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100 Years of Hollywood and the Stars

William M. Drew

February 14, 2009

 

CELEBRATING THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF HOLLYWOOD AND THE MOVIE STAR

(1910-2010)

 

     2010 will witness a highly significant anniversary of an amazing year in cultural history--the double centenary of Hollywood and the movie star.  For it was in 1910 that audiences were introduced to the movie star, an iconic figure embodying people's collective dreams and values, and a community dominated by film production first began to grow, one whose name would become synonymous with motion pictures everywhere.  It is in the hopes that there will be  wide recognition and celebration of this anniversary, the most important to cinema history since the invention of the motion picture itself in the 1890s, that this web page was created on February 14, 2009.

     As 1910 began, two intertwined happenings shaped the extraordinary year that was to follow, one that would radically transform modern culture.  A young actress would leave the Biograph Company where, despite her name being unknown to her public, she had become the studio's most popular player, to join another production company.  Meanwhile, the director--general of Biograph would take his company from New York to establish a branch studio on the other side of the continent where two other film companies had begun operations the previous year. 

     It was in February of 1910 that Carl Laemmle, head of the Independent Motion Picture Company, more often known simply as IMP, started the publicity campaign that would reshape the cinema world everywhere.  Prior to that, it had been the practice of motion picture companies in the United States and many other countries not to release the names of the players.  Laemmle, however, an independent producer fighting the monopoly of the older established companies, lured the "Biograph Girl," Florence Lawrence, to his studio with the intent of making her name known to the public.  Advertisements began appearing in American newspapers in February, some accompanied by her photograph, hailing Florence Lawrence as "the greatest moving picture actress in the world today" and announcing that, formerly with Biograph, she had now joined the IMP Company.  Then in early March, a story planted in the press informed the world that Florence Lawrence had been killed by a street car, to be followed by Laemmle's denial of the fabrication that his own publicity department had spread.  Florence now surfaced publicly, giving interviews to the press which called her "The Maude Adams of the Moving Picture Drama" and "The Girl of a Thousand Faces."  Later in March, a joint personal appearance by Florence and her leading man at IMP, King Baggot, in St. Louis attracted an immense crowd.  A new era had begun, necessitating the creation of a new term.  One of the ads in March for her latest IMP film called her "America's foremost moving picture star."  Quickly shortened to "movie star" in everyday conversation, the term thus entered the lexicon for the first time in 1910. 

     The woman who was the catalyst for this epochal development was a remarkable individual.  Endowed with great gifts and beauty, Florence Lawrence was well suited to become the architect of a career that utterly transformed the cinema.  Her life story has been recounted with both vividness and accuracy in Kelly R. Brown's excellent biography, "Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America's First Movie Star," published by McFarland.  Linda Arvidson, the wife of D. W. Griffith, Florence's director at Biograph, would write of her: "The movies were as the breath of life to her.  When she wasn't working in a picture, she was in some movie theater seeing a picture.  After the hardest day, she was never too tired to see the new release and if work ran into the night hours, between scenes she'd wipe off the make-up and slip out to a movie show."

     A brilliant actress with an instinct for the camera and an athletic daring that led her to undertake risky stunts, the first movie star was also an ardent feminist, the very kind of far-seeing, independent individual destined to be a pioneer.  Indeed, Florence's restless spirit took her into other fields.  A committed suffragist, in March of 1913 she took part in the great demonstration for women's voting rights in Washington, D.C., launching the long tradition of the movie star as activist.  This thoroughly modern woman was also an inventor.  Growing out of her enthusiasm for driving automobiles, she invented turn signals and brake lights for cars, devices that were years ahead of their time, and, in partnership with her mother, developed the first automatic windshield wiper.  She was single-minded in her pursuit of her own path.  When her first marriage failed and she returned to the screen after several years' absence, she said in answer to a reporter's question in 1916: "Oh, yes, I'm married still, but I'm not working at it any longer.  Staying home all day with 'household chores' to occupy my time, and being ready in the evening with a cheery smile to stay home some more, does not appeal to me as an ideal existence.  I'm going back where I can do some real work, not mere puttering, that third-rate intelligence can be trained to do."

     Florence Lawrence, the creator of an artistic profession that has had an incalculable effect on the world's population for the last 100 years, was in the forefront of the battle to establish equality between the sexes.  The role of movie star as the bellweather of social change thus began with the very first of this scintillating new group of individuals who would be worshipped around the world.  The tragedies that would plague Florence for much of her life would also become a familiar part of the tremendous hardships the new icons would so often encounter in the fierce struggle to realize and sustain a career in the cinema art. 

     Meanwhile, yet another momentous occurrence in early 1910 would have lasting consequences for motion pictures when, in the latter part of January, Florence's former director at Biograph, David Wark Griffith, brought a troupe to Los Angeles to produce a series of films.  Regular production of films in the Los Angeles region had begun during the spring of 1909 when Francis Boggs established a West Coast branch studio of the Chicago-based Selig Company.  Selig would be joined in the fall by the New York Motion Picture Company when they also opened a Los Angeles studio.  But it would be the 1910 arrival of Biograph's Griffith, with a company including Mary Pickford and Mack Sennett, that really began to lay the groundwork for the development of Los Angeles as a community dominated by the new medium.  With a touch of exaggeration, an article in the February 1, 1910 "Los Angeles Times" greeted Biograph's advent by declaring that "The most of the moving pictures made in America are produced in Los Angeles."  The article went on to point out: "With three of the largest companies in the country here, the mountains, the valleys, the orange groves and the seashores teem with persons riding, running and posing before the motion camera, and the films are being enjoyed by audiences in nearly every city of the country and many in Europe, as they are thrown upon the screen, showing delightful California scenery." 

     Los Angeles was actually one of several cities attracting numerous production companies seeking to migrate from the more established metropolises of New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago where the original studios were located.  Rather than continue to be small fish located in big ponds, filmmakers saw advantages in relocating to communities where they could become major factors in local cultural and economic development.  Beginning in 1910 and continuing until the end of the decade, three municipalities would contend for the role as the center of American film production: Fort Lee, New Jersey, located just across the Hudson from New York City, Jacksonville, Florida, which proved a boon to East Coast producers seeking to escape the northeastern winters, and, on the far end of the continent, Los Angeles, California.  The rivalry between Fort Lee, Jacksonville and Los Angeles would last for most of the 1910s, ending in favor of the Western city which enjoyed the greatest advantages in climate and scenery and, in its very rawness, provided particular opportunities for the pioneer filmmakers' reinvention of the culture. 

     Especially fateful for the future was "In Old California," only the third of the Biograph films shot on the West Coast by Griffith in early February 1910 and the first movie produced by any company to be filmed in a district of Los Angeles known as Hollywood.  Only one month before, Hollywood had formally surrendered its existence as a separate community by voting in favor of incorporation into greater Los Angeles to secure improved access to water.  But paradoxically, no sooner had the autonomy of Hollywood seemingly been erased than it found itself on the cusp of dramatic changes which would within a few years make its name the most famous in the world.  With more and more companies locating in Los Angeles, the word "Hollywood" would soon be applied to all film production in the region.  Eventually, Hollywood would become synonymous with American film production as a whole; ultimately, it would even be used to characterize filmmaking everywhere as countries around the world consciously tried to create their own Hollywoods.  Hollywood indeed came to embrace definitions which went far beyond a particular district in Los Angeles, and while the word evokes a wide variety of feelings, ranging from the most condemnatory to the most laudatory, there can be no disputing its extreme importance as a symbol of modern culture, one which traces its beginning to the arrival of Griffith and Biograph on the Pacific Coast in 1910. 

     Likely the most significant film produced by Griffith during Biograph's 1910 season in California was "Ramona: A Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian."  Shot at the end of March and the beginning of April with a release in May, "Ramona" was the next-to-last film he made in the Golden State that year before returning to New York.  The film was, as Linda Arvidson wrote, "Mr. Griffith's most artistic creation to date," and certainly the most ambitious and accomplished movie made in California up to that time.  Griffith had been planning to make it for some time, the sojourn in Southern California having partly been motivated by his desire to shoot the film on authentic locations where the story was set.  At Griffith's urging, Biograph had paid the publisher one hundred dollars to acquire the rights to Helen Hunt Jackson's novel.  Climaxing Biograph's first stay on the West Coast, Griffith took his cast and crew to neighboring Ventura County to film on the rancho that was the inspiration for Jackson's story.  Adapting the original novel into a 16-minute film proved a miracle in artistic compression.  Griffith succeeded in stripping away the element of romanticism that had accrued to the popular story through many years of tourist promotion, restoring the original essence of Jackson's narrative as a forceful arraignment of the white racist oppression of the Native American. 

     Indeed, "Ramona" may have been the most outstanding American film since "The Great Train Robbery" had established the basis of the industry seven years earlier.  In this 1910 production, Griffith made notable experiments in cinema technique, including cross-cutting and dramatic use of landscapes, such as the shots heralded by the title, "The whites devastate Alessandro's village," scenes in which the hero in the foreground sees the burning of his community by rapacious white settlers in the valley below.  With careful attention to detail, composition and foregrounding the central characters, he further advanced his narrative.  In doing so, he provided Mary Pickford the opportunity to give an outstanding performance in the title role, thus contributing to the rise of the movie star even though the actress, consistent with Biograph's policy at the time, was, like Griffith himself, still not billed in the credits and advertising.  And by using his canvas to convey his powerful indictment of one of history's greatest atrocities, the genocide of the Native American, Griffith began with this film yet another tradition that has long become associated with Hollywood, both on and off screen, that of liberal social consciousness.  By combining all these elements in one film, Griffith with almost one stroke had invented Hollywood through his 1910 production of "Ramona."  His achievement was soon noticed by contemporaries.  An October 16, 1910 "Los Angeles Times" article on the rapid development of the new local film industry, stated that while "The picture drama is still in a raw, crude state," there were some outstanding exceptions, noting in particular that "A wonderful film of 'Ramona' was made last spring by one of the companies having studios in Los Angeles."  An exciting, dramatic narrative, technical innovation, a stellar performance, liberal consciousness--Hollywood was truly born in "Ramona: A Story of the White Man's Injustice to the Indian." 

     The promotion of Florence Lawrence to stardom and the establishment of a West Coast unit by Biograph would soon reverberate throughout the American film industry.  The Vitagraph studio headquartered in Brooklyn wasted no time in responding to Miss Lawrence's success at IMP by publicizing its own reigning actress, also named Florence.  In April of 1910, Vitagraph sent Florence Turner on a personal appearance tour of Brooklyn movie theatres, followed by an article on her published in the trade journal, "The New York Dramatic Mirror," under the title "A Motion Picture Star."  With the immensely talented Florence Turner having already enjoyed great, albeit anonymous, popularity as "The Vitagraph Girl," the decision to launch her as a star under her own name marked a break by one of the oldest established companies from traditional practices and signalled that other studios would be following Laemmle's lead.

   In the wake of Florence Lawrence's triumph, the Kalem Company that same year began publicizing the name of its leading actress, Gene Gauntier.  Renowned for her daring stunts, Missouri-born Gauntier did double-duty at her company, writing most of the scripts as well.  Another daredevil actress from Missouri to emerge as a star in 1910 was Pearl White, the leading lady at the Powers Company in New York.  By the beginning of December 1910, the future queen of the serials was already being advertised as "Miss Pearl White, the great emotional actress" who was "rapidly making a great name for herself in the motion picture field."

 

PEARL WHITE

 

GENE GAUNTIER

     Male stars also came to the fore in 1910.  Simultaneous with its acquisition of Florence Lawrence, IMP promoted King Baggot, a stage actor it had recently hired, as her leading man and the company's first masculine star.  Other leading men started to become prominent as stars that year.  Already in the early months of 1910, Selig  was giving star billing to Hobart Bosworth, a veteran of the stage who had become the principal luminary of its California studio.  Vitagraph, for its part, began featuring one of its stock company actors, Maurice Costello, as Florence Turner's co-star in a number of films. 

     It was in 1910 that the Western, one of the most enduring genres, began developing the first cowboy stars.  In the summer, Selig released "Ranch Life in the Great Southwest," featuring Tom Mix in his screen debut.  G. M. Anderson, who introduced his famous character in "Broncho Billy's Redemption," also released in the summer of 1910, later that fall initiated production by the Western branch of the Essanay Company in Northern California's San Francisco Bay Area.  This was a departure from the growing trend of studios to be located in the southern part of the state, but the move  provided the star/director, soon known to millions as Broncho Billy Anderson, with a wide variety of scenic backgrounds in which to place the adventures of his hero. 

   The popularity of Western films also brought stardom in 1910 to a Native American couple of the Winnebago tribe, James Young Deer and his wife, Princess Red Wing.  Working on both the West and East Coasts for such firms as the New York Motion Picture Company and Pathe Freres, the two starred as heroic figures in exciting action films with many incorporating their names in the titles, including "Young Deer's Return" and "For the Love of Red Wing."  Recognized as the first Native American director, Young Deer helmed "White Fawn's Devotion" in 1910 with Red Wing in the lead. The first film produced by Pathe in the United States and shot in New Jersey, it was added to the National Film Registry in 2008.

       Simultaneously, the evolution of the star system received an additional assist from developments in Europe.  In 1910, American audiences, like others around the world, were captivated by a new series of rollicking films starring the great French comedian, Max Linder, who wrote and directed as well.  It was also in 1910 that the films starring the first of the legendary Italian divas, Francesca Bertini, began appearing on the screens of the world's movie theatres.  And in the autumn of 1910, Danish actress Asta Nielsen starred in her first film, "Afgrunden" ("The Abyss").  She was an immediate hit and after soaring to fame in Danish films, she was hired by a company in Germany where she continued on as one of the silent cinema's most renowned stars. 

    

 

                               

 

    

Ironically, the nascent star system may have received its greatest boost in the United States from the company that was the most conservative in publicizing its artists, not even releasing the names of its players until 1912, long after all the other studios had followed Carl Laemmle's lead.  Yet due to the brilliance of Griffith's direction and his outstanding, innovative use of cinematic techniques, Biograph played a central role in the new importance of the film player.  In the fall of 1910, following the precedent of IMP in luring Florence Lawrence away from Biograph and then promoting her as a star, the newly formed Reliance Company hired several leading Griffith players, including actress Marion Leonard and actors Arthur Johnson, Henry B. Walthall and James Kirkwood, and immediately began featuring them in its credits and advertisements as star performers.  For its part, IMP continued to raid Biograph, with Owen Moore joining its growing roster of stars in the closing months of 1910.  While by year's end, IMP had lost Florence Lawrence to a more tempting offer by Lubin, in  a move fraught with   tremendous significance, Laemmle's company then acquired the services of the most popular Biograph player of all, the immensely gifted artist whose name would now resound around the world--Mary Pickford. 

     With the growing importance of the star in films, the more prominent stage actors who had hitherto scorned the screen were now willing to give the new medium a try.  Toward the end of 1910, a leading comedian in the theatre, John Bunny, signed with Vitagraph and would soon emerge as a major film star.  And now that movie stars were joining their older stage counterparts as idols of the public, the studios in late 1910 were already starting to see an influx of aspiring young talent without the more traditional theatrical background.  Among these newcomers were Mabel Normand, a former artist's model who began playing small parts at Biograph, and Norma Talmadge, a Brooklyn schoolgirl who found work at the Vitagraph studio.  Within a year, their faces would be familiar to filmgoers everywhere. 

     The other great development of early 1910--Griffith's discovery of Hollywood as part of the new tendency toward film production in California--would also have continuing repercussions during that year.  The October 16, 1910 "Los Angeles Times" article on the growing importance of Southern California as a production center observed: "Among the tourists who are 'beating it' for California, flying from cold weather, are four or five moving picture companies with their actors, scenery and costumes.  It will be a big winter in that regard."  After noting the presence of Selig, the New York Motion Picture Company and Biograph in the Los Angeles region, the article stated: "The Vitagraph Company is sending a company to San Diego.  The Lubin Company of Philadelphia will take pictures this winter in a studio near Hollywood.  It is predicted by theatrical men that Los Angeles will be the moving picture center of America, next year."  In the case of Vitagraph, whatever location filming it might have done in San Diego, the company would eventually establish its first West Coast studio in Santa Monica in the fall of 1911, a development that was certainly in accord with the article's prediction that the region of the City of the Angels was destined to become the nation's center of film production. As a further indication that year of the growing westward movement by the motion picture firms, the December 2, 1910 "Los Angeles Times" reported on the previous day's arrival of the Kalem Company from New York to establish a Pacific Coast studio near Verdugo Park in Glendale where they would be making primarily Westerns. 

          

 The birth of the movie star and the discovery of Hollywood in 1910 were two distinct but ultimately closely intertwined developments that radically changed film history.  Much like the larger-than-life figures on the screen, Hollywood became a name of myth, no longer simply a district in Los Angeles but a word signifying a host of hopes and dreams, an alternative universe of images.  So transcendent it would be as a synonym for motion pictures that even pioneer stars like Florence Lawrence, who did not work in the Los Angeles studios until long after her peak, and Pearl White, who never once set foot in California, are widely recognized as major figures in the early development of what has long been denoted by that single, evocative word, "Hollywood."

     At this writing, I am unaware of any plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this remarkable year. It is with the object of raising public consciousness that I have set up this website.  I believe there should be an avalanche of festivals, revivals, television documentaries, publications, ceremonies celebrating the event, illustrating the ways in which our culture has been shaped for the last 100 years by Hollywood and the movie star.  In particular, I think more attention should be paid to the decade that began with 1910, those extraordinarily innovative Teens years which have been so often neglected.  I encourage readers of this website to e-mail me at: ReelDrew@aol.com with suggestions on how best to go about generating the needed interest and enthusiasm to bring about the commemoration for "1910--2010: 100 Years of Hollywood and the Movie Star."