by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Our current “celebrity culture” in which technology further fuels the publicity machine that puts our actors, musicians, and those who are famous “just because” in our sights round the clock, if want it, has roots that go back to the time of today’s “That’s a Wrap” feature.
The film industry, which originated in the first decade of the twentieth century, grew dramatically in the second and skyrocketed in the third. By the end of the 1920s, filmdom was fully entrenched in our popular culture mindset in ways that went beyond the movie theater, but into advertising, product placement, media cross-promotion and many other areas.
One key component to the relentless marketing and publicizing of movies and its stars was the fan magazine and the most popular of those during the Twenties was, without question, Photoplay.
As its title implies, the magazine began by summarizing the plots of films when it first appeared in 1911, but within several years, it widened its scope considerably. Film reviews, interviews with actors, purported biographies by stars, studio gossip, advice columns, and much more became staple features of the magazine. Naturally, there was plenty of advertising to keep the cost of the magazine at a very reasonable 25 cents a copy. Those ads, moreover, increasingly features film stars to promote those products.
The June 1928 issue featured here is chock full of interesting material, from the original cover painting of Marion Davies, a legitimately good actress who was looked down upon because he was the mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst to the material about big stars like Joan Crawford and John Gilbert to the gossip that kept readers’ attentions riveted, the magazine is an excellent way to understand where celebrity worship came into its own.
One interesting piece was written by a doctor who discussed why laughing during films made by classic giants like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton was good for “jaded nerves and mental fog.”
An article on “Gossip of All the Studios,” noted that Lita Grey Chaplin, who’d divorced the comedy kingpin and received a settlement of “$600,000 on the installment plan when she separated from Charlie” was completing a house said to cost $200,000, an astounding amount, when the average home ran about $8,000. Other tidbits concerned movie people and their romances, including a young Fay Wray, whose apex of stardom came five years later with her role in King Kong.
A biographical piece on Greta Garbo, includes a sultry portrait of the Swedish star and the caption included a statement about love and marriage, in which the actress stated “I like to be alone.” Perhaps this is what became, in endless impersonations using a strong accent, the oft-quoted “I want to be alone”?
Years before the newly created Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences launched the Academy Awards and the Oscar, Photoplay had its “Medal of Honor” for the best film of the year. The award was based on votes cast by readers and an ad asking for input on the top movie of 1927 listed the previous seven winners as well as an alphabetical listing of the year’s major productions. On the list were “Camille,” “Flesh and the Devil,” “King of Kings,” “Metropolis,” “Seventh Heaven,” and “Wings”, among some of the best known pictures. The latter took the first best picture Oscar, awarded in spring 1929, for films released the previous two years.
Among the many advertisements, one interesting representative sample was from Lux soap, which claimed that over three dozen movie directors said that “smooth exquisite skin is a woman’s most alluring charm.” Quotes from such famed starlets as Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor, Bebe Daniels, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Billie Dove were used as testimonials to the great efficacy of the product.
This issue of Photoplay is one of dozens of film fan magazines in the Homestead collection and, collectively, they provide a window into the great rise of the celebrity culture that was coming to fruition in the era and which has evolved and shifted in often strange and compelling ways ever since. Look for other examples in later installments of “That’s a Wrap.”