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

by Brian Gallagher

Part Three: 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.

If the battle of the Edison Trust and the independents created the star system as a means of product differentiation, the period directly after defined that system. The solidification of the classical style of filmmaking included many techniques which easily permitted, even encouraged, the display of stars: e.g., "The American shot and reverse shot technique was, and essentially remains, a method conceived as a way of enveloping the actors from every side, establishing a formal composition of a minimum complexity within which they may be fairly spontaneous, and even go so far as to completely improvise" (Burch, 114). Through such techniques, which enhanced the seemingly realistic look at stars in a seemingly realistic but not obtrusive space, movie stars were able to participate in the tradition of "fashion" :

Fashion itself 'romanticizes,' because it programmatically suggests the forever unattainable, that which always keeps moving out of reach. Its 'reality' is in its acknowledgement of sexual fantasy as a steady force. Used in art, it therefore went a long way in helping to create that Romantic realism which is so dominant in mid-nineteenth-century painting, and which is also the hallmark of all cinema. (Hollander, 260)

In sum, through the techniques of American filmmaking, stars were made to look real and seem extraordinary.

More directly in economic terms in the 1910s and 1920s, as Tino Balio explains, stars were also the primary stabilizing force in ever-expanding industry, which was virtually able to dominate the market after World War I closed down European production:

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 became a production value unto himself, a trademark enhancing the prestige of his producer and an insurance policy guaranteeing success at the box office. (106)

Where that stabilization would lead is indicated by Barry King: "essentially the star system is the form of competition between the majors that is consistent with the stabilization of monopoly control" (157). A limited number of stars, and a distinction between first-tier and second-tier stars, meant the more powerful companies, who controlled those stars, could drive the smaller producers out of business--which is precisely what happened from 1915 on.

Chaplin was the most famous star of the 1910s (Mary Pickford probably being his only real competition), with movie theaters sometimes simply displaying a lifesize cutout of him, proclaiming " I Am Here Today," rather than listing the title of the specific film being shown.8 However, Chaplin was unusual in two respects. First, he gained such control over his films that within two years he was virtually producing and directing them. Second, Chaplin throughout the 1910s made short films (normally two-reelers) in a period when the feature-film increasingly dominated the screen, supplying over two-thirds of the attraction on an average bill. And it was chiefly in these "photoplays" that the first generation of stars was created. In fact, there was such a "star frenzy" that by 1917, according to Koszarski (261), fewer than 5% of films did not feature stars.

Cecil B. DeMille and Wallace Reid on the set of The Call of the North.

This star-centered production practice was given temporary check over the next two years by the tremendous success of three films without name stars directed by De Mille, films which "damaged the notion of star supremacy and added power to certain key directors who seemed to be able to create stars or at least do without them" (Koszarski, 261). The doubt over star power was not to last, however, as tremendously popular new stars like Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert arose in the 1920s. By then, the three major comedy stars of the late 1910s--Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton--had also moved into feature-film production, certifying their star status by putting themselves in "star-length" vehicles.

Gerald Mast expresses the popular and by no means inaccurate understanding of movie stars when he writes, "Movie stars do not so much play characters (as stage actors do); they are the characters. The movie star capitalizes on an essential paradox of the movies--that they are fictional truths" (96).9 Most stars of the early feature period had such clear screen identities that they virtually excluded other variations from their films. One could hardly imagine the vamp, Theda Bara, existing in the same film (or universe), as "America's sweetheart," Mary Pickford; and the west of the dandy Tom Mix was a very different world than that of the rough, straight-shooting William S. Hart. To a greater degree than has been the case ever since, these stars were virtually genres unto themselves: Fairbanks was "swashbuckling;" his films were "swashbucklers." And when, in 1919, he joined with Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith to found United Artists (which would become the most anomalous and least powerful of the eight studios in the emerging monopoly), Fairbanks, like Chaplin and Pickford, was looking for more control, both economic and narrative, of his screen persona, not a new persona. This was a freedom to which only the most elite of stars could aspire.10

The United Artists owners:
Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford,
D.W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks.

Writing thirty years later, Powdermaker succinctly summarized the long-recognized advantages of the star system:

From a business point of view, there are many advantages in the star system. The star has tangible features which can be advertised and marketed--a face, a body, a pair of legs, a voice, a certain kind of personality, real or synthetic--and can be typed as the wicked villain, the honest hero, the fatal siren, the sweet young girl, the neurotic woman. The system provides a formula easy to understand and has made the production of movies seem more like just another business. The use of this formula may serve also to protect the executives from talent and from having to pay much attention to such intangibles as the quality of the story or of the acting. Here is a standardized product which can be advertised and sold, and which not only they, but also banks and exhibitors, regard as insurance for large profits. (228-29)

What Powdermaker might also have noted is that star vehicles were not only sold directly to the public (in theaters owned by the studios), but that they were also sold to independent theater owners, who often were at the mercy of studios intent on selling their lesser wares along with their premium goods. Adolph Zukor was the man who invented block booking, by insisting that these independent theater owners take the whole Paramount list to get features starring the likes of a Mary Pickford. The policy was much imitated, especially in 1930s, when double bills became a major strategy in fighting declining Depression audiences. Studios like Warner Bros., with a limited star roster of stars, were able to parlay these stars into bigger profits by making them the center of a whole block booking operation: to get Cagney or Davis or Errol Flynn films, the independent theater owner had to accept some weak "A" films and a fair share of "B" films.11 In a sense, these stars were forced to help support a whole production schedule over of which they had little knowledge and over which they had absolutely no control (and, to be fair, in which they probably had very scant interest). Other common practices, like misleading advertising (see below, on Cagney) and re-releases, also demonstrate how little control the individual star had over the ultimate exploitation of his or her performances.

Long after the end of the classical era, we still conceive of movie stars in essentially the same way audiences learned to conceive of them in the formative years of movie stardom (circa 1913-22). As philosopher Arthur Danto observes, that way is both complex and distinct from the way we observe stars in precursor media, like opera and drama:

The movie star is a metaphysically-complex personality, retaining an identity so strong as to swamp the role he or she plays to the point we speak of Eliot[sic] Gould rather than Philip Marlowe as doing this or that, as though roles were like lives through [which] a Hindu soul transmigrates, which is false of opera stars or stage stars, not merely because the roles in the dramatic or operatic repertories have a strong identity of their own, whereas film roles are often ephemeral, but also because the same role may in opera or theater be played by different actors, and we can compare their performance of films in the same respect, and the role is exclusively preempted by one person who plays it in a movie, so much so that we almost cannot separate the person from the role. (12-13)

We might add that "Elliott Gould" is hardly more real than "Philip Marlowe," just as, in an earlier period, "Douglas Fairbanks" was hardly more real than "Zorro." As Cary Grant once quipped, "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

page 4 of 9

Go to:


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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