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Go West, Young Women! The Rise of Early Hollywood

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Chapter 1

"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.

I

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