The Hollywood star system developed in the early decades of the twentieth century, and with it came notions of celebrity and tales of how performers rose to fame. In the same period, several American films self-reflexively devised narratives concerning young women venturing to “filmland” to break into the movies—echoing the real-life situation of the epoch's “movie-struck girls.” Taking a gendered approach, this text examines Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913), A Girl's Folly (1917), The Extra Girl (1923), Souls for Sale (1923), Ella Cinders (1926), and Show People (1928), interrogating the films’ portrayal of the female ingenue and focusing on such dichotomies as talent versus luck, career versus marriage, scandal versus propriety, city versus country, beauty versus plainness, and more. It investigates movie magazines and press of the era, highlighting how they presented the actresses in these films—Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Eleanor Boardman, Colleen Moore, and Doris Kenyon—to the public, making connections to similar issues in the movies.
Why do girls leave home? The youngest answer to this aged question is, “They leave home to go to Hollywood, of course!” Girls from all over the world do it.—alice m. williamson, alice in movieland, 19271
Within the film studies field, a great deal of scholarship has interrogated the phenomenon of stardom—a body of work so large that one can only gesture toward its varied approaches. Some researchers have taken a historical tack. Richard deCordova, for instance, has charted the early move from “picture personality” to star in the silent era, as well as analyzed the different kinds of knowledge that audiences were privy to about performers (e.g., their private lives, or their capabilities as actors).2 Other writers have taken more theoretical perspectives on the topic. Most notably, Richard Dyer has discussed the qualities of the star image (e.g., being both ordinary and extraordinary), the elements of a “star text” (including biography, film roles, press, and publicity), as well as the nature of charisma, that attribute that lures audiences to a screen presence.3 Other investigators have concentrated on fandom, penning ethnographic studies of how viewers related to performers at a particular time and place, as Annette Kuhn has with respect to British women's experiences of filmgoing in the 1930s.4 Finally, there have been countless biographies, critical monographs, anthologies, and journal articles that examine the lives, personae, and/or careers of individual noteworthy screen stars, for instance Lois Banner's work on Marilyn Monroe.5
While all writing on stardom presupposes that such individuals become very popular, until recently less academic work in film studies has dealt with the nature of fame per se. This is a related but not identical concept, since it concerns the experience of renown (from the perspective of both the famous person and her audience). Here I am reminded of a statement made by the actress Laura Linney when an interviewer opined that she seemed uninterested in celebrity. She responded by making an important distinction: “My situation is I'm well-known but not famous…. I ride the subway and I move around.”6 Sean Redmond and Su Holmes's 2007 anthology Stardom and Celebrity strives to link stardom and celebrity, but the title of the work emphasizes that there is a difference between them.7 Thus the volume includes canonical articles on film stardom (e.g., Christine Geraghty's “Re-Examining Stardom”), but also pieces on the nature of celebrity as a separate concept (e.g. Graeme Turner's “The Economy of Celebrity”).
In this article I will approach the topic of stardom and celebrity through a gendered lens by analyzing several American silent films made between 1913 and 1928 that specifically concern young women who journey to “filmland” and confront screen success and fame. Following this, I will explore the contemporaneous coverage in the film press of the real actresses who played these fictional movie-starlet roles. Thus, the focus of the piece is squarely on questions of women and film.
But before discussing particular movies, it is necessary to confront certain formative issues: the central concepts undergirding notions of celebrity in relation to the early movie industry; the gendered elements of fame in this era; and the manner in which the “movie-struck girl” became a common and maligned trope in the press of the period—ostensibly a prototype for the heroines pictured in these movies.
FAME AND THE MOVIES
In considering the plethora of films about starstruck young women, the question arises as to why the film world in particular became a mecca for women seeking fame in the early decades of the twentieth century. There are both general and gendered issues at play here, and the former will be considered first.
According to Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown (1986), while the social phenomenon of fame had existed at least since classical antiquity, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it experienced a profound change.8 Crucial was its democratization. While in previous eras one had to be a monarch, war hero, religious leader, scientist, minister of state, or artist to be celebrated—mostly male roles, of course—during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fame began to accrue to individuals in other walks of life and became more of a meritocracy.
Another cultural shift that favored cinema as a site for fame was the rise in the nineteenth century of performers as acclaimed figures. As Braudy writes, they “replaced other kinds of public people in an ongoing exhibit of exemplary public behavior.”9 Here the fictionalized story of the actress who rises to greatness was an especially treasured narrative, soon becoming the familiar “a star is born” trope.10 Moreover, a corollary notion became popular—that we are all performers in our private and public lives. Braudy remarks: “The self-made [individual] turns into the self-styled performer.”11
A further element in the early movie world's production of fame was the growth of technology. The so-called “penny press” proliferated and favored news items that profiled interesting people. Joshua Gamson notes, “Names, in short, began to make news.”12 When photography emerged, image production boomed. Braudy notes, “Fame [was] carried first by words and later by images,” and “visual media became the standard bearers of international recognition.”13 And, of course, the cinema excelled at this.
Clearly it is not only the creation of images but also their multiplication and circulation that enables celebrity, and film studios were masters of those processes. This was due to the growth of another industry—publicity—that controlled the discourse of fame production. As Gamson remarks, by the first half of the twentieth century, there existed “a developed profession of public-image management, and an elaborate and tightly controlled production system mass producing entertainment celebrities for a widely consuming audience.”14 So we are not surprised that in 1920, Edna Ferber writes: “The knowledge [of celebrities] has been poured down our not unwilling throats by the photoplay magazines, the press agents, the newspapers, the censors, the critics.”15
That more people had time to watch movies was due to America's growing leisure industry. Gamson asserts, “As celebrity became systematized in the early twentieth century, the leisure-time business of ‘show’ was, not surprisingly, its primary arena.”16 For Braudy, there is a particular power that the visual media exercise over their audiences: “The eye appropriates what it sees. Normally objects remain separate from us, but those images we see on the screen … are continuous with our imagination.”17 Hence the solicitation of fandom, a sine qua non of renown, is made especially potent through the moving image.
WOMEN AND FAME
It is no accident that the films I consider all involve young women who want to be in the movies, since research by Shelley Stamp has established that, for writers of the day, it was “movie-struck girls” who garnered the most attention. She writes: “Beginning in the mid-1910s, trade papers, fan magazines, and general-interest publications reported, with mounting alarm, the long lines of young women waiting outside studio gates … hoping to find work as motion picture ‘extras.’”18 While a somewhat comparable situation had obtained when the film industry was on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the phenomenon grew when it was institutionalized, rationalized, and relocated to Los Angeles.19 As Diana Anselmo-Sequeira has shown, young women's desire to be in the movies often grew from their experience as avid fans. In fact, they often wrote to the stars for advice on how to break into pictures: “These girl fans saw their affective investment in the movies as a path to a better life. They pursued the dream of film acting vigorously, making their longing for film stardom visible across the opinion columns of multiple magazines.”20 It was not surprising that many young women saw their future in “filmland.” Hilary A. Hallett observes: “Like no other industry of its day, the early American film industry publicized the accomplishments of its many successful women workers, including actresses.”21 Fueling this vision were articles in many “heartland” newspapers. Richard Abel examines the writing of a female movie columnist for the Des Moines News who dedicated two-thirds of her coverage to women in the film industry. He notes: “Those who [she] writes about … are fierce independent figures.”22 While feminist scholars see women's film fandom and career aspirations in a positive light—as bespeaking agency, upward mobility, the choice of progressive role models, and the rejection of traditional female roles—cultural custodians of the day often decried such individuals, viewing them as frivolous, juvenile, pathological, amorous naïfs who put their lives and moral stature at risk by leaving home.
Evidence that the movie industry encouraged the fantasies of movie-struck girls as a laudable ambition was everywhere in the film press of the day. Motion Picture News of 1915, for instance, announced that “Selig Claims Screen's Youngest Leading Lady”—specifically little Grace Darmond, who “less than two years ago … visited the Selig studio in curiosity” and now, at eighteen, had already appeared in such films as The Millionaire Baby (dir. Lawrence Marston, 1915), The House of a Thousand Candles (dir. Thomas N. Heffron, 1915), and A Black Sheep (dir. Thomas N. Heffron, 1915). Beyond that, Darmond had written a series of articles entitled “How I Became a Movie Star”—believed to “have a particular appeal to women and girls, as she gives some good advice to movie struck ‘damsels.’”23 Similarly, we learn in the New York Clipper of 1916 that “Anita King, the Lasky actress … is lecturing to girls who are movie struck” and is “get[ing] good audiences” as she makes “the rounds of high schools.”24 Finally, the headline of a 1919 Film Fun article by Harold Seton reads: “What It Means to Be Movie Struck.” He remarks, “Personally, I have encountered scores of them—people who are in the pictures from choice, not from necessity.”25
There are numerous conceptual aspects of fame in this era that have particular relevance to the status of women. First, if, as Braudy asserted, renown became more of a meritocracy in the nineteenth century, this would have made room for talented women who had previously been barred from cultural positions of import. Second, as Braudy noted, the “star is born” narrative that developed in that period selectively focused on the actress figure—giving encouragement to female theatrical hopefuls. Relevant here may be the notion of femininity as a masquerade—advanced as early as 1929 by Joan Riviere and later adopted by feminist critics—conceiving of women in society as almost required to be performers.26 Third, women's professional lives were more constrained than men's (to the extent that they could circumvent marriage and motherhood at all). This would have made the pursuit of success in an uncharted field such as film especially attractive to them. Finally, as Claire Brock has observed, the entire notion of fame was “feminized” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She remarks that although celebrity had traditionally attached to men, fame itself was conceived as “fickle, flirtatious and eternally feminine.” Eventually, however, “fame as a concept underwent a process” that “allowed women to embrace celebrity.”27 According to her, what “feminized” fame in the modern era was the need for the renowned to expose themselves to the public. She observes (in speaking of male Romantic writers), “Revealing intimate details of subjective experience to a sensitive, but judgmental, contemporary audience was to allow oneself to become as effeminate as one's readers.”28 Clearly women were more suited to such a stance, since emotional expression and interpersonal bonding were part and parcel of their upbringing. Thus, in the film world of the 1910s and 1920s, the requirement to be a “picture personality” would have been less difficult for women than for men.
Given new opportunities for women to pursue fame in 1910s and 1920s, it is no surprise that so many films of the era focused on young females making their way to New York or Hollywood to appear in the movies. For, as Hilary A. Hallett has written, “The appeal of mass-produced narratives and personalities encouraged many women to seek work in some aspect of the picture business.”29 I have selected six films to discuss, made between 1913 and 1928, based on their availability, but film reviews of the era make clear that this story line was a common one, popular with the public.30 By the time The Extra Girl (dir. F. Richard Jones, 1923) was released, one reviewer wrote: “It did seem that the case of the movie-struck girl had been exhausted.”31 And when Souls for Sale (dir. Rupert Hughes, 1923) came out, another critic touted how movies about the movies were “deluging the market.”32 Filmgoers were also intrigued by (allegedly) being shown the inner workings of the industry.33 A reviewer of Souls for Sale stated: “There is no denying the fascination exercised over the public by films depicting things which take place behind the screen.”34 Similarly, a reviewer of A Girl's Folly (dir. Maurice Tourneur, 1917) noted that “the public always ‘eats’ this inside-the-studio-stuff.”35 Nonetheless, writers realized that such works “burlesqued” the movie business and offered their “share of hokum.”36 The press also made clear the strategies by which these films were sold to the public. An ad for Souls for Sale, which was a huge box-office hit, stated that by running the movie, exhibitors would “Give [their] patrons a free ride to Hollywood.”37 Moreover, an article in Exhibitors Herald touted a variety of tie-ins related to the film: one with a bookstore that sold the novel on which the movie was based, and another with a drugstore that sold the brand of cold cream that Eleanor Boardman had endorsed.38
From the start, Show People (dir. King Vidor, 1928) emphasizes the lure of Los Angeles to women. Its opening title reads, “To hopeful hundreds there is a golden spot on the map called Hollywood” (figure 1). Similarly, a title of Souls for Sale identifies the locale as “paradise” and speaks of “the glamour of the picture world,” an attribute widely perceived as holding particular allure for women.
These films also pepper their casts with cameo appearances by notable movie stars appearing as themselves, who interact with the fictional ingenues in the films, establishing the tangibility of their aspirations to fame. Among those who appear briefly in Show People are the actors Charlie Chaplin, John Gilbert, William S. Hart, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mae Murray; the director King Vidor; and the writer Elinor Glyn. Likewise, Souls for Sale advertises the appearance of “Thirty Five Famous Stars” (in cameo roles as themselves), among them Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, ZaSu Pitts, and Erich von Stroheim (figure 2). Furthermore, star references enter the dialogue of these films. In Show People, the heroine's leading man says that she has “the temperament of Nazimova and the appeal of Garbo.”
Of course there was an irony in the casting of the fictional neophytes in these films, since the actresses who played them (such as Marion Davies, Mabel Normand, Eleanor Boardman, Colleen Moore) were already stars. This shift allowed female viewers to identify with the actresses, and imagine that they too might personally befriend the likes of Chaplin or Gilbert.
HOW TO BREAK INTO THE MOVIES
While the heroine of Show People was an actual amateur performer before coming to Hollywood, other films cast their protagonists as women with no theatrical experience. Yet, to one degree or another, they all meet with a modicum of success, advancing the myth of celebrity as available to all. In Mabel's Dramatic Career (dir. Mack Sennett, 1913), Mabel Normand plays a farm girl who is jilted by her boyfriend, leaves for the city, happens upon the Kinometograph Keystone Studio, and immediately gets an acting job there. In A Girl's Folly, Mary (Doris Kenyon) encounters a New York film crew on location in her rural New Jersey town. When leading man Kenneth Driscoll (Robert Warwick) suggests that she come to the city and “try to get into the movies,” she jumps at the chance (figure 3). In The Extra Girl, Mabel Normand plays Sue, who is from a small town. Though she has no professional training, she practices at being an actress (figure 4). Escaping an arranged marriage, she submits her photograph to a film company's beauty contest but, through a ruse, an image of a more beautiful girl is substituted for it. Sue wins the contest and travels to Hollywood—unaware of the mix-up. In Souls for Sale, Mem (Eleanor Boardman), who has been forced to marry, is on a train with her new husband bound for her honeymoon and decides to escape. As she plods through the desert, she is rescued by a film crew (figure 5). They take her back to Hollywood and promise her a job. At first Mem refuses the offer, since her minister father finds acting disreputable, but, facing poverty, she relents and is employed as “one of 5,000 extras Fred Niblo directed in The Famous Mrs. Fair .” Before long, however, she secures more meaningful parts. Finally, in Ella Cinders (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1926)—a version of the Cinderella story based on a previous comic strip—Ella (Colleen Moore) is an abused Midwestern orphan with no acting background (figure 6). She wins a contest and is sent to Hollywood where she “resolve[s] to follow the road to Fame and never count the cost” (figure 7). Unfortunately, when she arrives at Gem Studio, she finds everyone away on a shoot and learns that the contest was a fake. However, she stays in Los Angeles and “for days … haunted studio gates.” Finally she sneaks onto a film lot and, despite a series of mishaps, gets an opportunity to appear in a film.
These films often present the achievement of fame as a matter of chance, using what Gamson calls the “lucky break” scenario.39 Thus, in several films, including A Girl's Folly and Ella Cinders, once at a studio the heroine accidently sprints in front of a camera, unaware that a crew is shooting a scene, and this leads to a job in motion pictures. Souls for Sale presents another variation on this theme. Mem is in a picture when the leading lady has an accident on set and must relinquish her part, allowing Mem to appear in her place. Furthermore, we learn that the injured actress got her start in precisely the same way. However, as Gamson notes, while fame is often seen to arise from good fortune, it is also imagined to be “based on an indefinable internal quality of the self, [that is] natural, almost predestined.”40
Another explanation for the prevalence of nonprofessional heroines in these films was the false belief that film acting (as opposed to stage acting) took no special ability or training, making it particularly suitable to working-class women with little access to education or the credentialing processes. Film promised women work where they could simply “be themselves” on-screen, an idea encouraged by so many of Mabel Normand's films in which her character was similarly called Mabel (as Mary Pickford was called Mary in early works such as His Lost Love  or The Courting of Mary ).41 In particular, as Erwin Panofsky has noted, in the early days of cinema, actors were often typecast—as the Vamp, the Villain, or the Virgin—and simply looking the part was half the battle.42 Thus, in A Girl's Folly, we are told that performers are frequently unaware of the plot of the film that they are shooting. In the early years of cinema, many individuals who rose to fame had no prior training on the stage. Furthermore, in the 1910s and 1920s, since the film business was new, there were few of the established credentials and barriers to entering the field that existed later. Mabel Normand, for instance, was a working-class girl from Staten Island whose father was a carpenter.43 She had done a bit of modeling as a Gibson Girl before landing jobs with Biograph, Vitagraph, and Keystone Studios. In a 1913 article she said, “I went into pictures three years ago without any previous experience.”44 Another actress, Colleen Moore, summered near the Essanay Studio in Chicago and gained employment as an extra there before an uncle arranged for her a screen test with D. W. Griffith. She said, “I was being sent to Hollywood—not because anybody out there thought I was any good, but simply to pay off a favor.”45
These films also described film fame as accruing to those who resided in cities but not in small towns or the countryside, since the former locales were associated with modernity and the latter with the past. For women, this positioning located fame on what was seen then as a morally ambivalent plane tied to the alleged dangers of the urban universe. Mary, in A Girl's Folly, says, “I'm tired of this stupid country life. It was the same yesterday and will be the same tomorrow and forever.” Thus she goes to New York, “fascinated by golden dreams of success” and “the quest for adventure”—only to end up nearly someone's mistress. Similarly, in The Extra Girl, Sue, from the small town of River Bend, wants “to get away from it all,” meaning provincial life. This is why she enters Golden State Film Company's beauty contest for a chance at celebrity and stardom (figure 8).
While The Extra Girl is fictional, in truth, beauty contests were common stepping stones for women to fame in this era; Norma Shearer and other stars were initially pageant queens.46 For instance, a 1914 issue of Motion Picture News announced that the “Lasky Company by arrangements with one of the Dayton [Ohio] newspapers, conducted a beauty contest in the hope of discovering … some bewitching maids with enough dramatic talent to make it worth their while to lift her out of the obscurity of private life into the limelight.”47
Clearly fame in the movies came more easily to beautiful women, underscoring the fact that females in society are judged more on their appearance than males. In Souls for Sale, Mem notices that other actresses are more successful than she, but they are gorgeous while she is plain. One day, in a casting director's office, she notices a “beauty” trying to seduce the man, but he draws back and accuses the woman of “vamping him.” While the woman offers to “pay the price” for success (meaning sexual servitude), he demurs, telling her that she must sell herself to the public, not to him. While such male refusal might have been unlikely—and presented the film industry in an acceptable moral light—the incident points to the linkage between sexual harassment and fame that many women faced. For example, a Moving Picture World article of 1914 related the following incident:
A young woman of indisputable character was brought in contact with a man who conducts a theatrical agency…. She was “movie struck” and felt she must appear in pictures. The meeting with the agent seemed to open the gate and when told that the agent had an interest in one of the more prominent companies of this city the joy and anticipation of the young woman overwhelmed her. But fortunately the intended victim retained self possession enough to reject the condition upon which her connection with the company was to be consummated.48
According to the columnist, the girl later learned that the agent was lying and had nothing to do with the film business at all.
THE FICTIONAL STARLET'S FATE
But we must ask, what actually happens to these fictional women upon entering the film world? And what do these films tell us about conceptions of gender, celebrity, and stardom that were advanced to the public in this era? As we shall see, such issues as beauty, chance, and male sponsorship factor into the likelihood of a woman breaking into the film industry in these works. Once ensconced there, her professional success is generally counterpoised with romantic and/or maternal achievement—as though it is impossible to consider one without the other. Furthermore, her sexual morality may be tested, underscoring the perceived dangers of female independence. Finally, her honesty will be challenged by the film industry's fanciful publicity machine. All such occurrences weigh more heavily on women than on men, given society's constrained expectations of female behavior.
In A Girl's Folly, when Mary arrives at the New York studio, she displays her face and profile to the bosses—making clear that good looks are requisite for stardom and fame. After the men survey Mary, they huddle for a moment until one of them says: “I think the girl's a find…. Anyhow I'm going to take a chance and give her the ingénue role in our next picture” (figure 9). Mary is filmed and later attends a screening of the rushes (figure 10). Though we do not see the recorded footage, we watch the disappointed faces of the executives. It seems that her screen test has revealed that beauty alone is no assurance of talent, as the men seem to have assumed. About to leave, however, Mary is comforted by the studio's leading man, Kenneth Driscoll, who offers to give her the “pretty things” that she would have acquired from fame (we have previously seen her desirously caressing a luxury automobile parked outside the studio) (figure 11). Although Mary at first rejects his offer and walks off, within short order she returns. The next time we see her, she is set up in a fancy apartment awaiting the arrival of Kenneth and some women friends for an elegant birthday dinner party. Out of the blue, Mary's mother appears, and Kenneth tells the guests that he does not want Mary's parent to know why they are there (implying that there is something illicit about the living arrangement). Mary's mother has brought quaint gifts for her daughter from the country (including a horseshoe and a model boat built by Mary's old boyfriend, Johnny [Chester Barnett]). At one point Mary turns to Kenneth and asks, “Don't you think we're about to make a great mistake?” Soon she confesses to her mother that she is lonely and wants to return home. A final shot depicts Mary and her mother greeted by Johnny at their hometown train station. As the film ends, they all walk off together. As one reviewer of the time remarked of A Girl's Folly, Mary “strays to the edge of the precipice of dishonor but is saved from making the perilous leap.”49 In so doing, however, she gives up her dream of an acting career, despite having vowed “never to return home.”
In The Extra Girl our heroine also abandons her film career, although a desire for traditional family life, not fear of moral turpitude, is the reason. Mabel Normand stars as Sue, the small-town thespian wannabe who, by a ruse, wins a beauty contest and is sent to Hollywood. When an executive of Golden State Film sees her, he realizes that there has been a mix-up and suggests that she go home. Instead she requests a job at the studio and is assigned to the costume shop (figure 12). Eventually, however, she gets an opportunity to do a screen test and unwittingly becomes a clown. As she enters the set, she steps on chewing gum, which makes her foot stick to the floor (figure 13). When she finally extricates herself and walks forward, her shoe picks up the cobblestones underfoot. The director finds her “naturally funny,” giving validity to the notion that talent is simply instinctive. Near the end of the film, a title appears that reads, “Four Years Later and Looking Back.” We then see Sue with her hometown sweetheart and their child, watching her old screen test (figure 14). Sue tells her husband: “Dearest, to hear [my son] call me ‘Mamma’ means more than the greatest career I might ever have had.” Thus, the film holds out the possibility of stardom and fame for the average girl, only to retract it in the name of conventional womanhood.
In Ella Cinders, although the starlet achieves great success in the movies, she gives up her career when her paramour proposes marriage. As in The Extra Girl, she gets her break in the industry by accident rather than talent. When she arrives at a film studio, she runs through numerous sets, causing bedlam, and inadvertently lets loose a caged lion. In fleeing the animal, she sprints through a room in “flames”—mise-en-scène for a drama about a fire (figure 15).
Thinking that she is the assigned actress, the director films her, misreading her genuine cries for help as acting. Hence Ella performs well by mistake, later confessing to the director that she has “never worked in pictures.” Nonetheless, she appears in the movie and becomes a celebrity. So, we are shocked when a later title informs us that “tragedy continued to haunt Ella.” We then see her wearing tattered clothes in a police station, pleading with a cop (figure 16). We soon realize, however, that she is being filmed for another movie. When the picture opens in Ella's hometown, a local newspaper headline reads: “Our Ella Makes Good in Hollywood. Ella Cinders on Her Way to Fame.” On the street, an advertising wagon passes by with a placard that reads, “Ella Cinders in From Poverty to Riches,” a title that not only references her personal progress, but the entire Hollywood success myth. We next see Ella back in Los Angeles shooting a scene in which she is again cast as a poor girl, this time scrubbing the sidewalk (figure 17). We are told that she is “at home in her part,” giving credence to the notion of typecasting. Her wealthy suitor interrupts the shoot and whisks her away, shouting, “Get a new star to do your scrubbing; we're going to get married.” The epilogue shows Ella and her husband embracing their child (figure 18). Once again, women's traditional vocations—marriage and maternity—replace career advancement and fame for a woman.
We find a more progressive conclusion in some other films that indicate fame does not necessarily obliterate a woman's chance to retain her sexual morality or obtain the more traditional female roles of marriage and motherhood. In Mabel's Dramatic Career, a rural kitchen maid who flees to the city is able to audition at a studio the moment she arrives. After dancing and striking some melodramatic poses for a director, she gets a job (figure 19). A title informs us that “years go by,” and her hometown boyfriend (Mack Sennett) is seen to travel to the city, where he notices a poster for a film featuring Mabel (figure 20). (Interestingly, behind him on the street is another placard that advertises a “Big Amateur Contest” at the movie theater—an alternate way, in this era, for ordinary people to chase fame.) He enters the nickelodeon and watches the film, growing more and more upset as Mabel's character is pursued by a villain. When the picture ends, he notices the leading man walking down the street and follows him home, only to see Mabel and their children through a window in their apartment (figure 21). So, here, Mabel has garnered professional, matrimonial, and maternal success.
In Souls for Sale the heroine achieves at least two of the three: fame and romance. After Mem has worked as an extra, she is screen tested for a role in a comedy. As she watches herself on film in the projection room, she cries, and we realize that her test has been a failure. One of the executives in the room comments, “If you could only cry like this for the screen! The public pays a higher price for tears than for smiles,” implying that melodrama is a more prestigious route to fame than comedy, at least for women. Nonetheless she is given a job as a “stock player.” Ultimately she gets a chance to appear in a “sensational” circus drama. It is only by chance (the injury of an actress), that she gets to play the starring role. Later on, we infer that she has become famous because we see her opening fan mail. By the end of the film, the director has become her mate, and we trust that her career will continue to blossom.
Show People also presents its heroine as obtaining the so-called postfeminist promise of a woman who “has it all.” Against all odds, Peggy Pepper gains immediate access to a Hollywood studio. She performs her facial impressions of passion, anger, and sorrow for a director who deems them “very funny”—reading them as burlesque, not serious (figure 22). At the commissary she meets Billy (played by William Haines), a comic actor who offers to help her “crash the movies.” As in so many of the films, it is a man who provides a woman access to stardom and fame. The problem is that Peggy considers herself a dramatic actress and Billy has arranged an audition for her at Comet Studio for Serious Comedians. Before she has a chance to try out, she accidently ruins several scenes being shot there by running through them. A director decides to cast her in a film anyway, but she seems surprised that it will be a slapstick movie. Thus, when she comes through a door on set, she is sprayed with seltzer (figure 23). Billy tells her that stars have to “take it on the chin,” and gives as an example Gloria Swanson (who was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty before becoming a “serious” dramatic actress). Peggy attends a preview of her debut comedy, and watches footage of herself being chased by a car and jumping from a roof. The director proclaims that she has “real personality” (which, as we have seen, was requisite for stardom). Peggy, however, is upset, having come to Hollywood to perform in more prestigious genres. She is transfixed when the next film shown is King Vidor's Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), with John Gilbert. Billy, for his part, disparages it as a “punk drama.” Peggy calls the Gilbert film “real art,” while Billy simply wants to “make [the public] happy.” Immediately following this sequence, Peggy runs into Charlie Chaplin in the theater lobby (a man who gives the lie to the notion that only serious performers can be huge celebrities). But she fails to recognize him because he is not dressed as the Tramp—revealing her naïveté regarding a star's real versus cinematic self (figure 24). While in the storyline Peggy demeans the genre of comedy, in the film as it is actually being made, Marion Davies performs as a comedienne. So we must take her character's stance with a grain of salt. Mabel Normand's career, as well, demonstrates the possibility of women achieving prestige as comics.
Eventually Peggy auditions at High Arts Studio—a moniker that mocks serious drama. Once employed there, the studio changes her name to the fancier Patricia Pepoire, and her leading man prods her to acquire a new personality and superior friends. She begins to dress stylishly, adopts a glitzy lifestyle, and moves into a mansion with servants (figure 25). She remains snobbish about comedy, with its “lowness and vulgarity,” and snubs Billy when he visits her on set. As her career surges, so does her hauteur, and she becomes less popular with the public. On the day that she is set to marry her leading man, Billy appears and sprays her with seltzer, trying to bring her back down to earth (figure 26). She cancels the wedding, proclaiming that Billy has been the only “real person” she encountered in a world of “fakes [and] clowns.” Thus, comedy saves her. As the film closes, she has realized how fame can “go to one's head” and is appearing in a drama by King Vidor (whom we see on set directing). In a twist on conventional gender roles, Peggy has also secured Billy a job in this “A” picture, helping him rise in the industry. Thus, Peggy has been allowed to “have her cake and eat it too,” succeeding at both fame and love.
The films briefly touch on two other issues associated with celebrity. The first is fandom, which was viewed in this era as an especially female practice. In Souls for Sale, when the leading man who is shooting a film in the desert happens upon a lost Mem, a crew member shouts, “Is there anywhere you don't find a fan?” He has mistaken Mem for an amorous acolyte. Similarly, in A Girl's Folly, a male actor is shown backstage opening a letter in which he finds a woman's lock of hair and a request that he reciprocate. He laughs, but Kenneth Driscoll, the studio's leading man, tells him to “remember this—every heartache you cause a woman will boomerang.” The other element of celebrity referenced in these films is Hollywood's publicity machine, which often depends on illusion. In Souls for Sale an actor receives a fan letter requesting an autograph, but turfs it to an assistant to sign (figure 27). Likewise in A Girl's Folly we see a star's valet doing the same for his employer. In Show People, after Peggy has become famous, she is interviewed for a fan magazine. When the writer asks questions about her background, her leading man speaks for her, lying about how she is a descendant of Robert E. Lee. The journalist proclaims, “This is going to make a splendid story.” Later on we see Billy reading the piece, which is entitled, “Intimate Visits with Patricia Pepoire” (figure 28). Significantly, Peggy's leading man and fiancé also has a faux biography. While his screen name is Andre d'Bergerac (said to be the Count of Avignon), he is really a former waiter at an Italian restaurant. In Souls for Sale, Mem hides the fact she has run away from her husband, since she has been told to “beware of a scandal” and that the only thing that can hurt a woman's career is “an unfortunate marriage.” (Ultimately we learn that her nuptials were a ruse, so she is saved from moral turpitude—a requisite for a sympathetic screen heroine of the period.)
So what assumptions do these films make about a starlet's fate in the movie world? That beauty—instead of talent—is often the first quality by which she will be assessed. That accident is more likely than skill to get her hired. That if she is perceived as talented, it will often be considered innate versus learned. Here the case of Ella Cinders is interesting because, before entering the film contest, Ella reads a book on film acting in order to improve her chances (figure 29). Nonetheless, it is an accidental pose that wins her a spot in “filmland.” (figure 30).
Among the other assumptions of the films are that an actress will sometimes be typecast. That she will be encouraged to be a phony and will encounter others whose star images and biographies have little to do with their real selves. That she will have to guard against sexual harassment by men in the industry and avoid scandal. That she will have to deal with fans and the press. That she will either achieve success in “filmland” (and perhaps romance and motherhood as well) or retreat to a traditional life back home.
Many of these views of the film world speak particularly to attitudes toward women. While good looks are an asset for all actors, they are more crucial for actresses. Similarly, sexual propriety has been seen as more imperative for women than men. Finally, the need to merge career with domestic life has always been considered more of a priority for females than for males. Thus the films often reinforce conventional gender stereotypes.
CELEBRITY AND THE PRESS
While we find a fictional press represented in the movies, a real one existed offscreen and tracked the careers of the actresses who appeared in these pictures. These press accounts provide a fuller sense of female stardom and celebrity in the 1910s and 1920s and how it compared to on-screen representations. In examining this discourse, we find it marked by several themes that resonate with the films in question.
Country versus City
It is no surprise that so many films portray women leaving the countryside for “filmland” since, as Hallett notes, in the 1910s “migrants made their way from rural homes in record numbers.”50 While in the films discussed the starlets flee small towns or rustic environs, the actresses who played them hailed from varied locales. Eleanor Boardman was born in Philadelphia, and Mabel Normand and Marion Davies were raised in the boroughs of New York (Staten Island and Brooklyn, respectively) (figure 31). However, although Doris Kenyon was born in Syracuse, a 1917 interview takes pains to talk about how she lived for a while on a farm, “communing with cows, chickens and the like.” It was while living there that she became “imbued with the desire to become a picture star” and, even now, loves “outdoor sports, particularly deer hunting.”51
We can conclude that, on a narrative level (be it drama or comedy), the films’ favored scenarios of women moving from the hinterlands to “filmland” draw on clichés of the “country bumpkin”—familiar on-screen in this era—and emphasize alleged female “naiveté.”52 This is especially clear in A Girl's Folly, when Mary thinks the fictional cowboys and Indians she spots in rural New Jersey are real. When she accidently runs before a camera that is filming, the director calls her a “poor simp.” Then, when she is granted a screen test in the studio, she already imagines herself a great success (figure 32).
Talent and Experience
Most of the pictures about starstruck girls portray them as amateurs with little evidence of acting ability. In truth, this squares with the portrait of Doris Kenyon that emerges in the press (figure 33). In an article of April 1, 1916, we are told that at first she was only a stock player, an actor who merely “work[s] opposite stars.”53 In another piece she admits that her early roles were passable “for a beginner,” but that for a seasoned actress, those performances would have been “below par.” She concedes that she got help from her fellow performers: “I guess my not having seemed conceited … helped the experienced people around me to be kind.”54 Similarly, an article about Eleanor Boardman mentions that, when she first arrived in New York, she posed for “artists and advertisements”—the former being an ambiguous category that sometimes spells nudity and a moral “lapse.” The piece also specified that she gained employment as a chorus girl with the Selwyns when they were looking for women with no previous stage experience.55 As for Colleen Moore, we learn that she had no stage credentials before entering the film world and was “distinctly a product of the studios.” Regarding her first film, The Bad Boy (1917), the writer opines: “She did not appear to be better equipped than are hundreds of other American girls who haunt the studios.”56
On one level the portrayal of these actresses as untrained demeans the talent of women performers. On another, the fact that the film industry often turned to amateurs for talent is supported by a report that in 1927, Colleen Moore was involved in First National's screen testing of some 330 male college students in search of a new “leading man.”57 A statement by Helen Klumph that “seasoned old troupers from the stage are forever lamenting the lack of training in film star[s],” supports the sense that Hollywood was flooded with nonprofessionals.58
Lucky Breaks and Discoveries
Several of the films depict the ingenue as achieving stardom through a stroke of good fortune. In certain cases, press coverage of the actresses involved is consonant with this paradigm. Colleen Moore, for instance, highlights her “good luck” in a conversation with one interviewer (figure 34).59 Doris Kenyon relates a story of how, before coming to Hollywood, she studied voice and was overheard at a lesson by the composer Victor Herbert, who gave her a role in one of his New York plays. Then, one evening, some executives from World Film Corporation attended a performance of the play and noticed her, inviting her to Hollywood for a “film test.”60 A similar anecdote is related in a piece about Eleanor Boardman. Evidently Goldwyn casting director Robert B. McIntyre was in New York holding a competition for new talent. Hearing of it, Boardman went to his office: “The competition, which was between some thousand or more aspirants, narrowed itself down until Miss Boardman was the lucky girl.”61
As for Colleen Moore, her career advanced because her uncle introduced her to D. W. Griffith, who liked her “expressive” face and cast her in The Bad Boy, then shooting in California.62 Coverage of Moore's career pointed out not only “how the element of luck seems to play so big a part in many careers,” but also how the “discovery myth” continued to characterize an actor's rise to fame.63 A 1923 article about Moore is entitled “Perennial Discovery Her Story” and states that her life has been “one discovery after another.” It goes on to catalog all the directors who have “discovered” her: Griffith, Marshall Neilan, Rupert Hughes, and more.64
While the stories of discoveries and lucky breaks are legion, the press also advanced the notion that stars must labor in order to preserve their positions. In one piece, Doris Kenyon is characterized as a hard “worker” who capitalized on her good fortune. The writer notes, “She discussed her prospects in a very matter of fact little way, quite confident that she will have to work, study, earn, deserve, and constantly win by merit any honors that are to be hers.”65
From one perspective, the lucky break scenario in the films seems a convenient narrative ploy—adding comedy or suspense to the plot, while simultaneously demeaning the ability of the fictional female performers. From another, however, it serves to give the average female viewer the hope of achieving success herself.
The dreams of many of the movie-struck girls who made their way to “filmland” involved a “rags to riches” scenario. It was noted in the press of the day, for instance, that Colleen Moore's career was similar to that of the girl she plays in Ella Cinders. Thus, one article of 1926 calls her the “Cinderella girl of the movies.”66
To some degree a similar template was laid on the tale of Eleanor Boardman's rise to prominence. As one piece puts it, “Out of the Goldwyn lot an amazing transformation has taken place.” It claims that when Boardman first came to the studio, the other “girls” thought, “She'll never do.” The executives, however, “figured that a girl can learn grace and poise and a certain amount of style if she only has the priceless gift of personality.” The reader is urged to examine an early photo in which Boardman does not look “unusually pretty,” but instead rather “sloppy and stolid.” Compared to this is a second, post-makeover photo in which “embellished by the art of the Goldwyn hairdresser … she begins to show real charm. And then suddenly Eleanor Boardman seemed to find herself.” We are told that “a novice yesterday” is “a big success to-day.” While “she has gone far … she is likely to go much further.”67 Yet another column speaks of “her sudden and phenomenal jump into motion-pictures, playing leading roles after two films,” demonstrating that “she is a petted child of the fairies.” Finally, the writer asks: “Do dreams come true? Ask Eleanor Boardman.”68
In particular the “Cinderella story” problematically configures woman as the Galatea to the studio system's Pygmalion—a lump of clay to be refashioned by men. But like the “lucky break scenario,” it also offers the female spectator the expectation that she too may be subject to such a “filmland” makeover.
Ordinary versus Extraordinary
Many critics have emphasized the paradoxical aspects of stardom and celebrity, and evidence of this is the fact that such individuals must be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. The press already assumed this exceptionality, since it only covered noteworthy people, so most of its effort goes toward portraying stars as “just like you and me,” thereby reassuring the public. The importance of this is narrativized in Show People when, as Peggy becomes successful, she morphs into a diva and a snob, and begins to lose her audience.
A 1921 piece about Mabel Normand (entitled “Ritzy People Are Out”) reported that she does not “like Ritzy people”; nor does she “believe in all this bally-hoo stuff about art.” Instead she displays a “democratic spirit” and speaks using “glorious” slang marked by “its absolute freedom from constraint” (figure 35).69 Similarly, an article about Marion Davies in Screenland (one of its “Honor Page[s]”) calls her “Friendly Marion Davies” and opines that “her manner to each of us is a disarming easy familiarity” (figure 36). Furthermore, “she has no deep mysterious ambition to conceal.” It ends by announcing: “Friendliness—camaraderie—Marion!”70 In a later Screenland piece from 1929, despite the fact that Davies is a fashion plate, the magazine encourages readers to model their dress after her, stating, “It is possible with Marion Davies to make clothes that are quite practical for girls of her type to be influenced by. Being real herself the clothes will not be too far-fetched or too dramatic to be adapted to your own wardrobe.”71
As for Doris Kenyon, in one interview, she assumes that the writer “expected [that] a maid … would usher [him] in with much pomp and splendor to interview m'lady, who would languidly lay her book upon the table,” but adds, “not so with me. I am just like other girls.”72
By presenting glamorous actresses as “regular folk,” female viewers were encouraged to identify with them and imagine that they, too, could attain such a status.
The New Woman
As we have seen, movie-struck girls were seen to be nonconventional, veering away from the traditional roles of wife and mother in order to seek freedom (social and sexual), as well as economic and career advancement. Their role model for such behavior was the so-called new woman who first came to prominence in the 1890s. Such women often dressed unconventionally and left home to go to the city, where they sought employment as shop girls or office workers, living on their own or with roommates. While some focused on serious social or political issues such as women's suffrage or contraception, others evinced what Frederick Lewis Allen called the “eat-drink-and-be merry” attitude.73 In a sense, the flight to “movieland” was a variation on the theme. Many of the actresses who appeared in the films were characterized as “new woman” types in the press, though that specific term was not used.
A 1924 article in Motion Picture Classic gives a version of Eleanor Boardman's rise to fame. First she is characterized as a nonconformist, as the title of the piece, “Rhythm and Rebellion,” makes clear. Under a photo of her is the following caption: “Tradition chained this girl to a narrow path, bound her to a past generation. But early in her life she asserted her right to be a person on her own account and not just an echo of a past formality. A pretty pioneer, Eleanor Boardman.” Though “Eleanor Boardman spells Rebellion!,” the actress complains of how she is usually cast in “goody-goody parts”—here noting a gap between her screen persona and personal attitudes.74
In the case of Mabel Normand, her unusual athleticism—not among the canonical female virtues—is stressed. A news article of 1913 reports her setting a record at a trotter race.75 Another of 1917 talks of her love of horseback riding.76 Journalists also remark on her rough-and-tumble prowess. An article of 1913 concerns all the physical risks Normand takes in producing comedies. In it, the actress talks of airplane mishaps and being “thrown from cliffs into the ocean.”77 Not surprisingly, a piece from 1915 reports that she is recovering from a studio accident.78 However, as though to assure readers that Normand is still womanly, another writer describes the “feminine touches” in her studio's dressing room, which include “rose-chintz curtains, cushions, comfy chairs” and decor as “dainty as its small mistress.” Normand herself describes her studio duties as “home-keeping” and is proud of her “woman's touch.”79
In Souls for Sale we see Mem opening fan mail—a sign that she has arrived as a star. In the press of the era, several articles about Mabel Normand referenced this issue. In 1917 she is referred to as a “film idol” whose “popularity equals that of any film star today.”80 Her fans are mentioned in another write-up in which she talks of receiving letters “from girls who are so obviously sincere and serious in their endeavors to decide whether they shall ‘go into the movies.’” She tells them that there are both hardships and compensations involved.81 Finally, in a piece from 1919, a writer talks of how she is a “generous movie queen” who sometimes gives money to her needy “subjects.”82
The articles make clear that Normand's fans were largely female (and often working class) and that they saw her as a role model on which to pin their aspirations.
Drama versus Comedy
In several of the films examined, comedy is apparently denigrated as a genre over drama. When in Souls for Sale Mem cries while watching herself on-screen in a comedy, she is told that she would be paid more if she could cry for the camera in a drama. Similarly, in Show People, Peggy is upset when she is cast in a slapstick film rather than a melodrama. This is, of course, ironic, since Marion Davies was known as a comedienne and there is a great deal of humor in the film. In Ella Cinders, it is in fact the heroine's comic skills that get her selected for a tryout in Hollywood, since her contest-winning photograph depicts her cross-eyed with a fly on her nose (figure 30).
In the press of the era, the actress most identified with comedy was Mabel Normand—a performer who in 1916 was deemed “the apple of the camera's eye.”83 Another article, however, seems to celebrate the fact that she is shifting to drama: “No longer is Mabel to fall out of comedy automobiles, or be drowned in shriekingly comic ways, or be hit by that professionally funny custard pie, or shot by humorous pistols. Instead, she is to emote in refined and lady-like photoplays under the direction of Thomas Ince.”84 The piece also mentions that Normand will soon have her own studio, a development that is covered in another article from the same year. Entitled “The Dream That Came True,” it reports on a visit to her new digs, mentioning how viewers might be surprised “that [Mabel] could be serious, that she could be ambitious; that she could cherish for years a thrilling and eminently sober dream.”85
Clearly here we get the sense that, while Normand is a beloved comic, drama is a more proper genre than slapstick for women, who are understood as less athletic than men and to be protected from physical abuse. The reader is also thought to be “surprised” that Normand is ambitious—ostensibly not an attractive attribute for a woman—and assured of Normand's femininity by cataloging how she has decorated her studio.
Public versus Private Selves
In the films discussed, it is often the case that actors’ screen images are not consonant with their real selves—witness the various fancy name changes that they make in order to seem more glamorous. Likewise we are told in one of the films that the woman who always plays a vamp is actually the sweetest person on set.
But some articles about performers of the era attempt to demonstrate the opposite—that “what you see is what you get.” One about Doris Kenyon assures us that she has “beauty, youth and talent,” and “embodies all the hopes, ambitions, [and] virtues she portrays upon the screen.”86
Colleen Moore, of course, was identified on-screen as the quintessential flapper. An article of 1923 proclaims her the “cleverest portrayer of jazz heroines” due to her appearance in such films as Flaming Youth (1923).87 Similarly, a 1924 Los Angeles Times article states: “Colleen Moore seems destined to portray the ebullient young person on the screen.”88 But Moore is sometimes cast differently in press coverage. She is described in one piece as “sweet,” “lovable,” and “ingratiating”—an “every-day, healthy, appealing type.89 A 1926 Photoplay column talks about a camping vacation she will take with her husband and quotes her as saying, “None of this deluxe stuff…. We're going to rough it.” Moore goes on to proclaim that she intends to wear her costumes from Ella Cinders on the trip—hardly the getup for a “modern.”90 Finally, in a 1924 Los Angeles Times piece, when she is asked what she was like as a girl, she replies, “Oh, I was shy and quiet and mother never let me go out with the boys much.”91
Here we conclude that while the flapper image sold on-screen is an indicator of cinematic modernity, the woman behind the image had to be “cleansed” from the moral impropriety of such a figure and shown to be a wholesome young woman.
The question of potential dishonor for an aspiring actress comes up in two films discussed here. In A Girl's Folly, a movie-struck girl is almost led astray by an actor with the offer to become his “kept woman.” Alternately, in Souls for Sale, it is a matter of whether or not Mem's unfortunate marriage (which turns out to be illegitimate and unconsummated) will be revealed in the press, especially damaging since she is dating other men. While scandal could attach to male actors as well (consider the infamous case of Fatty Arbuckle), it was a greater risk for women, whose sexual morality was viewed as more constrained.
The press praises several of the actresses who play roles in these films for living lives that are scandal free. In one piece, for instance, we are reassured that Doris Kenyon has never “skimmed the edge of a scandal.”92 In another article, Helen Klumph notes how Colleen Moore's success and fame rests in her movies, “not on any exploits in her private life. It is not curiosity about some extraordinary person who has broken on the front page with a … divorce, [or] a kidnapping” that leads people “to see Colleen Moore's pictures,” but her talent. Such a career, Klumph concludes, “can go on forever.”93
Other actresses have less uplifting moral profiles—though this affected them to varying degrees. One piece in 1927 claims that Marion Davies is being sued for tax evasion, and another from that same year reports that her niece (often rumored to be her love child) is missing (she was later found with her father in New York).94 Yet another column from 1928 claims that a linen maker is suing Davies for refusal to pay for “the largest banquet cloth ever made,” one that could seat sixty guests.95
It is likely, of course, that this gigantic tablecloth was meant for San Simeon, the palatial home she shared with newsman William Randolph Hearst, her married lover with whom she lived for decades. Though almost everyone in Hollywood knew of this arrangement, it was not openly discussed in the press. In fact, there are few in-depth pieces about Davies in this period, as though to avoid the issue. Thus, in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, she appears mostly in movie display ads, “Society of Cinemaland” columns, and film reviews. Sometimes there are indirect references to her lover. An article of 1929 mentions how a costly Marion Davies Playhouse will be erected in Santa Monica. Hearst is not mentioned, though it was he who reputedly built it for her.96 Finally, a Variety piece of November 1928 does mention Hearst's name—but only in the context of his promoting her movie Show People. It states, “Any time the Hearst papers get in back of a picture it is a b.o. natural here. They did it last week on Marion Davies’ ‘Show People,’ and the gross jumped close to $33,000.”97 Clearly Davies's career was boosted by having a powerful “friend.”
Of all the actresses featured in the movies discussed, Mabel Normand was the one whose career was most tainted by scandal. After years of positive press, things changed in 1922 when on February 2, the actor and director William Desmond Taylor was found dead in his home under ambiguous circumstances, and Normand, who had been one of the last persons to see him, was questioned by the police. This became a major Hollywood scandal, following on the one that revolved around Fatty Arbuckle a year earlier. Though Normand was never charged with a crime, the event had a negative impact on her career. A New York Times article of February 7, 1922, entitled “Press Film Star for Taylor Clew” tells of how the police put Normand through a “grueling” interrogation at her home, asking whether or not she had been in love with Taylor, and whether she had heard of his giving “drug parties.” She denied both allegations.98 An article in the same paper a few days later reported that she had been called down to the district attorney's office for more questioning.99 Some civic groups advocated the banning of Normand's films, but others mocked such moves. One article quotes a writer for the New York American as saying: “The sensitive censors who feel the mere presence of Mabel Normand will contaminate them are losing a mighty good comedy.”100 By June of 1922 she had sailed away on the RMS Aquitania to get some rest, proclaiming that she had been “running away” from the Taylor incident “for five months.”101
Unfortunately this was not the only scandal to haunt Normand's career in this period. On January 1, 1924, a Denver businessman, Courtland Dines, who was working in the Los Angeles oil industry, was shot after drinking and partying with Normand and fellow comedienne Edna Purviance. Evidently an argument had taken place just prior to the skirmish, but the circumstances remained murky. Again Normand was implicated in an unseemly occurrence and required to appear in court to testify. Some city and state authorities called for the banning of her films, but others resisted. Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, claimed not to be concerned with the case.102 Normand issued an appeal to exhibitors to refrain from prejudging her before the truth came out, and some groups came to her defense. The Extra Girl was screened for a committee led by Archbishop John J. Glennon, who concluded that it should be shown. Bruno Lessing of the New York American lampooned the hypocrisy of censorship boards by stating that if they banned the work of Normand, they should also prohibit the literature of Edgar Allan Poe, since he was a drunkard. One progressive leader of a woman's organization wrote: “Here we are, a group of representative women, from leading woman's clubs, trying to ruin a woman socially and financially…. It is a disgrace to women.”103
We have seen how in the 1910s and 1920s, following on press coverage about movie-struck girls, numerous films were produced about inexperienced women entering “filmland,” thereby giving female viewers a chance to experience, vicariously, the quest for fame. But the movies do not present a uniform picture of a starlet's chances. In some, she prospers in becoming a screen idol, while in others she fails or decides to return home. Often her fate reveals the constrained attitudes toward women in this era. Her future is always intertwined with her search for heterosexual romance, which is deemed equal or superior to celebrity and career advancement. Furthermore, in many of the movies, relationships with men are the key to her success in the industry.
The films also reflect broader myths and truths about movie celebrity. In the former category are notions that anyone can become a star, since film acting requires little talent; that comedy is less appropriate for women than for men; and that success is largely based on a lucky break or chance discovery. In the latter category is the fact that, in this era, New York and Hollywood were meccas for fame seekers, and people often moved there from small towns where opportunities were scarce. Furthermore, the narratives mirror a true democratization of renown in this period, and the growing association of celebrity with performance and visuality. The works also invoke the kinds of contests (beauty or talent) that sometimes provided people of the period entrée into the industry. Finally, the films depict the publicity machines operative in Hollywood at the time, and the industry's fear of scandal.
While the role of the press is dramatized in films such as Show People and Souls for Sale, it also existed in reality, as an offscreen presence that tracked actresses’ lives and careers. As we know, since the media was frequently controlled by studio public relations departments, we must take all such coverage with a giant grain of salt. Nonetheless it is interesting to document the vision of women in the film world that was consciously advanced. Some articles (for example those about Doris Kenyon or Colleen Moore) proffer tales of lucky breaks and discovery scenarios (thereby minimizing women's talent), while others (for example those about Eleanor Boardman) imply that the average girl can be fashioned into an alluring movie star, imagining women as inert beings that “filmland” can transform into idols.
Other press articles (for example those about Mabel Normand) discuss a risk for actresses that the films could only suggest—that with fame comes the possibility of disgrace. As Normand herself advised a fame-hungry fan, celebrity is two-sided, offering both adoration and censure. Tragically she was to know a heavy dose of each—a fate that escaped the movie heroines in the films discussed, who were saved thanks to Hollywood's antiseptic and requisite happy ending.