Occasionally, in my reviews of early cinema, I’ve made comments like “this was before the star system was in place.” But what do we mean when we talk about a “star system?” When did it start and why? And how did it become so dominant that movie stars made gigantic salaries, and for a time, at least in the 1930s and 40s, seemed to transcend royalty and become truly gods and goddesses? By studying film from the Age of Attractions through the dawn of the Silent Classical Era, we have an opportunity to observe the birth of the movie star, and consider its trajectory.
In the earliest days of cinema, established celebrities like Annie Oakley and Eugen Sandow both exploited and were exploited by film in order to preserve the record of their accomplishments and lend moving pictures an aura of “respectability,” through its documentation of educational and popular subjects. Dancing stars like Annabelle Moore made good subjects, because their art involved movement, and could be shown without synchronized sound, or any sound. Audiences in remote locations could see people made famous in New York or Boston, and get a chance to get “close” to figures they had only read about before. William McKinley seems to have been the first Presidential hopeful to exploit the movies before election, another example of the growing power of the medium.
Of course, there was an already extant star system in live theater. Theater stars weren’t (and aren’t) the same thing as movie stars, but they were trained actors, and when the demand for narrative film boomed during the Nickelodeon Era, they were of course drawn on as experienced actors with potential box office draw. However, there was a perception (true or not) that this could “hurt” a serious theater actor’s reputation – the movies were still associated with low-class entertainment and not accepted as an art form – so there was resistance within the industry. By the same token, the more “progressive” film studios wanted theater stars to help legitimate the moving pictures and draw a higher class of audience, so they were willing to pay enough to lure at least a few for what was, after all, relatively easy work compared to touring around giving the same performances night after night.
Meanwhile, about halfway through the Nickelodeon Era (say, 1909-1911), there was an odd innovation in American filmmaking: cameramen started moving the camera a little closer to the action. Remember that the zoom lens, although invented in 1902, was not yet in wide use in movie making. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a zoom since I started this project, although I’d be happy to be corrected if somebody’s memory is sharper than mine. Anyway, the point is that generally if you wanted to see more detail on something, you had to physically move the camera closer to it. This had the effect, which we hardly notice today, of cutting up the actors so you can’t see their whole bodies – feet are cut off or legs up to the knees or further. But, it also meant that you could see the faces of actors much more clearly.
This change, so subtle that it’s hard for modern audiences even to notice it, had considerable impact at the time. The critics hated it. The established standard was to frame the picture to show a “stage” as in a theater on which the actors would enter, perform, and exit. Closing in meant that you weren’t seeing the “whole stage,” and several complained about not seeing the stage floor. Apart from that, you were dissecting people’s bodies when you didn’t show them head to toe. This was considered “unnatural” by sophisticated movie-goers. Luckily for us, apparently the unsophisticated masses paying their nickels to see the flickers didn’t mind so much.
The other side of this, again, was seeing faces more clearly, being able to distinguish features and expressions. This meant that the tradition of pantomime began to be replaced with more subtle use of the actor’s faces to show emotion. Actors could stop flailing their arms and using exaggerated body language, and perform in a more natural manner. More than that, it meant that audiences began to recognize their favorite actors, even without the benefit of credits to give them names, and started to ask exhibitors when they would get another film showing “The Biograph Girl,” for example.
One of the first to benefit from this was a comedian named Ben Turpin. He had crossed eyes as a result of an accident in childhood, and was very good at making silly faces. Once movies started being made where you could see how funny he looked, he rapidly became a sought-after property and made a much better living than most movie actors at the time. He went so far as to take out an insurance policy against his eyes ever becoming uncrossed.
It’s important to note here that the close up had been used before this, as in the case of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and that Méliès had replicated a zoom by moving the camera closer to his disembodied head as early as “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) and probably before that. Seeing actors’ faces wasn’t “invented” in 1909 or any such nonsense, but it gradually became more of a standard, as did inter-cutting close ups to the point where they become major narrative elements, as in the case of “The Golden Chance,” by the end of 1915. As audiences acclimated to a more intimate standard of photography, they increasingly became fascinated by the faces of the people on the screen.
You can track this change in the pages of “Moving Picture World,” one of the first important industry periodicals, which published from 1907 to 1927. In the early issues, there are few illustrations, and very few actors’ names. Even the ads, meant to promote pictures to exhibitors would emphasize the humor, educational value, or novelty of the movie, and rarely include names or pictures of people in it. Over time, this shifts, with more ads showing stills, and increasing numbers of faces, in particular, shown. By 1915, you will start seeing familiar names and faces, with the fact that Charlie Chaplin stars in a film being given precedence over the reputation of the studio or the quality of its innovations. Meanwhile, other publications had begun to spring up that were intended for movie fans, and these heavily emphasized beautiful head shots of famous stars. The star system, while not as powerful as it would become in later decades, was firmly established at this time.