain star images. This approach might profitably be extended to consider female star images of the period, about whom there is a surprisingly small amount of scholarly work.

Such a project would of necessity engage with the extraordinary popularity of Mary Pickford, whose centrality to a series of important industrial transformations I noted above. Pickford’s image has been fixed for modern audiences and scholars as an archetypal image of Victorian femininity, the child with golden curls, partly because – as Richard Koszarski notes – the poster art for the film which solidified this image, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), was widely reproduced in the 1970s. [70] This image was never complete and certainly took time to develop. In the first eight years of her filmmaking career, at Biograph, Imp and Famous Players, Pickford played a wide range of roles: in Tess of the Storm Country (1914) she faked a pregnancy to save someone else, in Heart’s Adrift (1914) she had an illegitimate baby, in Fate’s Interception (1915) she lived with a man out of wedlock, and so on. During these years, Lary May observes, Pickford “played a female role which made a fundamental break from the past” and which “expanded the perimeters of respectable female behaviour far beyond their nineteenth-century coordinates,” suggesting that Pickford’s image and popularity can be situated in relation to the real transformations in the role of women documented by scholars such as Kathy Peiss and Joanne Meyerowitz. [71] Tess of the Storm Country exemplified Pickford’s expansion of respectable female behaviour. Pickford played a rebellious and energetic mountain girl who raises the child of the daughter of the sheriff to save her from paternal wrath. She ignores religious disapproval to baptize the baby herself and also leads a group of farmers and tradesmen in a fight against repressive game laws. For May, then, Pickford functioned in a way similar to Fairbanks: reconciling a series of opposites that were pertinent to the historical moment, in particular by “merging the virgin to the harlot, and moving beyond the spheres which had divided the sexes in the nineteenth century.” [72] This similarity to Fairbanks can perhaps be pushed further, for

Pickford did increasingly come to portray normative images of femininity in the little girl roles that became dominant after The Poor Little Rich Girl in 1917 and which include Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Heart o’ the Hills (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) and Little Annie Rooney (1925). Despite various attempts to break out of this role it proved enormously popular with audiences, suggesting perhaps a sense of nostalgia for a moment of innocence that was increasingly seen as historical, and that Pickford thus functioned as a mediator of the intense “tension between modern and traditional modes of thought and behaviour” that social historian Paula Fass discerns more widely across the 1920s. [73]  In this sense the films in which Pickford played a little girl mirrored the historical epics of Fairbanks. The two stars would in fact marry in 1920 and become commentators on the “art” of marriage, widely positioned as examples of the successful merging of work life and romantic and domestic happiness.

The contradictions kept in play in Pickford’s image are in fact visible more widely in the period’s representations and debates about femininity and the “New Woman”. Lilian Gish, for example, extended notions of spiritual purity that were always a part of Pickford’s image (both had worked initially with Griffith). For example, True Heart Susie (1919) features Gish in a nostalgic pastoral where her sacrifices for the object of her affection go unnoticed and her opponent is an uncaring city “vamp.” The figure of the “vamp” was in fact represented and debated widely in this period. By 1900 the vamp had, Bram Dijkstra observes:

come to represent woman as the personification of everything negative that linked sex, ownership, and money. She symbolized the … sterile lust for gold of woman as the eternal polyandrous prostitute. [74]

Such a figure clearly responded to concerns about the growing presence of women in the workforce and the public sphere and to perceptions that young women were deviating from traditional notions of morality. The vamp figure emerged on the screen most notably through Theda Bara, seemingly the first entirely fabricated star. Casting about for an unknown actress to star in A Fool There Was (1915), director Frank Powell came across Theodosia Goodman. William Fox, the producer of the film, set press agents at work and they invented a name for Goodman – Theda Bara was, they claimed, an anagram for “Arab Death” – and a history: she was, they claimed, born in the shadow of the Sphinx, played leads at the Theatre Antoine, distilled exotic perfumes as a hobby, was well-versed in black magic and was identical to the character she played in the film. This latter suggestion was certainly in line with the tradition of picture personalities, where the real life was in line with the reel life, but here the aim was to present Bara as just as immoral as the character in the film. The film was based on a stage play that had been inspired by the Burne-Jones painting The Vampire (exhibited in 1897) and the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, and in it the character played by Bara destroyed males and turned a cold shoulder to the pleadings of abandoned wives and children. Bara’s image, like Valentino’s, drew on a tradition of associating sexuality with ethnic otherness, and certainly played up to concerns about the changing roles of women.

Bara thus participated in the redefinition of femininity and can be positioned as the polar opposite of Gish and, in the late teens and 1920s at least, Pickford, in the topography of accepted “styles” of femininity at this moment. Bara’s image can be linked to the emergence of the “flapper” in the late teens and 1920s, most clearly visible in the career of Clara Bow but also associated with Louise Brooks (though only subsequently:

Brooks was mainly a supporting actress and certainly not a major star in the period and her lead roles in Pandoro’s Box (1929) and Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) were not widely seen). The figure of the “flapper” emerged through the teens as a response to the real transformations in women’s lives in this period. For many commentators the flapper was a figure who had rejected traditional conventions and normal moral order though she was also clearly an ambiguous figure. As Kathy Peiss observes she was “at once an independent wage-earner, making her own way in the world, and a beautiful, romantic girl, seeking marital fulfilment.” [75]  These contradictions underpinned the star image of an actor like Clara Bow. Bow played a number of sexy, liberated women who were also searching for romance, most notably in Mantrap (1926) and It (1927), and subsequently became embroiled in a series of off screen scandals. [76]  She also perhaps underpinned the very ways in which knowledge about female stars was structured, for these stars were visible sites for discourses about women’s role in the public and domestic spheres (the focus on the domestic life of stars that worked to assert the morality of cinema more generally was particularly acute in relation to female stars: time and time again discussions of Pickford, for example, would focus on her marriage and home). The star image of Gloria Swanson is clearly important here also, for in a series of Cecil B. DeMille pictures such as Male and Female (1919), Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Why Change Your Wife (1920) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921) Swanson fused the traditional virgin or vamp image with what Alexander Walker has called “the playmate wife.” [77] Female star images of the period clearly responded to, and were shaped by, broader contestations over the role of women in this period for star images so often function to resolve ideological contradictions, a process that seems to work in individual cases and across the star system as a system of differences sensitive to pressing social concerns.

Finally here, it is clear that no account of star images of this period could get by without talking about Charlie Chaplin, who – in Richard Koszarski’s words – dominated “this period as both a creative force within the industry and a cultural icon of unparalled visibility.” [78]  Chaplin’s star image has been extensively analysed in Charles J. Maland’s important book, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Maland’s exemplary account of Chaplin’s star image seeks to inscribe it, and its transformations from 1913 to the 1970s, in relation both to industrial conditions such as the emergence of United Artists and the coming of sound and to the broader cultural and political history of the United States. Within this, Maland documents the gradual construction of the Chaplin image, in particular the fusing of the figure of the tramp and the gentlemen, and suggests that Chaplin emerged as a bona fide star around 1915 when extra-textual discourse increasingly focused on the man Chaplin as opposed to the screen persona of Charlie (this accords with deCordova’s wider analysis of the emergence of the star system). Much of this discourse followed a rags-to-riches narrative, talking about Chaplin’s rise from a “penniless immigrant” to “highest paid movie actor,” suggesting that Chaplin functioned as a highly visible image of a broader American myth of success. [79]  Such a narrative of uplift was increasingly visible in Chaplin’s self-presentation, Maland notes, for his self-directed films shifted away from the anarchic slapstick of the Keystone period of 1914 and increasingly focused on heterosexual romance at the same time that the extra-textual discourse surrounding Chaplin focused on his interest in high culture and thus on his status as a serious artist (solidified with Chaplin’s dealings with the intelligentsia through the 1920s). For Maland, and in particular for Charles Musser in his essay Work, Ideology, and Chaplin’s Tramp, Chaplin’s image as a gentlemen tramp was closely linked to the economic context of the late nineteenth century that had seen a massive increase in homeless travellers. Musser suggests that Chaplin’s image was part of a “radical populism” that produced films where “working-class audiences in particular could see their anger and frustrations recognized, transformed, and liberated.” [80] For both Maland and Musser then, Chaplin’s star image was linked closely to broader debates about class.


The new medium of projected moving pictures was quickly utilised as part of a broader focus on celebrities that animated the wider culture and was particularly clear in the realms of theatre and vaudeville. It became possible to conceive of film actors as celebrities after a complicated series of industrial, discursive and textual transformations: the emergence of the nickelodeon, the dominance of fiction films, the industrial invocation of discourses of acting in response to regulatory concerns, and transformations in textual practice that led to a focus on individuated characters carried through increased dissection of screen space and a shift to a verisimilar mode of acting. The film star became increasingly economically important to the film industry and increasingly important to audience pleasure and there developed an intense focus on the private lives of stars. Star images can be examined in relation to the social historical work carried out on this period of extraordinary transition, positioned as exemplars of certain configurations of identity (of ethics, morality, of notions of romance, gender, ethnicity and so on).

Future research on the area of stars and audiences in early American cinema will perhaps address more clearly the broader configuration of celebrity that I have sketched in here. Work on star images of the period will also necessarily begin to address more clearly star images that have faded through time – what could we say about the star image of, say, Francis Bushman or of John Gilbert or of Norma Talmadge? – and should I think continue to outline the relations amongst individual star images and the wider system of differences set in play in the production and promotion of divergent images of stars. Such work might well also begin to pursue more overtly questions about racial and ethnic identity and about class identity, following on from, and extending, the work on Valentino and Chaplin. Such a stance is visible in Donald Kirihra’s recent essay on Sessue Hayakaya and the overt policing of images of black performers is addressed in my own essay on the regulation of the boxing pictures of the African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson. Although not strictly a film star, for his fame stemmed from his boxing, the regulation of images of Johnson was symptomatic of a broader injunction against casting actors with “distinct” ethnic or racial features in leading roles in fiction films. [81] This work could also quite clearly include further consideration of representations of white ethnicity.

Alongside such a focus on star texts it might also be possible to begin to address more precisely the agency of stars (and of those associated with stars: producers, agents, promoters, casting directors). Such a stance is visible in Maland’s work on Chaplin and in Peter Kramer’s important recent work on Buster Keaton, which seeks to situate the agency of Keaton and entertainment entrepreneurs such as Joseph Schenk within broader industrial conditions and transformations in entertainment institutions. [82] The huge biographical and autobiographical literature on stars will be important in this context and needs to be addressed by cinema scholars who, well-versed in post-structuralist thought, have been understandably reluctant to tackle questions of agency head on. These questions will need though to be addressed in the context of a thorough understanding of the broader structures within which individuals operate, both in relation to industrial and discursive structures but also in relation to broader patterns of social history. Such work will necessarily continually push at the borders of the discipline of cinema history.


[1] Initially published as “Nascita del divisimo. Stars e pubblico del cinema dei primordi”, in Gian Piero Brunetta (ed) Storia del Cinema Mondiale, Turin, 2000, pp.339-370.
[2] Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights, London, 1926, p.524 and p.523.
[3] Ramsaye, A million and one nights; John Drinkwater, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle, New York, 1931, pp.139-142; Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, New York, 1939, pp.86-89; Alexander Walker, Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon, London, 1970, pp.19-39; Richard Dyer, Stars, London, 1979, pp.9-10; David Cook, A History of Narrative Film, New York, 1981, p.40.
[4] Moving Picture World, March 12 1910, quoted in Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film op. cit., p.87; Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights op. cit., p.523.
[5] Drinkwater, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle op. cit., p.140 and p.141; Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film op. cit., p.87.
[6] Walker, Stardom op. cit, p.37; Dyer, Stars op. cit, p.10.
[7] See, for example, Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film op. cit., p.87; Walker, Stardom op. cit., p.36.
[8] Benjamin Hampton, A History of the Movies, London, 1932, pp.83-100.
[9] Janet Staiger, Seeing Stars in “The Velvet Light Trap”, 20 (Summer 1983); Richard deCordova, The Emergence of the Star System in America in “Wide Angle”, 6,4 (1985); deCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America, Urbana, 1990; Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915., Los Angeles, 1990.
[10] Dyer, Stars op. cit., pp.68-72.
[11] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, London, 1986, p.ix.
[12] Though see here also Mark Lynn Anderson’s book, Twilight of the Idols: Male Film Stars, Mass Culture, and the Human Sciences in 1920s America, California, where Anderson links discourses about male stars in the 1920s to broader discourses about “deviance” and subjectivity circulating in the human sciences. I read Anderson’s important manuscript long after the completion of this essay but we share an interest in thinking about stars and stardom in relation to the broader contexts of discourses on personhood.
[13] Gaylyn Studlar, This Mad Masquerade: Stardom and Masculinity in the Jazz Age, New York, 1996.
[14] A recent issue of Camera obscura engages further with female stardom in early cinema. See in particular Jennifer M. Bean, Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body, and Gaylyn Studlar, “Oh, ‘Doll Divine’: Mary Pickford, masquerade, and the pedophilic gaze”, Camera Obscura 48, Volume 16, Number 3 (2001).
[15] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers, New York, 1992, p.23.
[16] Kathryn H. Fuller, At the Picture Show: Small-Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture, Washington, 1996.
[17] Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History Oxford, 1986.
[18] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge, 1977, p.27.
[19] Charles Ponce de Leon, “The man nobody knows: Charles A. Lindbergh and the culture of celebrity”, in Prospects, vol. 21 (1996).
[20] Benjamin McArthur, Actors and American Culture, 1880-1920, Philadelphia, 1984.
[21] Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, New York, 1992.
[22] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., pp.23-46.
[23] Robert C. Allen, Vaudeville and Film 1895-1915: A Study in Media Interaction, New York, 1980, p.212.
[24] Charles Musser, “The changing status of the film actor”, in Jey Leyda and Charles Musser (eds) Before Hollywood: Turn- of-the-century Film from American Archives, New York, 1987, p.57.
[25] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., pp.55-57.
[26] Catherine Kerr, “Incorporating the star: the intersection of business and aesthetic strategies in early American film”, in Business History Review, vol. 64 (Autumn 1990).
[27] Sumiko Higashi, Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture, Los Angeles, 1994, p.22. On reform concerns about cinema in this period see Lee Grieveson, “Why the audience mattered in Chicago in 1907”, in Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (eds), American Movie Audiences: From the Turn of the Century to the Early Sound Era, London, 1999. On Zukor see Adolph Zukor with Dale Kramer, The Public is Never Wrong, New York, 1953.
[28] William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films, New Jersey, 1993.
[29] Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Acting Style in the Griffith Biographs, Los Angeles, 1992. Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs have recently offered some revisions to Pearson’s account in their book Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film, Oxford, 1997, arguing that the histrionic style was more nuanced than Pearson allows and that it lasted longer in European filmmaking. This may provide one way in which to start thinking about the different acting practices of America and Europe at that time. Nevertheless, Pearson’s detailed account of the transformation of acting styles in the context of broader debates about the cultural function of cinema in the U.S. from 1909-1913 is extremely important.
[30]David Belasco, quoted in Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American narrative Film, Urbana, 1991, p.89.
[31] Kristin Thompson, in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, London, 1985, p.179.
[32]See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Los Angeles, 1990.
[33]Tom Gunning, quoted in Uricchio and Pearson, Reframing Culture op. cit., p.47.
[34]David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison, Wisconsin, 1985, p.157.
[35]Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema op. cit., p.94.
[36]Thomas Bedding, The Moving Picture World, 3 July 1909, quoted in Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema op. cit., p.94.
[37] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., p.23.
[38] Anthony Slide, Aspects of American Film History Prior to 1920, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1978, p.16. On the emergence of a heterosocial leisure world geared to the young see, in particular, Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s, Oxford, 1977, and Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture, 1890-1930, Chicago, 1981.
[39] Gaylyn Studlar, “‘Out-Salomeing Salome’: dance, the new woman, and fan magazine orientalism”, in Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (eds), Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1997, p.113.
[40] On the links between villainy and ethnicity in early film see Daniel Bernardi, “The voice of whiteness: D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films” (1908-1913), in Bernardi (ed), The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema, New Brunswick, 1996; on the regulation of films of the black sports star Jack Johnson see Lee Grieveson, “Fighting films: race, morality, and the governing of cinema, 1912-1915”, in Cinema Journal, 38:1, (1998).
[41] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., p.73.
[42] deCordova, The Emergence of the Star System op. cit., p.10; deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., p.87.
[43] deCordova, The Emergence of the Star System op. cit., p.11.
[44] Tino Balio, “Part II: Struggles for Control: 1908-1930”, in Tino Balio (ed), The American Film Industry, revised edition, Madison, Wisconsin, 1985, p.106.
[45] See here Jane Gaines, “From elephants to lux soap: the programming and “flow” of early motion picture exploitation”, in The Velvet Light Trap, no.25 (Spring 1990).
[46] Hampton, A History of the Movies op. cit., p.194.
[47] Tino Balio, “Stars in business”, in Balio (ed), The American Film Industry op. cit., pp.157-162.
[48] Kerr, Incorporating the Star op. cit., p.407.
[49] Balio, “Stars in business”. op. cit., p.153.
[50] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., pp.101-2.
[51] See, in particular, Jenkins, Textual Poachers op. cit.; Fuller, At the Picture Show op. cit.; Studlar, “Out Salomeing Salome” op. cit.
[52] Fuller, At the Picture Show op. cit., p.138.
[53] Fuller, At the Picture Show op. cit., p.141; Photoplay, March 1912, quoted in deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., pp.105-6.
[54]Hortense Powdermaker, Hollywood, The Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie Makers, Boston, 1950, p.249.
[55] Ian Hacking, “Making up people”, in Thomas Heller et al (eds), Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality, and the Self in Western Thought, Stanford, 1986.
[56] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit.,p.103.
[57] Mary Pickford, Why Not Try God?, New York, 1934, p.2.
[58] Douglas Fairbanks, Laugh and Live, New York, 1917; Douglas Fairbanks, Making Life Worth While, New York, 1918, p38.
[59]Lary May, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry, Oxford, 1980, in particular pp.96-146.
[60] On Reid, see Mark Lynn Anderson, Shooting Star: Understanding Wallace Reid and his Public, in Adrienne L. McLean and David A. Cook (eds) Headline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal, New Brunswick, N.J., 2001.
[61] deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., pp.117-147; Sennett, The Fall of Public Man op. cit., Studlar, “Out Salomeing Salome” op. cit., p.111.
[62] Congressional Record, June 29 1922, quoted in deCordova, Picture Personalities op. cit., p.130.
[63] Sennett, The Fall of Public Man op. cit.
[64] See, for example, Paula Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful op. cit; Lewis Erenberg, Steppin’ Out op. cit; Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-Of-The-Century New York, Philadelphia, 1986.
[65] Studlar, This Mad Masquerade op. cit, p.12.
[66]Ibid, p.12.
[67] Walker, Stardom op. cit, p.113.
[68] Studlar, This Mad Masquerade op. cit, p.86.
[69] Miriam Hansen, “Pleasure, ambivalence, identification: Valentino and female spectatorship”, in Cinema Journal 25, no.4 (Summer 1986), p.32; Studlar, This Mad Masquerade op. cit., p.153.
[70] Richard Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928, New York, 1990, p.265.
[71] May, Screening Out the Past, p.119 and p.122; Peiss, Cheap Amusements op. cit.; Joanne Meyerowitz, Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, Chicago, 1988.
[72] May, Screening Out The Past op. cit., p.96.
[73] Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful op. cit, p.5.
[74] Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-siecle Culture, Oxford, 1986, p.351.
[75] Kathy Peiss, Making Faces: The Cosmetics Industry and the Cultural Consumption of Gender, 1890-1930, in “Genders”, no.7 (March 1990), p.153.
[76] On the scandals surrounding Clara Bow see Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon, 1986, pp.137-144.
[77] Walker, Stardom op. cit., p.129.
[78] Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment op. cit., p.263.
[79] Charles J. Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image, Princeton, New Jersey, 1989.
[80] Charles Musser, Work, Ideology, and Chaplin’s Tramp, in Robert Sklar and Charles Musser (eds), Resisting Images: Essays on Cinema and History, Philadelphia, 1990, p.48 and p.62.
[81] Donald Kirihra, “The accepted idea displaced: stereotype and Sessue Hayakawa”, in Bernardi (eds), The Birth of Whiteness op. cit.; Grieveson, Fighting Films op. cit., 1998.
[82] Peter Kramer, “The Making of a Comic Star: Buster Keaton and The Saphead,” in Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick (eds), Classical Hollywood Comedy, London, 1995; Peter Kramer, “A slapstick comedian at the crossroads: Buster Keaton, the theater, and the movies in 1916/1917”, in Theatre History Studies, vol. XVII (1997).

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Lee Grieveson

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Lee Grieveson

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