Publisher's Note: In this issue of Images, we turn over the "In Focus" section to Brian Gallagher and his discussion of stardom. Each section of the article is described below.
Some historical reflections on the paradoxes of stardom, individualism and community in the American film industry, 1910 to 1960.
The emergence of the star system--the highlighting of individual film players--from the successful battle (1908-15) of the independent producers against the Edison-led monopoly, the MPPC (the Motion Picture Patents Company), soon resulted in the the even more inclusive structure of control that was the studio system. [Includes an animated sequence from "The May Irwin Kiss."]
The creation of fan materials, and particularly fan magazines, which started around 1910 and rose to a flood by the 1920s, typically blurred the distinction between individual/actor and the characters he or she played, between the real person and the "reel" person.
The use of "star presence," starting in the mid-1910s, as a major device for selling films to theater owners and to the public both restricted the individuality of the stars once their persona was fixed and allowed, through practices like block booking, studio heads to exploit stars beyond the films in which they actually appeared.
The evolution of the close-up as the emblematic star shot sometimes created a stylistic confusion and disjunction between two stories: the story being told in the film and the "story" of the star's appearance in that film. [Includes animated sequences from Queen Christina and Alice Adams.]
Hollywood's growing sense of cultural self-importance is mirrored in the increasingly melodramatic and decreasingly detailed treatment of movie-making in the three versions of the "star is born" story between 1932 and 1954. [Includes animated sequences from What Price Hollywood? and A Star is Born (1937).]
In the 1930s and 1940s, the battles between individual stars and their studios, epitomized by the battles of James Cagney and Bette Davis with Warner Bros., were often battles that these stars won by losing and lost by winning.
The re-emergence of Jimmy Stewart, who went on to become the leading male box office star of the 1950s, was emblematic of the growing power of individual stars, but even more indicative of the enormous, but largely hidden, power wielded by agents in the period.
In the '90s, the star system still operates in mysterious and paradoxical ways.