A Star Is Born: The Birth of the Star System

The “silent era” for films is generally considered to be between 1894 and 1929, after which “talking pictures” became the dominant format. The first public projection of motion pictures was presented by the Lumière Brothers on December 28, 1895 in Paris, followed in the United States by an public display at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee, exhibitors who pioneered the continuous variety show in the 1880s, became two of the first prominent promoters to exhibit motion pictures. After obtaining the exclusive American rights to the Lumière Cinématographe apparatus and their film output, they presented the first showing at their Union Square Theatre in New York City on June 29, 1896. Their success led to other theatre openings in Philadelphia and Boston, and smaller theatres through the East and Midwest. In 1896 Keith and Albee signed a contract with Biograph Studios, which guaranteed them a fresh supply of motion pictures to show in their growing chain of theatres. In July 1905 they switched to Edison Studios as a supplier of new films. By June 1906 Keith and Albee merged their theatre chain with Frederick Freeman Proctor to form an impressive circuit.

Up until that time, the majority of the industry’s films were being produced on the East Coast. The few studios that traveled to California to do location shooting enjoyed the favorable weather conditions of the area—outdoor filming could be done practically year-round, without the problem of the seasonal extremes that Chicago and New York experienced. In 1910 director D.W. Griffith and a group of Biograph’s actors were sent west from their New York City studio to film a melodrama. The film, a short titled In Old California, was the first movie shot in Hollywood. Four years later The Squaw Man, starring Dustin Farnum and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, became the first feature movie filmed in Hollywood. Previous to The Squaw Man, all of the movies that were being shot in the Los Angeles area, from 1908 to 1913, were shorts. The period before World War I saw the Los Angeles area quickly transition from an agricultural community to the motion picture production center of the world. What was once considered a peep show curiosity, the motion picture was now on its way to becoming a major industry.

The Imp Girl.

Florence Lawrence, the “Biograph Girl” and then the “IMP Girl”.

By 1911 moviegoers were showing an increased interest in motion pictures, supplanting the melodramatic theatrical stage performances as their popular choice of entertainment. Audiences soon became curious and wanted to know the names of the uncredited actors and actresses appearing in their favorite films. Florence Lawrence, who was only known to her audiences up until then as the “Biograph Girl,” was the most valuable film actress of the time. As a promotional device, reports of her death in a streetcar accident were faked, after which she reemerged working for the IMP Company, now known as the “IMP Girl,” and with onscreen credits. Francis X. Bushman, affectionately known to moviegoers as just “F.X.B.,” became film’s first true matinee idol, often appearing with Beverly Bayne as the first great romantic team in movies. This was the beginning of the star system, publicity stunts, and “moviestaritis.”

The “Popular Player Contest” appearing in the October 1913 issue of The Motion Picture Story Magazine tallied up results for the 100 actors appearing in the publication’s annual poll. Readers cast over seven million votes, with the first place honors going to Romaine Fielding (1,311,018 votes), second to Earle Williams (739,895), third to J. Warren Kerrigan (531,966), fourth to Carlyle Blackwell (296,684), fifth to Francis X. Bushman (252,750), sixth to G. M. Anderson (217,069), and seventh to Arthur Johnson (209,800). Actresses were judged in a separate category, with Alice Joyce taking first place (462,380) and Muriel Ostriche placing second (212,276). The list included a diverse selection of film personalities; placing Mary Pickford at #15 (130,592), Pearl White at #24 (82,209), Ruth Roland at #31 (61,780), Mabel Normand at 51 (25,527), and True Boardman at position #100 (4,982). Many of the dramatic actors appearing on the list had transitioned to the silver screen after successful careers on the theatrical stage.


Francis X. Bushman became film’s first true matinee idol.

Five years later, a poll in the October 1918 Motion Picture Magazine listed 142 actors who were voted into the magazine’s “Motion Picture Hall of Fame,” with the top four chosen stars listed as Mary Pickford in the #1 spot (127,832), Marguerite Clark at #2 (107,563), Douglas Fairbanks at #3 (101,068), and Harold Lockwood at #4 (99,049). The remaining names listed in the top ten selections included, in descending order, William S. Hart, Wallace Reid, Pearl White, Anita Stewart, Francis X. Bushman, and Theda Bara. Charlie Chaplin was listed at #17 (55,577) and Lillian Gish at #69 (22,006), with Roscoe Arbuckle finishing up the list at #142 (12,014). Mingled in between the names of these well- known personalities were actors and actresses of all statures. Throughout the magazine, the publisher gave the lesser-known movie stars as much coverage in articles and interviews as they did for the popular ones. This was the general trend in the majority of fan-oriented magazines of the time.

The years 1917 and 1918 were pivotal for the motion picture industry. The headline of a feature article in the May 27, 1917, New York Times announced, “Three Film Stars Get $1,000,000 a Year Each; Motion Picture Business, at Pinnacle of Success, Sees No Sign of Waning Popularity—Tax Talk Stops Boasting of Profits.” The article estimated that there were 15,000 theatres in the United States, exclusive of vaudeville and other theatres in which motion pictures were shown as a part of a program that was devoted to movies. The daily attendance in those theatres was estimated to be between 12,000,000 to 17,000,000 viewers.

The Golden Three

Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.

The newspaper determined that “the general consensus of opinion among trade authorities seems to be that while the movies may have reached the zenith of their popularity they have not passed it. They are at least holding their own, and students of the industry believe they will continue to do so as long as the standard of excellence is increased.” The three film stars referred to in the article’s headline were Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who were receiving combined earnings estimated at $3,000,000 a year. The previous year state legislators, staggered by the size of the reputed earnings of movies stars, started investigations to determine if an industry that could afford to pay out enormous salaries to their contracted actors should also be able to afford a war tax.

Preceding World War I, movie theaters were changing their daily programs an average of five times a week. By the early 1920s they were booking films for longer periods of time, turning over their offerings only three and a half times a week, with ten percent of them promoting a film for an entire week.1 Naturally, the quick turnaround gave moviegoers little time to discover through word- of-mouth or printed reviews if a current offering was good or not. Therefore, theater owners often relied on the drawing power of the actors appearing in a film’s limited engagement to help fill seats. Over a short span of years the matinee idols of the past were being replaced by Hollywood’s new superstars. As moviegoers’ tastes changed during the postwar years, actors who were popular in the teens often found themselves being replaced by actors who had once supported them. The overwrought telegraphic performance style of acting used by the “scenery chewers” was being replaced by a more realistic method used by the up- and-coming actors. By the mid–1920s the publisher of Motion Picture Magazine promoted no more than a handful of the top stars in their pages, a list that consistently included the industry’s top moneymakers: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish. There was little attention given to actors working with independent studios.

When it came to promoting their actors and films, independent studios such as Universal were unable to compete with the expensive hyperactive publicity campaigns that larger studios developed to promote their big features and major stars. Universal, responsible for launching the careers of such actors as Harry Carey and Mae Murray, producer Irving Thalberg, and director John Ford, found it difficult enough to support the salaries of their workers once they became recognized as having talent.

Major studios also began using vertical integration strategies, an effort that would have been impossible for independents to attempt to incorporate. The vertical integration system came into use by the early 1920s when companies started to take control of the production, distribution, and exhibition of their own films. Adolph Zukor of Famous Players pioneered the concept when he joined forces with the Paramount Publix circuit. The fallout caused by the monopolizing system left studios like Universal squeezed out of the major cities, forced to deal with the smaller rural theaters and the few big city showcases they partnered with to show their first-run films.

Up until 1927 the technology of incorporating sound dialogue into motion pictures was still in its developmental stage, with most studios limiting the exhibition of sound films to novelty shorts. On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. had premiered Don Juan, a nearly three hour-long film that utilized a synchronized sound system throughout. Recognized as the first sound feature, the movie was shot as a normal silent film with a soundtrack added later. Its soundtrack included a musical score and sound effects, but no recorded dialogue.

On October 6, 1927, Warner Bros. premiered The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, one of America’s top music entertainers. The film’s soundtrack, mostly relying on its score and effects, included limited sections of dialogue and musical performances. Although it wasn’t the first to utilize live sound recorded during filming, the inclusion of Jolson’s personality was enough to make it the first successful “talkie.” The Jazz Singer was highly profitable, earning a total of $2.625 million in the U.S. and overseas markets. Its success was enough of a reason for the motion picture industry to invest in sound movies.

The end of the silent era marked the beginning of what was to become the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” a period which would span three decades. One of the major studios of this period was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers (MGM), soon to be known as the studio that had “more stars than there are in Heaven.” MGM excelled at the box office throughout this era, creating the Hollywood star system with its top actors and actresses. MGM employed an efficient publicity department, operated by over 100 employees, which was responsible for sustaining the wholesome images of the idols that the public obsessed over though the fan magazines. The studio collaborated with the press in keeping any of the actors’ transgressions out of print; in exchange the publications were given access to MGM’s top stars.

McFarland & Company has published my first book:
The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneer Entertainers of Vaudeville, Film and Television

The Five Sedgwicks

The Five Sedgwicks: Pioneers of Vaudeville, Film and Television

Individually and together, The Five Sedgwicks are among the unsung heroes of early filmmaking in Hollywood. Their work took them from vaudeville to silent film, through the studio era and into the Golden Age of television. By the late 1920s the Sedgwick siblings were well-known motion picture personalities: Edward was satirized by actor Harry Gribbon as an enthusiastic comedy director in King Vidor’s 1928 silent comedy hit Show People; Josie was a star of Western films and was presented the honorific title of “Queen of the Roundup”; Universal Films promoted Eileen as their “Queen of the Serial.” This book details the family’s extensive contributions to the entertainment industry.

Michael Zmuda © 2015


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