Fans, Stars and the Cult of Celebrity
Samantha Barbas’s "history of film fandom between 1910 and 1950 is a story of passion, admiration, and intense curiosity"—which could be enough to make it worth reading—but it is also very pleasant to read and may even prove a little disturbing: Barbas’s sympathetic attitude to her object gives a sociological dimension to what is usually looked down on as an American whim. She wants to write the story of the way "fans explored the boundaries of mass culture and probed many of the themes, messages, and limitations inherent in modern commercial entertainment." Fans, she insists, "questioned the cinema’s ability to accurately represent reality." These tensions between artifice and authenticity, distance (stars!) and proximity (private correspondence) innerve her accurate chronological description.
As early as 1895, The New York Word claimed: "You won’t see marionettes […] you’ll see people and things as they are," and the audiences were already concerned by "an attempt to confirm that the movies had a basis in reality." Barbas describes the main landmarks to the huge fan system of the forties: how, prior to 1910, names came to be published to satisfy this sort of plea: "Dear Stranger […] will you please answer this letter […] just telling me your name, not a stage one, I promise I won’t tell no one." When in March 1910, Carl Laemmle revealed the name of his new leading actress—Florence Lawrence—"the silence was broken, and the movie star system was born." The first movie star magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine debuted in February 1911 and fans proved "far more interested in stars than in stories." They wanted to know whether stars were the same in real life as they appeared in movies. But they had, of course, to make do with a few exceptions: in 1921, that difference was a reason for admiring Florence Lawrence "who look[ed] so utterly feminine on the screen, [though she] used to be a baseball star before she became a luminous planet of the photoplay." But readers were expected to be "disillusioned" by Chaplin as "an ordinary sane intelligent citizen" and they were actually appalled by Fatty Arbuckle’s indictment for rape and murder in 1921.
After their huge circulation (in 1922 Photoplay sold 2 million copies) magazines showed that "stars, rather than films," were "the primary focus of fans’ interest in Hollywood." What did the fans—"living and sharing the stars emotions on the screen"—want from their stars? The main requisite, Barbas insists, was a striking and magnetic personality. The visible was replacing dimmed inner virtues, external traits such as "charm, friendliness, and good looks" had become "a major component of personality" involving, according to the experts of the time, "sincerity, honesty and authenticity." As French Strother of The American Magazine wrote in 1928: "Be yourself is the first commandment of personality, and ‘act yourself’ the whole law of it."
Chapter III deals with the other aspect of the dream, the way fans could become Stars, the proper looks, and "how to get the most out of oneself," and is followed by a description of the growth of Fan Clubs, columnists (by 1930 Louella Parsons’s column appeared in 372 different newspapers through the world) and the expected reaction of censors. Will Hays created an official "‘white list" of the 50 most respected fan magazine writers who received "‘Hays cards," leaving the other 250 writers without cards and… out of the studios.
Some of these episodes are already known, but the book offers many surprises: the reader will not be surprised to read that 32,250,000 fan letters circulated in 1928, and that "most stars rarely saw the bulk of their fan mail […]. Even the signatures on the letters were faked. When Garbo refused to supply hers for this purpose, it was copied from her contract." But she/he may discover some aspects of the relationship between famous people of the time: in 1942, as letters had become a measure of an actor’s status, Daniel O’Shea (General Manager of Selznick Productions) noted: "the most depressing item is that Vivien [Leigh] has sunk to 96 letters." Selznick’s concerned reaction is quite telling: "The decrease in Vivien’s mail is an indication of the frightening extent to which she has undoubtedly lost following. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for the shabby way we have handled her."
With this book Samantha Barbas, who is Assistant Professor of History at Chapman University, proves that serious historical research can be both entertaining and enlightening for the mainstream film student.