Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

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Twilight of the Idols revisits some of the sensational scandals of early Hollywood to evaluate their importance for our contemporary understanding of human deviance. By analyzing changes in the star system and by exploring the careers of individual stars—Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand among them—Mark Lynn Anderson shows how the era’s celebrity culture shaped public ideas about personality and human conduct and played a pivotal role in the emergent human sciences of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Anderson looks at motion picture stars who embodied various forms of deviance—narcotic addiction, criminality, sexual perversion, and racial indeterminacy. He considers how the studios profited from popularizing ideas about deviance, and how the debates generated by the early Hollywood scandals continue to affect our notions of personality, sexuality, and public morals.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520267084
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 4/18/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 238
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Lynn Anderson is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Twilight of the Idols

Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America

By Mark Lynn Anderson


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94942-3


The Early Hollywood Scandals and the Death of Wallace Reid

Just after the First World War, the word junkie entered into American parlance to describe a population of heroin addicts—a visible and growing population of male derelicts in and around New York City—who supported their drug habit by scouring that city's junkyards in search of scrap metal, which they then sold to junk dealers. As medical historian David Courtwright has noted, the emergence of the term junkie at the beginning of the 1920s marked an historical transition in the general demographics of narcotic addiction in the United States. No longer was the typical addict a white, middle-aged, middle- or upper-class rural housewife, whose addiction had begun when her physician administered therapeutic doses of morphine to relieve pain. The new addict was more likely to be a young, white male who decidedly belonged to the urban underclass and whose addiction was more likely to have started when he began sniffing heroin with his friends at cheap dance halls. Yet junkie also rather neatly describes the transformation, in both popular and medical understandings of narcotic addiction, from a notion that morphinism was an organic disorder of the individual that resulted from medical treatment, to the view that narcotic addiction was a type of social disease, an unfortunate by-product of a modern industrial society and thus a pressing public health issue.

It was within the context of such a transformation that the popular film star Wallace Reid died in January 1923 at the age of thirty-one, due to complications resulting from an attempted withdrawal from narcotic addiction. Reid's death is generally considered one of the three most significant scandals of early Hollywood, along with the criminal trials of the film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1921 and 1922 and the sensationalized murder of director William Desmond Taylor in February 1922. Reid was remarkably handsome and had been a very successful matinée idol from the mid-1910s until his death. Like other popular male stars of the period such as Douglas Fairbanks and Thomas Meighan, Reid typified a rugged, all-American virility that was a compelling version of psychological and physical health for young white men. Often reported to stand at 6 3 and to weigh approximately 190 pounds, Reid was usually portrayed in the fan magazines as a happy and playful giant. He was also represented as somewhat of a dilettante with scattered interests in music, painting, chemistry, automobile racing, book collecting, golf, and a host of other pastimes. A man of many accomplishments, Reid was presumably so full of wonder at the world that he could not be bothered to devote a great amount of time or attention to any single activity.

Although younger than Fairbanks by almost a decade, Reid was part of the same generation of film stars who, like Fairbanks, emerged in the mid-1910s to become public representatives of the newly formed movie colony in southern California. Unlike the newcomer Fairbanks, however, Reid had been working steadily in the film industry since 1910, making over one hundred films as a featured player for the Vitagraph, Universal, and Majestic film companies. When Jesse Lasky signed Reid with his company in June 1915, Reid was already a well-known and established performer, though Reid's popularity rose rapidly after Lasky paired him with Metropolitan Opera star Geraldine Farrar in a couple of prestige pictures directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Reid's masculinity also differed from the "vim, vigor, and vip" of Fairbanks by departing from the latter's insistence upon rational self-discipline. While Fairbanks's healthy manliness resulted from the adoption of a youthful mental attitude which valued carefully planned and regimented physical activities, Reid's boyish charm rested more on a naturally robust physique and a much more spontaneous athleticism. Although his many film performances and even the scandal with which his name is linked are largely forgotten today, in the early 1920s, when it appeared as if the film industry itself was in danger of imminent collapse, Reid's drug addiction was a significant moment in the history of the star system and in the consolidation of Hollywood as a mass cultural institution. Reid's death afforded the film industry its first opportunity to explain how good stars can go wrong. The industry succeeded not only in containing the scandal of Reid's drug use, but in reinterpreting his death as both a private tragedy and a great public sacrifice. In this chapter I outline some of the specific strategies of this coverage, indicate its stages of development during and in the aftermath of the scandal, and draw some conclusions about the ways film audiences were encouraged to understand Reid's stardom and their own relationship to his death. Because the Reid affair had a more or less direct relationship to the continuing threats of external controls over the film industry, it is first necessary to lay out the larger historical and cultural contexts of the early star system and film regulation practices of the period before examining the media's attention to Reid's narcotic addiction.


Historical accounts of U.S. film censorship often note that the star scandals of the early 1920s aided in the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America (MPPDA), the most important regulatory agency to emerge within the film industry. Film historians are quick to add, however, that the MPPDA's other less publicized functions were to stave off federal antitrust interventions, to maintain the prevailing relations of production within the industry, to arbitrate costly litigious conflicts between distributors and exhibitors, and to control public information about Hollywood business practices. The industry's responses to star scandals are, then, often considered publicity diversions behind which the more important exercise of managerial power was concealed. Nevertheless, part of the MPPDA's implicit public charter was to guarantee the moral quality of the industry's products and its personnel, particularly its stars and leading players. When prominent Republican politician Will Hays accepted the film industry's offer to head the newly formed MPPDA in early 1922, one of his immediate tasks was to reassure the many church groups, women's clubs, and other reform organizations then seeking federal oversight of the industry that the major Hollywood studios were seriously committed to improving the moral quality of their pictures. He was also charged with halting the further creation of any more state or local film censorship boards. Six states already had film censorship boards when Hays took up his post, and thirty-two additional states would consider new film censorship legislation in 1921 and 1922. Hays attempted to placate the moral and educational critics of the industry by appearing to patiently listen to their concerns and by promising stringent internal reforms. With Hays at the helm, the MPPDA successfully defeated new proposals for state censorship boards through extensive organized political action in individual states. At the time he took up his post, Hays was President Harding's postmaster general, and he had served as the chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 1920 convention. Studio executives hoped that his supervision of the film industry through the auspices of the MPPDA would do for Hollywood's beleaguered reputation what the hiring of federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis had done for major league baseball two years before.

Because of the number of public scandals involving film personalities in the years 1920–1922, Hays and Hollywood faced a relatively new type of demand for film censorship. Most movie reform efforts of the late 1910s had targeted film content as in need of improvement and had sought some way of censoring the so-called sex picture, as well as films depicting illegal acts or criminal behavior. In the early 1920s the demand for cleaner pictures was soon joined by the demand for cleaner stars. The identity of the motion-picture performer had become a site for possible regulation and, at least for the year and a half following the arrest of Arbuckle in September 1921, the identity of the performer was one of the principal concerns of censorship efforts outside the film industry. Arbuckle, who had been arrested for the murder and rape of film actress Virginia Rappe, posed a relatively new set of problems for the smooth functioning of the star system, and it took Hays and film industry executives quite some time to develop effective strategies for controlling and avoiding the type of damage to Hollywood's image that had been caused by this and by other early scandals. By the time Reid's drug addiction was publicly revealed at the end of 1922, the industry's ability to manage star scandals had greatly improved.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1922, U.S. Senator Henry Lee Myers introduced into committee a bill calling for the establishment of film censorship in the District of Columbia and another requesting a federal investigation into the motion picture industry. On the floor of the Senate he argued that film censorship measures were needed since "many of the pictures are pernicious" precisely because of the immorality of "those who pose for them," and he went on to mention Fatty Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe, William Desmond Taylor, and Rudolph Valentino by name. Like many contemporary critics of Hollywood, Senator Myers used the notoriety of a limited number of sensational scandals to question the moral integrity of the entire filmmaking community and to suggest that its members spent their enormous salaries on "riotous living, dissipation, and 'high rolling.'"

Representatives of the industry defended Hollywood by pointing out that the excesses of a few certainly did not mean that such behavior was indicative of the many. Several stars assured the press about the utter normalcy of their everyday lives and the wholesomeness of their habits, while others criticized the newspapers and tabloids for perpetuating false representations of Hollywood as a vice colony and for fueling the fanciful imaginations of fanatical reformers. D. W. Griffith attempted to expose the hypocrisy of the industry's moral critics by asking them, "Shall we attack the banks when a banker gets into the newspaper, or the church when a minister gets into the newspaper?" Such questions may have had a certain amount of rhetorical force, but the comparison of film stars to bankers and ministers did not likely ring true for the vast majority of the film-going public. Film stars represented the film industry in ways that bankers or ministers could never represent the banking interests or the churches of America. This was in part explained by the mass public appeal of film stars as compared to the relative invisibility of the financial world and the smallness of the traditional parish. Film stars were widely known and widely admired, and they were sometimes treated not only as the definitive representatives of Hollywood, but, like famous statesmen or athletes, as representatives of the nation itself, especially during the period immediately following the First World War when film actors and actresses had greatly assisted the government in raising money for the war effort by participating in and publicizing the Liberty Loan Campaigns for the U.S. Treasury Department.

Cleaning the Colony

One of the reasons why film stars were generally understood to synecdochically represent Hollywood, and why the early star scandals so seriously called into question the moral standing of the entire film industry, has to do with the way the star system had developed up to that point. During the second half of the 1910s, the publicity given to stars by the industry—and by its allied publications such as fan magazines—had sought to reveal more and more about the private lives of the stars. Not only was each film appearance of the stars of possible interest to the public, but the domestic lives and leisurely pursuits of the stars became an increasingly important part of industry publicity. As Richard deCordova has shown, the star system functioned, both economically and ideologically, through the recurring promise of new and more intimate information about a particular film personality with each new film appearance and with each new magazine article about or interview with that performer. This arrangement established an endless circuit of consumption wherein cinema audiences purchased star publicity in order to increase their knowledge about a particular film performer and to enhance their enjoyment of her or his films; likewise, they attended the star's films in order to possibly learn something else about that star's personality through her or his performance of a fictional character. Yet, while each star was an advertisement for his or her next public appearance, every star was simultaneously an advertisement for the film industry as a totality. The lives of the stars, the homes in which they lived, the clothes that they wore, the recreations that each pursued—all worked to portray an image of Hollywood as a closed and intimate community of gifted artists and technicians who had embarked upon a grand experiment in corporate living and social mobility. "Early Hollywood was not the locale of studios," writes cultural historian Lary May, "[but] rather it was an almost mythic place where movie folk spent money on personal expression. This consumption encouraged creativity and freedom, while it served as a mark of success. A shrewd observer of the industry, producer William DeMille, saw that the movie people's 'conspicuous consumption' gave status to an often routine job, and reflected on the 'company that paid you.'" The movie colony, as it was so often called by journalists, was the beautiful idealization of a smooth functioning industrial order where creative talent, drive, and imagination were quickly transformed into gorgeous homes, exotic automobiles, and idyllic lifestyles, the supreme expressions of personality within the new consumer culture.

During the early 1910s, even before the formation of the movie colony in southern California, the film industry had constructed its public face by thoroughly identifying itself with its beautiful stars, but by the early 1920s it was paying a very high price for such intimacy. The early Hollywood scandals had a way of sticking to everything, haunting those who were named in connection with them, and calling into question the social utility of Hollywood itself. Prior to 1920, film stars were stars, first and foremost, because they had appeared in films. While being featured in films might sound more like a necessary rather than a sufficient condition for film stardom, it must be remembered that the first film celebrities were promoted as having their celebrity status discovered or conferred upon them by the companies who featured them in their productions. It has been a part of the received history of the film industry that the star system began around 1909 from an initial "tidal wave of audience love" for particular performers who were regularly featured in pictures but who remained anonymous only because certain powerful production companies refused to reveal their names. In this well-known version of the story, some of the early popular film performers were simply known to exhibitors and to the film-going public as the "Biograph girl" or the "Vitagraph girl" until producers finally began furnishing the names of their players to film exhibitors and to a curious public. Early film stars were, of course, represented as having appreciative audiences and as having vast popular appeal, but their celebrity was something given to them by the industry that placed them before the public. Audience interest and adoration were important, but the public's appreciation was often represented as only a validation of a company's ability both to find star talent and to know or accurately predict just what the public wanted and enjoyed. Whether or not the first film celebrities appeared, in actuality, as the result of an irresistible public demand or whether they were primarily the creation of a producer's publicity, film performers were, from the very beginning, closely associated in the public's mind with company brand names. The idea that the stars emerged "against the interest of the developing industry" was very likely the product of a later historical moment when the star system was in crisis. Instead, it was the seemingly identical interests of the stars and the studios that originally defined the early star system and which would eventually subtend the representation of Hollywood as a progressive corporate community in the late 1910s. After the scandals, star publicity and industry public relations would never again completely overlap or fit together quite so easily. What was this transformation all about?


Excerpted from Twilight of the Idols by Mark Lynn Anderson. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 The Early Hollywood Scandals and the Death of Wallace Reid 15

2 Psychoanalysis and Fandom in the Leopold and Loeb Trial 49

3 Queer Valentino 70

4 Black Valentino 127

5 Mabel Normand and the Ends of Error 155

Notes 175

Bibliography 205

Index 215

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