Although it began as a local slapdash effort to advertise the independent exchanges in Chicago in 1911, Photoplay became the nation's leading movie fan magazine. At first it copied Motion Picture Story, founded earlier to publicize the films of the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company, in publishing literary storyized versions of film releases. Adapting the middlebrow conventions of its rival to overcome disrepute and near bankruptcy, Photoplay had already spotlighted the players in its early issues. Indeed, it established the format for publicity stories about iconic female personalities, especially those in exciting cliff-hanging serials who were idolized by lower-class female fans. It also published serialized romance fiction that featured daring, unconventional modern heroines. A magazine that stimulated readers without economic and cultural capital to daydream about glamour and buy fetishized goods, Photoplay constructed stardom as a basis of consumer capitalism.
STARTING A LOWBROW MAGAZINE, 1911–13
After the turn of the century, an avid midwestern movie fan who enjoyed untangling dense plots and following favorite players could spend a dime on a new magazine titled Photoplay that appeared in theater box offices and newsstands. The February 1912 issue offered twenty-nine “Photoplays in Story Form Condensed for Rapid Reading”; an autographed photo of Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid, in a “Gallery of Picture Stars”; “Notes of the Players,” namely Marguerite Snow and Henry Benham; and a few articles on the film industry. Although its first six issues were haphazard and circulated only locally, Photoplay, founded in Chicago to publicize the independent exchanges, evolved from humble beginnings into the nation's leading fan magazine.1 A rival of J. Stuart Blackton's Motion Picture Story (later Motion Picture), which had appeared six months earlier in Brooklyn to promote the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company, Photoplay was initially a lowbrow trade paper.2 And unlike its middlebrow competition, which focused on literary storyized versions of MPPC film releases with captioned stills, it spotlighted the players as well.3 As a matter of fact, the magazine established the format for publicity stories about ascending female movie stars with admiring female fans trailing in their orbit. Stage and opera stars in Parisian fashion and opulent settings may have already dazzled sophisticated urbanites, but they did not inspire identification among working- and lower-middle-class fans.4 A movie personality like Florence Lawrence, however, could excite a mass following in the decade anticipating the New Woman. She was described in a brief illustrated sketch as being “utterly feminine on … screen” but had been a baseball player who, in “the dust of the diamond,” broke her nose and thumb. According to Richard deCordova's schematic study, she was still a picture personality constructed by films and not yet a movie star with a recognized identity and well-publicized private life.5 Yet her popularity was an important sign of change. A historic development, this advance in modern celebrity culture occurred with the arrival of female personalities pursuing pleasure in the public sphere, the growth of the leisure industry under consumer capitalism, and the beginning of a national system of modern advertising.
A close reading of Photoplay before and after its four-month hiatus and reorganization in 1913 illustrates its role in the emergence of celebrity culture. Despite the slapdash quality of the first nationally circulated issue, the magazine followed Motion Picture Story by publishing several storyizations of film releases. As the editors themselves later acknowledged, these initial efforts were brief and unambitious. “Photoplays in Story Form Condensed for Rapid Reading” began with a storyized version of Majestic's Little Red Riding Hood (1911) starring Mary Pickford that was only three short paragraphs (fig. 1). Subsequent issues relegated this section, retitled “Photoplays in Tabloid” for lowbrow readers, to the back pages, where short summaries without stills were written in simple descriptive sentences. Readers needed only a minimal education to follow the plots. Blackton's Motion Picture Story, on the other hand, was seriously middlebrow in appealing to literate readers who were aware of cultural consumption not only as an expression of taste but also as an index of social class. But with Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby starring Harry Benham in March 1912, Photoplay began to copy Motion Picture Story, which reproduced film narrative as sentimental prose or poetry, by printing a literary storyized version of the Thanhouser release and five illustrations. Also promoted were Madame Alice Blache, president of the Solax Company, for being an artistic and “modern woman … doing a man's work” and “The Implet,” house organ of the Imp Film Company, for touting independent as opposed to MPPC “licensed” productions. Still, the material quality of the magazine's paper, inconsistent even in a single issue, was inferior. At the same time, Photoplay focused on performers with departments like “Players’ Personalities” that consisted of brief paragraphs about movie careers and roles. A pair of monthly interviews in October 1912 began to publicize picture personalities like Florence La Badie, who had posed for commercial artist Penrhyn Stanlaws and appeared on calendars and magazine covers, and King Baggot, who would lead in a forthcoming production of Othello. Photoplay also sought reader input by promoting a “Popular Players Contest,” with monthly updates titled “Here's How They Stand,” and received an avalanche of mail from fans voting for their favorites. Surviving the four-month hiatus, the contest ended with American Film's matinee idol Warren Kerrigan edging out Thanhouser stars Marguerite Snow and James Cruze.6
Although Photoplay would soon focus on emerging stars rather than storyizations, the earliest issues also devoted considerable space to increasing readership by urging gullible fans to write scripts. A screenwriting career and participation in the industry became the focus of wishful daydreams sparked by movies and fanned by magazines. Certainly, manufacturers were churning out one-reelers at a rapid pace at this time. Departments like “The Scenario and Its Field” by A. W. Thomas advised readers about plot, characterization, and symbolism. “Reflections of the Critic” described plots as being so condensed that attention to every action was necessary for comprehension and inferred not only scriptwriting problems but also the usefulness of reading storyizations. The “Question Box,” which succeeded “Answers to Inquiries,” replied to queries about screenwriting as well as players. Contests for best-written screenplays were occasionally held. Subscription ads querying, “Do YOU Want to Be a Successful PLAYWRIGHT?” emboldened hesitant readers with offers to revise their submissions. The magazine's price, incidentally, was increased from ten to fifteen cents in an optimistic assessment of reader interest in late 1912. A. W. Thomas alerted fans in a monthly department, “The Photoplaywright and His Art,” that manufacturers were now following a trend toward two-reel melodramas, war pictures, seafaring adventures, folklore, and Westerns. Despite a rapidly evolving industry, the streamlined production, distribution, and exhibition of features was not yet standardized so that a hopeful writer might still hit the jackpot.7 Gambling against immense odds added to the anticipation and excitement of winning fame and fortune. Photoplay, in sum, used implausible scenarios to seduce fans yearning for the dramatic lives of characters in films and storyizations and for the glamour of stars in photo galleries and interviews. The construction of an enchanting and magical world that invited ordinary readers to become part of the glitter was essential to promoting a celebrity culture.
CHARTING A MIDDLEBROW COURSE, 1913–14
After a hiatus resulting from the magazine's slapdash production and lack of capital, Photoplay adapted middlebrow taste to become respectable and increase circulation. Such a tactic enabled it to appeal to lower-class readers aspiring to become upwardly mobile while exploiting their adulation of stars. Circulation reportedly grew from 17,000 to 130,000 in one year and bankruptcy was averted.8 But while the editors improved storyizations as literary narratives, promoted stars as refined personalities, and advertised goods as a sign of social class, they were debasing middlebrow culture. Commercialization had already become a powerful market force adulterating sacrosanct Arnoldian high culture—the best that has been thought and said—with increased production and consumption under consumer capitalism. As Janice Radway argues, a retreat to cultivated middlebrow taste, signified by the Book-of-the-Month Club, was an attempt to stave off the further leveling effects of standardization. But such bulwarks erected against mass-market lowbrow publications like Photoplay could ultimately be swept into the vortex of modern popular culture. At the same time, the effects of massification on taste as a sign of social class and elitism were more limited. While movie stars were still emerging as idols of conspicuous consumption, middle-class refinement signified upward mobility for aspiring lower-class readers. As a matter of fact, political and socioeconomic inequality was actually increasing during the Progressive Era, as class, race, and ethnicity were conflated to define workers as the urban Other. Assured of an income of $1,200 to $5,000 a year, the native-born Protestant middle class, consisting of old propertied and new salaried demographics, was defined by social reproduction, including expenditure on a suburban home, apparel, travel, books, and amusement. Such cultural capital required economic means beyond the reach of ordinary fans. But Henry Canby, who moved from the Yale Review and Saturday Review of Literature to the Book-of-the-Month Club, asserted in the next decade that bad taste, such as a preference for “false jewels, and rayon, and Books of Etiquette,” could be refined. The unlettered could be taught to pursue “rationality, beauty, and truth.” Canby believed that cultural institutions, while remaining authoritative, could uplift the public as well as yield more democratic inclusiveness. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu later documented, however, a social hierarchy composed of homogeneous classes that were stratified according to education, aesthetics, and consumption remained static and unchanging. Class differentiation was marked in terms of cultural as well as economic capital. Within a context of limited upward mobility in America during the 1910s, movie stars flaunting conspicuous consumption provided a compensatory experience for the proletarianized lower middle class as well as the ethnic working class struggling on $800 a year.9 Female readers were especially seduced by fan magazine stories about glamorous personalities. A close reading of interpenetrating levels of taste in relation to class and gender thus reveals the crosscurrents of the time.
Aside from intersecting issues of urban class and gender relations, a changing film industry provided the context for Photoplay's transition into a magazine with middlebrow conventions as well as continuing publicity about the stars. The emerging star system, among other developments that included protracted litigation, was rendering the rivalry between the MPPC and the independents impracticable.10 Although a Photoplay editorial in September 1913 still encouraged fans to request photos of independent players, readers were unlikely to remain orthodox in their following of idols to worship. And the most popular performers switched to studios offering better roles and bigger paychecks. Well before the end of 1912, Florence La Badie, the famous “Stanlaws Girl” who began her film career under D. W. Griffith at Biograph, a studio in the MPPC, decamped to American and then became a serial queen doing her own stunts at Thanhouser. After resuming publication in July 1913, Photoplay was clever and published a close-up of Edgena De Lespine on its cover, a sign of the emerging female star system. Such a portrait contrasted with previous covers that had copied Motion Picture Story, with its focus on narrative, by reproducing long shots from an independent film like The Peril (1912), an Imp racist melodrama about a villainous Japanese spy (fig. 2).11 Although the magazine did not begin its standard practice of using close-ups of attractive women on the cover for several more months, De Lespine's portrait anticipated an important trend in the evolution of stardom. Displaying more middlebrow taste, the editors retitled the “Gallery of Photoplay Stars” as “Photographic Art Studies” with art nouveau curvilinear frames (fig. 3). But the table of contents signaled that more space would be devoted to the performers by referring to “Four Snappy Interviews.” Another department about the players, “Studio Chat—From the Inside / Things You Want to Know About the People You Like to See,” replaced “Photoplayers’ Personalities / Little Glimpses Behind the Screen, As It Were.” Antecedents of the gossip column, these departments appeared voyeuristic but consisted of short, breezy paragraphs about the careers of picture personalities vying for stardom. “Studio Chat” alternated with several pages of ads in the back and was replaced by “West Coast Studio Jottings.” As early as June 1912, “Reflections of the Critic” had claimed with prescience that Photoplay was providing exhibitors with the best advertising. Just mentioning the names of Marion Leonard, Marguerite Snow, Florence La Badie, King Baggot, and Henry Benham produced lines at the box office.12 Stargazing as audience reception set the coordinates for the magazine's future success.
At the helm of the middlebrow course correction at Photoplay was the new editor, A. W. Thomas. As editor in chief of the Photoplay Clearing House, an organization affiliated with J. Stuart Blackton's Motion Picture Story, he headed a staff that assisted hopeful writers with the revision and marketing of scenarios at a commission of 10 percent. A corresponding organization, the Photoplaywrights’ Association of America, which charged one dollar for membership and a fee for editing services, was affiliated with Photoplay.13 Thomas came equipped with both middlebrow credentials and a commercial instinct. During his tenure, storyizations became more literary, were well illustrated with captioned stills, and at times featured cast lists. A few even appeared in poetic stanzas, a Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture staple. But uplifting storyizations were also billed as sentimental romance fiction for yearning female readers. King Rene's Daughter (1913), a Thanhouser film, was described in the table of contents as “the beautiful story of Iolanthe and her ‘Prince Charming’ … in the beautiful measure of Tennyson's immortal ‘Princess.’” A sign of middlebrow cultural pretention, this line was rewritten on the title page to proclaim that “The Courtly Days of Chivalry—of Brave Knights and Beautiful Ladies—Never Gave the World a Prettier or More Charming Love Story Than This.” The Rex film The Fight Against Evil (1913) became a fraught melodrama rendered in purple prose: “A Young Physician, A Disciple of ‘Practical Christianity’ Rescues a Young Girl From ‘White Slavers’ Only to Be Renounced by His Fiancee.” Such hucksterism did not appear in the pages of Motion Picture Story or Motion Picture. At least “Photoplays in Tabloid Form” was discontinued. And beginning in 1914, a notable feature film like Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man was singled out and promoted as a novelette. A recycling of narrative, this Lasky studio text was labeled as “Edwin Milton Royle's Gripping Western Drama Novelized from the Film by Bruce Westfall.”14 Directors, then unrecognized in the evolving central producer system, were less important than writers in legitimizing film. As a matter of fact, a literary storyized version by a best-selling author could enhance a mediocre or even a poor film production. Still, the conclusion of an uplifting storyization or novelette on innumerable back pages with ad stripping—the practice of stacking small ads for cheap products—resulted in more intertextuality and a bonanza for advertisers. Such layouts, evidence of the readers’ aspirations as well as their limited purchasing power, stimulated the daydreaming and fantasizing essential to modern consumer behavior. Ads on the concluding pages, in other words, promoted commodity fetishism as a mode of representation by offering fans a material form of resolution in the many products endorsed by favorite players and signifying enviable lifestyles.15
While publishing stories about the stars as well as storyizations of films, Photoplay broadened its appeal to lower-class female readers with serialized romance fiction, beginning in November 1913. Serials written in overwrought prose, especially in cheap newspapers, had been enthusiastically consumed as working-class fare for decades. The magazine's first serial, “My Experiences As a Film Favorite,” was heavily promoted, illustrated by line drawings, and printed near the front, on page 21. Advertised as “An Intensely Interesting and Intimate Inside Story of Moving Picture Life as Related by a Well-Known Photoplay Actress,” the serial appealed to readers dreaming about becoming celebrities. An enterprising young woman who left a small town to find stardom and romance recapitulated her success story in the first person (fig. 4). She pictured Los Angeles as a tropical paradise with lush palms, shrubbery, and flowers under cloudless blue skies. Well before the final installment appeared almost a year later, a second serial titled “Loree Star—Photoplay Idol” began. So that readers could keep astride of the latest twists and turns in a plot about a new motion picture hero, a “Synopsis of Preceding Chapters” introduced each installment. Loree, like his small-town feminine counterpart in “My Experiences,” resisted the entrapment of sexual seduction common in the movie business, became a matinee idol, and found true love. Wish fulfillment, as Michael Denning argues, was a familiar theme in dime novels and cheap serials and signified the powerlessness of working-class females in patriarchal households. Cinderella stories were hackneyed and commonplace because vulnerable girls and women in traditional families envisioned salvation through the agency of a virile male character. Also continuing for several months, it should be noted, was the storyization of an Edison serial titled Dolly of the Dailies (1914), starring Mary Fuller as an intrepid crime-solving newswoman in a corrupt urban milieu. Chinatown with menacing Chinks was an especially threatening racialized site for her, as it would be for Pearl White in Eclectic's The Perils of Pauline (1914). Physical action and violence were acceptable conventions in working-class, as opposed to genteel, fiction and translated well into suspenseful adventures on-screen.16 Significantly, stars who played plucky serial heroines in sex role reversals were among the first to generate an enthusiastic female following and endorse fetishized goods. And they personified daredevil women with agency as opposed to passive Cinderella types awaiting rescue. The importance of such thrilling characterizations for lower-class fans cannot be underestimated. After the war, the so-called New Woman, whose boyish silhouette would dictate a revolution in fashion, represented a more willful upper-class femininity based on products and performance.
Ads were among the most revealing signs of Photoplay adapting middlebrow taste to increase circulation and revenues. At first the magazine focused on film businesses rather than consumers so that it advertised independent rental companies and exchanges as well as suppliers providing exhibitors with lobby displays, posters, and color transparencies. Such a strategy, especially at a time when fans were becoming rapt and imitative stargazers, was scarcely profitable. Since advertisers were reluctant to appeal directly to impecunious working-class consumers, as Kathryn Fuller-Seeley argues, Photoplay had to adopt middlebrow aesthetics.17 After resuming publication in July 1913, it began to run the type of ads that had been appearing in Motion Picture Story from its inception. An “Alphabetical Index to Advertising” was listed each month, and the classified pages were moved from the back to the front. Ads for typewriters, aimed at hopeful scenario writers, became commonplace. A sign that most aspiring readers faced limited options, correspondence course ads proliferated and strained credulity. The La Salle Extension University law school in Chicago claimed that their graduates passed the bar exam. Assuming naïveté, if not gullibility, the American University of Letters, also in Chicago, encouraged readers to “Become a Powerful Public Speaker” and earn $5,000 a year. Part of the training included a free record player or “talking machine.” Women faced restricted employment opportunities, but the Betsy Ross Candy Company offered to set up businesses for them with copyrights, advertising, and selling plans and promised an amazing profit of $1,000 a month.18 Among products signifying middle-class refinement were gold-tone watches, diamond rings, phonographs, upright pianos, and fashion (fig. 5). An especially interesting ad promoting hygiene offered readers $300 a month, surely an inflated sum, for selling the Robinson Folding Bath Tub. At the time, Photoplay ran fewer ads for books and periodicals signifying cultural capital than Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture, but it did publicize Redpath's History of the World in nine volumes. Webster's Dictionary remained a staple.19
Ads with pseudoscientific authority promoted health and vitality, a sign of earning power in an era when Theodore Roosevelt's pursuit of the strenuous life was widely promoted as an antidote to over-civilization and neurasthenia among upper-class men. Anxiety about exhaustion of the physical self as well as financial reserves was a vague but widespread response to rapid and bewildering technological change. What T. J. Jackson Lears analyzes as a shift from a Protestant to a secular therapeutic idiom in pursuit of self-renewal among the elite filtered down to the common man in less sophisticated language.20,Photoplay characterized male matinee idols in the most robust, athletic, and sculpted terms. Francis X. Bushman posed as a muscled wrestler with impressive biceps in a spotted leopard costume and averred, “The soul is contained in the urn of the body.” Wallace Reid was portrayed as a handsome and virile actor with a masculine body that was “a dynamo of energy.” “Devotees of the manly art of self defense” like these actors trained at the “spacious and splendidly equipped gymnasium” of the Los Angeles Athletic Club.21 Addressing the national obsession with physical vigor, the White Cross Electric Vibrator claimed to yield “the strength of perfect health, [and] abundant nerve force.” An ad for a book titled Sex Force promised young married couples the attainment of “Vital Power.” Commodities claiming to improve a woman's health had the added benefit of enhancing her appearance. A massage device with an electric battery that cured a plethora of ailments like neuralgia and lumbago also yielded “fresh, smooth, rosy skin, sparkling eyes and a luxuriant head of lustrous hair.” Any woman seeking to “Be Attractive” was urged to buy Dr. Joseph P. Campbell's Safe Arsenic Complexion Wafers.” A sign of a celebrity-based beauty culture that would obsess about the female body and become pervasive, Photoplay began to run ads exploiting readers who identified with serial heroines. Mary Fuller Perfume, “A Caress from the Screen,” promised fans “a delightful fragrance and a lasting charm.” Kathlyn Williams and Marguerite Snow capitalized on their exchange value by endorsing Sempre Giovine, “The Pink Complexion Cake” for “velvety” skin, in colored ads on the back cover.22 Such an expression of the commodity form in advertising signified that female fans were becoming the most important demographic group identified by mass marketers in an expanding celebrity culture.
COMMODIFYING FEMALE STARS, 1915–1917
Photoplay's evolution into a magazine that represented glamour occurred when both working- and middle-class women crossed the threshold from the private to the public sphere in pursuit of pleasure. As Elizabeth Ewen argues, most working-class girls internalized the values of immigrant mothers who resisted Americanization, but they also sought to redefine femininity in terms of dress and mixed-sex leisure at dance halls, movies, and amusement parks. Although such a generational change was significant, as Kathy Peiss points out, it defined self-making and fulfillment through access to consumer goods. Genteel middle-class women who married but embraced sororal ties in Victorian homosocial culture emerged in a public sphere usually reserved for exercising Protestant male character. At downtown sites like the Chicago Loop and the Ladies Mile in Manhattan, they flocked to magnificent department stores with plate-glass windows and exotic bazaars. Shopping had once been a male prerogative. Pursuit of mixed-sex leisure in commercial venues, as opposed to social rituals in middle-class parlors, reoriented the sexes toward each other—but not to the extent of companionate marriage, a failed controversial movement that advocated easier access to birth control and divorce. A corresponding change was predictably occurring in socially accepted and idealized models of femininity. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues, Victorian girls were primarily concerned about their respectability and not accustomed to assessing their appearance in terms of self-esteem. But twentieth-century girls were becoming obsessed with their bodies and began to shop unendingly for grooming products, cosmetics, and clothes. Self-surveillance became ritualistic. Glamour, which had initially been condemned as a bewitching and deceptive practice, was now personified by popular movie stars. A mirror of the times, Elizabeth Arden (born Florence Nightingale Graham) and Helena Rubinstein opened beauty salons for affluent women in Manhattan in the 1910s. After the war, regional and national drugstore chains sold mass-merchandised beauty products to lower- and middle-class consumers also intent on improving their appearance.23
Photoplay was well positioned to capitalize on and reinforce social change involving class and gender issues, but its survival necessitated yet another reorganization. A. W. Thomas was by all accounts a creditable editor when the publication of a spin-off titled Photoplay Scenario was launched in April 1914. Seven months later, however, his name was no longer on the masthead. In January 1915 James R. Quirk, once private secretary to former Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald and past editor of Popular Mechanics, assumed control and named as editor Julian Johnson, a Broadway press agent and middlebrow drama critic.24 Both men were au courant regarding the latest cultural trends and brought to the magazine a more modern sensibility about women. Under their leadership, Photoplay began to reverse middlebrow priorities so that fewer storyizations, labeled short stories or fiction, were moved to the middle or back of the magazine. A typical cover featured serial star Helen Holmes in a slinky strapless gown and trumpeted, “SUBMARINE MOVIES – ALL SIDES OF CENSORSHIP – A WEEKEND WITH MARY PICKFORD – EIGHT SHORT STORIES – WHO'S MARRIED TO WHO – TWENTY-FIVE SPECIAL FEATURES & OVER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY PICTURES.” Such ballyhoo succeeded, as a year later the magazine touted a circulation of more than two hundred and fifty thousand. What was impressive was the demographics of its readership. As early as November 1913, Photoplay had concluded that 85 percent of its readers were women who liked “emotional and soul-stirring stories.”25 Serialized romance fiction began, not coincidentally, in that issue. A report about “The Passing of the Fight Picture” attributed the decline to women following Mary Pickford rather than gawking at Corbett and Sharkey in the boxing ring. An alphabetical and cumulative index of “Personality Stories” alerted fans to the names of stars who had already been featured in previous issues. The magazine also published monthly departments like “Players from Ocean to Ocean” and “Plays and Players” by Cal York, a witty portmanteau of California and New York. Such breezy reports were not yet modern gossip columns, but “Who's Married to Who in the Movies” revealed that serial heroine Marguerite Snow was the wife of costar and future director James Cruze.26 Fans’ intense curiosity about the marital status of their favorites, a sign of the emerging star system, meant that discourse on wedded life was not insignificant. When Julian Johnson discussed marriage with Anita Stewart, Ralph Ince's successful sister-in-law, he wondered if she could achieve “that rarest thing—equal partnership with a man … in the arts.” After interviewing Pauline Frederick, he characterized her as a “bachelor lady” whose nuptials had not proven “expedient.” Despite enhancing Mary Pickford's girlish image as a married woman who “is just a grown up child,” he was rather contemporary in his attitude toward female stars and show business marriages.27
A savvy and experienced critic, Johnson also began to write “The Shadow Stage,” a monthly review of film releases that was middlebrow in its theatrical antecedents but focused on movie stars. Such criticism had yet to appear in Motion Picture and gave Photoplay an advantage by downgrading storyizations while promoting stars in short comedies and feature films. But the first reviews, which appeared in November 1915, were not even listed in the table of contents. Johnson proved to be a perceptive and tough critic. After noting that Francis X. Bushman was second only to Mary Pickford in fan worship, he thought the matinee idol's latest feature was marred by “mock heroics, mushy romance and domestic sentimentality.” His critical voice contrasted with the sentimental prose of storyizations and, indeed, his own serialized biography of Mary Pickford. Such changes in register, however, were part of the hybrid nature of the magazine. Subsequent reviews were toned down. In September 1916 Johnson anticipated the prestigious acting awards that would distinguish future stars in “The Year's Acting: A Review of Personal Performances.” Surely he was familiar with a “Close-Ups” editorial that had earlier praised Hugo Munsterberg's “profound” understanding of character psychology as revealed by the camera. Singled out were Wilfred Lucas's “marvelous characterization in ‘Acquitted,’” Mabel Normand's “bulwarking of all the Keystone comedies with her slender shoulders,” and Ethel Clayton's “inimitable human portrait in ‘Dollars and the Woman.’”28 Johnson's astute criticism about acting showed that reviewers were in a position to enhance the role of stars in features during an important transition in film distribution and exhibition. And his reviews lent a middlebrow note to the unabashed promotion of matinee idols elsewhere in the magazine's pages.
Adding up the facts and figures involved in the screening of multi-reel films with important stars, especially females with a following, attests to Photoplay's role in exhibition during a transition from shorts to features. After noting that 306 one-reelers and 108 two-reelers, compared to 52 five-reel features, were distributed in December 1914, Eileen Bowser argues that “single or double reels were still being shown on a regular basis.” According to Motion Picture Story early in 1914, the fans themselves voted in favor of shorts over features by a margin of 2,053 to 1,572. As late as 1917, an “Old Timer” wrote to Photoplay to praise “the shorter film” and recalled with nostalgia the days when a “one-reel Biograph was a classic.” A tally of all the storyizations published in Photoplay as well as in Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture in the years 1915 to 1917 reveals the importance of fan magazines in promoting and advertising feature films during this period. Among the 123 storyizations published by Photoplay, features significantly outnumbered shorts by 59 percent. Although Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture published approximately 36 more storyizations during the same years, only 40 percent were about features. A lower percentage was not surprising because the monopolistic MPPC, whose films Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture initially publicized, and distributor General Film Company were invested in single-reel programs.29 Photoplay was more au courant.
Also signifying the ascent of female stars during this transformation were portraits of them on both Photoplay and Motion Picture Story covers in the second half of 1913. Photoplay published close-ups of attractive matinee idols much earlier and issued 21 percent more such covers by the end of 1917. And those stars appeared in a greater number of feature films over a longer period of time throughout the decade. Stars like Winifred Kingston, Dorothy Bernard, and Marie Doro were also publicized in follow-up interviews titled “The Girl on the Cover” during 1915, 1916, and 1917.30 Consistent with its middlebrow mission, however, Motion Picture promoted oil paintings rather than movie stars on its cover in the summer of 1914. Readers could send for a copy that had been signed by the artist and reproduced “on heavy coated paper” for twenty-five cents. As commercial artwork, these paintings appealed to the cultivated middle-class tourist gaze with scenes of exotic Mexico and a clipper ship on the high seas. Newsstands selling Motion Picture in August relied on a cover that reproduced a painting of a demure French country girl holding a single daisy to attract readers. Photoplay, on the other hand, displayed Florence La Badie wearing a V-neck, short swimming costume and dipping a shapely leg at the seashore rather than in a close-up. She would certainly exert a greater appeal to ordinary female fans identifying with glamorous personalities. As a matter of fact, this alluring picture was reproduced in color on the back cover of the next issue to advertise a complexion soap (fig. 6).31 Among the most popular stars appearing on the covers of both Motion Picture and Photoplay were Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, Anita Stewart, Marguerite Clark, Ethel Clayton, Mary Fuller, Marguerite Courtot, Pauline Frederick, Alice Joyce, Kathlyn Williams, Clara Kimball Young, and Mae Marsh. Francis X. Bushman was the only male actor to shine in this constellation. Unlike Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture, Photoplay rarely accorded male luminaries the exposure of publicity on its cover.
As social types in a prewar era with a Victorian legacy that nevertheless anticipated the Jazz Age, Photoplay cover girls represented a spectrum of feminine personalities constructed with performance and products. Assuming significance in defining the individual characteristics and social class of these stars was a semiotics of fashion. A daring redhead, serial adventure heroine Pearl White wore a practical brown Norfolk suit while driving a rakish yellow Stutz in Manhattan traffic. Petite Marguerite Clark was “delightfully feminine” in a white chiffon gown with a bodice and sleeves edged with scalloped cording and a skirt with matching tiers of scallops (fig. 7). She carried a ruched parasol. Publicity was formulaic so that a detailed description of clothing and accessories was de rigueur. Such reciting of minute details, Janice Radway argues, was coded by genre conventions so that awed readers could more vividly envision their favorites.32 After filming a beach scene, Florence La Badie dined in a hotel restaurant where the chairs were moved at midnight so that she could dance. She was dressed in a “dainty white silk crepe gown … [and] a rhine-stone-set cap with brushes of glittering silver aigrettes” that matched “a beauteous evening wrap … with a stand-up collar of gold lace.” During an interview, Marguerite Courtot wore a “charming frock of midnight blue chiffon cloth and serge” and a “fisherman's blouse” caught in an underskirt that “suggested relaxation and freedom. The gown was passively acting a role of leisure.” Stars with unlimited budgets, unsurprisingly, became compulsive shoppers. Lottie Briscoe resolved not to “buy more than one dress each week nor more than one new hat every two weeks,” and Edna Mayo blithely remarked, “I spend almost everything I make on clothes.” Hazel Dawn splurged on a sable-trimmed coat costing $2,000 and reportedly owned the most expensive wardrobe in the country. A story proclaiming “The High Cost of Dress Doesn't Worry the Film Stars” showed them modeling extravagant evening gowns and wraps that exceeded the bounds of refined middlebrow taste and constituted an outré spectacle.33
Stars dressed in the latest Parisian fashions required tasteful decor as an additional costly accoutrement. Ethel Clayton's spacious apartment exemplified refined middlebrow taste. She enjoyed a large living room with a grand piano, a bedroom in yellow chintz with a dressing table and gold toilet articles, a modern white-tiled bathroom, and a balcony with an awning and pink asters in flower boxes (fig. 8). Among the volumes lining her shelves were English, French, and Russian novels, Shakespeare, Milton, and a leather-bound set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Scattered precious objets included “a lovely cloisonne vase here, a Hokusai print there.” At issue was more than a modicum of good taste. Clayton's elegant home signified that middlebrow culture not only required considerable income but could also be co-opted under consumer capitalism. Acquiring refinement necessitated marketplace transactions and stimulated even more consumption. “A Weekend with Mary Pickford” described the star's apartment in New York in color gradations: rose and gray upholstery furnished the living room, deep rose to delicate shell-pink shades decorated the bedroom, and pale pink-tinted orchids sat on a boudoir dressing table. Pickford's spacious West Coast bungalow, with tropical palms lining the walkway, was featured in another story titled “Movie Royalty in California.” Showcasing “estates and palatial homes,” this report included photographs of substantial dwellings owned by “Jack” Kerrigan and Hobart Bosworth. Perhaps most impressive was the Chateau Normand, a two-story semi-colonial house with high-beamed ceilings and wainscoting, furnished with Chippendale pieces and a Louis XIV bed (fig. 9).34 As proclaimed by the story's title, movie stars had ascended the dais to become American royalty. The scale and vulgarity of their spending, however, exceeded refined middlebrow taste and showcased what Thorstein Veblen condemned in the Gilded Age as conspicuous consumption and leisure among the nouveaux riche.35
Unlike Motion Picture Story and Motion Picture, Photoplay revealed the signifying and exchange value of stars accumulating fashion and real estate by disclosing their enormous salaries. In October 1915 “What They Really Get” asserted that “next to the ages of actresses and the connubial state of matinee idols no matter is of such … perplexity to the fans as the favorite's salary.” Metropolitan Opera soprano Geraldine Farrar, who had already amassed a fortune from recordings, merited $35,000 for eight weeks of filming. Billie Burke earned $40,000 for five weeks, Marguerite Clark $50,000 for an unspecified period, and Mary Pickford $104,000 for an entire year. Clara Kimball Young, Florence Lawrence, Blanche Sweet, Norma Phillips, Anita Stewart, Mabel Normand, Mary Fuller, and Ruth Stonehouse garnered $200 to $500 a week. But the exchange value of actors, it should be noted, was “considerably less.” King Baggot, Francis X. Bushman, Arthur Johnson, Maurice Costello, Carlyle Blackwell, J. W. Kerrigan, and Earle Williams received $100 to $400 a week.36 Five months later, “What They Really Get—NOW!” reported that movie stars were collecting even more money. Billie Burke had just signed a contract to play the lead in a serial for $120,000. Serials starring plucky heroines in action-packed episodes were syndicated in newspapers to coincide with urban screenings and were extremely profitable. Charlie Chaplin's paycheck at Essanay totaled $175,000, but his comedies were worth $2 million. DeWolf Hopper and Douglas Fairbanks were reputedly pocketing $125,000 a year. Francis X. Bushman, “the highest paid screen lover,” warranted $750 a week. Claiming that such inflated figures could not last, the story nevertheless noted that salaries of a paltry $1,000 a week had become passé. An editorial reported eight months later that Pauline Frederick, Marguerite Clark, and Olga Petrova had raised their pay to $2,000 a week. At the top, Mary Pickford now commanded $260,000 a year, but Charlie Chaplin's figures had leapfrogged to a staggering $500,000.37
Such immense sums must have seemed inconceivable when half the female labor force in New York was earning less than eight dollars a week. As unskilled or semiskilled workers in factories and domestics in private households, working-class females could not earn a living wage. A number of lower-class women sought more respectable employment in white-collar sales jobs during a transition that accelerated to include clerical work in the next decade. But salesgirls remained at the bottom of the social pyramid, endured harsh working conditions and subservience to middle-class consumers, and were paid low wages according to incentive programs. Working-class females could still marry—an economic option that was beginning to include issues of personal satisfaction—but increasing divorce rates, especially among the old propertied and the new salaried middle classes, signified that urban lifestyles required more income.38
As unbridled shoppers, female stars reinforced sex stereotypes, but reports about their response to automobiles, which recalled the popularity of bicycles in a previous era, signaled that femininity was being redefined. Women fascinated by the latest streamlined technology were still consumers remaking their personal identities and social relations in the material world. But what could be criticized as a form of commodity fetishism under consumer capitalism was also involved in reversing traditional sex roles. Stars could afford to behave like daredevil heroines in serials produced for working-class consumption and assume masculine characteristics that advertising conferred on shiny new gadgets. And unlike neurasthenic elite men outpaced by urban change, they responded to technology with a sense of enthusiasm and liberation. Adventure heroine Pearl White was nonchalant about “a nifty little biplane” that she flew “all by herself as a diversion from her strenuous studio labor.” Florence La Badie talked about motorboats as well as clothes. Athletic Marguerite Courtot was fashionable in a scarlet cap and coat, but she drove “at a rate of speed no mere man can get away with!” And after moving to California, Mae Murray bought a “low, red rakish thunderbolt … one of those wicked looking affairs” that “had eight cylinders.” A symbol of modernity, the automobile represented individual autonomy, self-reliance, and freedom. Women were among the first motorists to explore the scenic West, write popular travel literature, and pave the way for masses of tourists.39 Car ownership as an enviable sign of success would in coming decades transform social mores by increasing consumption and leisure on an unprecedented scale. A movie star like Marguerite Courtot at the wheel of a car in the 1910s was surely a sign of change—not the least of which was the construction of her own subjectivity. Admittedly a product of prosperity and conspicuous consumption, the rebellious New Woman had arrived in fan magazine pages.40
As late as August 1916, however, Photoplay expressed boredom with female stereotypes and complained, “Seldom … do we see a real American girl on the screen…. Our lovely girls … are always scarlet women of ripe foreign literature, the imperturbable ingenue of another day, the absurd city ignoramus, or the society dowdy who exists only in the backroom of some washerwoman's imagination.”41 Just exactly why the film industry lagged in portraying modern women invites speculation. Seven months after that editorial, Jesse L. Lasky finally advised Cecil B. DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson to “portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in this country are now interested in … the kind of girl that dominates … who jumps in and does a man's work.” DeMille's famous sex comedies starring soigné and spunky Gloria Swanson set a trend.42 Unwilling to wait, Photoplay portrayed its own heroines in short stories and serialized romance fiction. At first serials like “Beauty to Burn,” introduced with fanfare, were narratives about a naive but determined young woman who became a star but gave up her career to marry the man she loved. “Star of the North” (and its sequel, “The Glory Road”) had a similar, if more convoluted, plot, but its modern heroine, June Macgregor, would not have been out of place in a so-called bodice ripper. Her lover “awakened her sex consciousness. Like the healthy, vital young animal she was, sleeping instincts awoke … and whispered of undreamed things.”43 Such titillation affirmed that the decline of literary storyizations would lead to cheaper offerings resembling pulp fiction. By the time Julian Johnson's first tenure at Photoplay ended in August 1917, the magazine's stories were noticeably shorter and less absorbing than the many photographs and line drawings competing for the reader's attention.
Although the tremulous heroine of “Star of the North” experienced sexual desire, she was already passé. When the sequel “The Glory Road” ended, Photoplay immediately introduced “Peggy Roche: Saleslady” as “a new kind of American girl in a new field of industrial endeavor.” As the magazine boasted, “You have not seen, heard or read about Peggy Roche before. She is not in any screen or stage play.” Actually, Peggy was a more sophisticated and contemporary version of daredevil heroines in serial cliff-hangers. Unlike fan magazine readers who peddled mundane items on a shop floor, she sold horse blankets in faraway Palestine, flintlocks and muzzle loaders to a country warring with Albania, and torpedoes to a German government sinking cruisers on the high seas. A symbol of a glamorous sex role reversal, she had a sweetheart who manufactured the war matériel that she marketed in exotic and dangerous locales. As shown by color-tinted illustrations, Peggy was always beautifully dressed and coiffed and wore high heels even on a submarine deck or an automobile running board. Sexual assault by swarthy foreigners was never a threat. When this serial concluded, Photoplay introduced another daring heroine, Daff (Daphne Gail), as “The Gas Girl.” An aspiring movie actress, she was persuaded by her press agent to race alone from Los Angeles to New York as a studio publicity stunt. Along the way she had thrilling adventures and refused a marriage proposal as a prelude to stardom in the next act (fig. 10).44 Daring modern heroines like Peggy and Daff provided ordinary readers, who were fans of serials exhibiting the physicality of women acting like men, with exciting and fantastic but scarcely credible redefinitions of womanhood on the eve of World War I and the Jazz Age.
CONSTRUCTING FEMALE READERS AS CONSUMERS, 1912–17
What was the nature of the fan magazine reading experience in the 1910s? And how were lower-class female readers constructed by middle-class male publishers and editors concerned with advertising revenue? At the very least, the demographics of movie-struck women ensured that stargazing would produce more publicity stories about their favorites. Such identification with stars was routinely exploited by commodity fetishism as a mode of representation in advertising mass-marketed goods. Pearl White endorsed hosiery and diamond jewelry on successive pages in the same issue, and Mary Pickford signed a lucrative contract to appear in monthly ads for Pompeian creams priced at one dollar or less. Any fan who purchased fetishized goods could gain momentary access to an alluring dream world that obscured the grim reality of unequal social relations. As editorial content and ads became more intertextual, stars who were themselves commodities were positioned to exploit their exchange value. When the “Popular Photoplayers” gallery began to appear on a page to the right, the ads on the left initially advertised products like a billiard table for men. But an ad for Woodbury Facial Soap that promised women the “skin you love to touch” appeared opposite a luminous photograph of Lenore Ulrich, in February 1916. Florence Reed, in a close-up photo in a later issue, glanced away from a long shot of willowy Ethel Clayton advertising a corset. And winsome Mabel Normand endorsed Ingram's Milkweed Cream opposite the second page of a table of contents in another issue.45 Despite their limited purchasing power, lower-class movie fans constituted a large demographic group and unwittingly provided the advertising industry with a model of the susceptible female consumer. As Roland Marchand argues, socially superior and condescending male advertisers were more attuned to lowbrow moviegoers and True Story readers than to middlebrow subscribers of the Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall's. The advertising trade journal Printer's Ink continued to affirm in the 1930s that “most American women lead rather monotonous and humdrum lives” and crave “romance, glamour, and color.”46 Such exploitation, as in the marketing of stars during the Progressive Era when class difference was increasing, characterized Photoplay from its early issues.
What James R. Quirk and Julian Johnson constructed in Photoplay before a full-scale entry into World War I was the psychology essential to the first mass consumer society after World War II.47 At the time, as Christopher Wilson argues, middlebrow magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies’ Home Journal established a “mode of realism” in which “illusory power and participation … masked delimited options.”48 Astride both lowbrow and middlebrow conventions, Photoplay constructed beguiling fantasies for less educated readers. Stars posing in the latest fashion against luxurious decor and driving roadsters in tropical California personified a glamorous lifestyle. But voyeuristic fans without economic and cultural capital could only indulge in vicarious experience. At first Photoplay encouraged the unlikely prospect of their becoming scriptwriters and movie stars. Unlike rival Motion Picture, which was restrained by middlebrow taste even as it too began to focus on a galaxy of stars, Photoplay was more imaginative and exploitive. A number of uneducated characters like “Mollie at the Movies” and “Pete Props” in humorous stories described working with famous directors and stars on sets. Why should readers who at least spoke grammatical English not succeed? Photoplay shamelessly promoted scriptwriting even as more streamlined feature film production ensured the odds against success. Winners like Ida Damon, a stenographer who pocketed $10,000 for providing the ending of the popular Thanhouser serial The Million Dollar Mystery (1914), starring Florence La Badie, Marguerite Snow, and James Cruze, inspired hope. She had won the lottery. An account about her choosing a cheap beanery for lunch with writer Terry Ramsaye, who suggested instead a middle-class restaurant as the site of their interview, sounded a dissonant note of realism in a magazine selling fantasy. Ida's win, not coincidentally, was reported in an issue that introduced Captain Leslie T. Peacocke, an Eton graduate, British army officer, and Universal Film Company writer, as the author of a new department titled “Hints on Photoplay Writing.” Although he wrote a poem titled “The Scenario Writer” for Motion Picture and had middlebrow credentials, Peacocke endorsed cheap Nubilt Underwood typewriters, available on a ten-day trial.49 Another competition resembling a lottery, the “Thomas H. Ince-Photoplay Magazine Scenario Contest,” was announced in October 1916 and attracted more than twenty-six thousand entrants vying for prizes of $1,000, $500, $300, and $200. Such a response revealed the sheer number of readers clamoring to be validated as successful personalities in the movie business. Although 90 percent of professional screenwriters were men, as Photoplay attested, 75 percent of the entrants and all four winners submitting five-reel scenarios were women.50 The magazine's seduction of female fans indulging in fantasy was widespread even before the madcap New Woman arrived on the scene to prompt more extravagance.
As expected, Photoplay also published stories about unknown girls surviving the odds on a trajectory to stardom. “Extra Girls Who Become Stars” described how Miriam Cooper, Ruth Stonehouse, and Norma Talmadge, among others, emerged from obscurity to achieve fame and fortune. A lead story titled “The Girl Outside” queried, “Can the Pretty Girl Without Influence Break Into the Movies? Most of the Experts Say No.” Although this realistic account depicted a California “movie rush,” in which thousands of hopefuls descended on Los Angeles, it was ironically intertextual. Surely most troubling was a report about a desperate young girl committing suicide on a page opposite Miriam Cooper wearing a sumptuous coat trimmed with fur. Also intertextual was a story three months later about the moderate success of young entrants lucky enough to become beauty contest winners. The “Beauty and Brains” competition, sponsored by Photoplay and the Universal Film Corporation, had been ballyhooed for a year as a chance to become a star. Twelve thousand contestants in the United States and Canada responded by mailing in two photographs—one a profile shot and the other a “full-face study”—and explaining in no more than 150 words “Why I would like to be a photoplay actress.” Among the finalists were girls of above-average education who were talented, and even some who had theatrical experience.51 Despite strong promotion, the winners enjoyed only modest success, and none emerged as an acclaimed marquee star with her name in lights. Fame and fortune were even more elusive for less privileged fans who could only compensate by purchasing a product endorsed by a favorite star and thus endowed with magical properties.
As intertextual components on almost every page from cover to cover, Photoplay's editorial content and ads became interchangeable in promoting commodification and reification. Glamorous stars marketed in publicity stories represented the most prized commodities. Ad stripping displayed a cornucopia of cheaper fetishized goods: cough drops, shampoos, powders, depilatory creams, ukuleles, phonographs, cameras, bicycles, canoes, instructions for playing the piano or stuffing birds, a book about Sexual Knowledge, even a touring car for $210.52 Commodities, as Raymond Williams argues, were magically endowed with personal and social meaning by a national advertising system that emerged around the turn of the century. The unfolding of such a system, utilizing both magic and scientific technology to influence mass consumer psychology, was evident in Photoplay's pages. A persuasive classified ad for investment advice, for example, asserted that “anyone, no matter how poor, can acquire riches” by learning “how $100 grows to $2,200.” Such ads were more accurate in gauging the economic condition of ordinary readers than an unlikely series titled “Investing in the Movies” that advised savvy, moneyed investors. As Susan Porter Benson notes in a study of household accounts, the working class lived precariously and could neither rely on a regular paycheck nor earn enough income to become middle class until 1945.53 Still, cheap affordable goods like soap and cream must have given ordinary female fans intense pleasure. Such delightfulness could not last, however, and had to be reexperienced with the purchase of yet another product. According to Colin Campbell, the daydreaming that was essential to consumer behavior was characterized by “longing and a permanent unfocused dissatisfaction.” Surely most consequential in the practice of unending consumption—a term that after all means to waste and exhaust—was the commodification of the self in relation to others. As goods were subject to fluctuating market value, so too were human relations reified in a cash nexus. The star system with its megawatt salaries objectified personalities who succeeded in transactions and flaunted conspicuous consumption. As Don Slater, following Georg Lukács, argues: “Capitalism transforms social relations from a situation in which people are by virtue of what they do into one in which they simply have or do not have.” Advertising, essentially “the art form of bad faith” promoting questionable values, was crucial and reinscribed such a scenario among masses of ordinary aspiring consumers.54 Photoplay readers who lacked sufficient economic and cultural capital to remake their personal identities and social relations could only wait for the next fanciful issue of the magazine.