Star System


Many popular cinemas have stars, but beyond Hollywood, few national film industries can claim to have developed a star system. As early American film saw considerable interaction between theater and film, so in Britain, France, and India professional performers of the dramatic and comedy stages occasionally worked onscreen; but most early film performers in these countries remained anonymous. In Britain, stage stars appeared on film from two sources: the legitimate theater

Clark Gable worked freelance on his last film, The Misfits (John Huston, 1961) with Marilyn Monroe.

(for example, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Sir Herbert Tree) and the music hall (George Robey and Fred Evans). Similarly, in France at the start of the 1900s early films featured performers from the legitimate theater such as Coquelin and Réjane. From 1907 the Film d'Art company signed stars from the Comédie-Française, including Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), Louise Lagrange, and Gabrielle Robinne. Performances by music hall stars like Maurice Chevalier were also committed to film.

In India, after an initial period of actualités , comedies, and trick films, production of narrative features began from 1913 on. At this time the theater entrepreneur Jamsetji Framji Madan expanded his business interests into film. He formed Madan Theatres Limited in 1919, and systematically created a synthesis between theater and film, using stage hits as the material for early narrative film features while casting his leading stage actors in the screen adaptations. A contracted Madan player, the Anglo-Indian actor Patience Cooper, became the first major star of silent cinema in India, with her name promoted on posters by Madan. Cooper was representative of a group of Eurasian actresses, including Ruby Myers, who adopted the name Sulochana, and Renee Smith (b. 1912), who became Seeta Devi, that formed the initial wave of stars in the colonial Indian cinema.

Studios in Britain, France, and India placed their leading performers under contract. In 1905 the French comedian Max Linder (1883–1925) was signed by Pathé, where he would make a series of comedy shorts. Because Linder's performances received popular recognition outside France, Ginette Vincendeau has argued that he was the first international film star. Unlike the long-term contracts offered by the major studios in Hollywood, historically it became the familiar pattern in French cinema for film performers to sign contracts with a producer or director for only one to three films. Consequently, the French cinema never instituted a star system comparable to Hollywood's. The careers of performers were never controlled in the same manner and producers did not work to cultivate and circulate the images of stars with the same intensity, for any effort made by an individual producer to promote a star was sure to be of greater benefit to whomever the star next worked for.

Although the Indian industry would produce stars of its own, until the late 1940s popular cinema in India continued to be dominated by the films and stars of Hollywood. From the 1930s to early 1950s, a number of major studios stood at the forefront of the Indian industry, each with its own contracted stars: Bombay Talkies, Imperial Film Company, New Theatres, Prabhat Film Company, Ranjit Film Company (renamed Ranjit Movietone), and Sagar (later National Studios). For example, the silent star Sulochana signed to Imperial, where she was reportedly paid 2,500 rupees per month in 1933, making her the highest-paid film performer in the period; Kundan Lal Saigal (1904–1947) became the leading star of Indian cinema in the 1930s while signed to New Theatres. Following national independence in 1947, the film industry in India was transformed. As the Hollywood studio system was breaking up, in the early 1950s the studio system in India began to dissolve. A consequence of this change was that performers were no longer retained on term contracts but instead operated on a freelance basis, signing to perform in a specific film or series of films. In a direct challenge to the power of the studios, independent producers offered large payments to star names, thereby providing the context in which star fees would rapidly inflate, accounting for an increasing proportion of the production budget for a film.

Historically, the British cinema has always struggled to define and sustain itself against the overwhelming dominance of Hollywood film. Recognizing the importance of stars for popular cinema, the British film industry has made several attempts to cultivate its own stars and star system. During the 1930s and 1940s leading studios retained stars on contract: Gainsborough Studios' stars included Margaret Lockwood (1916–1990) and James Mason (1909–1984), and in 1947 Dirk Bogarde was signed by Rank's Contract Artists Department, whose talent roster was informally known as "the Rankery." In an attempt to systemize the creation of star identities, during the late 1940s and early 1950s young male and female performers like Joan Collins, Diana Dors, John Gregson, and Christopher Lee had their screen personas groomed through the "Rank Charm School." However, the system never guaranteed work for the performers who passed through; because Rank cultivated a strong English middle-class persona for its performers, their appeal was not only restricted within the social parameters of British cinema but also overseas. As the examples of Charles Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all illustrate, British-born performers have historically achieved levels of national or international fame to rival the Hollywood stars only after transferring their careers to Hollywood itself.

Although popular cinemas in other national contexts have created star performers and worked to put in place mechanisms to systematically promote the identities of stars, arguably the only cinema to have sustained a long term star system is Hollywood.

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