Brand Names and Stars
Brand Names and Stars
7The Star System
Brand Names and Stars
"Whose make is it?"
—Two ladies in front of the Herald Square Theater, quoted in the Moving Picture World, 1 November 1913, p. 486
Before the rise of the star system, films were perceived and sold by brand name. The motion-picture industry in 1909, like any manufacturer in twentieth-century America, advertised and distributed its products by the brand. Under the system of the release day and the standing order, exhibitors, exchanges, and the public were expected to request films by company names, not by specific titles or stars. The price to the distributor was the same for any brand and any film. Competition among producers consisted of selling a greater number of prints to the exchanges; that number, which ran from seventy-five to several hundred copies in 1909, was determined by the popularity of their brand names.1
Such a system depended on the uniformity of the product manufactured. As Frank Woods explained:
New York Dramatic Mirror, 9 April 1910, 17">
The popularity of any one brand of pictures will be found on analysis to depend almost altogether on the one point … how nearly the average output approaches dependable uniformity of excellence. Nearly every manufacturer has at some time or other produced a notable film—one that can compare favorably with the world's best—but not every manufacturer makes a practice of getting out films of this class, or anything like it. In the case of some makers the great films are few and far between, in other cases they come with uncertain frequency, but it is only in a very few instances that they can be said to approach dependable uniformity of excellence. Any manufacturer who desires to establish his trademark at the top can better afford to throw a film, that he knows is not up to the mark, into the scrap heap, than to issue it and thus injure his reputation with the public (New York Dramatic Mirror, 9 April 1910, 17).
Some exchange men discussed the demand for brand names during the trial of the U.S. government versus the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1913. Charles F. Haring, an exhibitor in Jersey City, recalled that when he entered the motionpicture business "some five or six years ago":
There were fourteen releases [a week]. Two that we could not use or would not use, and they were Lubin's and they were so nasty, and so bad, that we would not use them. Well, our exchange merely bought twelve reels. In other words twelve releases, and a three-reel program a day would mean the repeating on yourself of one reel every day, and two on your nearest competitor (US v. MPPC 4:2042 December 1913).
J. A. Schuchert, manager of the Buffalo office of the General Film Company, trying to explain why one combined exchange would be better than two serving the same territory, testified:
They would probably all be buying, for an example, Biograph, and certain makes that were most in demand, where, with a man with the eighteen reels [a week], he could buy an assortment and divide them up between the customers, which would be to their better advantage (ibid., 4:1021).
Robert Etris, formerly with the Lubin Film Service and now manager of a branch of General Film, was asked whether the exhibitor was at full liberty to select his own program. He replied:
Not absolutely, because they would naturally select nothing but the so-called better makes, there are certain films which every exhibitor seems to want: Biographs, Vitagraphs and some others (ibid., 4:2149).
Albert Goff, manager of the Cleveland office, agreed:
I don't just get your idea when you say "select"; you understand we are dealing with a limited commodity, and there ain't much selecting. For instance, an exhibitor is running 35 reels [a week], and your output is 50. There is only 15 left. He don't want certain reels, a Méliès, or something like that (ibid., 4:2346).
Indeed, Edward Augur, manager of the St. Louis branch, confirmed that he no longer, in 1913, bought any of the Méliès films:
The exhibitors were complaining of the fact that these particular films were highly educational, and were describing methods of acting in the South Seas, and also scenics, and educational films, generally (ibid., 4:2434).
Samuel Shirley, manager of the Wilkes Barre branch, also said that he had not ordered any Méliès films for about a year and a half.
The discredited Méliès films mentioned in this testimony were the product of Gaston Méliès' long voyage to the South Seas, the Far East, and the Southern Hemisphere, from August 1912 through the spring of 1913. They were mostly travel and educational films, recording native life and customs of anthropological interest. Gaston Méliès' reputation, while never at the top, had not been that low during the year or so that the company had spent in Texas making Westerns in 1910–1911. Gaston retired at the end of this apparently unsuccessful trip to the Far East and died within a couple of years, leaving his son Paul in charge of a practically defunct company. In 1914 a studio was established in Flushing to produce the Méliès "G" brand comedies for General Film, and a little later, Vitagraph bought out what was left of the American Méliès Company.2
The Lubin brand, meanwhile, so despised by Mr. Haring of Jersey City in 1908, improved as the years went by. In November 1910 an exhibitor, speaking of what he perceived as a decline in some much-admired brands such as Biograph, Selig, Pathé European, and Edison, contended that "the only licensed manufacturer steadily improving is Lubin."3
There is no doubt that the Biograph brand stood for the best. Vitagraph was second in reputation, even though it was the better-known brand in Europe at the time, thanks to the establishment of overseas distribution offices and a more effective system for European distribution. Before the advent of D. W. Griffith at Biograph, Vitagraph had also probably enjoyed the best reputation in America, but after Griffith had been directing for six months, it would be difficult to dispute, at least in America, the Biograph lead. This was the company "whose productions have so steadily and surely forged ahead that they are being eagerly sought for by the exhibitor and the public." A review of The Resurrection similarly observed, "Step by step the Biograph Company is making for itself a unique position among American manufacturers. Within the last few months its reputation among exhibitors and the general public has increased by leaps and bounds." Griffith was never mentioned in these contexts, as directors' names were not advertised or generally known at this time. An exhibitor who owned four nickelodeons in Chicago advised, "Copy after the Biograph, they deliver the goods and all exhibitors are fighting for them." And the Casino in Easton, Pennsylvania, calling itself "The Home of the Biographs," advertised in the local paper, "Every Day a Biograph Feature." Ben Morris, manager of the Olympic in Bellaire, Ohio, reported that "any Biograph, advertised, will draw," while an exhibitor in Independence, Missouri, reported, "This town felt that there was only one firm in the business that could make a motion picture. Anything that carried the Biograph title was good and every other make was rotten." Then he switched to the independent side and discovered Thanhouser, and in fact, his letter was printed in a Thanhouser advertisement, but the statement about Biograph in such a context has a certain ring of truth.4
"Henry," the World's New England correspondent, reported on a visit to the Orpheum in Boston, "As usual, we noted the subdued exclamations of 'Oh, here's a Biograph,' when the leader was flashed on the curtain."5 To which Thomas Bedding, also of the World, soon added his own opinion:
I do not know their staff, their producers, actors or anybody associated with the Company, yet mere mention of a Biograph picture seems to awaken in me a desire to see that picture. I have always felt I could get into the skin of their subjects, and think as their producers and actors and photographers thought (Moving Picture World, 12 November 1910, p. 1100).
The most popular actors may not be the most skillful. The popular actors seem to have the indefinable quality of taking a good photograph, and making appeals by reason of their inherent magnetism (Frank L. Dyer, 11 November 1913 [US v. MPPC 3:1538]).
In the first decade of the century, the theater, opera, and vaudeville all operated to a large extent on the basis of a star system, in which the personal magnetism of a particular performer often outweighed other considerations of artistic talent, or the value of the drama or music.
Yet the industrialists who organized the film business did not take the star system into account. As we have seen, they were manufacturing a product, trying their best to standardize it, and expecting the consumer to ask for it by brand name. The producing and distributing systems set up in 1908–1909 were resistant to change. When the public insisted on their interest in star players, the industry at first declined to exploit it. The producers did not seem to recognize the presence of the actor in the movie theater. The films were only photographs, after all.
In any case, there could scarcely be stars before 1908 or even 1909 because there were few regularly employed actors and actresses and no regular production schedule. Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson and Ben Turpin of Essanay were regularly employed from 1907 on, but they were exceptional. In the sense that they were known and recognized, they could be called the first movie stars, but there is no indication that they inspired that kind of devotion in filmgoers at this early stage. Ben Turpin signed his name to a short article in a trade journal in April 1909, and he was mentioned in a review or two of his films. A story on Anderson's Essanay company out West appeared in the Denver Post in December 1909, and there all his cast and crew were mentioned by name, but Anderson did not become known as "Broncho Billy" until July 1910.6
Most actors were hired by the day. Many of them were from the lower ranks of the theatrical profession, glad to get a few days' work in between engagements, or in the summertime, when they were waiting for a new season to begin. This is the way that D. W. Griffith, his wife, Linda Arvidson, and many others got into moving pictures at the end of 1907. Only when the industry could offer a guaranteed weekly wage and a future did some of them give up the struggle for a theatrical career in exchange for a steady job and a chance to stay at home instead of living in hotels and boarding-houses.
During the nickelodeon years up to about 1912, many actors and actresses of the "real" theater did not want it known that they were working in the pictures and hoped no one would notice. The Dramatic Mirror in July 1909 noted that "there is still a reluctance among the greater part of the prominent players to consider offers from the film manufacturers."7 This reluctance was mainly felt by those insecure players who were in the middle ranks of the profession; the unknowns were glad for a source of income, and the exposure could not hurt those at the top. Now and then really well known stage stars could be hired and advertised, when they were specially engaged for a particular film. After all, there was the example of Bernhardt, Réjane, and the celebrated French actors of the Comédie-Française who appeared with great fanfare in the Film d'Art. Many of America's own stage stars were not prepared to make their screen debuts for a few years yet. Yet Vitagraph's Oliver Twist, released in May 1909, bore a credit title, years before they were commonly used, to announce "Miss Elita Proctor Otis as 'Nancy Sykes'"—a title that appeared at the point where the actress enters the narrative. Edison advertised the appearance of Miss Cecil Spooner in the dual role of The Prince and the Pauper in the first issue of the Edison Kinetogram in the summer of 1909. Champion swimmer Annette Kellerman was the subject of a publicity release when she posed for Vitagraph that summer. Although Otis and Spooner may not be remembered today, they were celebrities on the American stage at that time.8
But lesser mortals had to fear the effect of such publicity on the theatrical managers. In November 1909 the producers Klaw and Erlanger, stung by the competition of the picture houses, publicly forbade actors under contract with them to appear in films. Other actors said they feared less money would be offered them if it were known they had worked in the movie studios. The disastrous effect of nickelodeon madness on the vaudeville circuit of the country was quite enough to make enemies of the impresarios.9
However, this phase passed rather quickly, as the industry became more respectable. The steady and ever higher wages began to make it very attractive. It was possible for an actor to have a real home life and more security than most of them had ever known. Ordinarily, they no longer had to work nights, and they could end the weary travel from town to town all over the country. The idea that the theater was somehow better and more intellectual never quite died, but the stars that movies made were mostly content with fame, fortune, influence, and a cozy fireside, in addition to an extraordinary outpouring of love from the millions. Billy Garwood, who left Thanhouser to go on the road but came back to the moving pictures, purchased a car in 1912, still a sign of success at that time. He said he missed the footlight applause, but actors in "stock" didn't buy autos. When Miss Carey Hastings of Thanhouser was called back to the stage at about the same time, she remarked how things had changed: it no longer mattered to theatrical interests that she had become a picture actress.10
A ground swell of public interest in the movie actors began to appear in letters to the moving-picture studios and trade periodicals and in the daily conversations a good theater manager had with his customers. Even though the star system in other media was a familiar phenomenom, the strength of feeling that moving-picture spectators developed for the actors and actresses was more than the manufacturers could have expected. After all, this was the first real mass audience in history—the number of fans an actor could have was multiplied to astronomical proportions. Beyond that, a more intimate, if imaginary, relationship to the star was possible. The actual person was not present in the movie house; he or she was an enlarged image in the private dream world of the spectator. When the eighteen-year-old Blanche Sweet signed with Jesse L. Lasky at the end of 1914, a writer struggling to describe "screen magnetism" insisted that "the man doesn't live who could watch a good Sweet picture without feeling a sense of her actual presence—without almost believing that he could touch flesh if only his hand could come in contact with the figure on the screen."11
The player, in absence, belonged to the spectator in a closer way than would ever be possible in reality, but that didn't stop some of the more avid fans from confusing the image with reality. It was the public who harangued the theater managers with questions about their favorites, who wrote to studios, who asked for photographs, who sent in proposals of marriage and less proper invitations. It was this special private relationship of spectator and star that led to the familiarity of first names and the dropping of honorific titles. In theatrical tradition, players were usually addressed as "Mr.," "Miss," and "Madame." There was proper distance and respect for one's stage idols. While in the beginning, in print, it was similarly "Miss Pickford," the fans persisted in saying "Little Mary," and "Doug" Fairbanks, and "Charlie" Chaplin. In time, this familiarity spread to other public personalities as well, but it began with the movies.
The often-repeated assertion that the licensed companies refused to allow actors to be named, while the independent companies exploited the star system is not, when one looks into the record, entirely accurate. Both sides resisted it at first, and both began, to a small extent, to draw upon star attraction as an advertising ploy at about the same time in early 1910. Edison and Vitagraph did exploit the names of Otis and Spooner and Kellerman in 1909, but the advertising of names famous outside of the movies was a different case. The value of these names was preexisting. The true movie star is the one whose fame derives from his or her movie appearances.
The only exception to the beginning of the star system in 1910 is to be found in the practice of the Biograph Company, which persistently refused to supply the names of their actors, actresses, or other staff until the spring of 1913.12 It is this example that stands out in the public mind as a refusal of the star system, however, because the Biograph stars were the most popular of all. They were also the players other companies tried to lure away. Why Biograph resisted the tidal wave of audience love for the players three years longer than the other producers remains difficult to understand, but the original refusal may have been perpetuated because so many of the company's best actors and actresses left. Why advertise actors who will leave? The company brand name remains; people go. As a woman in the Berkshires wrote in November 1910, "I attribute the success of a good many films to the popularity of the players, the Biograph artists formerly leading in public favor, but now their ranks are sadly depleted, and we have to go to the theater showing independent films to see the old favorites."13
The director D. W. Griffith may have been responsible for the company's stern policy, but if so, he never explained. Perhaps Griffith's views are reflected in the comments of his friend Frank Woods, who wrote in 1912:
Discussion of the apparent tendency toward a policy of exploiting stars in motion pictures continues to command attention of producers, many of whom look upon the drift as to a rock ahead that may mean great danger to the art. Those who see trouble in the undue featuring of star players have in mind the experience of the theatrical stage, where the exploitation of stars had admittedly proved a handicap and a great deal of a nuisance. The craze for stage stars has caused the artificial making of regiments of near stars, whose only claim to special distinction may have been good looks, a scandal or a "pull."… It does not, however, seem reasonable to suppose that the star craze will or can work out in the same way in pictures, because conditions are so vastly different. In pictures, the star is called on to appear in … hundreds of roles—literally hundreds. She or he must prove absolute ability and versatility, and even then it goes for nothing if the supporting company and the plays do not prove equally good. The situation, therefore, becomes more analogous to the old stock company conditions where every player had to be of equal ability.… A well-balanced company, strong in every part, is the logical answer to the question of best policy in the organization of picture stock companies (New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 January 1912, p. 32).
In 1908–1909, Griffith's actors were expected to play leads and bit parts interchangeably, as in a stock company, but this was a general policy in other companies too. Then he began to depend more on a star system within the company, selecting the same actors, and especially actresses—Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish—to play the leads in one picture after another. But the company still continued to refuse to name them. Nor was Griffith's own name used on the films or in advertisements. Griffith could take pride in regularly being able to find unknown players who crept into the hearts of the fans. His players were always stolen away from him by other companies, and yet he could replace them. He was the "teacher," and his students could then go out into the world and do well. Still, it is hard to understand how he would not resent the continual suppression of his own name in favor of that of the company, when his was the chief hand responsible for its great reputation.
In August 1911 the name of a Biograph actor, Verner Clarges, was mentioned in a review of the Civil War film Swords and Hearts, but by then Clarges was dead, and it couldn't do him much good professionally. An exhibitor in Riverside, California, insisted that "it would be well if all producers included the cast of characters in their bulletins." Agreeing that a cast list should be supplied with every film, F. H. Richardson declared, "It is hardly up to them [the producers] to dismiss the matter with the curt announcement 'We don't wish to.' It would seem that the exhibitor ought, of right, to have some say in a matter of that kind."14
But perhaps the perpetuation of Biograph's refusal to name players, in the face of great public pressure and long after all the other companies had begun to do it, is to be attributed to the hot-tempered Jeremiah J. Kennedy. Biograph advertising was withdrawn from the Moving Picture World once again in 1912, when the World's inquiry columns began to leak out the names of Biograph's actors and actresses to an eager public. I don't know whether the two events are specifically connected; however, the Dramatic Mirror also had an inquiry column, and indeed claimed to be the first to have started one, but they steadily refused to supply the desired information about Biograph films, and they kept Biograph advertising.
Another reason given for not naming players was that a moving-picture star would demand more money. This argument falls down to some extent, however, because the star players got recognition and fan mail whether they were named or not. The writers just addressed their letters to "The Biograph Girl" and "The Vitagraph Girl" and "Dimples" (Florence Lawrence, Florence Turner, and Maurice Costello, respectively.) Charles Inslee of the New York Motion Picture Company was getting mail addressed to "The Indian" in 1909, because of his naked Indian roles in films made in the Catskills that summer.15 "The Biograph Girl" would be as able to ask for a raise on the basis of fan mail as Florence Lawrence. Still, there was such a perception. Griffith's friend Frank Woods reported:
A certain motion picture director, one of the best, by the way, declares that the letters written to The Spectator regarding identities of players and the replies thereto are causing the very deuce to pay with some of the actors and actresses to whom publicity is thus given. According to this complaining director the players immediately swell up and want fabulous salaries. Mirror in hand, one of them will assail the powers that be and, pointing to his or her name in agate type, will declare: "See what a great player I am. Why, here's a person out in Punxsutawney, Pa., who wants to know my name. Gimme more pay or I quit" (New York Dramatic Mirror, 8 March 1911, p. 39).
And by 1913 Frank Dyer would testify:
When I was President of the Edison Company in 1908, $50 or $75 a week was considered a very good price to pay for an actor, because he was given employment all year round, and was able to live with his family, and did not have to work nights, the way they have to do on the regular stage, whereas at the present time, there are actors who receive from $500 to $1,000 a week for their services (US v. MPPC 3:1574 [12 November 1913])
In 1907 and early 1908, before permanent stock companies were established by some of the manufacturers, actors would get five dollars a day, if they worked in the movies. If they didn't find work, they got nothing.16
As Tom Gunning has pointed out, before there could be movie stars, they had to be close enough to the camera to be recognized from one picture to the next. The previous chapter discussed the relationship between the changes in acting style and the closer view of the actor, and the fact that the slightly closer view began to be used in 1909. The same factor also applies to the rise of the star system. There is evidence that the public was already following movie stars by the spring of 1909, when a review of Lady Helen's Escapade declared: "The chief honors of the picture are borne by the now famous Biograph girl, who must be gratified by the silent celebrity she has achieved. This lady combines with very great personal attractions very fine dramatic ability indeed." Florence Lawrence was noticed again in the following month in a review of Biograph's The Resurrection: "We do not know the lady's name, but certainly she seems to us to have a very fine command of her emotions."17
An amusing and charming letter from P. C. Levar of the Daily Coast Mail in Coos Bay, Oregon, argued with considerable intensity about which of the actresses was the real "Biograph Girl." The real one, he insisted, was the one who played Mrs. Jones and had appeared lately with the IMP Company. Although he could not name her, that was Florence Lawrence. The "other one," still at Biograph, was Marion Leonard.18
Kalem, a licensed company, seems to have been the first to offer photographs of their stock company for display in theater lobbies. According to the Moving Picture World, this kind of advertising was slow in coming, despite public demand. After one year of a stabilized production system, the trade paper was already predicting the coming of a star system for the moving picture, doubtless because the waves of public enthusiasm were reaching the World's shores with increasing force. Then the New York Motion Picture Company, an independent firm, announced in a press release
the names of all the actors in the Bison stock company, out in the Northwest, including the name of the director, Fred J. Balshofer.19
In March 1910 Carl Laemmle and Robert Cochrane of the independent IMP Company published the famous "We Nail a Lie" advertisement that declared:
The blackest and at the same time the silliest lie yet circulated by enemies of the "Imp" was the story foisted on the public of St. Louis last week to the effect that Miss Laurence (the "Imp" girl, formerly known as the "Biograph" girl) had been killed by a street car … (Moving Picture World, 12 March 1910, p. 365).
While the ad was obviously a publicity coup, the story told by film historian Terry Ramsaye in the twenties that Carl Laemmle and Robert Cochrane were pulling the first movie publicity stunt to announce the acquisition of Florence Lawrence has some weaknesses. In the first place, she had been working for their company for about six months before she was even named in their advertisements or releases. Her departure from Biograph was noted by the World some time before the IMP advertising man thought of claiming her. The exchange in correspondence about the identity of the Biograph Girl in the World's columns at the end of 1909 may have been the inspiration for Robert Cochrane's press releases at last naming Miss Lawrence ("Laurence," in these early advertisements). And in fact, the first mention of her name in an advertisement was not the one Ramsaye reported, based on fake death reports that had been printed in the St. Louis papers. Her portrait but not her name appeared in an advertisement of 18 December 1909, with the caption "She's an Imp!"; another advertisement on 29 January 1910 mentioned her name, and the advertisement for IMP's Mother Love, released on 7 March 1910, read: "Miss Laurence, known to thousands as 'Mrs. Jones,' does the most excellent of her remarkable career.… Talk about your films d'art! This is a film d'peach, a film d'great, a film d'magnifique!!!"20 ("Mrs. Jones" had earned this title from her performance in the Biograph Mr. and Mrs. Jones comedy series.) This advertisement appeared later than the stories that had appeared in the St. Louis papers about her death and before the "We Nail a Lie" advertisement.
The same issue of the World that carried "We Nail a Lie" featured an editorial stating that the public was now known to be "unmistakably interested in the personalities of the chief performers. This interest is growing." This comment came in response to the suggestion that authors ought to get credit for their scenarios, which the World thought was probably not worth doing because the public was not interested in who wrote the film. Actually, Edison had been making a practice of hiring and naming the famous authors of their screenplays, such as Rex Beach, beating by quite a few years the Samuel Goldwyn "Famous Authors" idea. But most authors of the films were unknown and likely to remain so.21
At the same time, one of the Trust companies, Vitagraph, was reacting to public demand for more information about the players. A Vitagraph spokesman said the company received many requests from people wanting to know the names and get to meet the players. Yet it was "incomprehensible," to the spokesman for anyone to "fall in love" with actors seen on the screen.22
Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner were really tied for the honor of being the first big movie stars. In the same month that Florence Lawrence and King Baggott were making personal appearances in St. Louis (to "prove she was not dead"), Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl, was making personal appearances in Brooklyn. She went out to the movie houses to introduce a new song called "The Vitagraph Girl." In June 1910 the New York Dramatic Mirror printed her photograph and captioned a full-column story about her "A Motion Picture Star," which might be the first time that title was awarded in print. In an interview in the North American, Florence Turner said that she had received thousands of letters proposing marriage. She began to give out photos of herself that summer and continued the public appearances. An exhibitor gave his customers photographs of "the Vitagraph girl, who, by the way, is quite a favorite with our people." Another exhibitor asked if the producers could supply slides of their leading players. The patrons were always asking who the actors were, he explained, and he couldn't tell them. If they knew in advance that Maurice Costello and Florence Turner were going to be in the coming attractions, he could assure a full house. When F. H. Richardson attended one of Turner's appearances, in Jersey City, at the Academy at 342 Central Avenue, he found a small-scale riot of people who were not able to get in. Expressing surprise, he remarked that "it was an enlightening illustration, or demonstration, of the hold the moving picture itself has on the people." Maurice Costello joined the personal-appearance tour circuit in November 1910, first at the Fulton Auditorium, later at the Park Row Theater, and proved to be as popular in person as Florence Turner.23
If Florence Lawrence got the first big publicity for a movie star who was not already a celebrity in another field, it could only have been by a few days. Nor did IMP benefit very long from the buildup of the star, because she left the company before the end of 1910. She went next to Lubin, where she played again opposite Arthur Johnson, the former Biograph star. The IMP Company then returned to Biograph and this time acquired Mary Pickford. She was going to be just about the biggest star of all, but she didn't stay long enough either for them to get the full benefit of her growing fame. A year later, after working in some of Thomas H. Ince's first films at IMP, she and Owen Moore, her husband, signed with Majestic, a new independent company. After about only three months there, she returned to Biograph in March 1912. Her face and name had been advertised widely, and she had achieved the enormous distinction of a cover photograph on the 5 December 1911 issue of the New York Dramatic Mirror, which was ordinarily devoted to a theatrical star. At Biograph, she had to return to a nameless status, but everyone knew her now, and she got a chance to play more leading roles than before, in decidedly better films than those she had appeared in while away from Biograph.24
The independent Thanhouser Company adopted a policy of naming its players from its beginning in 1910, the same time that IMP and Vitagraph were first advertising Florence Lawrence and Florence Turner. Although its players were drawn from theatrical stock, Thanhouser began on a determined note of high-class production and would not be the company to admit that any stage actors risked their reputations by appearing in their films. In the spring of 1911, Frank Crane of Thanhouser was claimed to be the first of the independents to make personal appearances. Of course that claim properly belonged to Florence Lawrence a year before, but it is an interesting perception. The Vitagraph stars, representing the licensed companies, must have been much more on public view than she was during the intervening year.25
The advertising value of players was very clear to all exhibitors by the end of 1911. Mr. M. B. Golden, manager of the Princess Theater in London, Ohio, declared: "Having studied my audience, I know their favorite actors and advertise the pictures and their favorites' names on a banner in front of the theater. I find the actor or actress to be the drawing card, regardless of what they are in." Mr. Golden found Harry Myers of the Lubin players to be one of the best drawing cards he could announce, except Florence Lawrence.26
The industry first began to incorporate the star system into its practice by providing photographs of the favorites for display. By 1910 most of the companies were issuing group photos of their stock companies for display in the lobbies of movie theaters, sometimes with special easels so they could be brought out when the producer's films were playing. Vitagraph was already offering the photographs in color in March of that year. In the autumn, the Powers Company had the foresight to issue a calendar for 1911 with a portrait of Pearl White on it; theaters could obtain it in quantity at cost, with the name of the theater printed on it, for giving away to the fans.27
The shift from brands to stars in the public mind is indicated by a suggestion of "Our Man About Town" in the Moving Picture World during the fall of 1910. Noting that new exhibitor publicity schemes included a voting contest to determine which manufacturer made the best pictures (brand names), he thought that a contest to name the most popular player (star system) would be good—once the manufacturers finally acceded to the demand for display of the players' photos in the lobbies. The World noted that: "There is an extraordinary demand throughout the country by exhibitors for photographs of the actors and actresses. … Managers say they are asked daily by regular patrons. … The patrons say they want to get a closer view of the people" (emphasis added).28
The fan magazines appeared next. The trade periodicals, intended to serve the profession and not the general public, began to get inquiries from fans who found their way to them, and the periodicals created regular departments to try to answer the questions. The Moving Picture World started a special "Inquiries" column in the fall of 1911. The New York Dramatic Mirror, a theatrical paper that was therefore accustomed to the personal popularity of stage stars, claimed to be the first to respond to public demand:
In devoting to portraits of players so much of the extra space allotted to motion pictures in this annual number, The Mirror is merely responding to the desires of the picture public. The extent to which requests for portraits and inquiries regarding the identity of players have developed since this paper, the first of all publications, commenced replying to questions of this character, has been one of the most striking developments of the past year. … The same pressure that the Mirror felt was experienced by the manufacturers, and the most of them responded by preparing sets of portraits of their players for distribution and display, until now it is one of the recognized features of the business (New York Dramatic Mirror, 31 January 1912, p. 51).
Motion Picture Story Magazine was begun by J. Stuart Blackton of the Vitagraph Company at the beginning of 1911, with the cooperation of the other licensed companies. It printed stories (illustrated by frame enlargements) of the Trust's films and
sections with full-page portraits of the players, omitting only the Biograph players until 1913. An enormously popular section was added to supply answers to questions from the fans and publicity stories, and material from the independents was later included as well. George Pratt points out that their expansive "Answers to Inquiries" department sometimes provides the only source for certain film credits. It could be argued, of course, that the Motion Picture Story Magazine was begun as promotion for the films themselves, and therefore it didn't start as a fan magazine. But under pressure from its readers, it quickly became one, and it was only the beginning of a flood of such publications.
In April 1911 K. A. Williams of Fox Street, New York City, was offering postcards of stars' photos, which exhibitors could sell to their patrons for five cents each—as much as the admission price in most places. His selection included Mr. Johnson, Mr. Costello, Mr. August, Miss Lawrence, Miss Turner, Miss Leonard, and Miss Robinson. Lois Weber, leading lady of the Rex stock company, got her picture in the World at that time. American hired a new leading lady, Pauline Bush, and sent her photo and a story to the trades. Sending pictures of beautiful women to the press was a time-honored way for the newer production companies to get some publicity.29
The second annual Sales Company Employers' Ball, held in New York on 14 October 1911, was the signal of a more deliberate building of the star system. It was announced that "attendance of all film actors will be compulsory." The public could buy tickets to these balls, and it had been discovered that they were extremely eager for the opportunity to see their idols in the flesh. Soon motion-picture balls were being held in several major cities by exhibitors' associations and every segment of the industry that could command a group of stars. By the time of the December 1914 Motion Picture Exhibitors' Association Ball, held in New York on the main floor and mezzanine of the Grand Central Palace, all the companies, licensed or independent, took boxes along the sides of the dance floor. That year, Mary Pickford and Francis X. Bushman, Anita Stewart and Earle Williams, Clara Kimball Young and Paul Panzer led the grand march. In Boston, the New England Exhibitors' Association ball had Mary Pickford, Francis X. Bushman, Edwin August, Paul Panzer, Pearl White, Marguerite Snow, Orrin Johnson, Hughie Mack, and Gladys Hulette, while out in San Francisco the Screen Club succeeded in luring up from Los Angeles Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Such balls provided the inspiration for the delightful song recorded by Bobby Short, "At the Moving Picture Ball," about dancing on the feet of Miss Blanche Sweet.30
The star system was in process of being integrated into industry practice. This integration was as much or more the work of the licensed companies as it was that of the independents. Still, during 1910, 1911, and 1912, most films were released without any naming of the players on the film itself or even in advertisements. The World asked for these names to be supplied in a November 1910 editorial. It was difficult, the editorial said, to offer criticism when you didn't know the names:
We suggest [that] each picture or reel be preceded by the full cast of the characters in the play, with the names of the actors and actresses playing the parts. … The veil of anonymity has been gradually turned aside and the public is getting to know these moving picture players (Moving Picture World, 12 November 1910, p. 1099).
In 1911 the Edison Company was the only one to give full cast lists in the advertisements for every film. This company also listed directors and authors. I think they did so more in the spirit of their intention to make high-class pictures and give proper credit, as one did in playbills in the legitimate theaters, than to build star publicity. The Edison Company was rather short of real stars at this time anyway. Although almost all of the companies were quite ready to publicize the names of the members of their stock companies, they were just that, members of a company. Few of them were stars or potential stars.
It is difficult to find the beginnings of credit titles by looking at surviving films, not only because most films of the period are lost, but also because few prints survive with original beginning titles intact, and sometimes credit titles were added later when a film was reissued. Among surviving films, one of the earliest to show original credits is Kalem's When The Sun Went Out (September 1911). The cast credits appear on a title that also gives the time and place, as a playbill might do. When Edison credited all the cast members in their production of Aida (May 1911), including Mary Fuller in the title role, it was said that "the fact that the names of the actors are given is notable." The requests for the practice continued. A fan letter of May 1911 repeated the constant refrain: "I would like a cast shown with film, as it is interesting to compare the different parts played by one person." By the end of July 1911 Edison, Pathé, Gaumont, Selig, Vitagraph (all licensed brands), and Great Northern and Eclair (independent) were said to be introducing the leading characters at the beginning of "important reels." The practice was still uncommon enough in the spring of 1913 to be subject for comment in a review of a film released by the Vitagraph Company: "Another thing about Playing with Fire is worth noting. The names of the players are flashed upon the screen immediately before the scenes in which they appear," or, in the case of a film released by the American Company: "The names of the players are flashed in consecutive order at the start of the picture, each name occupying the screen for a moment. "31
Stars were great drawing cards for the exhibitor. They didn't do so much for the producer at a time when his best possibility of increasing profits was to either (1) reduce production costs, or (2) get an exchange to order more copies of all of his films on a regular basis. As a World editorial pointed out in 1911, "The present system limits the money he [the producer] can make," even if he spent more on the production, except for the very rare special. No wonder the producer worried about the demand for higher salaries that a star system would create.32
Until about 1913, under the established industry system, it was still the brand name that was to be advertised and to be sold. As the system changed, the power of stars expanded. The coming of the feature film influenced the building of a star system (see chapter 12), and so did the establishment of Hollywood as a production center, because news about actors began to be supplied by sources other than the faraway studio executives. A Los Angeles correspondent for the World innocently gave some brief biographies of "local" players, including Dorothy Bernard and Florence Barker of the Biograph, seemingly unaware these names were supposed to be secret.33
When Marion Leonard and her husband, S. E. V. Taylor, formed the Monopol Company to exploit Leonard's talent in feature films early in 1913, they publicized her salary of $1,000 a week on a forty-two-week contract as "probably" the "largest salary of any actress in motion pictures." Her former bosses at the Biograph Company must have shuddered. Since those days, she had appeared with Vitagraph, Reliance, Rex, and Gem. I don't know if she was really getting the largest salary in the business, but the advertisement of it marked a new stage in the exploitation of stars.34
In November 1913 the Ladies' World ran a Great Moving Picture Hero Contest. This was the same popular periodical that had tied up a promotion with the Edison Company previously, publishing the stories in the series "What Happened to Mary" while Edison produced films based on them. Now exhibitors could get free ballots and an advertising slide for a one-day performance of the contest. The candidates for Moving Picture Hero were: Carlyle Blackwell, Arthur Johnson, Crane Wilbur, Maurice Costello, Warren Kerrigan, Francis X. Bushman, and King Baggott. Following in the path of Francis X. Bushman of Essanay in 1913, Paul Panzer made a personal appearance tour, with a show of film clips of his performances. James Waldo Fawcett, editor of the Pittsburgh Mirror, announced ominously, "Hero worship is something tangible in the moving picture business. … The future of the moving picture lies with the player. The manufacturer who fails to appreciate talent is doomed."35
Actually, I think everyone appreciated talent by then, even Biograph, now that they had no more star attractions left. The era of star exploitation was only just beginning: Theda Bara had yet to be invented.