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"Substantial and invigorating . . . an intriguing odyssey into early Hollywood culture and its female coterie of creators, stars, and consumers whose centrality to the evolution of the film industry has not previously been identified or accounted for in adequate terms."
A lively look at Hollywood’s past, when the movies were still in their infancy, and at the women who were a critical part of it. . . . Highly recommended.
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"A lively look at Hollywood's past, when the movies were still in their infancy, and at the women who were a critical part of it. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice
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Go West, Young Women!
The Rise of Early Hollywood
By Hilary A. Hallett
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
"Oh for a girl who could ride a horse like Pearl White"
The Actress Democratizes Fame
Mary Pickford, the silent film era's single greatest star, published her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow (1954), decades after the motion picture industry made her face "better known than the President of the United States." Black-and-white images layer the book, and, with the skillful shorthand so necessary to celebrity, Pickford used the first photo-essay to sketch how her childhood foretold future renown. After opening with a full-page portrait of her pretty, resolute-looking mother, Charlotte Hennessy, the next photographs suggest what tested that resolve. A small cameo of her faraway-eyed, dandified father, John Smith, floats above a snapshot of the simple brick row house in Toronto that he deserted just shy of Mary's fifth birthday, in 1897. The sorrow-faced women in the next grainy snapshot communicate their determination to shelter the three Smith children arrayed beside them on a modest apartment stoop. And here, following this picture of grim resignation and apparent innocence lost, Pickford first spotlights her preschool-aged self, Gladys Smith, a tyke whose manicured ringlets and lacy white ensemble hint at the hopes dashed by her father's desertion. At first glance the portrait appears as conventional as little Gladys's packaging. Closer inspection reveals a child whose furious gaze demolished the era's portraiture conventions for her age and sex. Pickford captioned the image to emphasize both her intelligence and anger: "The cameraman thought me idiotic enough to believe there was 'a little birdie in the black box,'" she explained with still simmering resentment. Thus Pickford used her coming-of-age to tell the story her publicity and films repeatedly retold: a girl needed the courage to ignore men's prescriptions and recommendations in order to triumph over adversity and seize a man-sized share of the world's regard.
In 1917, precisely two decades after her father's signal act of paternal incompetence, poet Vachel Lindsay anointed Pickford "The Queen of the Movies," and her royal highness permanently relocated to Los Angeles, where she reined over the star system that powered Hollywood's rise around the world. By 1920, journalist Louella Parsons could, with unexpected credibility, declare the actress, writer, producer, and cofounder of United Artists—the sole independent film studio to endure in the studio era—the "greatest woman of her age." "To repudiate this girl in haste is a high treason to the national heart," Lindsay wrote, using Pickford's talent to plead the artistic case of the "photoplay," his more elevated term for moving pictures, before the New Republic's high-brow readers. His argument displayed the tendency to equate the famous with the national spirit. For fifteen out of the magazine's first twenty years, readers of Photoplay, which began publishing in Chicago in 1912 and quickly became the largest, wittiest, and most literate fan magazine in America, ranked Pickford the most popular star. "There has never been anything just like the public adulation showered on Mary"; she "could have risen to the top of United States Steel, if she had decided to be a Carnegie instead of a movie star," recalled Adolph Zukor, who perfected the vertical integration of the American film industry. As another silent-era filmmaker described the awe her fame produced, Pickford was so "peculiarly pre-eminent that her position at the very top was subject to little question or jealousy."
Pickford's preeminence was not quite so peculiar when placed within the broader sweep of how the actress came to embody the "democratization" of fame as elite men, and then men altogether, lost their monopoly over incarnating the combination of personal achievement, distinction, and freedom at the heart of modern renown. In this way, Pickford modified an already established role in a genre in which the actress performed a female self who grappled with what it meant for a woman to embody these ideals in ways that made her stand out from the crowd. Yet most historians' unease with contemporary celebrity culture has complicated historicizing and assessing what the fame of actresses has to teach about modern gender roles. Without question, contemporary culture creaks under the weight of individuals talented mostly for their self-seeking display. The seemingly inexorable drift of public discourse since the Cold War toward fixating on the antics of those merely "well-known for [their] well-knowness [sic]" helped to make Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) a classic. Written as the power of television first became evident, Boorstin sketched the kind of declension narrative now so familiar in cultural history: once, somewhere in the past, fame signaled society's recognition of the authentically great deeds and thoughts of a few truly eminent men, whereas modern society's worship of ersatz celebrities reflects our descent into mindless consumerism. A few have strayed from this interpretative path, exploring how famous personalities in modern times continue to reflect the public's interest in changing views of the self and individual achievement. But such works either fail to gender their analysis or reduce the personas of female stars to agents or victims of consumption. Thus women's role in the development of our celebrity-saturated culture remains poorly explained, even as feminist scholarship on how mass culture and female entertainers expressed and cultivated new ideas about sex piles up in the libraries.
Yet one can trace the seeds of a new interpretation of modern fame to another midcentury text, much more infamous than Pickford's or Boorstin's: Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949). In her ex post facto feminist manifesto, Beauvoir argued that only the actress materialized a worldly, ineffable feminine authority that contradicted the equation of public renown with masculine identity. For this reason, the book's concluding chapter, "The Independent Woman," declared the actress to be the "one category" of woman who pointed the way "toward liberation" of the sex. Born in movie-crazed France in 1908, the year before Pickford made her teenage transition from stage to screen, Beauvoir was a child during the time the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt shone indisputably as the era's brightest star. Several factors accounted for the singular role of actresses, according to Beauvoir, including religious censure, relative financial independence, "a taste for adventure" that equaled men's, and a unique status derived from working with men on equal footing while still attracting recognition for their attractiveness as women. Together these forces explained the actress's identity as"the virile woman," a protagonist liberated from many of the conventions that tethered the Victorians' ideal "true woman" to the home. Above all, the actress's freedom lay in how her work in the wider world, like that of men, produced an independence that supported other pleasures. "Their professional success—like those of men—contribute to their sexual valuation." But by "making their own living and finding the meaning of their lives in their work, [actresses] escape the yoke of men," allowing them "to transcend their given characteristics" as the unessential second sex.
As Beauvoir suggested, the ability of actresses to perform new representations of women's individuality originated in the nineteenth century, as industrialization, the explosion of print media, and the democratic revolutions made room for a few women, and many more men, to make their way, and to make themselves known, beyond the limitations imposed by traditional social hierarchies. In short, the "Pickford Revolution"—as one producer called the transformation from an industry with no stars to one defined by them—was a century in the making. Many of the early American film industry's most notable actresses translated, with the distinct accent of their age, the customs and conventions handed down by their theatrical foremothers on the antebellum stage. To stress the importance of theatrical aesthetics and practices on the democratization of fame, this chapter begins by historicizing and gendering the celebrity of Pickford's most important foremother: Charlotte Cushman, the first American female star. Cushman's fame developed in the 1840s—precisely the moment when both the words "celebrity" and "personality" appeared to denote individuals often of ordinary birth whose idiosyncrasies, accomplishments, and glamour made them such a topic of speculation and appeal that the public sought the kind of knowledge, provided through modern media, that made such people into "intimate strangers." For Cushman to achieve this status, it was necessary to reinvent the actress as a figure of professional influence, artistic triumph, and personal virtue rather than of moral corruption, the latter a particularly acute association in Anglo-American culture.
Charlotte Cushman's embodiment of "Success and her sister Fortune" in the 1850s revealed how the celebrity culture that supported her rise restaged gender as performance rather than essence, thereby aiding the breakdown of the belief that a woman's moral character was immutably encoded in her appearance and distance from the tumult of public life. Put differently, celebrity culture's development reveals how advertising an actress as a model worthy of emulation demanded different strategies of representation than those used to publicize great men. As used by film scholars, the term "persona," which views the star as a text whose complications create ambiguities that can appeal to diverse fans, provides insight into the different dynamics that publicized famous women. Promoting female stars like Cushman required modern publicity to convey information about their private lives that could confound the flouting of respectability that their public performances entailed. New rituals of celebrity, like autobiographical writing in women's magazines, explained this hidden self, offering access to truths that complicated how the actress appeared on stage. Such descriptions stressed how often women's natures might accommodate qualities and characteristics of both sexes. Indeed, Cushman cut such an original figure in her milieu that her 1876 obituary still attributed her acclaim to her merging of seemingly irreconcilable traits. Her persona "manifested to the last the two leading peculiarities of her nature, the tenderness of a woman and the firmness of a Spartan man." In this way, the fame of actresses was not a seamless expression of inner virtues—as had long been the case with men—but a multilayered performance that signaled the crumbling of sexual difference's ability to define individual achievement and desire.
Picturing the actress this way begins to explain what made Hollywood's social imaginary so provocative when it first emerged after the Great War. Like no other industry of its day, the early American film industry publicized the accomplishments of its many successful women workers, including actresses, screenwriters, directors, producers, journalists, and publicists. But without question, the most celebrated of these figures were the first movie stars, women like Pickford, Florence Lawrence, and Pearl White. As with Cushman in the century before, these women's fame dramatized their ability to exercise qualities long reserved for heroic men. But unlike Cushman, these "girls," to use the parlance of the day, also displayed qualities that marketed them as romantic, desiring young women who were emblematic of the new sexual freedoms their sex sought to explore. The fame such actresses incarnated explains why so many girls, as well as their elders, came to consider the actress a personage of serious consequence around the world.
When viewed through the lens of gender, the nineteenth-century stage appears as a kind of bellwether for women's entrance into territories that once spelled ruin for the respectable. With the sexual integration of leisure spaces that began with women's participation as audience members of the so-called legitimate stage, women began to stake out new public spaces for socialization. At this theater, women tested old limits as to what they might show and tell in public, including how much the female star could project the type of authority and appetites long reserved for men. By midcentury, Charlotte Cushman's fame displayed how a celebrity culture once sharply segmented by sex and respectability had become mostly ordered by gender and class. This development made room for the celebration of an actress who could act like both a respectable lady and a heroic man.
Before Charlotte Cushman's rise in the 1840s signaled the reconfiguration of the theater, women's appearance "in the play or at the playhouse" took place "under a moral cloud." Through the 1820s the theater was a part social, part political event controlled by elite white men. Men occupied the vast majority of seats in the nation's few stock company theaters, and social class explained where they sat in the typical theater's tripartite seating arrangement: the ground-floor pit for the "middling" sorts, the boxes above for the elite, and the third tier for those with the fewest financial resources, including the prostitutes who paraded their wares along its balcony. Local gentry enjoyed the same repertoire time and again: versions of Shakespeare that made the tragedies less tragic and "fairy tale" melodramas predominated. These plays often turned on the threat posed to a helpless heroine's virtue and her eventual restoration "to the bosom of her home, her father, and her God," offering women little to do but hope for rescue from their travails. All players in this era, male and female, were a morally suspect caste with no social standing. Forsaking womanly modesty and a home to earn a living strutting before strange men, the era's few actresses attracted special censure. The conflation of actresses with prostitutes, the era's other"public women,"in the language of the day, was well founded by the standards of the respectable. The more elastic sexual norms of the working-class milieu from which most actresses emerged, their initially low wages, and the desire to accrue the publicity that might follow from attracting well-placed paramours all discouraged a moralistic view of sex. Moreover, the presence of alcohol and prostitutes, as well as the celebration of sensuous display and illusion, made the theater virtually synonymous with corrupt aristocratic tastes, earning it a reputation as the enemy of the middle-class family as that class's "cult of domesticity" took hold. A flat prohibition by the Protestant church followed. Legal scholars consider the special regulation of theatrical exhibitions an anomaly of English law reflecting the conviction of this rising middle class that the playhouse debased audiences, particularly vulnerable female ones. White men could ignore the church and partake of the playhouse's pleasures with little consequence, but women who wished to remain ladies could not. Thus, through performance and space, this theater communicated the same message about women's place in public: left alone without male protection women moved outside the moral order, inviting the surveillance of strangers that led to sexual exchanges and ruin.
As the nation's capitalist expansion sent ever more people scuttling toward markets in cities and towns, leisure assumed more industrialized forms in which the star system and its celebrity culture played an increasingly central role. A theater manager in Philadelphia bemoaned how "a spirit of locomotiveness hitherto unexampled" erupted during "a commercial season of great excess," making "the system of stars the order of 1835." A set of emerging business practices tied to consumer capitalism's growth, the star system offered the best means to fill the era's larger and more numerous playhouses. The theatrical entrepreneurs who sped the star system's development jettisoned the elite man as the theater's most important protagonist and patron. Instead, they publicized a more diverse set of players in different kinds of melodramatic plays that aimed to attract larger and more specific segments of the public. In this way, the star system encouraged the theater's splintering along lines of class and gender.
Excerpted from Go West, Young Women! by Hilary A. Hallett. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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