Fan Magazines

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Fan Magazines

Although many fields of endeavor such as sports, auto racing, radio, and music have all spawned "interest magazines" that provide inside information for devotees of a particular subject or pursuit, it is to the motion picture industry that America owes the long-established concept of the fan magazine. Conceived to promote, popularize, and trade off the fledgling art of film in early Hollywood, the publication of fan magazines dates back to 1911 when Motion Picture Story magazine and Photoplay first appeared. These magazines provided readers with an illusion of intimacy with the stars, and fed into their fantasies of the opulent lifestyles and sometimes scandal-ridden private lives of the famous. At the same time, they purported to reveal the mechanics of the star making process, allowing the average reader—an outsider looking in—to claim spurious knowledge and form a personal judgment as to a player's screen image, talent, off-screen personality and character, and to hold opinions about the best career moves for their favorites.

Initially, fan magazines relied on a formula that packaged a gallery of movie star portraits and illustrated stories of popular motion pictures, together with a few specialized features such as reader inquiries. Each issue was rounded off with short fictional pieces. However, as early as 1912, the magazines began to print interviews with stars, articles on various phases of film production, and even motion picture scenarios. The magazines were targeted to appeal primarily to female readers who, in the belief of most film industry executives, formed the large majority of the filmgoing public. By the same token, most of the magazine contributors were also women, and included such notables as Adela Rogers St. John, Hazel Simpson Naylor, Ruth Hall, and Adele Whitely Fletcher, who all wrote for several different publications under a variety of pen names. Other contributors came from the ranks of press representatives for both actors and film studios. Occasionally, a magazine would publish an article purportedly written by a star, or print an interview in which the actor or actress supposedly solicited readers' opinions on career moves, etc. Though these pieces were normally the result of collaboration between the editorial staff and the subject's press agent, there would be an accompanying photograph, or a set of handwritten responses to questions, supposedly supplied by the star, in order to lend authenticity to the enterprise. These editorial ploys gave the impression that the magazines were essentially uncritical mouthpieces, fawning on an industry that fed them tidbits so as to heighten the public's interest in films.

While this was not without some truth, fan magazines were, for the most part, published independently of the studios, although this did not always guarantee objectivity. The publications were dependent on the studios to organize interviews with actors and to keep them supplied with publicity releases and information about the stars and the films. Nonetheless, the magazines could be critical at times, particularly from 1915 when they began publishing film reviews. It was not uncommon to see both Photoplay and Motion Picture Story giving the "thumbs down" to pictures that they didn't think their readers would enjoy, although the sort of harsh criticism or expose that became a feature of the tabloids in the late decades of the twentieth century were generally avoided. Articles that dealt with the private lives of screen personalities tended to overlook any sordid doings and placed their emphasis on family values, domestic pursuits, and the aesthetics of the Hollywood home and hearth. From the 1930s onwards, it was commonplace to see major photographic features showing the famous names hard at work gardening, cooking, washing the car, or playing with the baby.

This was in extreme contrast to Hollywood coverage in the national press. The circulation of tabloid newspapers thrived through titillating their readers with detailed reportage of the numerous scandals that erupted in the early decades. A notorious example of this was the murder trial of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle during the 1920s. The magazine Screenland (published from 1921 to 1927) took Hollywood's side against the sensationalism of the Arbuckle case by publishing a piece in defense of the comedian (later found innocent), but other fan publications, notably Photoplay, took a decidedly neutral stance on Hollywood scandal. Such incidents as the murder of director William Desmond Taylor, of which Mabel Normand was briefly suspected, Rudolph Valentino's divorce, and Wallace Reid's drug-related death, while prompting the implementation of the motion picture production code in the early 1930s, were pretty much neglected in the fan magazines, or treated in vague general terms within an article presenting a star and his family bravely overcoming adversity. That this approach worked as well as it did demonstrates the devotion of film fans to the romanticized image of their screen idols as peddled by the fan magazines. Most readers were well up on the current scandals, and when the fan magazines alluded to a star's "brave fight" or "lingering illness," they were knowledgeable enough to translate the terms into "drug addiction," or to know that "young foolishness," or "hot-headed wildness" meant sexual indiscretions of one kind or another.

Most film historians view the fan magazines of the silent era as having more scholarly validity than those after the advent of sound. Such publications as Filmplay Journal, Motion Picture Classic, Motion Picture, and Movie Weekly, gave readers well-written film reviews and factual, biographical information that could not be found anywhere else. They have come to provide modern scholars with fascinating sociological insights into the phenomenon of filmgoing in the first two decades of American motion picture history.

After the advent of sound, the fan magazines became less serious and more concerned with sensationalism and sex. The magazines played a major role in creating the lasting impression of Hollywood as the center of glamour during the 1930s. To a country mired in the economic consequences of the Great Depression, fan magazines presented an image of the American dream as attainable to the average person. They treated as gospel such myths as Lana Turner being discovered by a producer while eating a sundae at Schwab's Drug Store or Hollywood talent scouts combing the country for "unknowns" to be turned into stars. The myth-makers were preaching the messages of the Dream Factory to a nation only too willing to believe them. In the make-believe world that formed the setting of the majority of popular movies, crime was punished, courage was rewarded, and lovers lived happily ever after.

Fan magazines presented all movie actresses as icons of perfect beauty. At one end of the scale they were pictures of fresh prettiness (Fay Wray, Deanna Durbin); at the other, stylish and glamorous sophisticates (Garbo, Dietrich, or Myrna Loy). Their handsome male counterparts were either debonair (Cary Grant, Errol Flynn) or the epitome of masculine strength (Gary Cooper, Clark Gable). Everything about the stars was larger than life—their homes, their lifestyles, their passions, even their sins. In short, they had everything except the ability to visit with their fans. Hence, such magazines as Modern Screen, Movie Action Magazine, Movie Classic, Movie Mirror, Silver Screen, and Motion Picture Classic came into being to reveal the inside scoop on their lives to the fans. Articles such as "Jean Harlow—From Extra to Star"; "Shirley Temple's Letter to Santa"; "Motherhood: What it Means to Helen Twelvetrees"; and "The Bennetts Answer Hollywood Gossip" allowed the readers momentarily to forget their drab existence during the Depression and live vicariously through the pages of the magazines.

Conversely, the magazines also let the public know that these glamorous stars did not really have it all; indeed, they envied the simple pleasure enjoyed by their fans. Shirley Temple, they reported, wished she could visit a department store Santa; Deanna Durbin longed to eat fudge like an ordinary teenager, but couldn't lest she put on weight; Myrna Loy wanted the freedom to walk into a department store without being recognized. The conspiracy between editors and publicists that created this communication between the stars and their fans was a significant factor in keeping movie theaters filled with customers.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the pattern remained pretty much the same. The leading magazines during this period were Photoplay, Modern Screen, Silver Screen, Movie Fan, Movie Stars Parade, Screen Album, Screen Stars, and Movie Story. However, with the arrival of post-World War II affluence, the public grew less impressed with the wealth of the stars and more appreciative of pin-up poses of both sexes, and stories that revealed the less savory antics of stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Errol Flynn, and Frank Sinatra. It was the beginning of the end of fan magazines as they had been known and loved for almost half a century. With the onset of the 1960s, they came increasingly to resemble the tabloids, trumpeting banner headlines such as "Liz will adopt a Negro Baby" (Movie Mirror, April, 1967), and containing little real news.

It was in the 1960s, too, that a number of specialty magazines began to appear. Screen Legends and Film and TV Careers devoted each issue to only one or two personalities, and included filmographies and interviews; Famous Monsters of Filmland dealt only with horror films and monsters; and Serial Quarterly concentrated on "cliffhangers" and Saturday matinee serials. As the traditional fan magazines fell away, eventually to disappear and leave the market to these specialist publications and to the scandal-mongering tabloids, a new style of movie magazine was created in the 1980s that has continued to fill the void. In the 1990s, film fans were buying magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, Movieline and, most notably, Premier, which blend interviews, filmographies, and production pieces with serious analysis of film trends and lifestyle fashion. They largely avoid sensationalism, but are not above criticism. They have become the new reading habit for the fans of an industry that is almost unrecognizable in terms of the old studio-based Hollywood, and the great gossip magazines, highly prized by collectors, have taken their place in Hollywood legend.

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Levin, Martin, editor. Hollywood and the Great Fan Magazines. Revised edition. New York, Wings Books, 1991.

Older, Jon. "Children of the Night." Magazines of the Movies. No. 4, 1993, 14-16.

Slide, Anthony. "Fan Magazines." In International Film, Radio and Television Journals. Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1985.

——, editor. They Also Wrote for the Fan Magazines: Film Articles by Literary Giants from E. E. Cummings to Eleanor Roosevelt, 1920-1939. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland & Company, 1992.

Studlar, Gaylyn. "The Perils of Pleasure? Fan Magazine Discourse as Women's Commodified Culture in the 1920s." Wide Angle. January, 1991, 6-33.

Tohill, Cathal. "Sleaze Town, USA." Magazines of the Movies. No. 4, 1993, 91-93.