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Some Historical Reflections on the Paradoxes of Stardom in the American Film Industry, 1910-1960

by Brian Gallagher

Part One: 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.

In lamenting how "many assertions about the cinema have been passed from one historian to another without ever being verified or challenged" (11), Charles Musser speaks for a formidable group of current film historians who have been able to rewrite in precise detail the history of American cinema against the grain of long-entrenched myths about its development. One of the ur-myths about American cinema is a simplistic version of the creation of the star system: namely, that the entrenched production companies (the MPPC) steadfastly refused to reveal the identities of its players, so they would not gain name recognition and so be able to command greater salaries; that the independents, starting with Carl Laemmle's hiring away of "the Biograph Girl" (Florence Lawrence) in 1910 (often wrongly dated 1909), invented the practice of publicizing their feature players; and that the public so wanted/needed to know the identities of their favorite players that the independents' strategy meant the inevitable defeat of the MPPC forces.2

The May Irwin Kiss.

View an animated GIF of "The Kiss." (20 frames, 153KB)

Yet, as early as 1896, in The May Irwin Kiss (alternately called The Kiss and The Irwin-Rice Kiss), the Edison company was clearly identifying certain of its players, here the two well-known stage actors who "recreated" on film the kiss at the end of the musical comedy, The Widow Jones, in which they were then starring.3 And fifteen years later (May 1911), "the credit system in films also seems to have been invented by Edison" (Staiger, 13).

What is true is that the nickelodeon boom of 1906-07 greatly increased the demand for product, allowing other production companies besides the two largest, Edison and Biograph, to create permanent staffs. The boom also encouraged the established companies (all but two, Kalem and Essanay, dated back to the 1890s in some form) to attempt to corner the much-expanded market by creating the monopolistic MPPC. Within a few years of the boom, there was enough capital to hire, first, major vaudeville stars, and, then, especially with the production of more two-reelers (which allowed a great range of histrionic display), established stage stars. Even earlier, though, many MPPC members had begun exploiting the "stars" they already had on hand: in September 1909, "Edison introduced in its catalogues its stock players with individual lengthy descriptions of their prior experiences and stage successes" (Staiger, 12); in January 1910, Kalem introduced "a new method of lobby advertising" (Slide, 3), posters and stills featuring its actors and actresses; in April 1910, Vitagraph sponsored an appearance by its star, Florence Turner, on a Brooklyn stage.

Publicity photo of Florence Turner.

Richard deCordova, noting that "before 1907 there was no discourse on the film actor" (5), sees the new emphasis on actors and actresses as a necessary second stage in the economic development of the industry:

. . . a new form of product differentiation more in keeping with an increasingly rationalized production system; the audience's appreciation would no longer be confined to the magic of the machine or to the socio-cultural interest in the thing photographed but would involve the possibility of discriminating--at the level of performance--between specific films (9).

This popular discourse on actors was being created in a somewhat anarchic atmosphere, where daring was often a sound strategy. For instance, by the fall of 1910, only half the country's 9,000 theaters were licensed (Stanley, 3). A host of independent producers, many of whom first tried unsuccessfully to use Lumière stock, were surreptitiously using Edison-trust equipment--the would-be monopoly was a patents monopoly--to make films for the burgeoning market. In 1910, Carl Laemmle and several other major independent producers joined to form the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Corporation, which became the Trust's major competitor and its major court antagonist. By 1912, when the independents nearly equalled the Trust in film production and when the MPDSC was large enough to have a member (Harry Aitken) split off to form second major independent force (Mutual Film Corp., later Triangle), it was evident that the independents "consistently demonstrated the initiative and innovative energy that the Trust producers lacked" (Sklar, 40). One of the ways they beat the Trust was by realizing the fuller potential of the star system toward which the Trust was also groping. Whereas Edison and Vitagraph touted the quality of its "stock company" of players, perhaps harking back to a long-vanished period in American theater history, the independents more closely imitated present theatrical practices, in which stars, touring with their own ensemble companies, ruled the day. (See Staiger.) Typical of the independents' panache was Laemmle's aforementioned hiring away of the "Biograph Girl."4

Publicity photo of Florence Lawrence

After spreading the story that she had been killed in a streetcar accident, Laemmle produced Florence Lawrence, now an "Imp Girl" (Imp was the popular name of his Independent Motion Picture Company), who would henceforth appear under her own name in his pictures. The independents were likewise more willing to move into the production of longer and feature-length films than the Trust companies, a move that dovetailed neatly with a fuller exploitation of the potential of stars in such films.

As Staiger notes, the rise of the movie star system is intricately bound to the prior existence of a star system in closely related media: "Whether the demand for stars came first from the consumers or was created by enterprising capitalists is immaterial in this case since the precedents in theater and vaudeville are so immediate" (Bordwell, Classical, 101). In this respect, probably the most important early event in emergence of the star system was the founding of Famous Players Film Company by an Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Adolph Zukor--based on his phenomenal success with the four-reeler he imported from France, Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt.

Sarah Bernhardt in Queen Elizabeth

The company's motto, "Famous Players in Famous Plays," perfectly summed up its strategy of appealing to middle-class audiences by featuring renown stage actors in feature-length "photoplays." Soon came James O'Neill (Eugene's father) in The Count of Monte Cristo and James K. Hackett in The Prisoner of Zenda. Two other immigrants, Jesse Lasky and Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn), quickly followed suit, founding the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Players company (a newcomer, Cecil B. De Mille, was their director), a company that merged with Zukor's in 1916, creating the second great organization of the post-Trust era.

In 1915, the government's three-year suit against the trust was decided in favor of the independents, but the latter group had already won its battle economically. For instance, the defection of D.W. Griffith, the leading stylistic innovator in the industry, from Biograph to the new Mutual in 1913, after rejecting earlier offers from independent producers, was a clearly a sign that the independents, with their riskier, more innovative management styles, were carrying the day. Within two years he would make The Birth of a Nation, probably the most influential motion picture ever made and certainly a film that could never have been made at Biograph. It was also a film that firmly fixed at least three "stars" in the public consciousness: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and Griffith himself.

Lillian GishMae MarshD.W. Griffith

It is perhaps tempting to see all this "trust-busting" as the triumph of enterprising immigrant entrepreneurs,5 entrepreneurs who perhaps identified at some level with the new stars they had created, over the conservative, essentially WASP-led (with a French admixture) forces of a trust that tried to monopolize the very apparatus of filmmaking. It is also quite short-sighted to do so. For instance, the very championing of individual players soon became a key part of a market strategy that would lead to that eight-company monopoly (Laemmle's company became Universal, Zukor's Paramount) that far exceeded in terms of rigid control, especially of actors' persona and freedom, anything the Edison-led trust ever envisioned. When, in the late 1930s, the government instituted a suit against this monopoly (a vertically integrated system of production, distribution and exhibition), it was attacking a trust that rigidly controlled 90% of film production and owned virtually all the prime theaters in the country.

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Part One: The emergence of the star system

Part Two: The real, the "reel," and fan magazines

Part Three: The selling of stars

Part Four: The close-up and Alice Adams

Part Five: Cultural self-importance and A Star is Born

Part Six: Studio battlers--James Cagney and Bette Davis

Part Seven: The power of stars, the power of agents, and Jimmy Stewart



Works Cited

Brian Gallagher is a professor of English and film at the City University of New York (LaGuardia).

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