STARS AND MOVIE CULTURE IN THE 1920s
Even before American companies began actively promoting their actors by name around 1910, audiences had demonstrated their preference for particular performers, resulting in such favorites as the Biograph Girl (Florence Lawrence) and the Vitagraph Girl (Florence Turner). Initially, stars were known only for their onscreen personae, so that the actor's (first) name became synonymous with his or her characterizations. Such was the case with the two preeminent stars of the 1910s, Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977). Before the star system could reach its mature stage, knowledge of the stars' off-screen lives also needed to become available to eager fans. Fan magazines, of which Photoplay was the first to appear in 1912, supplied this information, though the true source for most such promotional material was the studios themselves. Not surprisingly, given the centrality of stars to the success of Hollywood features, the star system developed in tandem with the industry. Pickford had proven instrumental to Zukor's early success with features and functioned as the carrot to go with the stick of block booking. The undeniable pull the top-rank stars exerted at the box office placed them at the center of publicity campaigns and pushed salaries ever higher, with the average weekly paycheck quadrupling in the period between 1916 and 1926. The most powerful stars saw their power extend beyond monetary rewards: in the most celebrated instance of stars laying claim to control over their careers, Pickford, Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) (in collaboration with the famous director D. W. Griffith [1875–1948]) formed United Artists in 1919 as a distribution outlet for their productions. Each of these stars would command yearly salaries in excess of $1 million by the 1920s.
It is no coincidence that the star system emerged at the same time as motion picture production was shifting its central operations from the East Coast to the West. The ongoing relocation of film personnel to the Los Angeles area facilitated the identification of movie-star lifestyles with the geographical (and symbolic) site of Hollywood. Hollywood thus became synonymous with a particular lifestyle; it was not simply where movies were made, but where those who made movies chose to live. Moreover, that life assumed a special quality reinforced by the physical separation of movie stars from the rest of the United States. As denizens of a distinct colony, stars were expected to lead lives that justified the coverage they received in fan magazines and that would stimulate the longings of admiring, even envious, fans. In this way stars became synonymous with a type of conspicuous consumption, endemic to the years of unbridled economic growth in the United States during the 1920s. As their salaries grew, and their possessions and homes became more luxurious, movie stars came to epitomize a fantasy of wealth and choice. They functioned simultaneously as a realization of the American Dream—the boy or girl next door rising to fame and fortune—and an impossible ideal—larger-than-life figures living an existence only a rarefied few could ever enjoy. Their film roles would often mirror this duality, with many narratives of the 1910s and 1920s placing stars within two favored scenarios: either the star is wealthy at the outset, but shows himself/herself to be possessed of values that equate him/her with the common people; or, the star gains wealth by the film's conclusion, ideally by meeting the perfect (and perfectly wealthy) mate, but never sacrificing him/her principles in the process of attracting a rich suitor.
Both through their performances and the presentation of their public and private lives, then, stars had to appear remote and exotic while also seeming familiar and normalized. Stars lived a kind of dream existence, a heightened version of everyday life, and it was predicated on their sustaining a complex balancing act within the minds of their fans. In the early 1920s a series of scandals threatened that balance, puncturing the illusion that all stars lived by the same moral code adhered to by those who adored them. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933) faced rape and murder charges connected to the death of a starlet whom the rotund comedian had met at a "wild" party; Mary Pickford's image as "America's Sweetheart" was not easily reconciled to her divorce in 1920; the murder of director William Desmond Taylor (1872–1922) (famous for having directed numerous Pickford vehicles) implicated two celebrated actresses, Mabel Normand (1892–1930) and Mary Miles Minters (1902–1984); and matinee idol Wallace Reid (1891–1923) died as a result of morphine addiction. The collective force of these scandals lent credence to the notion that Hollywood was out of control, and that hedonism
b. Gladys Smith, Toronto, Canada, 8 April 1893, d. 29 May 1979
No major star within the silent era can match the career longevity of Mary Pickford. Starting at Biograph in 1909, she established herself as a leading performer with her first films and went on to become the industry's biggest female star for the next two decades. Compelling onscreen, Pickford was equally adept at controlling the aspects of stardom that extend beyond the screen. A consummate businesswoman, she capitalized on her popularity from early on, negotiating favorable terms of employment and, eventually, considerable creative control. She achieved a degree of power most stars during the period could not hope to possess.
Pickford began acting as a child in Canadian theatrical productions before moving on to the New York stage under the tutelage of the impresario David Belasco in 1907. Switching to films two years later, she made a strong impression at Biograph, particularly as a comedienne. Even though the names of film performers were not made known to the public at that time, fans soon christened Pickford "Little Mary"; she parlayed that recognition into a series of increasingly lucrative contracts, moving from one company to another, and commanding a salary of several thousand dollars a week in the process. In 1916 she tightened control over her career by forming the Mary Pickford Corporation, and soon her earnings rose to nearly $1 million a year.
Distributors used the Pickford name to entice exhibitors to rent blocks of films among which would be her star vehicles. Recognizing how indispensable she was to a company's bottom line, she insisted on sharing in whatever profits her films earned. As the industry moved toward a vertically integrated structure by the close of the decade, Pickford elected to take over the distribution of her own titles by forming United Artists with her soon-tobe husband, Douglas Fairbanks; her director from the Biograph days, D. W. Griffith; and her rival in box-office popularity (and record-setting earnings), Charlie Chaplin.
Even as Pickford remained one of the most financially astute of the early stars (exploiting the benefits of the celebrity testimonial in advertising campaigns, for example), she failed to find ways to develop her onscreen persona. In her early films a particular type emerged—plucky, impetuous, but good-humored—and in the years to come fans resisted any substantial changes to the Pickford screen personality. Her golden ringlets symbolized the eternally youthful sensibility her roles demanded, and she became trapped in a cycle of films as a perpetual child-woman. Most attempts at expanding her range failed, and even when she cut her hair in defiance of her established image, she was forced to wear a wig onscreen to ensure continuity with the Little Mary of years past. Forever identified as "America's Sweetheart," upon the introduction of sound she became an increasingly anachronistic figure and retired from acting for the lucrative management of United Artists.
Wilful Peggy (1910), The New York Hat (1912), Tess of the Storm Country (1914), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Stella Maris (1918), Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), Pollyanna (1920), Sparrows (1926)
Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.
Eyman, Scott. Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart . New York: Dutton, 1990.
McDonald, Paul. The Star System: Hollywood's Production of Popular Identities . London: Wallflower Publishing, 2000.
Whitfield, Eileen. Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood . Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.
Onscreen, matters were no more encouraging. Erich von Stroheim's (1885–1957) dramas, such as Blind Husbands (1919) and Foolish Wives (1922), revolved around scenarios of seduction and infidelity overlaid with psychological realism and a degree of sadism. Cecil B. DeMille's (1881–1959) comedies of manners from the same period, including Don't Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919), and Why Change Your Wife? (1920), treated their audiences to the spectacle of Gloria Swanson (1897–1983) in various states of undress while promoting the pleasures of wanton consumerism. Fearing the imposition of state-controlled censorship (and worse, as public concern over stars' behavior coincided with congressional calls for greater control over the business operations of the film industry), the studios acted preemptively. Enlisting the country's postmaster general, Will Hays (1879–1954), as head of a new trade organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the industry's leaders hoped Hays would be able to use his political acumen and sober, Presbyterian image to combat the bad publicity and forestall government intervention. Hays, who was well connected to Washington, wasted no time in giving the appearance of introducing significant changes designed to "clean up" Hollywood. He saw to it that the studios introduced morals clauses into their stars' contracts, pulled Arbuckle's films from distribution, and, most significantly, introduced the first in a series of self-regulatory documents designed to curb onscreen excesses. That Hays's efforts produced few tangible results remained secondary to the impression he created of being committed to effective regulatory monitoring of film content. As the decade wore on, new guidelines were introduced in the guise of the "Don'ts and Be Carefuls," but the imposition of a meaningful form of self-regulation did not take place until the Production Code Administration of the 1930s.