Jensen-Miller Prize for Best Article in Women's and Gender History, Western History Association
"Oh for a girl who could ride a horse like Pearl White"
The Actress Democratizes Fame
Mary Pickford, the silent film era's single greatest star, published her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow (1954), decades after the motion picture industry made her face "better known than the President of the United States." Black-and-white images layer the book, and, with the skillful shorthand so necessary to celebrity, Pickford used the first photo-essay to sketch how her childhood foretold future renown. After the book opens with a full-page portrait of her pretty, resolute-looking mother, Charlotte Hennessy, the next photographs suggest what tested that resolve. A small cameo of her faraway-eyed, dandified father, John Smith, floats above a snapshot of the simple brick row house in Toronto that he deserted just shy of Mary's fifth birthday, in 1897. The sorrow-faced women in the next grainy snapshot communicate their determination to shelter the three Smith children arrayed beside them on a modest apartment stoop. And here, following this picture of grim resignation and apparent innocence lost, Pickford first spotlights her preschool-aged self, Gladys Smith, a tyke whose manicured ringlets and lacy white ensemble hint at the hopes dashed by her father's desertion. At first glance the portrait appears as conventional as little Gladys's packaging. Closer inspection reveals a child whose furious gaze demolished the era's portraiture conventions for her age and sex. Pickford captioned the image to emphasize both her intelligence and anger: "The cameraman thought me idiotic enough to believe there was 'a little birdie in the black box,'" she explained with still simmering resentment. Thus Pickford used her coming-of-age to tell the story her publicity and films repeatedly retold: a girl needed the courage to ignore men's prescriptions and recommendations in order to triumph over adversity and seize a man-sized share of the world's regard.
In 1917, precisely two decades after her father's signal act of paternal incompetence, poet Vachel Lindsay anointed Pickford "The Queen of the Movies," and her royal highness permanently relocated to Los Angeles, where she reined over the star system that powered Hollywood's rise around the world. By 1920, journalist Louella Parsons could, with unexpected credibility, declare the actress, writer, producer, and cofounder of United Artists-the sole independent film studio to endure in the studio era-the "greatest woman of her age." "To repudiate this girl in haste is a high treason to the national heart," Lindsay wrote, using Pickford's talent to plead the artistic case of the "photoplay," his more elevated term for moving pictures, before the New Republic's high-brow readers. His argument displayed the tendency to equate the famous with the national spirit. For fifteen out of the magazine's first twenty years, readers of Photoplay, which began publishing in Chicago in 1912 and quickly became the largest, wittiest, and most literate fan magazine in America, ranked Pickford the most popular star. "There has never been anything just like the public adulation showered on Mary"; she "could have risen to the top of United States Steel, if she had decided to be a Carnegie instead of a movie star," recalled Adolph Zukor, who perfected the vertical integration of the American film industry. As another silent-era filmmaker described the awe her fame produced, Pickford was so "peculiarly pre-eminent that her position at the very top was subject to little question or jealousy."
Pickford's preeminence was not quite so peculiar when placed within the broader sweep of how the actress came to embody the "democratization" of fame as elite men, and then men altogether, lost their monopoly over incarnating the combination of personal achievement, distinction, and freedom at the heart of modern renown. In this way, Pickford modified an already established role in a genre in which the actress performed a female self who grappled with what it meant for a woman to embody these ideals in ways that made her stand out from the crowd. Yet most historians' unease with contemporary celebrity culture has complicated historicizing and assessing what the fame of actresses has to teach about modern gender roles. Without question, contemporary culture creaks under the weight of individuals talented mostly for their self-seeking display. The seemingly inexorable drift of public discourse since the Cold War toward fixating on the antics of those merely "well-known for [their] well-knowness [sic]"helped to make Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) a classic. Written as the power of television first became evident, Boorstin sketched the kind of declension narrative now so familiar in cultural history: once, somewhere in the past, fame signaled society's recognition of the authentically great deeds and thoughts of a few truly eminent men, whereas modern society's worship of ersatz celebrities reflects our descent into mindless consumerism. A few have strayed from this interpretative path, exploring how famous personalities in modern times continue to reflect the public's interest in changing views of the self and individual achievement. But such works either fail to gender their analysis or reduce the personas of female stars to agents or victims of consumption. Thus women's role in the development of our celebrity-saturated culture remains poorly explained, even as feminist scholarship on how mass culture and female entertainers expressed and cultivated new ideas about sex piles up in the libraries.
Yet one can trace the seeds of a new interpretation of modern fame to another midcentury text, much more infamous than Pickford's or Boorstin's: Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949). In her ex post facto feminist manifesto, Beauvoir argued that only the actress materialized a worldly, ineffable feminine authority that contradicted the equation of public renown with masculine identity. For this reason, the book's concluding chapter, "The Independent Woman," declared the actress to be the "one category" of woman who pointed the way "toward liberation" of the sex. Born in movie-crazed France in 1908, the year before Pickford made her teenage transition from stage to screen, Beauvoir was a child during the time the "divine" Sarah Bernhardt shone indisputably as the era's brightest star. Several factors accounted for the singular role of actresses, according to Beauvoir, including religious censure, relative financial independence, "a taste for adventure" that equaled men's, and a unique status derived from working with men on equal footing while still attracting recognition for their attractiveness as women. Together these forces explained the actress's identity as "the virile woman," a protagonist liberated from many of the conventions that tethered the Victorians' ideal "true woman" to the home. Above all, the actress's freedom lay in how her work in the wider world, like that of men, produced an independence that supported other pleasures. "Their professional success-like those of men-contribute to their sexual valuation." But by "making their own living and finding the meaning of their lives in their work, [actresses] escape the yoke of men," allowing them "to transcend their given characteristics" as the unessential second sex.
As Beauvoir suggested, the ability of actresses to perform new representations of women's individuality originated in the nineteenth century, as industrialization, the explosion of print media, and the democratic revolutions made room for a few women, and many more men, to make their way, and to make themselves known, beyond the limitations imposed by traditional social hierarchies. In short, the "Pickford Revolution"-as one producer called the transformation from an industry with no stars to one defined by them-was a century in the making. Many of the early American film industry's most notable actresses translated, with the distinct accent of their age, the customs and conventions handed down by their theatrical foremothers on the antebellum stage. To stress the importance of theatrical aesthetics and practices on the democratization of fame, this chapter begins by historicizing and gendering the celebrity of Pickford's most important foremother: Charlotte Cushman, the first American female star. Cushman's fame developed in the 1840s-precisely the moment when both the words "celebrity" and "personality" appeared to denote individuals often of ordinary birth whose idiosyncrasies, accomplishments, and glamour made them such a topic of speculation and appeal that the public sought the kind of knowledge, provided through modern media, that made such people into "intimate strangers." For Cushman to achieve this status, it was necessary to reinvent the actress as a figure of professional influence, artistic triumph, and personal virtue rather than of moral corruption, the latter a particularly acute association in Anglo-American culture.
Charlotte Cushman's embodiment of "Success and her sister Fortune" in the 1850s revealed how the celebrity culture that supported her rise restaged gender as performance rather than essence, thereby aiding the breakdown of the belief that a woman's moral character was immutably encoded in her appearance and distance from the tumult of public life. Put differently, celebrity culture's development reveals how advertising an actress as a model worthy of emulation demanded different strategies of representation than those used to publicize great men. As used by film scholars, the term "persona," which views the star as a text whose complications create ambiguities that can appeal to diverse fans, provides insight into the different dynamics that publicized famous women. Promoting female stars like Cushman required modern publicity to convey information about their private lives that could confound the flouting of respectability that their public performances entailed. New rituals of celebrity, like autobiographical writing in women's magazines, explained this hidden self, offering access to truths that complicated how the actress appeared on stage. Such descriptions stressed how often women's natures might accommodate qualities and characteristics of both sexes. Indeed, Cushman cut such an original figure in her milieu that her 1876 obituary still attributed her acclaim to her merging of seemingly irreconcilable traits. Her persona "manifested to the last the two leading peculiarities of her nature, the tenderness of a woman and the firmness of a Spartan man." In this way, the fame of actresses was not a seamless expression of inner virtues-as had long been the case with men-but a multilayered performance that signaled the crumbling of sexual difference's ability to define individual achievement and desire.
Picturing the actress this way begins to explain what made Hollywood's social imaginary so provocative when it first emerged after the Great War. Like no other industry of its day, the early American film industry publicized the accomplishments of its many successful women workers, including actresses, screenwriters, directors, producers, journalists, and publicists. But without question, the most celebrated of these figures were the first movie stars, women like Pickford, Florence Lawrence, and Pearl White. As with Cushman in the century before, these women's fame dramatized their ability to exercise qualities long reserved for heroic men. But unlike Cushman, these "girls," to use the parlance of the day, also displayed qualities that marketed them as romantic, desiring young women who were emblematic of the new sexual freedoms their sex sought to explore. The fame such actresses incarnated explains why so many girls, as well as their elders, came to consider the actress a personage of serious consequence around the world.
When viewed through the lens of gender, the nineteenth-century stage appears as a kind of bellwether for women's entrance into territories that once spelled ruin for the respectable. With the sexual integration of leisure spaces that began with women's participation as audience members of the so-called legitimate stage, women began to stake out new public spaces for socialization. At this theater, women tested old limits as to what they might show and tell in public, including how much the female star could project the type of authority and appetites long reserved for men. By midcentury, Charlotte Cushman's fame displayed how a celebrity culture once sharply segmented by sex and respectability had become mostly ordered by gender and class. This development made room for the celebration of an actress who could act like both a respectable lady and a heroic man.
Before Charlotte Cushman's rise in the 1840s signaled the reconfiguration of the theater, women's appearance "in the play or at the playhouse" took place "under a moral cloud." Through the 1820s the theater was a part social, part political event controlled by elite white men. Men occupied the vast majority of seats in the nation's few stock company theaters, and social class explained where they sat in the typical theater's tripartite seating arrangement: the ground-floor pit for the "middling" sorts, the boxes above for the elite, and the third tier for those with the fewest financial resources, including the prostitutes who paraded their wares along its balcony. Local gentry enjoyed the same repertoire time and again: versions of Shakespeare that made the tragedies less tragic and "fairy tale" melodramas predominated. These plays often turned on the threat posed to a helpless heroine's virtue and her eventual restoration "to the bosom of her home, her father, and her God," offering women little to do but hope for rescue from their travails. All players in this era, male and female, were a morally suspect caste with no social standing. Forsaking womanly modesty and a home to earn a living strutting before strange men, the era's few actresses attracted special censure. The conflation of actresses with prostitutes, the era's other "public women," in the language of the day, was well founded by the standards of the respectable. The more elastic sexual norms of the working-class milieu from which most actresses emerged, their initially low wages, and the desire to accrue the publicity that might follow from attracting well-placed paramours all discouraged a moralistic view of sex. Moreover, the presence of alcohol and prostitutes, as well as the celebration of sensuous display and illusion, made the theater virtually synonymous with corrupt aristocratic tastes, earning it a reputation as the enemy of the middle-class family as that class's "cult of domesticity" took hold. A flat prohibition by the Protestant church followed. Legal scholars consider the special regulation of theatrical exhibitions an anomaly of English law reflecting the conviction of this rising middle class that the playhouse debased audiences, particularly vulnerable female ones. White men could ignore the church and partake of the playhouse's pleasures with little consequence, but women who wished to remain ladies could not. Thus, through performance and space, this theater communicated the same message about women's place in public: left alone without male protection women moved outside the moral order, inviting the surveillance of strangers that led to sexual exchanges and ruin.
As the nation's capitalist expansion sent ever more people scuttling toward markets in cities and towns, leisure assumed more industrialized forms in which the star system and its celebrity culture played an increasingly central role. A theater manager in Philadelphia bemoaned how "a spirit of locomotiveness hitherto unexampled" erupted during "a commercial season of great excess," making "the system of stars the order of 1835." A set of emerging business practices tied to consumer capitalism's growth, the star system offered the best means to fill the era's larger and more numerous playhouses. The theatrical entrepreneurs who sped the star system's development jettisoned the elite man as the theater's most important protagonist and patron. Instead, they publicized a more diverse set of players in different kinds of melodramatic plays that aimed to attract larger and more specific segments of the public. In this way, the star system encouraged the theater's splintering along lines of class and gender.
Inside and outside these more plentiful theaters, a commercial culture of print and performance resounding with melodramatic expression offered an aesthetic register to express the democratization of fame. Faith in the principle of poetic justice and the possibility of self-transformation for those long excluded from the heroic role distinguished melodrama's form from the start. For this reason, some critics contend that melodrama's roots share the same soil that produced fairy tales and ballads. Wherever its origins, the melodramatic form dominated the commercialized popular culture of the nineteenth century created by the spread of literacy, cheaper reproduction methods, and theatrical exchanges. Varying widely in setting and action, most melodramas relied on a plot structured around the protagonist's triumph over villainy, dished out with strong emotion and leavened with comedic touches. By displacing the elite man as central patron and protagonist, according to writer Robertson Davies, melodrama appealed to the "poor working man and his female counterpart, or bourgeois citizen toiling to keep his place in a hurrying world," encouraging their identification "with the Hero, the Heroine, or the Villain." The variety of terms used to modify the melodramatic plays produced on the era's soaring number of stages-including "apocalyptic," "heroic," "problem," "nautical," "sensational," "immoral," "domestic," and "horse"-signaled not just the form's ubiquity but the desire of producers to target and attract specific slices of an ever widening circle of fans. All variations enticed with skillful spectacles and shared an impassioned register that elevated the apparently average speaker and furthered his or her cause. Much like what the star system aimed to do with its production of intimate strangers, this heart-stopping aesthetic used strong emotions to bridge the chasm separating character from audience. Paradoxically, then, melodrama celebrated the individualism that mass society advanced and acted as an antidote to its isolating effects, making it peculiarly suited to popular culture fashioned in the American grain.
Stars who excelled in heroic or apocalyptic melodramas commanded the country's expanding and increasingly democratic theatrical scene. Producers in cities like New York filled new theaters like the Bowery and the Chatham by encouraging young working-class men to shift the customary site of their all-male socializing, excluding prostitutes, from saloons. Cheaper tickets attracted these urban rowdies, but entrepreneurs discovered that magnetic actors performing in these melodramas drew them back. Privileging the roles and tastes of the city's growing number of proletarian men, this mobile network of male stars disrupted the traditional balance of power between managers and players, and among men of different classes in the audience. Here arose the first American audience, lovingly chronicled by historian Lawrence Levine. The opinionated, passionate, and participatory style of this audience displayed how white men's expanding political rights gave them the confidence to attempt sovereignty over performers and elites alike. Yet, rather than offering a truly democratic space, this theater presented a contained performance of the masculine conflicts and style animating the rise of the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson.
The celebrity of Edwin Forrest, the first great American star, crystallized the type of man idealized by this political culture. Inside now largely class-segmented theaters, Forrest played the common man's champion, a fearless destroyer of tyrants in plays like Metamora, or the Last of the Wampanoags (1829), the tale of a doomed "noble savage" who refuses to submit to the white man's rule. To his legion of male fans, the public performer and the private man were indivisible. "It is no painted shadow you see in Mr. Forrest, no piece of costume," boasted one reviewer, "but a man, there to do his four hours of work brawinly [sic], it may be, and sturdily, and with great outlay of muscular power but there's a big heart thrown in." Forrest was no effete English fop, but a vigorous American democrat and Democrat who actively supported the party of Jackson. On stage and off, he displayed what his friend and official biographer called the "one essential ideal" that distinguished him in this homosocial arena: his "fearless faithful manhood." Thus Forrest's fame grew from his performance of the qualities that his fans believed he possessed in private. However ersatz the display, Forrest inspired a devotion based on his seemingly authentic personification of the new social order's dominant political culture in ways that drew on established modes of fame.
Women found little room in this theater as long as it aimed primarily to satisfy the "mechanics" whose wild and, at times, riotous behavior became part of the show. Such displays climaxed with the Astor Place Riots of 1849, a conflagration that pitted supporters of the aristocratic English star William Macready against Forrest's "native" American fans and left twenty-two dead. By quickening the drive to segment theaters along class lines and to tame this audience's participatory style, the event sped what cultural historians call the feminization of American culture and its resulting sacralization as Shakespeare moved out of the mechanics' houses. The drive to clean up theaters-to make them spaces fit for the ladies of any class-dramatically diminished workingmen's power in the pit by limiting their ability to use the theater as a space to strengthen solidarities of gender, class, and party.
Yet, from the perspective of the opposite sex, the move to reconfigure the gendered moral taxonomy of the theater opened up as much as it shut down. Not only did a theatrical culture aimed at men figure all women who joined its public as immoral, but its celebration of a fighting-style of masculinity also disadvantaged women performers. Shortly before she turned to film acting, Pickford recalled "the great difficulty" of performing before the remnants of this audience in the "ten-twenty-thirty" theaters, so called for their popularly priced tickets. Tellingly, Pickford played a small boy in a play in which the few parts for women continued to mirror the ideal of true womanhood that had pervaded popular conventions during the Victorian era. Originating among white middle-class urbanites, the ideal held that Woman should embody everything that Man-ever more consumed by the hurrying, competitive outside world of commerce-did not. Leading a pious, passive, and asexual existence, the true woman was a well-kept "angel in the home" who exercised spiritual power over loved ones from inside its walls. A rumor that a lady was not as pure as she appeared could foul her reputation, rendering the bawdy theater off-limits for respectable women regardless of class. Such attitudes explained why the actress's economic independence and distance from patriarchal protection, as much her sexual conduct, made her commensurate with the prostitutes working the third tier.
Ironically, the popular image associated with the entrenched domesticity of the middle class-of the lady of the house with less and less to do-helped to produce its destruction by creating a lucrative target for theatrical entrepreneurs. Managers of the legitimate stage first moved to tap the rising purchasing power of middle-class women during a particularly steep financial free fall between 1837 and 1842. They brought the ladies out to the playhouse in droves by barring prostitutes, turning the third tier into a "family circle," eliminating the sale of alcohol, discouraging the frequent outbursts that led to riotous behavior, and instituting matinees. At midcentury, women's patronage of what became known as the legitimate theater produced the sexual integration of "the first public den of male sociability," according to historian Mary Ryan. In 1856, the first public space conceived especially for the ladies opened: A.T. Stewart, a marble palace department store located in New York City's financial district. 1856 also marked the year in which the forty-year-old Cushman brought her London triumph home. Both events indicated how consumer culture could aid the ladies' conquest of heretofore suspect territories, while creating new jobs for those who struggled to afford the fun. These developments also supported the celebrity culture that allowed Charlotte Cushman to achieve renown.
"I was born a tomboy," began the memoir Charlotte Cushman dictated to her longtime companion, Emma Stebbins, months before her death in 1876. "Tomboy" was "an ugly little phrase," an "epithet in those days," Stebbins later explained, that referred "to pioneers of women's advancement." "Applied to all little girls who showed the least tendency toward thinking and acting for themselves," it kept "the dangerous feminine element within what was considered to be the due bounds of propriety and decorum." The daughter of a schoolteacher, and the granddaughter of a single mother, Cushman credited her maternal line "for one element in my nature-ambition!" Born in 1816, Cushman was the eldest of four children and viewed the stage as a means to provide her family with the upward mobility blocked by her much older father's business failures and desertion. After making her professional debut as a singer in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in 1835, Cushman gradually reoriented her interest toward acting. By 1842, the young actress had made a small but considered reputation as Lady Macbeth, and she set about renovating Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre to attract the city's "settled and domestic citizens." There she acted as leading lady, publicist, and theater manager. The decision displayed her awareness that she needed a more ordered, if at times no less boisterous, space defined above all by the presence of women themselves. Moreover, the multiple roles she assumed at the Walnut, including her place at its helm, demonstrated how a theatrical work practice called "doubling in the brass" benefited actresses who sought unconventional types of public authority. A phrase that emerged from the contemporary all-male minstrel shows aimed at working-class men, "doubling in the brass" signaledthe expectation that all members of a stock company perform roles that crossed conventional gender boundaries, including playing both sexes on-stage and performing tasks typically reserved for the opposite sex off of it.The practice helped to explain why the most successful thespians often excelled at more than just acting. But Cushman's timing was unlucky. The Walnut Street Theatre was opened in the midst of a serious economic downturn, and financial problems forced her to resign in 1846. That same year, after performing alongside the great English tragedian William Macready, the twenty-eight-year-old Cushman set sail for London, touting the older actor's advice (probably invented) that only in England would her "talents be appreciated for their true value." The decision displayed Cushman's belief in the still broadly shared assumption that the English possessed superior aesthetic sensibilities and powers.
Cushman triumphed in her first London season, performing opposite her great American rival, Edwin Forrest, whose fame she eclipsed after midcentury. Like Forrest, Cushman played the same kind of roles, time and again, with a physical power and expressive emotionality that British critics considered characteristically American. But unlike Forrest, her theatrical type celebrated her ability to act like figures she was not and never could be: a powerful queen, whether Scottish, English, or gypsy, and Shakespeare's most romantic male lead, Romeo, in the "breeches roles" that helped so much to earn her fame. The parts Cushman played to audiences' greatest delight reveled in her manifestation of public virtues that confounded traditional femininity. "Her true forte is the character of a woman whose softer traits of womanhood are wanting ... roused by passion or incited by some earnest and long cherished determination the woman, for the time being, assumes all the power and energy of manhood," declared a review of Sir Walter Scott's Guy Mannering. Guy Mannering featured her most famous role, next to her power-drunk Lady Macbeth: Meg Merriles, a gypsy queen who saves the hero and whom Cushman played as frightful-looking old crone, to Queen Victoria's dismay. Credited with bringing breeches parts into vogue in America, her success as Romeo emphasized the role that acting a "manly" man played in her success. The tall, powerfully built, husky-voiced actress accentuated Romeo's aggressive charms, depicting him as "a militant gallant, a pugnacious lover, who might resort to force should Juliet refuse to marry him."
Cushman's roles also demonstrated how melodrama's splintering licensed women's access, as both performers and fans, to its democratizing, individualistic excesses. "Her style was strong, definite bold and free: for that reason observers described it as 'melodramatic,'" recalled a theater historian in the Saturday Evening Post decades after her death. "She neither employed nor made pretense of employing, the soft allurements of her sex. She was incarnate power: she dominated by intrinsic authority." Contemporaries marveled at the passion with which she fought duels and made love to other women on stage, notably with her sister Susan, who often starred opposite her as Juliet. In the end, theatrical lore stressed that her renown emerged from her exhibition of manly heroism. "When a fellow in the audience interrupted the performance" of Romeo and Juliet one night, "Miss Cushman in hose and doublet strode to the footlights and declared: 'Someone must put this person out or I shall be obliged to do it myself'"; thereafter "all honors that a player might win were hers."
Still, Cushman's publicity also ensured that audiences understood how her private virtues justified her breaching feminine decorum. As with most early attempts to justify women's display of privileges and opportunities reserved for men, the protection of loved ones initially posed the best defense. Much as with Pickford a half-century later, stories about Cushman's personal life emphasized her role as family provider, explaining her Puritan pedigree, the collapse of her father's business, her turn to the stage to support her family. Ever her own best publicist, Cushman initiated this presentation in a lightly fictionalized story she sent to Godey's Lady's Book in 1836, just weeks after landing her first real job on stage. Entitled "Excerpts from My Journal: The Actress," the story prodded readers to recognize that acting offered many worthy women their best financial alternative when forced to fend for themselves. Cushman also publicized her tender feminine side by making much ado of a decision to forgo marriage after the end of a "tragic love-affair" with a never identified "young gentleman of a Presbyterian family." Warned by his family of the "looseness of the lives of actresses," the gentleman reportedly broke their engagement after finding her "being entertained by some of her theatrical friends and mates at a rather lively supper party." Thereafter she reportedly devoted herself to "work, work, work! study, study, study!" her family, and philanthropy. In this way, Cushman prefigured the path later taken by the first generation of highly educated, middle-class New Women. After 1900, such women's success in the public sphere challenged assumptions about the female sex's intellectual and physical incapacities while accepting that such pursuits often required forgoing marriage and traditional domesticity. Like many of the first New Women to follow her, Cushman instead cultivated a circle of women for domestic partnership and intimacy. Indeed, one biographer speculates that her preference for intimate relationships with women made it easier for her to present an image of ladylike decorum in her private life by removing the threat of sexual scandals with men.
Cushman's bright particular star thus sent multiple, seemingly contradictory impressions about the model of individual achievement she offered to her increasingly female fans. Some critics marveled at how the "manly"-appearing Cushman managed to perform love scenes "of so erotic a character that no man would have dared indulge in them." Yet "the most respectable female audiences" watched actresses in breeches roles fight duels and make love to other women "with much apparent satisfaction." Indeed, female patrons made Cushman into a self-made woman of unrivaled wealth and public stature. "I feel much better about womankind," confided playwright Julia Ward Howe after Cushman's conquest of New York in 1857. In 1874 an "unmarried lady" sent Cushman a letter shortly before her death that conveyed the meager opportunities for self-support, let alone self-definition, available to women of any class. The lady was "proud to direct other ladies who were struggling for their bread, to take example from your noble career, and work out for themselves an independent and individual life." She added: "As a working woman I am under obligation to you for the footprints you leave on the sands of time."
Although poor health finally forced Cushman to retire in 1874, women's importance as theatrical stars and patrons only increased apace with the industrial engine that sped the growth of commercial entertainment after the Civil War. Between 1880 and 1900, the number of shows touring the country jumped from fifty to more than five hundred. By 1900 the number of popular-priced theater seats in cities like Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, and New York outdistanced population growth by four to one. Women's prospects for employment in the melodramas performed in many of the new, inexpensive (at ten or fifteen cents), family-friendly segments of the theater business like vaudeville soared along with the proliferation of playhouses and touring companies that aimed to attract lower-middle-class workers of both sexes. After employing almost entirely men in 1800, performing became one of the largest professions for women a century later. Many more women worked in nursing and teaching, but both occupations demanded an education, forbade marriage, and paid barely subsistence wages. The stage offered the best chance for both self-support and social mobility for women with the fewest resources-women who otherwise would likely have worked from sunup to sundown in filthy factories, stood six and half days at a department store counter selling products they could not afford, or served at the beck and call of a mistress nearly every hour of each day. Only as performers and writers did women earn the same, or greater, wages as men for equal work. In the celebrity culture that blossomed around the stage, theater directors were distinctly less important than the divas and handsome matinee idols who preened to spark the interest of "matinee girls." And as lionized actresses outnumbered their male counterparts and often visibly doubled in the brass by taking their shows on the road, the stage offered a singular arena for exhibiting a woman's ability to openly compete and best a man.
The mounting centrality of women as consumers and producers of American popular culture continued to create variations in the melodramatic aesthetic that subsequently shaped the development of motion pictures during the 1910s. Variously labeled immoral, problem, and of the emotional hydraulic school, female characters frequently drove the action of these plays, many of which were written, adapted, or commissioned by women. Displaying innovations in stock characters and plot devices, these plays often featured active, independent heroines in stories in which chance and responsibility factored into judgments about women's character. As the publicity about Cushman's private life prefigured, threats to a loved one often justified the exercise of these protagonists' wills. A heroine, not a hero, executed the first hair's-breadth rescue of a victim strapped to railroad tracks. As she batters through a train station door with an axe, her helpless beloved shouts "Courage!" and "That's a true woman!"
Other players in so-called immoral melodramas tackled the sexual double standard that judged chastity as central to a woman's worth and meaningless to a man's. This was the subject of La dame aux camellias (1852), an adaptation of the popular novel by Alexandre Dumasfils. After its 1854 American debut, Camille; or, The Fate of a Coquette, as it was often called, became not just one of the two most popular plays performed in the United States but also the signature part of the late nineteenth century's greatest international star, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Repeated revivals never wanted for an audience, since, following Bernhardt's example, every great actress demanded to assail Camille's lead, Marguerite, the courtesan whose self-sacrifice for her lover demonstrated that even a "fallen woman" could be more than she appeared. After seeing Bernhardt in the role, the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse called the older star's performance "an emancipation." As Duse recalled, "She played, she triumphed, she took possession of us all, she went away ... and for a long time the atmosphere she brought with her remained in the old theater. A woman had achieved all that!" Like Cushman, Bernhardt displayed qualities associated with both sexes. But in contrast to the Anglo-American context, in Bernhardt's day the French accepted, indeed expected, overt displays of actresses' sexuality, including motherhood without marriage. Yet even the more tepid version of Camille performed in the Anglophone world prompted alarm among early critics who called it a "deification of prostitution." Indeed, the play's popularity with women audiences and actresses spawned a host of imitators exploring the erring woman's relationship to society. The trend prompted escalating concern over how the "morbid fictions" of a "herd" of female playwrights threatened to force Shakespeare, Scott, and Dickens to the margins of the American theater. Such views indicated why Camille sounded an early note in the swelling cacophony over how women's entrance into masculine preserves threatened to disrupt the nation's fragile cultural standards and social stability.
Indeed, by 1900 many cultural custodians linked the nation's advanced state of democratization and industrialization to its production of an emancipated type of modern woman whose influence had debased American culture. Considered a "quintessentially American" type, the modern woman was one of the first national exports that presaged the reversal in the direction of cultural influence across the Atlantic that Hollywood later intensified. Hugo Munsterberg was one of many leading public intellectuals who predicted that cultural deterioration would follow women having come to "dominate the entire life of America," in the words of his German compatriot Albert Einstein. A specialist in visual perception who taught at Harvard from 1892 until his death in 1916, Munsterberg developed a keen interest in film late in life, creating one of the first theories of film spectatorship. In his guise as a successful popular writer, Munsterberg set about explaining how his foreign perspective offered particular insight into American culture, in writing that often displayed "the strikingly misogynist" tone that characterized much of this commentary. According to Munsterberg, American women's influence spun "a web of triviality and misconception over the whole culture." In 1901 Munsterberg worried that the theater's female audience had placed it under the control of patrons who could not "discriminate between the superficial and the profound." "The whole situation militates against the home and the masculine control of high culture," he lamented, warning, "if the whole national civilization should receive the feminine stamp, it would become powerless and without decisive influence on the world's progress." Munsterberg's estimates were supported by a 1910 survey of theatrical producers and critics that claimed women composed between two-thirds and three-quarters of the audience for performances even at night. The next year Clayton Hamilton, a drama critic at Columbia University, summed up the results of this reality: "Every student of the contemporary theater knows that the destiny of our drama has lain for a long time in the hands of women. Shakespeare wrote for an audience made up mainly of men and boys," but "Ibsen and Pinero have written for an audience made up mainly of women," making the theater "the one great public institution in which 'votes for women' is the rule, and men are overwhelmingly outvoted." And given that Ibsen and Pinero were renowned for controversial female protagonists who blew up the constraints of true womanhood, the fame of these playwrights suggested that women wanted to see actresses who refused to remain trapped in "a doll's house" (the title of Ibsen's 1879 play).
By 1900 actresses in vaudeville and on the legitimate stage displayed how a girl might act "the Daddy of the Family," as Mary Pickford's early publicity described her, while still exhibiting a specifically feminine allure. This meant that actresses like Pickford made the ambition to achieve renown compatible with femininity itself. As the first film stars made the transition from stage to screen during the 1910s, many of the most successful occupied a terrain in which the exhibition of feminine charm and public authority coexisted. Not long after her theatrical debut in 1900, Pickford and her now avowedly "stage-minded" mother, Charlotte, met one successful example of the type: the thirteen-year-old vaudeville sensation Elsie Janis. Pickford recalled how Janis earned the "unbelievable salary of seventy-five dollars a week" for her "magnificent imitation" of the Ziegfeld showgirl Anna Held and renditions of songs like "Oh, I Just Can't Make My Eyes Behave!" Pickford and Charlotte asked Janis and her mother how little Gladys might emulate the older girl's "brilliant career." "'Take her to see the finest plays and artists,'" Mrs. Janis advised, but "first, and above all ... let her be herself." Evoking the modern artist's edict to explore and express the self, the advice registered how the theater nurtured a type of individuality in girls that encouraged them to seek out some kind of happiness for themselves. Pickford made the counsel an axiom, and the four became lifelong friends, the first in a series of mother-daughter teams whose success they first imitated and then supported. "Hollywood was a matriarchy," observed Adela Rogers St. Johns, the journalist who became "Mother Confessor" to the first movie stars. "No more wise, wonderful and remarkable women than Charlotte Pickford, Mrs. Gish, Peg Talmadge, Phyllis Daniels ever lived." Indeed, the prevalence of female-headed households among those who became the greatest actresses of their day suggests that the stereotype of the stage mother who prostitutes her tender charge might be better viewed as a family survival strategy that required tossing norms of feminine decorum into the breach. Not just Cushman, Bernhardt, and Pickford but also Florence Lawrence, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Norma and Constance Talmadge, Pearl White, Ruth Roland, Pola Negri, and Gloria Swanson were all reared without fathers. Beyond the powerful economic impetus such circumstances engendered, the absence of intimate patriarchal control in childhood may have improved their chances of reinventing how to act like a girl.
For indeed, the personas of the first film stars often involved elaborating the means by which a seemingly conventional girl could incarnate a type of fame that arose from meeting the challenges and opportunities confronting the progress of her sex. By the time she incorporated United Artists in 1919, Mary Pickford's persona was composed of equal parts "America's Sweetheart"-a romantic, spirited ingénue who politely called for women's rights-and "Bank of America's Sweetheart," as her competitor and colleague, Charlie Chaplin called her-a skilled businesswoman who became the highest-paid woman in the world. These two images-one a perennial youth involved in a perpetual process of self-definition, and the other a trailblazing professional engaged with achieving a stature still mostly reserved for daddies-were entwined in the projection of her star image. As with Cushman, her publicity conveyed information that complicated and contradicted her performing type. Press stories, interviews, and the syndicated column "Daily Talks," which Pickford wrote (in name if not in fact) between 1915 and 1917, focused on her salary and work, and made no secret of her real age or the existence of her husband, actor Owen Moore. Both working- and middle-class magazines described her as a woman whose accomplishments placed her alongside the industrial titans who had loomed so large in the imagination of Americans since the dawning of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. A piece signed by Pickford in the Ladies' Home Journal, the largest-circulation women's monthly and one aimed mostly at the middle class, reported that next to her age ("twenty four, but someday I may not want to tell it"), the question most frequently asked in the five hundred letters she received daily was, "How much do I make?" "I enjoy my work immensely," she reported; "there is a wonderful fascination in the ever changing scenes and the varied excitement." When the workingwomen's monthly Ladies' World announced her the winner of a reader's popularity contest months later, "her hundred thousand dollar a year salary" was again central. Her "photo-play supremacy ... justified" her salary, the piece explained, stressing the breadth of Pickford's achievements. "Her versatility of talent is marvelous, and is evidenced by the fact that she writes as well as she acts." Since only one-quarter of wage-earning women earned the $8 a week that constituted a living wage in 1914, it is easy to imagine why Pickford's annual salary of $50,000 for exciting work led "thousands of American girls to ask about motion picture acting as a profession."
Indeed, Pickford always credited the paternal power her salary made possible with inspiring her devotion to her work. The modest means she earned with her theatrical debut in 1900 had created a "determination nothing could crush ... to take my father's place in some mysterious way." Her earliest publicity would later use her breadwinner anxieties to justify her decision in 1908 to trade Broadway for the less reputable choice of acting at Biograph film studio in New York. There Pickford used her artistic status to demand twice the rate paid to beginning film players: $10 a day, or $60 a week, a salary she credited with allowing her family to finally "beg[i]n to live." She also recollected her debut in The Silver King in terms that presaged the type that brought her such acclaim. Although she claimed to prefer the "villainous little girl" she played in the popular melodrama's first act, she reported that a comic bit of stage business she improvised as the hero's dying son drew the "biggest laugh of the evening" and won the manager's attention. Whatever its accuracy, her description deftly captured her later screen type: a feminine, feisty tomboy, orphaned in spirit if not always in fact, whose fiery emotions jumped from harmless misbehavior to wild humor to tender pathos.
The motivation to win her way in the world brought Pickford's family to New York in 1907, where she resolved to meet "the Wizard of the Modern Stage," David Belasco. A former actor from San Francisco, Belasco's celebrity as a director-producer stemmed from his artful performance as the so-called "Maestro" of the theater's feminization. Belasco built his unrivaled following among women on the "immoral" melodramatic plays that intellectuals like Hugo Munsterberg decried for corrupting the nation's artistic and moral tenor. Noteworthy modern immoral melodramas like Madame Butterfly (1900) and Du Barry (1901) descended from Camille. Unsurprisingly, Belasco's notoriety also derived from his relationships to their female stars. "BELASCO'S LATEST STAR A SUCCESS" was how a Philadelphia paper announced Charlotte Walker's triumph in The Warrens of Virginia (1907). "How I do like to develop an actor or an actress. Then is when I am most happy," Belasco explained in one press release. "I like to thrust in my hand, grasp his or her heartstrings and drag them out and play upon them like a musician upon the strings of his instrument," he continued, expertly suggesting his talent for conducting both erotic and gender play. Pickford displayed a similar knack when she auditioned for a small role in The Warrens, introducing herself to Belasco as the "father of the family" in a manner that made the Maestro laugh. Her publicity seized on this title when she won a starring role in a 1913 Belasco production of A Good Little Devil. Calling herself a daddy emphasized her status as an adult artist who laid claim to the rights and responsibilities of the patriarch, however much she appeared like a spirited, angelic girl. The Warrens also featured two other flickers of future importance, playwright (later screenwriter and director) William de Mille and his younger brother, actor (later director) Cecil. The press called its female star simply the latest in a line of actresses who were "FAILURES TILL 'SVENGALI' ARRIVED."
In likening Belasco to Svengali, the newspaper summoned the specter of George du Maurier's Trilby (1894), a popular novel that displayed the broader shift in popular culture's depiction of men and women's relationship to the production of art. The best-selling novel modernized the Pygmalion and Galatea myth, long the master print for viewing the male as the agent of the heavenly creative impulse, the female as his aesthetic stimulant. When mortal women fail to meet his moral standards, Pygmalion carves his perfect woman from ivory, worships his creation, and consummates his desire after the goddess Aphrodite gives her life. The fate of Trilby O'Farrell partially reproduced her classical predecessor's. An artist's model whose beauty and availability inspire a group of budding painters in the Latin Quarter, Trilby falls under the spell of Svengali, an evil mesmerist who hypnotizes the "tone-deaf" young grisette into becoming the voice of his musical ambitions. Svengali's control over Trilby indicates why those who emphasize the manager's role as that of proprietor of an actress's talent in this era speak of a "Svengali paradigm." And, no doubt, the Trilby-inspired crazes, from shoes to hats, that swept both sides of the Atlantic near the century's end offered precocious examples of mass culture's ability to turn symbols of women's sexuality into fetishistic, salable parts. Yet Trilby also revised the moral interpretation of the novel's female protagonist and described the male artists in the story as frauds or fallible. The bohemian Trilby "could be naked and unashamed" and was "without any kind of fear." Those who judge Trilby come to grief as well. Still, Pickford's famedisplayed the American public's uneasy relationship to female eroticism by celebrating a female artist who sought new professional, rather than sexual, freedoms.
Given her ambition to make herself known, Pickford's landing at Biograph in 1908 was equal parts fortuitous and frustrating. After 1908, the shift to story pictures, or what scholars now call narrative film, threw the work of film acting into relief, focusing audience's attention on gelatine Juliets (a celluloid version of Shakespeare's most famous ingénue). Plot development in story pictures revolved around the action of fictional characters that new camera techniques like close-ups brought within intimate reach. Biograph's leading director, D.W. Griffith, pioneered the close-up's effective use. The technical mastery of both Griffith and early cameramen at the studio probably explains why two of the industry's earliest, if still nameless, stars emerged from Biograph's ranks: Pickford and Florence Lawrence. Since movie players appeared without billing in the earliest years, curious fans dubbed Lawrence the "Biograph Girl" and Pickford "Little Mary," a character name she often used. By 1910, Motion Picture World's new section, "Picture Personalities," answered fans' questions about the identities of performers like Lawrence and Pickford. But, while many production companies began to release the names of leading actors, Biograph continued to refuse to promote its popular players.
Carl Laemmle, a German-born immigrant working in the industry's western hub of Chicago, viewed the mounting popularity of female film players like Lawrence and Pickford as an opportunity to distinguish his new company. In 1909 Laemmle left the first film industry trust, a patents pool engineered by Thomas Edison called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). Shut out from the MPPC's screens and facing litigation for patent infringement, the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP, which became Universal in 1912) could survive only by quick success. Laemmle hastily added producing to the studio's functions and lured Lawrence, whom Biograph had fired for seeking better terms, to join its ranks. Laemmle promoted her move by sandwiching a large photograph of her familiar face between her name and a headline proclaiming, "She's an Imp!" Laemmle then orchestrated a stunt to stoke the ardor of audiences. In March 1910 he bought ads that declared "WE NAIL A LIE" above a close-up of Lawrence. The "enemies of the Imp" had "foisted on the public of St. Louis" a horrible story "that Miss Lawrence (the 'Imp' girl, formerly known as the 'Biograph' girl) had been killed by a street car." In good melodramatic fashion, the ad created a stir by casting Lawrence and IMP as scrappy survivors fighting against nefarious rivals. Shortly after the stunt a new motion picture editor in the Toledo News Bee declared: "Her name is Florence Lawrence. There. After two years exercise of sway over the admiration and curiosity of the public the most popular moving picture star is known" despite "the so-called moving picture trust" having "fought every effort to learn her identity." "The rumor caused considerable depression among our patrons," a theater owner wrote Lawrence, until the manager promoted her location "in the land of the living" and promised "the ladies ... souvenir photographs" of the actress. "I have taken the greatest interest in your pictures," wrote sixteen-year-old Betty Melnick from St. Louis after Lawrence appeared there. "Why you make me cry, laugh, and oh you make me see things different"; she concluded, "My one great wish is to pose with you."
Lawrence's persona as a western American-styled New Woman bent on hair-raising demonstrations of women's social and physical mobility likely accounted for the different perspective Betty Melnick took from the star. A cowgirl in an era in which frontier mythology influenced how so many Americans' viewed their past, Lawrence's exceptional equestrian skills made her the female counterpart of an already prized American hero and won the actress her first substantial role in the Edison short Daniel Boone, or Pioneer Days in America (1907). Playing a Boone daughter captured by Indians, Lawrence executes a daring escape, riding bareback at breakneck speed, long blonde curls flying behind her. After joining Vitagraph the next month, her first leading role demanded similar skills. Producer J.Stuart Blackton called Lawrence "a splendid rider," extolling her aplomb after she narrowly escaped an accident while playing a Union spy who gets chased on horseback through the woods in The Dispatch Bearer (1907). The same qualities also reportedly caught Griffith's eye. "Can you ride horses?" demanded the director at their first meeting. "I would rather ride than eat" was Lawrence's cool reply. Dressed "like a cowgirl in the wild and wooly West" for The Girl and the Outlaw (1908), she went on to make over a dozen "Wild West Pictures" there. Yet Lawrence's roles cohered less around a particular filmic type than around the display of a dramatic range that swung from knockabout romantic comedies like the "Jonesy" film series to dramatic love stories like Resurrection (1909).
"Florence Lawrence is a tomboy. She told me so herself," began an early publicity piece that used her real-life western background to explain her self-reliance, derring-do, and political progressivism. "I have always been an actress. When I was a child I roamed all over the West leading a gypsy-like life," she explained. The claim was no mere puffery. Lawrence was born Florence Bridgwood in 1886 in Hamilton, Ontario. Her father, George, was a carriage maker; her mother, Lotta, an actress thirty-six years younger than her husband. When Lotta permanently separated from George in 1890, she became "versatile as a leading lady of her own company which produced all sorts of plays," taking "Baby Flo" along while she toured "the West with the Lawrence Dramatic Players." This persona would have prepared readers for her support of woman suffrage, because western women's movements had already won women the vote in most of the American and Canadian West. In 1913 Lawrence attended an eastern suffrage march in Washington, D.C. Parading on horseback, she proclaimed her "politics as a suffragette," a term associated with British women who used violent tactics to demand the vote. This "short and light and slight and sensitive" girl was "a lady of spirit withal. My Yes! An ardent suffragist. A Banner-Bearing, Street-Parading Suffragist!" marveled another report in Motion Picture Magazine.
The repeated references in the press to Lawrence's theatrical past and present resemblance to stage star Maude Adams again betrayed how stage conventions framed the emergence of the first movie stars. As Lawrence quickly developed a reputation as one of the screen's greatest actresses, newspapers touted her as "the richest girl in the world" and "The Maude Adams of the Moving Picture Show," the actress whose boyish charms led J.M. Barrie to write Peter Pan (1905). By continually likening Lawrence to Adams, the press elevated the status of still-déclassé film acting and placed her first in a line of future female film stars capable of innocently pursuing boyish adventures. Moreover, her success indicated how the explosive demand for story pictures after 1908 encouraged film producers to absorb both stage actors and their customs, such as doubling in the brass. Experienced at managing all aspects of staging a show, thespians became the cheapest, best-trained labor supply available to make story pictures at the new film studios. The expectation that all workers perform multiple tasks reduced the sex segregation of labor and was supported by a work culture that responded to performative rather than ascriptive modes of authority based on the "natural" hierarchies of race, class, and sex.
Lawrence displayed how the custom licensed women's ability to run the show after joining Lubin Studio in 1911. At Lubin she received more money and control over her work, including the hire of her personal director, husband Harry Solter. One of their first productions, The Little Rebel (1911), featured her as a furiously horseback riding, rifle-toting daughter of the Confederacy who falls for a Union solider she fails to kill. Letters to her mother at this point convey a woman who imagined herself a free agent no matter her contractual obligations. Indeed, a multipart interview Lawrence gave entitled "Growing Up with the Movies" has her mother, Lotta Lawrence, reporting, "When Flo was a tiny girl ... she told the well known actor manager Daniel White that she was going to become a famous actress when she grew up," adding that her "indomitable ambition" meant that "she would become a really famous actress." By year's end, Lawrence traded Lubin for IMP/Universal, where she hired Owen Moore, Pickford's husband, as her leading man to work at Victor Film Company, an independent production unit that likely made her the first film actor to produce her own films. Having attained almost total control of her work, she increasingly played actresses and other professional women such as the comically exacting headmistress of a boys' school in Flo's Discipline (1912). Little wonder that "motion picture experts" writing in newspapers touted her success as proof that a "girl with talent, energy, and ambition" could "make a splendid income as an actress in the moving picture show." In advising the "legion of 'stage-struck' girls" to train their sights on this "new business for girls," the counsel displayed the transfer of professional aspirations once directed at the stage to the movie industry.
Still searching for a means to make her name known, Pickford followed Lawrence's path from Biograph to IMP/Universal after Lawrence left the studio in 1911. Laemmle paid Pickford more for the opportunity to fan audience interest in the actress by releasing her name to Moving Picture World and then distributing a series of films featured simply as "Little Mary Imps." The films opened with the phrase "Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart, in ..." but the lavish credits failed to compensate for the poor quality of the movies. Back at Biograph by the year's end, Pickford appeared in two films that, together, crystallized her appeal as a new type of ingénue. The Female of the Species (1912) is typical Griffith fare: a finely constructed, grimly sentimental tale about innate human depravity redeemed by mother love. Yet Pickford' s pugnacious sprite excels at demonstrating her physical capacity to deal with obstacles. Employing the more restrained style she thought translated best on film, her character appears to inhabit a different film than her female costars, who weep and roll their eyes with jealousy and fear throughout.Her last film at Biograph, The New York Hat (1912), displayed her gift for leavening tales of romantic pathos with comedic touches that capitalized on and modernized the era's enormously popular sentimental literature about girls' struggles to come of age. Pickford's performance and the script, the first by future star scenarist Anita Loos, convey the genuine, if comical, significance of acquiring "the New York hat."The film deftly reveals this small piece of big-city life as a symbol of a world that valued young women's desires for more autonomy. Settlement house reformer Jane Addams similarly interpreted the significance of working girls' fashion choices, declaring, "Through the huge hat, with its wilderness of bedraggled feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here, she is ready to live, to take her place in the world."
In 1913 Pickford returned to Broadway to play a lead in Belasco's production of A Good Little Devil, using the move to gain greater recognition for both herself and the artistry of her craft. Although Pickford later claimed Griffith's domineering personality and preference for "wishy-washy heroines" drove her from Biograph, she became the "NEW BELASCO STAR" in one such role. Demonstrating the short memory of celebrity culture, the press immediately passed Lawrence's nicknames on to Pickford, hailing her as the "BIOGRAPH GIRL" and the "Maude Adams of the 'Movies.'" Pickford used her new theatrical legitimacy to make the case for the superiority of film acting. According to Pickford, "film plays" offered greater artistic, financial, and personal rewards, thereby providing the best opportunity for ambitious working girls. "For years the 'movies' have been looked upon as the inevitable finish of the has been actor," noted the New York American, "but according to Miss Pickford-no more." "You can't fool the camera," she declared in one of many reports describing why "This 'Maude Adams of the Movies' Says Self-Reproduction on the Films Can Do More Than Any Director." Such statements underscored that no Svengali controlled her talent behind the scenes. "I have had many years of technical training in the best possible schools of experience," Pickford remarked after her Broadway debut; "it wasn't as if I were a novice or a debutante." Her press also emphasized the masculine concerns that motivated this "Daddy of the Family, Not Old Enough to Vote." The "very small salary" she earned during her first stint on Broadway had led her to work at Biograph years earlier, she explained to a noted theater critic. "The larder was empty. What else could I do?" In short, the theater was "so much harder than acting for the movies." Film work also promoted domestic harmony, since "'Little Mary' and Her Husband" now led a settled life with enough money to enjoy their leisure time. Yet Pickford also credited her hardscrabble theatrical start with her current success: "I am certain that I could not today at my age run the picture company that I do without the struggle" of her life on stage.
Pickford's Broadway stardom made her a singular commodity: a proven film attraction who carried the imprimatur of the legitimate stage. Film producer Adolph Zukor liked the combination. Like Laemmle, Zukor was another recent addition to the ranks of independent producers working outside Edison's trust. The handsome, soft-spoken, and impeccably mannered Hungarian came to the United States as a poor youth, made a tidy sum as a cloak manufacturer in New York, and then invested his profits in nickelodeons. Not much taller than the diminutive Pickford, both immigrants wore their competitive drives lightly and concentrated as much on the long-term potential of motion pictures as on immediate gains.
After Zukor moved from exhibition to production in 1912, the name of the company he founded-Famous Players-made plain his intention to feminize films by luring women into the audience with stars. In order to "kill" what he called "the slum tradition in movies," he focused on making longer movies that appropriated the prestige of well-known stage players in adaptations of equally distinguished plays. He encapsulated the aim in the dictum that he would make only "Famous Players in Famous Plays." In 1912 Zukor executed the plan, financing and distributing Sarah Bernhardt in film adaptations of her signature plays, Queen Elizabeth and Camille. But the Bernhardt venture offered a surprising lesson: stature on stage did not guarantee a following on film. "Movie" audiences had a mind of their own, Zukor learned, and the clearest expressions of their tastes ran to ingénues like Lawrence and Pickford and serial queens like Mary Fuller, star of the first action-adventure episodic serial What Happened to Mary? (1912). After parlaying the association with Bernhardt into an alliance with the respected Broadway producer Daniel Frohman,Zukor purchased the rights to film Little Devil with an eye toward approaching Pickford about joining Famous Players. "The screen public will choose its favorites. There will be a star system rivaling-maybe outshining-that of the stage," he prophesized to Mary and Charlotte over lunch. Pickford needed little pleading, having witnessed how the "young girls [who] rushed up and said 'Isn't this Mary Pickford?'" at the stage door wanted to meet Little Mary of the screen, not Juliet of the boards. And so, "after a much heated negotiation" over terms, the two incipient titans formed a partnership in the summer of 1913 founded on the belief that the industry's future lay in nurturing the relationship between audiences and stars.
From the start, Pickford and Zukor's collaboration sought to capitalize on the interest fans showed in her rapscallion ingénues. After returning to motion picture work, she played three sharp-witted scamps of humble origins in action-adventure stories that tethered her star's advance to that of her sex's. In The Bishop's Carriage (1913), Caprice (1913), and Hearts Adrift (1914), Pickford played, respectively, an orphan who steals to survive before triumphing on the stage, a mountain girl who captures the heart of a wealthy beau after great difficulty, and the survivor of a shipwreck who starts a family with a man only to have his wife's arrival prompt her suicide. Although these films are lost, the traces that remain exhibit the imprint of the classic Pickford screen type: a fearless, funny, lovely guttersnipe whose poundings by fate bind her audience to her in sympathy and love. These films employed a variation of the melodramatic mode that I call romantic melodramas, whose production swelled along with feature films. Taken up by many of the most popular actresses of the day, romantic melodramas tracked the exploits of a strong-willed heroine attempting to make her way in a hostile world. Charting their heroines' risky adventures along the path to maturity, they required the display of physical comedy, emotional pathos, and derring-do and often abruptly concluded with their heroines clasped in the arms of the right man. Yet however conventional their endings, the action of these melodramas typically focused on women's adventures rather than on capturing the heart of a man, the plot long used to narrate women's lives.
The part Pickford played in Tess of the Storm Country (1914) crystallized the appeal of heroines in romantic melodramas. Indeed, tomboy Tess proved so popular that Pickford remade the film as an independent producer at United Artists in 1922. A motherless urchin, Tess is the daughter of a fish poacher who gets framed for a murder. While he languishes in jail, Tess fights off the true killer's attempt to force her into marriage, rescues an unwed pregnant girl from drowning herself, delivers her baby, agrees to raise it, and confers grace upon the dying child when a minister refuses. The film's end features Tess reuniting with the wealthy beau she spurned earlier for his doubts about her moral character. The role showcased her ability to combine contrasting moral qualities into an inoffensive whole: hers was a virtuous rascal, a hoyden of preternatural self-control, a young woman whose mane of golden, Pre-Raphaelite curls telegraphed her sensuality and grace.
From its first frame, Tess announced its intention to satisfy female fans' expectations for a rousing romantic melodrama in which a young, beautiful girl saves the day-and then gets her guy. The film's opening credits read: "Daniel Frohman Presents America's Foremost Film Actress, Mary Pickford, in the famous tale of woman's heroism, 'Tess of the Storm Country' by Grace Miller White." Reviews confirmed Tess was a feminine affair, calling it "a story by a woman, of a woman, and for women," though conceding the movie was "for men too." In highlighting the film's relationship to White's best-selling novel, the movie aimed to draw the large readership for these novels into movie houses. Future films turned the strategy into a near-formula, as Pickford produced popular "growing girl" novels like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), based on Kate Douglas Wiggin's 1903 novel, and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), written by Jean Webster in 1912. Often these films were adapted, written, and in some cases even directed by Frances Marion, Pickford's close friend and one of the era's most successful screenwriters. Given the engrained habit of viewing Pickford as playing innocent children, it is crucial to emphasize the independent, spirited, and adult personalities of most of her heroines. Of her fifty-two feature films, Pickford played a child in seven and remained a child in only three. More typically, whether based on literary adaptations or on original screenplays, as with The Little American (1917) and The Love Light (1921),Pickford's romantic melodramas featured young women struggling to find happiness and to restore order in a chaotic world.
Zukor called Mary Pickford "the first of the great stars," undoubtedly because the success of Tess of the Storm County lifted Famous Players "onto the high road," paving the way for the vertically integrated, monopolistic structure that characterized the studio system of Hollywood's so-called classical era. Pickford used Tess to negotiate terms in January 1915 that included a salary of $2,000 a week and an equal share of her productions' profits. Unbeknownst to Pickford, film exhibitors absorbed her raise by paying more for her films than others released by Famous Players' distributor, Paramount. "Block-booking" offered a more efficient means to monopolize the business than the Edison Trust's interminable legal wrangling. By forcing exhibitors to purchase less desirable movies to secure a favored star, block-booking made Pickford the "nucleus around which [Zukor] built his whole program," in William de Mille's words. When she caught on to the practice in 1916, she demanded another raise and a host of concessions that afforded her greater artistic control. Zukor's decision to meet her terms reflected his belief that stars-as the most reliable predictor of box office returns-were also the key element in the industry's profit structure. But Paramount's head balked at Pickford's salary, believing that exhibitors and audiences would revolt at the higher prices it entailed. Rather than lose Pickford, Zukor seized control of distribution by merging with a rival company owned by Jesse Lasky. Combined, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation accounted for nearly three-quarters of Paramount's product, allowing FPL to control the company. Pickford's revised contract at the end of 1916 guaranteed her the greater of either a million-dollar salary or half the profits of her films, the right to select her director and supporting cast, and created Artcraft as a separate "star series" for her work.
The development was widely reported as making Pickford, "The Latest Addition to Our Actor Managers" and the leading exemplar of a broader trend.By the next year, Photoplay's editor James Quirk decried the effect of this "'her own company' epidemic" on the industry's health.Put differently, Pickford's star may have burned the brightest and lasted longest, but many other female celebrities glimmered around her light. Indeed, a disproportionate number of the players who earned the interest of audiences during the era of silent features were other women. "Remember this was the day of women," scenarist Lenore Coffee recalled, "Beautiful women in full flower." Clearly, actors like Charlie Chaplin, William Hart, Wallace Reid, and swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, who became Pickford's second husband in 1920, were huge stars. But if the stars of lower-prestige Western films and comedies are set aside, the list of those capable of opening either a movie or an independent film company remains heavily skewed toward the leading ladies of the day. Actresses had a near-monopoly over leading roles in the romantic and society melodramas and adventure serials that became the industry's first prestige features, films that coincided with the star system's development.
The persona of the era's greatest serial queen and Pickford's personal heroine-Pearl White-displayed how important women with virile personas were to the star system's development. Pickford called herself "a devoted fan" of White. Although White probably never set foot in California, Pickford claimed to have encountered her on a train bound for Los Angeles in 1914. "In awe I watched her enter the club car, light a cigarette, and in the presence of all these men, raise a highball to her lips," she recalled, relishing her identification with a woman whose persona was a running rebuke to propriety. The publicity surrounding Pickford's Broadway stardom associated her with serial queens like White: "You have seen her rough riding on the western plains. You have watched her during thrilling moments on runaway motorcars and flying machines. And of course you tried to find out her name and failed." White's example also influenced Pickford's answer to a query about how she kept in shape. "I used to ride broncos, drive racing cars, swim dangerous rapids and slide down precipices."
As the first film genre designed to appeal to women, serials featured young women whose western toughness and virility shaped their allure with both sexes. Released in both print and film formats on a weekly or monthly basis, short serial films were held together by an ongoing adventure plot. Actresses went uncredited as was still customary. But the journalistic discourse that ran alongside the print versions of serial films made Mary Fuller, Helen Holmes, and White into the first international film stars. Beginning with Mary Fuller in the first female-centered serial thriller, What Happened to Mary (1912-1913), stories about these actresses celebrated how their real-life heroism inspired their parts; they were said to perform their own stunts after all. Edna Vercoe, a teenage fan in Chicago, filled her "movy album" with stories about all three actresses' remarkable bravery and romantic successes. "Mary Fuller a Real Heroine," declared one article about Fuller's protection of the cast and crew from snakes during a recent shoot. "Miss Fuller finds that her proficiency in riding, shooting, and other outdoor sports" was "most helpful in creating many of her parts," announced another. Such reporting indicates why most film scholars agree that the focus on these women's authentic bravery and athleticism sold fans "a fantasy of female power." But most also concur that this picture was tempered by an "equally vivid exposition of female defenselessness and weakness" that required the intervention of a strong, male hand for eventual success. Such a view captures the ambivalence that these heroines often provoked, but it misses how female fans may have also enjoyed the erotic tension produced by watching these conventionally feminine-looking but manly-acting, attractive heroines oscillate between aggression and subservience, pleasure and pain. Moreover, as specifically western heroines, these actresses needed to be able to both cause and tolerate acute physical distress in order to prove their valor and achieve the type of progress equated with the continent's conquest. This ability was a hallmark of the iconic masculinity associated with western heroes from Davy Crocket to William "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Silent western films exaggerated and then spread the association of modern "Americanism" with sensationally mobile men whose violent actions made possible the nation's continental claim. The longest-running serial, The Hazards of Helen (1914-1917), promoted a similar vision of modern American women. Even a cursory glance at the extant prints of Hazards displays the mise-en-scène of a modern Western, as giant locomotives, fleet horses, speedy motorcycles, and rifle-toting good and bad guys track back and forth across the dusty open spaces of California. Like the men with whom she works, Holmes confronts constant tests of her daring, bravery, and endurance as she attempts to tame her harsh environment. A telegraph operator charged with protecting a railroad station under continual assault, Helen is the film's lone female, a woman who rides, shoots, rescues, and is rescued by her fellows in a landscape in which outlaws abound. The publicity about Hazards' first lead, Helen Holmes, emphasized her identity as a genuine westerner, born in "her father's private car somewhere between Chicago and Salt Lake" and raised "in the railroad yards." An excellent horsewoman reputed to perform her own stunts, Holmes insisted that doing so was just "one of the demands upon a leading woman that must be met" without "losing sympathy or that air of femininity of which we are all so proud." By that, she explained, "I mean the heroic side, deeds of valor, based on the highest ideals." Moreover, their identification with the West-a region that valued toughness and endurance in either sex-smoothed serial queens' display of a type of overtly sexy American girl rarely seen on screens at the time. "This slim, seductively rounded young woman with the luring lips and the 'come-hither' eyes, looked to be a most dangerous person," one piece about Holmes tempted. Others described her in more conventionally romantic terms, detailing her marriage to the serial's director, J.P. MacGowan, and decision to adopt a baby girl. Yet marriage and motherhood produced not fewer public responsibilities but more. When MacGowan fell ill in 1915, Holmes took charge of directing, writing, and managing Hazards; in 1917 the two started their own film company.
Actress Ruth Roland was another western daredevil whose international popularity displayed the appeal of this model of American womanhood to audiences worldwide. By most accounts, Roland's popularity was second only to Pearl White's. Both women were actress-writer-producers. Between 1911 and 1915, both were also the only women credited with earning spots alongside male Western film stars in popularity contests in a budding film genre that mostly targeted boys. Both also gained fame as serial queens working with the French film company Pathé. "The man sits in his office from nine to five dictating letters, invariably pines to be riding a spirited horse out West in the sixties or seventies and dodging redskins on the warpath," Photoplay explained. "That's why Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Maire Walcamp have a following from Oshkosh to Timbuctoo [sic].... In India Pearl White is the most popular of all the film stars and serials are about the only form of cinema that the natives will flock to see." Born into a theatrical family in San Francisco, Roland took to the boards at age five, moving to Los Angeles to live with an aunt after her actress-mother died. Eight of her eleven serials were Westerns that showcased her equestrian skills on her horse Joker. Chinese advertisements trumpeted Roland's western American athleticism: "Riding on a furious horse climbing the cliff as if walking on flat land, her talents are unsurpassable." Other publicity emphasized her talent as "a business woman of the first water." Roland also created her own production company, writing, producing, and starring in serials like The Timber Queen (1922). Later she put her fortune to work in real estate, buying "a tract of land between Universal City and Hollywood" that she subdivided and sold to "her fellow workers in the movie industry." After largely retiring from the screen in the late 1920s, Roland became a prominent entrepreneur who promoted women's business opportunities until her early death in 1937.
Pearl White's emergence as a star in The Perils of Pauline (1914) has obscured her image as a heroine whose fame also depended on her incarnation of a western persona capable of enduring intense distress. The serial best recalled today, Perils ensconced White among the East Coast elite, playing an orphaned heiress whose guardian plots her assassination in order to claim her fortune. Yet White's persona was composed of equal parts western toughness and cosmopolitan glamour,ensuring her fans knew that "Pearl White ... is quite another person" than Pauline. Publicity about White and her loyal, love-struck costar, Crane Wilbur, dominated Edna Vercoe's scrapbooks. Indeed, White reported that her fan mail was "mostly from women," including more than a "few mash notes." These stories, as well as White's autobiography, Just Me (1919), focused on her western upbringing and stressed her rural, hardscrabble start in a "lonely log cabin" in the "Ozark Mountains of Missouri." They also explained how White cultivated her remarkable athleticism during an adolescent tenure as "a bareback rider" in the circus where she perfected the equestrian skills that led to her first film breaks in shorts like The Horse Shoer's Girl (1910). "Oh for a girl that could ride a horse like Pearl White," swooned one young man, indicating her appeal to both sexes. After viewing a serial, one woman recalled that White "had done things the like of which I had never dreamed. She became my idol." Her love of White sparked filial rebellion, as her father had prohibited watching serials at "the 'houses of iniquity'," as he called movie houses.
Just such reactions explained why some accused serial queens of encouraging immoral behavior among their female fans. "I have always liked pretty women," explained a woman in a "motion picture autobiography" that sociologist Herbert Blumer collected from Chicago youths for the Payne Film Study (PFS) in 1929. "When I'd see them in the movies I positively would try to act like them.... I think the movies have a great deal to do with the present day so-called 'wildness.'" The first large-scale effort to document the effect of movies on youth, the PFS responded to mounting alarm among cultural custodians about movie stars' displacement of traditional models of authority among the young. In the accounts offered by one hundred moviegoers about their habits and preferences from 1915 to 1929, women struck with what Moving Picture World called "serialitis" described an experience that supports film critic Elizabeth Cowie's thesis that the process of identification stems from fans sharing "a structural relation of desire" with characters-in this case, with their independent pursuit of sex and adventure. The account of one self-described "naturally reserved" woman displayed the intense empathy produced by "following up some serial ... three or four nights a week." "I started, I believe, to suffer as much as the girl of the story did," she admitted, adding, "I admired Miss White for her daring and courage.... I can recall distinctly saying to myself, 'Oh, what a Lucky Girl to have enough money to take a trip like that-a trip across the wild desert.... Oh, how daring! If only it were I!'" Another, Chicago girl recalled how her "idols" "gave me an inkling of what I could do with that sense of adventure of mine." "All summer this long legged girl in her teens, who should have been learning to bake and sew for her future husband, ran wild," becoming a "bold, brazen hussy" who pursued the men she liked. "When I came away to college instead of getting married ... I definitely proved that I had no sense."
The personas of vamps, another type that attracted much fanfare before the war, grappled more explicitly with women's sexuality. But the publicity surrounding vamps stressed the adult and distinctly foreign identity of the actresses who played them. Their identities as non-Anglos and foreigners linked the vamp to the femme fataletype so prevalent in fin de siècle European culture. "Grab everything you want and never feel sorry for anyone but yourself," was how one vamp, played by Louise Glaum in Sex (1920), summed up their general philosophy. Like the femme fatale, the vamp was an amoral predator who used her sexual power to triumph over weak-willed men. Many films about vamps featured their destruction of a man who exercised the day's sexual double standard, which permitted men's libertinism with less respectable women. The vamp emerges unscathed after cynically using that double standard to get what she wants. Her forgettable leading men, who represent generic stand-ins for a sort of everyman elite, are left wrecked on the shoals of her sexual power. Actress Theda Bara-initially described as half French, half Arab-became synonymous with the type after the release of A Fool There Was (1915). Olga Petrova, whose vamps were nearly as well known as Bara's, was exclusively promoted as "a European star." "Madame Petrova is truly an international character," her press assured fans in 1917, "having been born in Warsaw, educated in Paris, London, and Brussels." Fashioned as dark exotics, Bara, Glaum, and Petrova's location outside the American racial mainstream supported their more sexually graphic representations, suggesting why they openly endorsed not just woman suffrage but also feminism, a new concept associated with women's interest in sexual freedom. A widely publicized statement by Bara called her destruction of men a long overdue vengeance for her sex. "Women are my greatest fans. I am in effect a feministe," she declared.
The vamp and the serial queen's shared expression of sexual virility and physical prowess placed their stars on the most volatile boundary that actresses performed in their redefinition of the public woman. A playful story entitled "Lady Gunman" savored explaining the connection created by their taste for masculine conquest. In real life, both vamp Louise Glaum and serial queen Mary Fuller could "handle a six-gun with all the sincerity of Douglas Fairbanks himself," readers were assured. Ellis Oberholtzer, head of Pennsylvania's powerful state film censorship board, objected to just such promotions. In a tract written to channel the growing dismay about the movies' moral influence, Oberholtzer charged that vamps, "sex photoplays," and serial-queen pictures provided the most damning evidence of the need for federal control. Oberholtzer decried how the typical serial depicted its heroine "in high air; in a sewer without an outlet; under straps on a log while the saw draws nearer and nearer." "If I were to travel the country over I should not know where to find women who conceal revolvers in their blouses, or in the drawers of their dressing-tables" or a woman who grasps "an iron from the fire-set on the hearth or seizes the inevitable paper knife to slay the villain, her lover rising in time to take the blame for the crime."
As movie production settled around Los Angeles after 1915, publicity promoted its new habitat as a western frontier that fostered this kind of fearless femininity. "Out in Culver City the girls are growing militant," was how one fan magazine described the behavior of some dare-devil actresses in this new locale: "quick on the trigger, and not one of them is afraid of the smell of [gun]powder-they're used to various kinds." "The 'feel' of Hollywood at this time was like carnival, or the way one feels when the circus is coming to town, only the circus was always there," Lenore Coffee recollected, echoing a sentiment shared by many who attempted to capture the ambience created when the flickers came to town. One early account tracked a reporter wandering around the "big, bustling Western" ranches-cum-studios in "Motion-Picture Land." Here, "in the dazzling California sunshine" a "bewildering democracy" prevailed among players. Here, playacting and reality fused. "No part of the world" was free from the "invasion" of these players, whose work spilled into the cityscape so often that one looked about for a camera when anything happened "unexpectedly."
Another article in Photoplay used the mythic history of the West to depict the sex-specific opportunities of this frontier circus by the sea. "The early years of the twentieth century brought to American women the same vast, almost fabulous chances that came to their grandfathers," a writer interviewing Pearl White intoned. "What the expansion of the West and the great organization of industry opened up to many a young man," the article continued, "the motion picture spread before such young girls as were alert enough, and husky enough, and apt enough to take advantage of it." "With the exception of Mary Pickford, I can think of no girl who has reaped her field of chance so completely, opulently, securely, as Pearl White." White's good fortune derived from a spirit that made her a "female Alexander" bent on finding "new worlds to conquer." But her achievement was also cast in the more modern terms associated with corporate success: Pearl White possessed "that which is really the quality of few men: the true financial instinct." The actress-heroine of Rupert Hughes's Souls for Sale (1921), an early novel about the movie colony, defends her little sister's decision to run away and join her in Los Angeles in a manner straight out of the Pearl White mold. "All over the world was full of runaway girls striking out for freedom and for wealth and renown," the heroine of the novel thinks. "Let love wait! The men have kept us waiting for thousands of years, till they were ready. Now let them wait for us."
Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more