100 years of movie stars: 1910-1929

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Next month is the centenary of one of the most important concepts in modern culture. Geoffrey Macnab introduces our week-long celebration of film stardom with an account of the studio stunt that started it all

In late December 1938, a jobbing actress called Florence Lawrence committed suicide by swallowing a lethal concoction of cough syrup and ant poison. She was 52 years old, a forgotten figure struggling to make a living in bit parts at MGM.

Her seedy and untimely death would be of no more note than any other of those grim cautionary tales found in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon books, were it not for one key fact: this neglected actress, who killed herself in such a squalid manner, has a fair claim to have been the world's very first movie star.

This wasn't the first time Florence Lawrence had "died". Ironically, her celebrity partially stemmed from a death stunt staged by the producer Carl Laemmle 28 years earlier – an incident which shows how marketing, audience manipulation, money-grubbing and showmanship have been at the root of the movie-stardom phenomenon right from the outset. That incident, whose centenary this series celebrates, would have a lasting effect on Western culture.

The movie industry had been thriving for a decade or more by February 1910, but it had, as yet, no star system – and no stars. The reasons were financial. Producers in the US and Europe had begun to put leading actors under contract, but still tried to keep these actors' names from the public. They feared (with good reason) that if the actors were known to their audiences they would demand to be paid more, and film-making costs would surge. It was for this reason that Florence Lawrence was known to the world as "The Biograph Girl". Having started her film career with Vitagraph, she had played leading roles in a huge number of films produced by Biograph. Fans recognised her, but they had little idea of her identity.

Enter Carl Laemmle. A diminutive businessman with an eye for the main chance who was later to found Universal Studios, Laemmle was engaged in a bitter trade war with the Motion Picture Patents Company – the Thomas Edison-led cartel, known as "The Trust", that sought to control the US film industry (often using violence and intimidation to push its independent rivals out of business).

In late 1909, in pursuit of this feud, Laemmle signed up Lawrence, who had fallen out with Biograph (which was part of "the Trust), to appear in movies for his own company, IMP. He then pulled off a daring publicity stunt. First, in February 1910, he announced that IMP had hired Lawrence, "the greatest moving picture actress in the world today". Then, anonymously, he planted a rumour that "The Biograph Girl" had been killed by a streetcar. Finally, in March, he announced that, contrary to ill-informed rumour, Lawrence was alive and working for him. The "girl of a thousand faces" (as she had begun to be known) at last had a name the public recognised. She began to give interviews and to make personal appearances, and by the end of March was being referred to (in Laemmle's publicity) as "America's foremost moving picture star". A cultural concept was born.

In movie legend, at least, the Florence Lawrence story stands as the equivalent of the birth of Venus. From this moment forward, stars became probably the most important element in the film-making process. A 1927 Hollywood business prospectus underlined this point to potential investors: "In the star, your producer gets not only a 'production value' in the making of his picture but 'a trademark value' and an 'insurance value', which are very real and very potent in guaranteeing the sale of this product to cash customers at a profit."

There was another cultural landmark in February 1910: DWGriffith's In Old California was the first movie to be filmed in Hollywood. But studios were already colonising the place, and the star system boosted Hollywood's growing hold on the international film business. Outsiders couldn't afford to pay the inflated salaries the studios began to give their leading contract artists. The stars were what drew the audiences – and only Hollywood was in a position to use them.

When other countries tried to nurture their stars, the Hollywood studios would invariably poach the best talents anyway. That is why one British film historian's formulation that you can chart the social history of a nation through its film stars doesn't quite stack up. But if you want a shorthand guide to how, for example, the Brits spoke, dressed and behaved during the 20th century, you could do worse than plot a path from the Hollywood stars of one decade to another. The journey would take you from the intensity of Ivor Novello's martyr-like toff in Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) to the cheery pragmatism of Gracie Fields a decade later; from the fiery independence of Margaret Lockwood in the Gainsborough melodramas of the war years to the pipe-smoking conservatism of "chaps" like Kenneth More and John Gregson in the 1950s.

Of course, "stars" had existed long before movies. Theatre and music hall's biggest names were fêted and fawned on in the 19th century and before. Accounts of the public funeral of David Garrick at Westminster Abbey in 1779 underline how warmly some performers were embraced. But never before had stars shone through a mass medium like cinema.

In the same way, the desire to idolise the young and the beautiful was a trait of many early societies, but the movies globalised this instinct. Looking back on the early days of Hollywood stardom, you cannot help but notice how young the stars were. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and their contemporaries began their careers as teenagers. In the silent era, cinema swept the world. Stars such as Pickford and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed a global popularity no one had experienced before.

From the outset, however, film stars' status was often strangely ambivalent. Chaplin, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and their director colleague DWGriffith may have achieved a degree of autonomy when they set up United Artists in 1919, but most Hollywood actors were still hired hands. Read accounts of MGM in its pomp under Irving Thalberg, and what leaps out is how demeaning the life of a studio star seemed to be. The pampered, highly paid actors had little say in their careers. "We told stars what they could say, and they did what we said because they knew we knew best," the notorious Howard Strickling, the head of MGM's publicity department, once boasted.

Strickling and his team policed every aspect of their contract artists' private and professional lives, smoothing over any scandals, forging their signatures on publicity photos, sending illicitly pregnant starlets on "foreign tours", and providing gay actors with suitably photogenic fiancées.

The stars were locked into draconian seven-year contracts. If they rejected a role, they could be suspended. If they grew too old or were caught up in scandal or were too defiant, they would quickly be cast out of their golden cage. The fans were insatiable in their appetite for stardom, but they were also very fickle.

The precariousness of stardom is as old as stardom itself. Our fascination with human beings who earn inordinate sums and seem to live in a privileged netherworld of their own is often tinged with resentment. What, after all, is so special about these people? At a press conference at the Berlin Film Festival for Joel Schumacher's film 8MM, in the late 1990s, a journalist asked the star Nicolas Cage if reports that he was paid $20m per movie were true. "Whatever the market rate is... is the market rate," Cage parried, obviously feeling embarrassed that his fee for a single big studio movie could fully finance several European films. Cage had a point. As Schumacher stated in defence of the star, the studios weren't paying him that much out of the goodness of their hearts. "If their relatives could do what we do, then they [the studio executives] would hire them instead."

The Fatty Arbuckle scandal, in 1921, stands as an early warning as to how quickly stars' popularity could fade. After a drunken party in a San Francisco hotel, at which Arbuckle had been present, a starlet called Virginia Rappe fell seriously ill and died. Arbuckle was charged with raping and killing her. Long before any facts had been established, the press and public turned against him. "One day Fatty had been their most beloved comedian next to Chaplin, the next they were screaming for his head," Gloria Swanson wrote of her old friend in her autobiography.

While Arbuckle's career was derailed by scandal, plenty of others were left to fade into obscurity. The lonely last years of Florence Lawrence are, in this sense, a fitting symbol of the dark side of movie stardom.

But what is evident, despite these grim tales, is the star system's infinite capacity for renewal. The death of the movie star has been predicted for almost as long as such stars have existed. The transition to talkies in the late 1920s marked the first sounding of the death knell. Stars, it was said, would lose that inscrutability that defined them in the silent era, when their faces dominated the screens. As soon as they spoke, the spell would be broken.

Later, we were told that the coming of TV and the ending of the old-style studio system would mean the withering of movie stars. Yet the 1950s were the era of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando – some of the biggest stars of all. In the late 1960s, the Easy Rider era, the excesses of stars such as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton seemed absurd and the star system again appeared under threat. However, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and their peers were still the names above the titles that lured audiences to movies.

Now, in the era of computer games, Avatar and 3D, we are again being told stars will soon be obsolete. Sight and Sound magazine predicted recently that their time was coming to an end. It's a familiar argument. From James Cameron's latest 3D spectacular to a low-budget film from left-field such as Paranormal Activity, the titles that have dominated at the box office recently have made their millions without any help from Brad or Angelina.

All this may be true, but it doesn't mean audiences' psychic need for stars has diminished. Film stardom isn't just about what people do on-screen, and film stars remain the focus of our prurient curiosity and our veneration. They are still the key elements around which films are financed and marketed, and help to draw us to cinema.

The death of a movie star, whether it's Heath Ledger, Paul Newman or Brittany Murphy, is still newsworthy. When you read an account of the funeral of the silent star Rudolf Valentino (in, for example, John Dos Passos's modernist novel, U.S.A.), it is tempting to attribute the mass hysteria to the excesses of an earlier age. Then again, is today's veneration for, say, George Clooney any more restrained?

A century after The Biograph Girl lost her anonymity and Florence Lawrence was unveiled in her stead as the first movie star, we still worship at the altar of movie celebrity. And we're still as ready as ever to turn on our idols when they let us down.


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