Hollywood quickly adapted once it realised the power A-list stars held over box office revenue. Within the first two decades of American cinema, a well-oiled machine known as the Star System had been created. Producers and Hollywood Executives would find an actor and mould their personality and talent into a product that could be sold and marketed. If someone wanted to “make it big”, they needed to adhere to a strict set of rules and guidelines. The stress took its toll on many. Some turned to drugs, some turned to wild partying and others became self-destructive. Studios put up huge sums of money to pay off journalists and media outlets not to run stories that could be damaging to their star’s image, such as Rock Hudson’s coming out as a homosexual. Women had little control over their personal lives and their bodies were forever the subject of scrutiny.
The Early Years
The first silent films had no credits and the public didn’t know actors’ names. Audiences started noticing the familiar faces of actors in short films and nicknamed them. Florence Lawrence was “The Biograph Girl” and Florence Turner was “The Vitagraph Girl”. The early studios – The Biograph Company, Edison Studios and Vitagraph Studios – started receiving fan mail and autograph requests. At first, they were reluctant to divulge who their stars were. It wasn’t long before studios started advertising stars in films and ticket sales skyrocketed. An actor became a brand.
The first studio to do this was the Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) in 1910. Producer Carl Laemmle paid Florence Lawrence an undisclosed amount for her to come work at IMP. In a scripted turn of events, Laemmle leaked to newspapers that Lawrence had been killed in a car accident. He waited for the news to have its effect and then announced that she was well and was now employed at his studio. This was one of the first movie marketing and exposure ploys.
Studios were still careful not to give their stars too much freedom. Feeling constricted and unable to express creativity, Mary Pickford and a number of others formed United Artists in 1919. Their goal was to create a studio where they, and other independent filmmakers, could make films without the restrictions of the big Hollywood studios.
The Rise of the Star System
By the early 1920s, Hollywood was dominated by five major film studios (Fox Film Corporation, MGM, Paramount, RKO and Warner Bros.). Each invested in talent scouts who would go to theatres, nightclubs and vaudeville acts searching for potential stars. Lana Turner was signed on the strength of a screen test alone. Contracts were offered to up and coming actors, with it only to be taken away at the last moment because the studio lost interest or got cold feet. If an actor was lucky enough to obtain a contract, the process had them under go further training in acting, voice coaching, singing and dancing. They were moulded into what the studio wanted. Studios placed greater priority on appearance than actual talent. Many had their names altered. Lauren Bacall was screen credited as Lauren Bacall, but was born Betty Joan Perske.
A standard contract lasted seven years with reviews every six months. If a film performed poorly at the box office, studios had the ability to release actors prematurely. Studios regularly leased stars out to other studios with the individuals having little say in what projects they were in. The 1930s saw many actors being typecast into certain roles.
Responsible for introducing the Production Code censorship, Will H. Hays also had studios build morality clauses into actor contracts. Women could not be seen in public without makeup on. They were also continually sexualised, objectified and controlled. Jean Harlow had a section in her contract forbidding her to marry.
The Hollywood Star System life took its toll on many. Elizabeth Taylor, who was signed at nine-years-old, detested it. Clara Bow argued that she had no private life. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis even took Warner Bros. to court on separate occasions to void their contracts. Many women traded sexual favours for advancement within the industry. It is rumoured that Joan Crawford and Judy Garland had abortions at the studio’s request. Garland already suffered from body image issues and this only added to her trauma. Loretta Young refused to have an abortion and secretly gave birth to Judy Lewis. The child was put up for adoption, but Young, having a change of heart, opted to raise her daughter instead.
The Star System had dissolved by the mid-1960s, the same time as the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Audiences were becoming more sophisticated and wanted greater realism and grittier substance in their films. Actors are still contracted by studios today, but have more freedom in the roles they choose to pursue. Hollywood has come a long way since its early years but still has further to go for total equality. Bette Davis campaigned for equal pay rights for women in the 1930s and Jennifer Lawrence (among others) is still fighting for that today.
This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on September 18th, 2017. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)
Classic Hollywood’s Secret: Studios Wanted Their Stars to Have Abortions (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/07/classic-hollywood-abortion)
Classical Hollywood Star System (https://cinewiki.wikispaces.com/Classical+Hollywood+Star+System)
How Bette Davis Became a Hollywood Icon By Refusing to Conform at Every Turn (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/04/bette-davis-birthday)
Olivia de Havilland: The actress who took on the studio system and won (http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-stipanowich-de-havilland–20160701-snap-story.html)
Star System (http://www.hollywoodlexicon.com/starsystem.html)
The Hollywood Studio System During the Golden Age (http://www.hollywoodmoviememories.com/articles/hollywood-history/hollywood-studio-system-golden.php)
The Star System (http://www.classichollywoodcentral.com/the-star-system/)