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Movie Stars: How "The Star" Was Born

by KLiedle (writer), Los Angeles, August 22, 2007

Credit:

Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich, and Dimaggio,
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, on the cover of a magazine...
(from Vogue, lyrics by Madonna)

Most of these names would mean nothing without the advent of motion pictures-for the motion picture brought with it the modern conceptualization of the movie star. Traditionally, movie historians have credited the public with initially creating the movie star system. Marilyn Monroe herself believed that the public chose its "stars", but it was the studios that "tried to make a system out of it."

However, if the public did indeed create the movie star, the major studios in their heyday perpetuated the system by selecting unknowns from the ranks of the ordinary and carefully grooming them into stars in an assembly-line fashion.

The fields of modern public relations and the cinema industry are both relatively young. Modern public relations first began in the mid-1800s while cinema was invented and developed in the late 1800s. The historic early years of both industries were times of tremendous expansion and growth.

Modern public relations began with press agentry and was first practiced by the infamous P.T. Barnum. Barnum staged publicity merely for the sake of publicity for his traveling circus. Likewise, one of the first methods that the film and entertainment industry utilized to publicize its cinematic products (and its stars ), was this press agentry technique borrowed from public relations.
The Historical Background of Motion Pictures

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the motion picture, later affectionately referred to as a "movie," became a primary source of entertainment. During the years 1929 through 1949, an unbelievable 83 million Americans per week went to the movies. A broad array of fascinated fans brought forth the construction of immaculate movie palaces during the 1910s through 1920s. These palaces, widely advertised as "an acre of seats in a garden of dreams", ranged from a modest 500 seats to the extravagant 6,200 seat Roxy Theatre.

By the mid 1920s, four major movie studios had emerged: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, and Warner Brothers. In 1934, MGM was, by far, the most sophisticated with its 117 acres consisting of some twenty-three sound stages, large exterior sets, a lake, a park, a mini jungle, and, of course, as the studio boasted, "more stars than there are in heaven", notes Ronald L. Davis, in his book, The Glamour Factory.

While hard to imagine now in the voyeuristic world of celebutantes we now live in, stars were not identified by name in the first movies. As people began to write fan mail to principal actors, however, studios were forced to reveal the star's identity to satisfy the public. It was only with this demand that "the girl with the golden curls" became widely identified as Mary Pickford [circa 1910] With this change, the movie star was born.

The Birth Of Movie Stars

The first three movie stars of the silver screen were Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford, all of whom received substantial salary increases to coincide with their increasing popularity. By 1917, each of them was making a whopping one million dollars a year. With the incredible control and power these three mega-stars enjoyed due to their popularity, they got together with director, D.W. Griffith and founded the United Artists film production company on January 15, 1919-officially declaring independence from the studios.

As top stars became more popular and influential with their fans, the studios became aware of the importance of movie stars. They soon began to realize that not only were stars essential to the entire movie-making process, but they helped identify and sell movies to the public. Before beginning production on a new film, the studios could now raise money based solely on the strength of a popular star's name. Movie-makers began boosting star appeal at any and every opportunity. This star system began in full force in the early 1920s after the initial appeal of early film stars began to take hold. Attractions such as the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Grauman's Chinese Theater were constructed to encourage fans to follow the careers of their favorite stars.

Movie star status was, and still is, a feat that few in Hollywood ever achieved. At any given point in time, countless starlets were waiting in the wings for their moment of fame. Former MGM talent scout, Al Trescony, put the competition into perspective when he said that if he interviewed one thousand people a month, "five hundred of them we might have read, one hundred and fifty might be called back for a second reading, maybe five would be contracted to test, and maybe one would be 'signed' but not necessarily a star."

Despite this fact, the public was filled with legendary stories of stars being discovered Traditionally, movie stars represented an elite category of actors and actresses who achieved the highest level of popularity and fame. All movie stars seemed to fall within two general categories, those the public discovered and manufactured stars that, according to Shirley Temple Black, "depended heavily for success on how skillfully the studio handled the puppet strings" Either way, a star had a job to do and an image to establish and maintain.

*Photo Credit: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin, 1918. Copyright: Mary Pickford Institute

For More Information:

The Mary Pickford Institute For Film Education http://www.marypickford.com

The Official Charlie Chaplin Site http://www.charliechaplin.com

The History of the United Artists Lot
The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/ua-studio-lot.htm

Gone Hollywood: The Movie Colony In The Golden Age
by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz

Hollywood Legend & Reality
By Michael Webb

Up Next: Stars In The Studio System


About the Writer

KLiedle is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on Movie Stars: How "The Star" Was Born

Log In To Vote   Score: 0
By Steven Lane on August 22, 2007 at 08:05 pm
Interesting article.
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