When film and cinema technologies first appeared in Europe and the United States in the mid-1890s, film was sold to consumers on the technological effect of moving images rather than the content of what those images represented. Consequently, the first entrepreneurs who aimed to exploit the commercial potential of the new medium saw its value as an instrument of technological innovation rather than as a new performance medium. In this commercial context, film acting remained an amateur or semiprofessional occupation. American theater already had an established star system, but the nascent film industry saw no immediate need to cultivate and promote stars. Frequently early cinema would see technicians or amateurs performing in films, although some professional theater actors did venture into acting for the camera. Until industrialization, the volume of film production was insufficient to provide actors with regular employment and film acting was regarded merely as a means for supplementing income from the theater.
In the period from 1907 to 1914, several developments occurred in American cinema that professionalized film acting and provided the foundations for the film star system. To supply the nickelodeon boom during the years 1907 to 1909, filmmakers increased the volume of film production, providing the beginnings of a move toward the large-scale industrialization of cinema, including the introduction of a specialized division of labor to rationalize film production. Before 1907 more documentaries and comedies were produced than dramas and tricks. After 1907, however, comedies and dramas together began to surpass nonfiction forms, and by the following year over 90 percent of films made were fictional narratives. These conditions may have provided the context for the professionalization of film acting, but the emergence of the star system in American cinema required further means to distinguish stars as a special category of film actor. In Picture Personalities (1990), a history of the early star system in America, Richard DeCordova argues that the system became possible only after film companies began actively advertising and promoting the names of their performers. Prior to 1909 the names of actors were kept anonymous, partly because producers feared the advertising of names would prompt actors to demand higher salaries; however, after this date the names of performers began to appear on film credits and posters. Besides its historical importance, naming remains fundamental to the operations of the star system, for the name individualizes the star's identity as a marker of repetition and difference, identifying the unique monopoly of a star's image. Naming therefore contributes to the commodification of the star's identity as an image that can be used and sold in public culture.
With naming, producers and moviegoers had the means to identify links between a series of film roles by a performer, providing the foundation for the construction of a performer's onscreen professional identity. However, DeCordova argues that the film star system fully came into being only after 1914, when the press in America began to publish stories and features covering the off-screen lives of film performers. This coverage documented the private lives of the performers in ways that were never truly private, for it always offered a vision of the star's life designed and offered up for public attention. Frequently, in the early days of cinema, the practice was to represent the private lives of stars as the perfect complement to the type of roles they played onscreen. However, during the early 1920s a series of star scandals made the headlines. Most famously, the comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933) was tried but acquitted of raping and killing a young woman. Scandals disrupted beliefs in the private life of a star as the simple reflection of his or her onscreen image.
DeCordova's history of the star system tracks the emergence of different categories of knowledge or discourse about film performers. Naming made the performer's onscreen image—the product of a succession of film roles—known, and press coverage made a star's private life knowable. But as the discussion of scandal revealed secrets that often contradicted the version of the star's private life given to the press, a distinction could then be drawn between the star's "private" off-screen image (that is, the image of privacy publicly offered to the press) and the private off-screen image that was intended to remain private and secret but nevertheless publicly known. These categories are valuable for mapping the realms of knowledge about star performers that still endure in contemporary film culture.