ENG195 Fall 2011 Michael Dembrow, Instructor
DEVELOPMENT OF THE STAR SYSTEM
To understand the development of cinema since its inception in 1895, one must remember that film is a hybrid art--it is a peculiar intertwining of artistic concerns and economic/industrial concerns. In the handout on the development of narrative film, you read about the development of narrative film as if film were a closed, autonomous system; I presented it as a logical sequence of experimentation and development. As you will see, this only tells part of the story: to fully understand the history of film, we cannot ignore the socio-economic backdrop against which this new industry/art form began to develop.
As a new technology, power within the film industry was initially dependent upon holding the patents to the various technological processes that made possible the production and projection of moving images. If a company could develop, or purchase the rights to most of these new processes, it could monopolize the new industry.
In the early years of this century the film industry was plagued by a series of patent wars which pitted Edison (who claimed possession of the patents which made motion picture cameras and projectors possible in America) against all the other producers of films. The lawsuits finally came to an end in 1908 with the birth of the Motion Picture Patents Companies Trust. (A "trust" was a consolidated monopoly that dominated an industry.) The nine principal companies which had been in competition--Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Lubin, Selig, Kalem, American Méliès, and American Pathé--agreed to share the legal rights to the various machine patents and agreed to promote each others' business.
Most important, they agreed to keep all other producers and technical machinery out of the film business permanently. They would not sell or lease films to any distributor who bought a film from a non-Trust company. They forced Eastman Kodak, which had a monopoly on the production of raw film stock, not to sell raw film to any non-Trust company. They then organized their own distribution network--the General Film Company--which, in addition to having a monopoly on all Patents Companies films, forced theater owners to pay it a $2 weekly membership fee.
This was the great age of monopolies (or "trusts") in America, as financiers sought to consolidate industries and squeeze out new entrepreneurs. The government had not yet gotten involved in regulating monopolies through "anti-trust" legislation. So on paper at least, the film industry, which had been wide open to the most cut-throat competition one day, was now closed tight against any outsiders. In reality, however, the system began to be subverted before it had even left the drawing board.
With their monopoly apparently assured, in 1908 the Trust Company firms settled down to making films the way they had been making them for the past few years. Films were kept short--almost always one-reelers--location shooting was restricted to the New York or Chicago areas in which the companies had their main offices, films were cheaply made and without much interest in innovation or attempt to improve production values. There were ten thousand nickelodeons (small movie theaters) across the country filled with people hungry for cinema. Each nickelodeon was paying $2 a week just for the chance to have Patent Company films, not caring much--for the moment--about the merits of any particular film. The Patent firms were on to a good thing and grew complacent.
Another way in which they kept costs down was by keeping actors anonymous. Their owners correctly assumed that as soon as any actor began to collect a following among the public, he or she would demand higher wages. Many actors at this time didn't mind their anonymity--they considered themselves stage actors first and foremost, and felt that the time they spent working in motion pictures was an unfortunate interlude necessary to keep food on the table.
The Patents companies were in fact themselves laying the groundwork for the growth of stars. Despite their official agreement, they couldn't keep from competing with one another, and audience preferences began to surface. Biograph led the way, simply because they had D.W. Griffith. It was Griffith who moved his camera closer to the actors and began the first systematic use of the close-up.
The close-up opened the way to audience identification with characters--and with the actors who played them. The close-up allowed the audience to appreciate both the actor's physical characteristics and her/his acting ability, and allowed a vivid memory of the actor. Actors made a new film every few days, and generally played similar roles, so they became familiar to the audience as types. Audiences would indicate to the theater owners (the exhibitors) their preference for "The Sad-Eyed Man," "The Fat Guy," "The Biograph Girl," "The Vitagraph Girl," or "Little Mary," and exhibitors would then make the same requests of the distributors, who would in turn pass the requests on to the producers.
Since they had no names by which to refer to their favorite actors, audiences thus focused on the physical characteristics of the actors. Alexander Walker sees this accident of history as a curious prelude to the strange, fetishistic relationships that audiences were soon going to have with stars:
By singling out a striking physical feature of the nameless owner, they [the audience] endowed it with some of the magic of a totem object. It was a curious reversion to the habit of tribal societies, where the idea of individual identity evolved out of how a person looked or what function he performed. And it presaged the uniqueness of the star whose physical looks, deepening into the personality he or she projected, would invite instant recognition at every appearance and connect with an audience's dreams and aspirations in ways that lay below the level of their awareness.
But still the Patents Companies producers refused to give names to their actors and tended to use them erratically. Actors in 1910 were completely under the control of the producers, and were paid a flat fee of $5 per day for their work. Directors might solicit actors from other companies, but only because they appreciated the player's physical or acting talents, not because the actor had any "drawing power." Actors were punished for trying to secure deals of their own, or to dare to ask for higher salaries.
In fact, though, as early as 1910 a recognizable character had emerged from the hodgepodge of one-reel films and became a continuing personality. He was a young man from a Jewish family named Max Anderson (born Aronson), but no one knew him by this name. He was known to millions as Bronco Billy, the first Western hero. The Bronco Billy films formed a series, with titles like Bronco Billy's Redemption, Bronco Billy's Love, Bronco Billy's Affair, Bronco Billy's Oath, Bronco Billy's Bible, Bronco Billy's Mexican Wife, or Bronco Billy's Last Spree. The same impulse that keeps people watching soap operas kept them watching Billy westerns: wondering what would happen next in the ongoing saga of the Bronco Billy legend, hoping to be surprised--but not too surprised.
Despite the fact that the Billy character might be shot in the picture, or die, or marry, or whatever, he would return again the next time in a new story, the same character. The series was unified by the character, not the stories. Not surprisingly, Anderson was able to dictate his own financial terms once he was an established celebrity. By 1912 he was earning as much as $125,000 a year--a phenomenal sum at the time.
Perhaps the primary reason that Anderson could achieve this status was that his film persona was carefully nurtured, promoted, and developed by his film company, Essanay Films. Why? Because Anderson was the "A" in "S & A"--Essanay (his partner was a man named Spoor). He turned himself into a star in order to sell pictures for his company. He was in fact the first actor-producer in American movies. This business decision was a route resisted by the other Patents companies, though this would change.
In early 1910 Florence Lawrence, who was known as "The Biograph Girl," was well-established with Biograph. Though her name was unknown to audiences, she was extremely popular. She then made a career move that nearly ended her career: she wrote to Essanay Studios offering them her services if they would also hire her husband as a director. Instead of hiring her, Essanay--loyal to the terms of the Trust agreement--reported her to Biograph, and she was promptly dismissed. None of the licensed film companies would give her work; this collusion is probably the first instance of "blacklisting" in the film industry, and reveals the determination of the Trust companies to maintain control over actors--even the most popular and potentially lucrative.
But if the Patents companies were not willing to take that chance, the Independents were. For independent producers and directors were working from the very moment that the Patents trust was set up. They somehow were finding ways to get around the patents restrictions, importing film through Canada and using foreign-made cameras and projectors, fighting off the Trust companies' hired thugs.
The two most important early independents were the distributor William Fox and the producer Carl Laemmle, both of whom were to be among the foremost of the early Hollywood "Moguls." (Fox founded the company that still bears his name, and Laemmle gave birth to Universal Pictures.) It was Laemmle who gave film actors the ability to use their names (though the names would usually be invented ones, rarely the ones they were given at birth); he accomplished this sea change in a shrewd manner that reflected his business acumen and marketing sense.
When he learned that Florence Lawrence had been fired by Biograph and was about to rejoin a theater company, Laemmle signed her to a contract with his IMP Company (Independent Motion Picture Company) for the incredible sum of $1,000 a week, up from her previous $25. He then set about taking advantage of this new-found trump card.
Laemmle had been a theater owner before he founded IMP and he was well aware of the increasingly strong attachments which the public had for film actors. Instead of making a movie with Lawrence, he hid her away from sight. Then, in March 1910, a story appeared in the press that "Florence Lawrence, known to millions as 'The Biograph Girl," whose services were recently acquired by the IMP Co., has been run over and killed by a trolley car in New York." The public outcry was immediate and tremendous, and stories began to appear in various newspapers pointing out how important actors had become and how ell-known to their audiences.
It was Laemmle, of course, who had planted the original story of her death, and fed newspapers the follow-up articles. He then issued an indignant and vigorous denial of Florence Lawrence's death. He accused his enemies (i.e., the Patents companies) of having planted the story in order to end Lawrence's career. Millions of fans breathed sighs of relief. Then, on March 20, the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Sunday supplement was devoted to Florence Lawrence and included an interview with her, along with seven close-ups and one full-length photograph.
A star was born. Audiences were given their first glimpse ever into the "private" and professional life of a film actor (of course, most of it was pure fabrication). On March 26 Florence Lawrence, wanting to assure her fans that she was indeed alive, made a personal appearance in St. Louis (her native city), the first ever by a film actor. It was a tremendous success and very well-managed. It set the model for the carefully-managed development of an actor's career, a phenomenon that has given the American cinema much of its uniqueness.
Competition between the Independents and the Patents companies became fiercer and fiercer over the next few years. This competition gave added impetus both to the growing power of the actors and to changes in filmmaking practice that would influence the films of the Teens.
The efforts of the Independents also gave rise to the huge increase in salaries paid to actors. Independents like Laemmle understood one of the basic tenets of the new American marketing practices--that sometimes it was necessary to spend more in order to make more. If a screen actor was paid $1,000 a week, then her films must really be worth seeing!
This same principle also applied to the films themselves. In order to find their niche in filmmaking, independents began to offer audiences more expensive productions. In place of the cheap, hastily-made one-reelers so beloved by the Trust companies, they began to offer audiences feature films with higher production values. Audiences wanted more developed stories, so the "Indies" gave it to them. Audiences wanted feature-length films, so the Indies gave it to them (even Griffith eventually left Biograph in order to make feature films for independent companies). Audiences wanted more comfortable theaters, so the Indies gave them luxurious movie palaces. All these things cost more, but the investment was returned many times over.
One additional, very important byproduct of the struggle between the Trust companies and the independents was the migration of American filmmaking from the traditional centers in the East (mainly New York, New Jersey, Long Island, and Philadelphia) and the Midwest (mainly Chicago) to Hollywood. Independent filmmakers began making their films in California in order to get as far as possible away from the Trust lawyers and hired detectives (and to be close to the Mexican border when served with search warrants and writs for patents violations). They quickly discovered the advantages of making films in an area so blessed with excellent weather (at a time when most films were shot using natural light) and with varied terrain (for westerns and other exotic settings). Land around Los Angeles was still very inexpensive, and the companies could purchase huge pieces of property on which to make their films. It was in Hollywood that independent producer William Ince created the assembly-line "studio system" of filmmaking that would come to dominate American filmmaking practice.
Another important figure in the development of the star phenomenon was Adolph Zukor, the future; creator of Paramount. He was a theater owner who managed to get the American rights to Queen Elizabeth, a French "Film d'Art" picture starring the great stage actor Sarah Bernhardt. From a cinematic point of view, the film is terrible--static, boring, overacted. It garnered huge receipts, however, and gave movie houses a degree of respectability they had never had before. Inspired by his success, Zukor, together with Jesse Lasky, conceived the "Famous Players in Famous Plays." Famous Broadway actors were lured into movies with very high salaries.
The reason that Zukor and Lasky were able to pay these actors such high salaries has much to do with the future history of the system. The presence of stars made is easier for producers like Zukor to find financial backing for their films. As Alexander Walker writes, "Captured on film, the star could be placed in a portable can and used as collateral for a bank loan. A unique development was thus taking place in American entertainment: the actors and the public following they could command were being turned into concrete negotiable objects." Bank loans were necessary, because films were becoming so much more expensive to make. New copyright laws meant that more producers now had to pay for stories, thus increasing the cost of production, as of course did multiple reels and higher production values. Stars were needed as a guarantee of success; as far as the public was concerned, aside from an exceptional director like D.W. Griffith, only the actors counted.
Zukor's enterprise was successful, but not exactly as he had planned. He had divided his film company players into three categories: A, B, and C. Group A included the luminaries of the "legitimate theater." Group B included seasoned film actors like "Little Mary" Pickford. Group C consisted of stock-company reliables, minor players. It quickly became apparent that while pictures made with Group A performers lent prestige to the company, it was the Group B players who really packed the houses. It also became apparent that veterans such as Mary Pickford were much more effective on the screen than actors simply reproducing stagelike performances. This gave the veterans a sense of importance and led them to demand the kind of salaries the A's were receiving. They got them, too, and more.
For Zukor always had his eye attuned to audience demands, and he quickly separated the capable from the incapable stage actors. He did stay with the notion of the star as the centerpiece of a film, but the star did not necessarily come from the theater. It was on the principle of the star as centerpiece that Paramount Pictures was built.
Zukor also successfully instituted the practice of "block booking" in the mid-teens. By then, the independents had broken the power of the Trust companies (thanks in part to the passage of anti-trust laws), and were beginning to establish monopolistic practices of their own. The practice of block-booking consisted of using the films of the more popular stars as levers to push the sales of less spectacular merchandise; the less desirable was rented with the desirable in one package. This was of crucial importance in establishing the studio system in Hollywood, and the star system was at the heart of it: if you wanted a Pickford picture, you had to agree to take two Dogface Delbert movies with it.
Star salaries escalated dramatically in the early Teens. Given the value of money at the time (inflation has increased the value of money by a factor of 20), their salaries dwarfed those paid to most of our contemporary mega-stars. In 1912 Adolph Zukor paid Mary Pickford $500 a week. This was doubled to $1,000 a week in February 1914, then doubled again to $2,000 a week in November. In March 1915 he doubled her salary again to $4,000 a week. She left him a year later anyway--to earn $350,000 a film for First National, a new distribution company that had been set up by theater owners to fight the block-booking practices of Zukor and his Paramount group. Eventually, she would co-found her own company--United Artists.
With distribution deals now based on "star capital" the best way to disrupt your rival's business was to steal his star, and "raiding" became the order of the day by 1916. Bidding wars--fueled by the new fan magazines--raised salaries and increased actors' sense of self-importance. It also destroyed the vestiges of the "stock company" mentality that had inhabited film companies in the early days.
Aside from a director superstar such as D.W. Griffith, directors became increasingly subordinate to their actors. The self-awareness of the stars posed new problems in directing them, and tension was introduced into the creative relationship. The director who wanted to make a masterpiece now had to reckon with the stars who wanted to keep their public's approval. Stars had to be on the alert, estimating how much good a picture might do their reputation, and how much risk they ran from working with an uncompromising director who might try to change their screen persona.
Stars began to insist on the same cinematographers for their pictures--preferring the cinematographers who knew how to light them most effectively and attractively. They began to insist on working with directors who knew their strengths--and their limitations. By the end of the Teens, scriptwriting and editing were also designed to enhance the images of the stars--emphasizing a character's emotional range rather than plot, using editing as a means of setting off close-ups.
There was another built-in tension here, one that would pervade the history of Hollywood. A studio head was interested in standardizing his product in order to secure his investment; rather than risk a career-threatening disaster, he would want his star to play similar roles in all her films. But as the stars became increasingly self-absorbed, they began to see themselves as film artists. They preferred roles which would change their established images and show off the range of their talent, particularly in "art" films. The results were frequently disastrous.
But in the Teens and Twenties it was the stars who had the upper hand, and one way they resolved the conflict was by becoming their own producers. Bronco Billy had already done it, though he had started as a producer, then become an actor. The most celebrated venture of this kind was the creation in 1919 of United Artists, by Mary Pickford, her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith; they were briefly able to bypass studio control. Most stars, however, found it more lucrative to stay within the corporate structure of the growing studio enterprises--Paramount, First National, Metro, Fox, and Goldwyn--and sign contracts to produce their own pictures under the aegis of the studio. This gave them a healthy tax write-off and a sense of self-importance within the closed, competitive world of Hollywood.
This was the Golden Age for Hollywood actors, particularly women actors. They lived opulent lives of conspicuous consumption, were revered by fans in fan magazines, and with the world-wide dominance of American film (thanks in great part to World War I) they had become known internationally. With the coming of sound, however, conditions would change. A new generation of actors would come to Hollywood, and power would revert to the studio heads and the Wall Street bankers who financed them.
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