Hollywood’s Silent Era Stars and American Consumerism

Johnnie Yu
May 26 · 16 min read

This research paper was originally written for a Cinema Studies course called Silent Film History at New York University.

Photo from Vogue Archives: archives.vogue.com

The Kelly Bag at Hermès is one of the most desired handbags from the prestigious French leatherwork brand. Designed in 1930, it was renamed twenty years later when the Hollywood star Grace Kelly “was photographed holding the bag over her stomach to conceal the early signs of her pregnancy,” and it almost immediately received fame and international recognition. This is just one of many examples of how Hollywood has an impact on not just the motion picture industry, but also the fabrics of popular culture. Even today, “going to the movies” entails far more than just watching a film at the movie theater. The audience participates in what is more accurately described as film culture: the entertainment that derives from the peripheral elements to the actual film, like film reviews, fandom, conspiracy theories, and most relevantly for this paper, the star system.

Photo from Restory: https://the-restory.com/2018-4-13-iconic-handbag-the-herms-kelly/

By far, the most prevalent narrative surrounding the star system’s establishment in Hollywood is one that follows the rapid development of nickelodeons in America between 1905–1907. After moviegoing becomes “less of a novelty and more of a regular entertainment,” naturally, regulars would begin recognizing familiar faces on screen. Studios then caught onto the trend and began using adored stars as marketing tools to generate enhanced profits and produce more competitive products, and the star system was born in the decades following. This paper examines the Vogue Archives from the peak of the Silent Era between 1920–1929 to explore the extent in which Hollywood and its studios were the primary actors responsible for the creation of the star system. While the conventional narrative logically checks out and favors this perspective, there is also compelling evidence to suggest that the development of the star system was inevitable and more closely linked to the spread of mass media permeating into the average household, and it was instead the greater American consumerism culture that demanded stardom. Perhaps, the popularization of motion pictures merely triggered a free-for-all among many interest groups that resulted in the star system and film culture which we are familiar with today.

Origin of the Star System

The star system was, in fact, not unique to film culture or even the film period. Kristin Thompson points out that “in vaudeville, the legitimate theater, and the opera, the star system was well established.” These are all art forms that were popular long before film technology was even invented, and the star system in each one of them was well established or acknowledged, and this was hardly contestable. Take the opera for example, in Changing the score arias, prima donnas, and the authority of performance, author Hilary Poriss is one of the first scholars to emphasize the importance of star qualities and their direct contributions to revenue for theater managers and composers. She observes that in benefit productions, which were theatrical evening events that “almost always entitled the honoree to some or all of the proceeds accumulated at the box office on that night” from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, aria insertions were a feature used to attract larger crowds. These were announced “in advance on posters, flyers, or in local newspapers, where… the added attractions featured prominently.” It was clear that audience members were fully aware of these spectacular events of each evening, and would even buy tickets “specifically to hear… their favorite numbers performed by their favorite singers.” This is similar to how the film industry would eventually develop to look like decades later. However, in 1908, the film industry was the exception among the arts.

Among the many new developments in film, the popularization and spread of nickelodeons also happened to be the period where the subject matter of films pivoted away from depicting actuality and became more about creating an encapsulating, fictional narrative. As experimentation in the art form continued and films experienced more success, “producers started signing actors to longer contracts, and audiences began to see the same faces in film after film.” Not long after, regular movie-goers would send fan mail to studios, asking for actor names, and make up convenient names for familiar faces. Their names were initially not publicized “in part because fame would allow them to demand higher wages,” but that soon changed when studios realized that despite higher wages, they could also earn higher revenue using their star power. Furthermore, film was becoming an increasingly competitive industry in which filmmakers constantly had to find new ways to outperform rival studios.

Around 1910, filmmakers perhaps came to a realization comparable to that of theater owners and even musical composers that a star makes or breaks a performance. Furthermore, it was proven to be beneficial to use stars in advertising, as is the case with the marketing surrounding opera aria insertions — movie-goers could potentially purchase tickets specifically to see their favorite personalities. “Some companies responded to audience demand and began exploiting their popular actors,” and “personal appearances by stars in theaters became an institution” following the initial success. A year later in 1911, the first fan magazine was published, and merchandise such as photo postcards of actors became available to purchase. But it was not until 1914 that films would begin including acting credits.

The reality of Hollywood, as well as the obvious resemblance between the star system in film and its preceding art forms (which in one way or another, would have influenced or inspired the development of film culture), begs the question of whether or not the success in the 1910s were unique to Hollywood, and to what extent were they in control of who receives fame. Despite the language surrounding the star system favoring the argument in support of Hollywood’s intentional creation of stars, such as Thompson’s description of production companies “exploiting” actors and “enterprising” merchandise, the universality between film and other popular performance art forms leaves some unanswered questions.

The Case for Hollywood’s Agency in Making Stars

Photo from Peter Dunne / Getty Images

Alfred Hitchcock is probably one of Hollywood’s most recognizable names and among the most famous auteurs. He famously said that his actors were like cattle, or as he would clarify in interviews, “all actors should be treated like cattle.” He justifies that by arguing “actors can’t cut. They don’t react to cutting, the timing of the cutting, the montage. How can they? They have to become secondary to the whole.” While this has become an urban legend among the film industry more than anything else today, Hitchcock directs the audience’s attention to the art of filmmaking itself and the intentionality and craft of the director. Just like the choice of film stock, shot types, or mise-en-scene, the use of actors is just one of the many techniques available at a directors’ disposal to create better art.

The introduction to Hitchcock’s Stars argued that in addition to being fully aware of the power of Hollywood stars in films, he saw a few more practical artistic applications. On the surface level, “the star system had become a microcosm of society and, when used properly, could provide a shortcut for the audiences to have empathy for the characters.” But on a deeper level, Hitchcock had a far more profound understanding of film culture, as he theorized that when actors are recognized for a specific role or archetype they play in films repeatedly, “[surprising the] overindulged, apathetic audiences… could thrill [them] more so than making conventional casting choices.” While this may seem like an obvious observation to make today, the revolutionary shift in perspective lies in the fact that to him, actors are no longer seen as separate from their craft. Films also are hence no longer processed by viewers as independent works of art, but are instead a piece of a larger, ongoing dialogue happening in film culture, referencing each other, and understood in the context of each other. Hollywood is powerful enough to create a semi-fictional public image for actors understood through their repertoire of acting work and is associated with just the name and a face of an actor.

Qualitative research done on Hitchcock confirms a similar attitude, as a study of his techniques used to manipulate his audiences immediately identified the star system as one of the iconic features among many of his films. Specifically, the conclusion is that the “star quality gives them a certain standing as icons outside of the roles they portray” and that “there is a moral expectation of ‘stars’ and Hitchcock manipulates this” to tell more interesting stories.

While Hitchcock’s golden era is far beyond the scope of this essay, which is mostly concerned with the birth of the star system and during the peak of silent films, his observations remain mostly timelessly true. Even at the very beginning, during the nickelodeon era, An Evening’s Entertainment observes that “favorite actors and actresses, firmly identified with their employers’ corporate trademarks, were used to help establish product loyalty.” Perhaps this is further evidence that the name and reputation of actors and actresses were tied with Hollywood’s studios, so the evidence has arguably existed all along, and Hitchcock was simply just among the first to theorize the impact of the star system.

The Case Against Hollywood’s Agency in Making Stars

While the case for film studios’ agency in shaping the star system seems like irrefutable evidence proving a high degree of control over the film culture it creates, there are also a few key factors that perhaps illustrate a slightly different picture. For one, the non-unique argument still remains true, and that the Hollywood star system was not actually all that different from other performance arts, especially the opera. And with the opera comparison, the theaters were hardly in control of systematically producing stars, instead, it was the inherent skill and technique of the singers that eventually helped theaters sell more tickets; not the other way around.

Even if these are not entirely comparable art forms, there are two more compelling counterarguments that lead to interesting Vogue stories between 1920 and 1929. First, with the increasing popularity of mass media and access to information, it is inevitable that mediums that are easily replicable and distributable will become most accessible to the average American. Actors and actresses fit this description, as film as a medium is able to reach more people simultaneously across a greater distance, in comparison to traditional theater or opera which is bound by the performance’s geographical location and a venue’s seating capacity. And second, the public’s interest in film stars was seemingly constantly in flux, and there were multiple failed experiments done by studios in attempts to generate consistent results with star popularity. Many business practices and playbooks were established over the 1910s in an attempt to fully capture the upside with the star system.

Between October 1914 and December 1918, two fan-magazine polls were done to survey how audience members rank their favorite stars. Over the course of the four years, “only two top stars had maintained their popularity, indicating the uncertainty of public response and lightening changes in the industry.” But of course, the methodology of these polls also needs to be taken into consideration as fan-magazine votes were conducted more casually. Either way, this is still evidence of the fact that while Hollywood studios potentially understood the strong correlation between stars and the success of films, perhaps there is still very little understanding of how to properly act on these insights. And without the ability to enterprise the production of stars and films driven by star power, this also means that Hollywood did not have full control over the star system. But this begs the question of what other players are in control of the rise of stars, then?

A case can potentially be made for the fact that after an actor or actress’s initial success on-screen, there are many more related parties that can benefit from the fan base which comes with their popularity, for example, luxury, fashion, and other consumer or retail products targeting the average American. This, too, is far more related to macroeconomics and American consumerism rather than Hollywood.

Vogue in 1920s

In a digital project maintained by the University of Virginia, author Meagan Hess observes that “few periods demonstrate with such clarity the way fashions reflect their own times as do the 1920s and 1930s.” Hess also notes that the 1920s “saw the emergence of three major women’s fashion magazines,” and Vogue was among them. Initially published in 1892, it only had an “impact on women’s desires for fashionable garments” in the 1920s as it established itself as an authoritative publisher in the industry.

The importance of fashion magazines and especially Vogue extend beyond looking at the newest fashion trends of each season and the focus of the American fashion enthusiasts on the highly popular overseas trends from Europe. Vogue also provides a glimpse into the ideologies being sold to Americans of the time period, informing “what was needed to be a good, beautiful, cultured person” in this era.

The Vogue Archives go all the way back to the 1890s, and the publication actually delivered weekly in its earlier stages. By the 1910s, it settled for a bi-monthly publication, most commonly printing once on the first and once on the fifteenth of each month, resulting in twenty-four issues per year. And by the mid-1910s, each Vogue issue settled into a more consistent structure, consisting of fashion, theater, decor, society, travel, “seen in the shops,” and other more sporadic editorial sections.

The beginning of the 1920s saw the more frequent and consistent appearance of a section titled “seen on the stage” that covers notable theater events and traditional theater actors and actresses. This aligns with the previously discussed incumbent star systems in the performance art forms preceding film. It is reasonable to assume that for fashion and culture to catch up to the rapid developments of the film industry, a transformation period should be natural to observe, and such is the case thus far. Up until October 1921, there were no signs of the cinema and theater-dominated columns dedicated to stars. It could also be important to note that the rapid development of technology and the dissemination of media and multimedia content post-war meant that traditional theater events were becoming more and more accessible to the average American, hence the seemingly parallel development of the theater star system as the Hollywood star system. But due to the nature of the mediums, film screenings were comparatively far cheaper to attend and can be simultaneously distributed to as many locations as there are film exhibitors in the country.

October 1921 saw one of the first mentions of a film star in an article titled “These Costumes are Touring France with Mlle. Musidora in the Sprightly Play, ‘L’Ecole des Cocottes.’” At this stage, the focus was still evidently on the fashion associated with a film star (who had already found some success), and more interesting, it was in association with a traditional play. The visuals in the article, despite frequent features of photographs throughout the magazine, are also just fashion illustrations emphasizing the costumes. Other features in the twenty-four magazines published in 1921 still mostly referenced names of European fashion houses, fashion occasions, or specific articles of clothing, rather than any mention of celebrity names.

In December 1921, an article was published titled “Three Costumes that Accompanied Estelle Winwood to Success in ‘The Circle,’” and this title would be far more familiar to a contemporary reader in the twenty-first century. This is because the article seemingly navigates film culture with ease and capitalizes on the success of an actress and the release of a recent film to provide commentary on the peripheral elements of the film, like the fashion design of a fictional character in the real world. The caption on the page notes that the first costume was a “corn colour silk jersey sports costume from Knox,” and that the dress in the third act, “over a bronze metal cloth slip, Lucile hangs long wisps of orange and bronze.” This time, the article featured what seems to be screen-grabs from the film itself.

In the same issue, an article titled “Hats and Costumes Worn by Leonora Hughes” was also featured, this time with posed modeling photographs, and this was the first instance in which a film star was not promoted alongside a film, but as a standalone celebrity whose name or fashion sense is desirable enough by the average reader to warrant its own article.

In March 1923, an article was published titled “Garbielle Dorziat Stars in the Mode.” Not long after in April 1923, an article titled “Gladys Cooper in a Molyneux Success” was published. Both of these instances are interesting to note because for the first time, an actress’ name was featured, but this time at the very beginning of the title, and in front of the fashion designer’s and project’s name. This is a subtle yet arguably important milestone to mark and is evidence of Hollywood’s star culture gaining momentum. Perhaps one or two instances can be written off as an anomaly in editorial preference or writing style, but a thread of similar developments and advancements is much harder to ignore.

By November 1928, one of Vogue’s most iconic 1920s articles about film actresses was published, titled “The Well-Dressed Actress.” This was a stunning five-page spread that looks at Ina Claire, Ilka Chase, and Gertrude Lawrence’s fashion and their “off-stage chic.” The article most notably remarks that “the idols of stage have had definite and far-reaching influences on the mode, and today, as then, many a fashion has been first launched behind the footlights.”

As evident through all the coverage of film stars outside of the motion picture industry, there were more players in the game than just the studios and exhibitors that can benefit from a powerful star system. These players were also motivated by fundamentally different purposes to Hollywood. While on one hand, filmmakers used stars to attract audiences into paying for more desirable films, fashion and retail operate differently. Stars stood for brand values, represented different lifestyles, and sold products indirectly by influencing someone’s values. Films advertised actors and actresses based on an audience’s familiarity with their previous on-screen performances; fashion used the familiarity to create a whole consumer culture surrounding it.

Conclusion

Elle notes in a 2014 story that remembers Coco Chanel, that around the 1930s, not long after “The Well Dressed Actress” was published, around the world:

the tweed trend spread like wildfire, with a magazine image of actress Ina Claire clad in a brown tweed Chanel dress igniting the spark. The look quickly became popular throughout couture houses in Paris.

While a film star’s rise to fame can be initially attributed to Hollywood and the power of mass media and film distribution, to maintain and solidify an actor or actress’ fame and to provide Hollywood with sustained value over a long period of time is a cultural phenomenon beyond the control of the motion picture industry. On one hand, other players in the game from related industries like luxury and fashion retail have incentives to use stars to represent their brand value. But on the other hand, the success of publications like Vogue also means that there is perhaps demand from the consumer side as well, to be able to have a non-political public figure and role model to fixate on for entertainment purposes: a desire to participate in entertainment culture.

To answer the initial question of “who were the primary actors involved in creating the star system” or “to what extent was Hollywood in control of the star system,” perhaps the easiest way to see the relationship between actors and film studios is to abandon the factory analogy. Hollywood does not reliably grow stars, as despite the strong correlation between a successful film and a popular star, there is little evidence of a reliable way to control or manipulate stardom with accuracy in generating consistent results, and especially not in its inception. Instead, Hollywood should be seen as a stage or platform through which all who wish to achieve fame may perform on. But once the performance is finished, the star system and the trajectory of an actor’s reputation are in the hands of the public. Hollywood may have influence over a star’s image, and so might fashion houses and fashion editorials. But after all, the people are the ones who ultimately decide which stars to like and which to dislike.

Sources Consulted

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