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Idols of Modernity

Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s

Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Idols of Modernity
    Book Description:

    With its sharp focus on stardom during the 1920s,Idols of Modernityreveals strong connections and dissonances in matters of storytelling and performance that can be traced both backward and forward, across Europe, Asia, and the United States, from the silent era into the emergence of sound.Bringing together the best new work on cinema and stardom in the 1920s, this illustrated collection showcases the range of complex social, institutional, and aesthetic issues at work in American cinema of this time. Attentive to stardom as an ensemble of texts, contexts, and social phenomena stretching beyond the cinema, major scholars provide careful analysis of the careers of both well-known and now forgotten stars of the silent and early sound era-Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, the Talmadge sisters, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore, Greta Garbo, Anna May Wong, Emil Jannings, Al Jolson, Ernest Morrison, Noble Johnson, Evelyn Preer, Lincoln Perry, and Marie Dressler.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4929-3
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Stardom in the 1920s
    (pp. 1-20)

    Billy Wilder’sSunset Blvd.(1950) provides an auspicious way to introduce this volume. Released twenty years after the end of the silent era, Wilder’s darkly ironic film about cinema and stardom promotes a particular view of 1920s Hollywood by juxtaposing it with what was then the current studio system. One of the first conversations between financially struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) and aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) captures the film’s attitude toward Hollywood, both old and new, silent era and sound: Gillis: “I know your face.

    You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures....

  5. 1 Douglas Fairbanks: King of Hollywood
    (pp. 21-40)

    By 1920, Douglas Fairbanks was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood and, indeed, the world, along with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin. If the formation of United Artists the year before consolidated his position as a major star and producer, it also prepared the public for an even more powerful merger: the marriage of Fairbanks and Pickford. No one—least of all Fairbanks and Pickford themselves—anticipated the enormous boost this union would give their already lofty stature. They were arguably the first celebrity couple, treated like royalty by the press, by their adoring fans, and even by...

  6. 2 Buster Keaton: Comic Invention and the Art of Moving Pictures
    (pp. 41-64)

    Buster Keaton’s career covered nearly seven decades, but he produced his most striking and enduring work in the 1920s, a period in which comedian-centered, physical comedy was widely regarded as a vibrant American film genre and Keaton himself was in his physical prime. In 1920 Keaton assumed the starring role at the Comique Film Corporation, an independent production company established by Joseph M. Schenck for comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle three years earlier. The company was renamed Buster Keaton Productions in 1922, and Keaton would continue to make comedies under this banner until 1928. He was among a handful of silent...

  7. 3 The Talmadge Sisters: A Forgotten Filmmaking Dynasty
    (pp. 65-86)

    Norma and Constance Talmadge were among the most important stars of the 1920s. Not only do many contemporary fan magazines and industry publications, and more recent memoirs, attest to their popularity and renown but, given their family connections, it is clear that they occupied the highest social echelons in the small community of Hollywood (Talmadge; Loos; de Groat). Until her divorce in the late 1920s, Norma was married to Joseph M. Schenck, independent producer, partner and eventually chairman of the board of United Artists, and brother to Nicholas Schenck, a partner in Loew’s/MGM. While not prominent as an actress, the...

  8. 4 Rudolph Valentino: Italian American
    (pp. 87-107)

    Published in 1936,The Big Moneywas the culmination of John Dos Passos’s attempt to write the Great American Novel, a work that would encompass all of modernity in the first decades of the twentieth century. Part of the trilogyU.S.A., The Big Moneyinterweaves postwar political upheaval, popular culture, and urban life under capitalism, as it combines fiction, stream-of-consciousness meditations, “Newsreels” (found poetry plucked from the mass media of the day), and brief biographies. Among the celebrated figures of the era, only one film actor is singled out. “Newsreel LIV” (205–06), with its fragments of stock reports, advertising...

  9. 5 An Appetite for Living: Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow
    (pp. 108-136)

    The personas and careers of Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, and Clara Bow reveal the degree to which Hollywood of the 1920s contributed to the continual evolution of a multifaceted, controversial representation of sex and gender in modernity. As they helped shape the star personas of these actresses, the studios constructed a consumerist-inflected fantasy of female glamour and empowerment that established expectations of what female stardom—and by extension, female identity—meant for an important audience demographic (the female fan) in the twenties.

    These three stars are particularly interesting in relation to one another: the characters they typically played represent permutations...

  10. 6 Greta Garbo: Fashioning a Star Image
    (pp. 137-158)

    In the quotation above, historian James Laver notes that an era’s zeitgeist is often reflected in the vision of woman it proposes. In the modern age, this image was typically registered on the silver screen through the appearance of the female star. In the 1920s, Greta Garbo was one such cinematic icon, an actress whose “star text” was, in part, tied to her link to broad social changes. She embodied a new type of film persona—one that invested aspects of the classic Temptress (an evil but alluring female) with elements of the new woman (a sophisticate who operated with...

  11. 7 Anna May Wong: Toward Janus-Faced, Border-Crossing, “Minor” Stardom
    (pp. 159-181)

    Anna May Wong, one of the pioneering Chinese American actresses in Hollywood, remains a conundrum nearly half a century after her death. She is alternatively tokenized as an embodiment of Oriental appeal, disavowed as a painful reminder of Asian American subjugation in the American film industry, and recuperated as a resistant, minority cosmopolitan figure of the early twentieth century. One difficulty in assessing Wong’s impact is that, despite receiving adulation from the press, she remained a minor “Chinese actress,” often mentioned as auxiliary to the white leading stars. The prolonged and passionate gaze that Wong aroused,withoutbeing a conventional...

  12. 8 Emil Jannings: Translating the Star
    (pp. 182-201)

    In the spring of 1929, Emil Jannings became the first actor to win an Academy Award.¹ A now famous photo shows him proudly holding the statuette.² This shot, however, was not taken at the 29 May inaugural awards ceremony, but several months earlier in the Paramount publicity department. That first year the winners were announced about three months ahead of time.³ By the time the awards were officially celebrated, Jannings was already back home in Germany. His highly successful twoand-a-half-year run at Paramount had come to an abrupt end when the studio converted to sound. By the time Hollywood professionals...

  13. 9 Al Jolson: The Man Who Changed the Movies Forever
    (pp. 202-226)

    Al Jolson did not want to be a movie star, at least not at first. But late in his career, when he did turn to the movies, he brought a promiscuous talent and an outlandish collection of gestures, moods, and expressions. If today we do not find his films deeply offensive because of their racial politics, we are just as likely to find them confusing, even incoherent. For this, blame Jolson’s persona, not the films. As Rip Lhamon has written, “He is not an integrated personality but a mob of conflicts” (106).

    But somehow Jolson made his conflicting identities work...

  14. 10 African American Stardom Inside and Outside of Hollywood: Ernest Morrison, Noble Johnson, Evelyn Preer, and Lincoln Perry
    (pp. 227-249)

    If it is true, as Richard Dyer suggests, that stars “articulate what it is to be human in society,” what do we make of the almost wholesale exclusion of African American performers from Hollywood star discourse of the 1920s? What does it mean, in effect, to discuss stars at a time when most black performers were not even credited for the small roles they played in studio productions? Indeed, if they were credited, it was often for roles such as Uncle Toms and Mammies that denied the full range of black humanity. There were only two choices open to African...

  15. 11 Marie Dressler: Thief of the Talkies
    (pp. 250-269)

    Marie Dressler is a significant transitional figure between the optimism and exuberant exaltation of youth in the post–World War I “Flapper Age” of the 1920s and the sobering realities that hit the United States with a jolt as the stock market crashed in 1929. She did not become a full-fledged motion picture star until 1930, after she “stole” Greta Garbo’s first “talkie,”Anna Christie. After that film, she was heralded as being “ in a class with Charles Chaplin” and as “the only woman who ever played in the same picture with Greta Garbo and crowded the Swedish nightingale...

  16. In the Wings
    (pp. 270-284)

    As prelude to significant shifts that would take place during the 1930s, I turn, in this coda, to a remarkable and elusive photographic image. Taken in Berlin by a young Alfred Eisenstadt, who was at the time an amateur photographer, it features three icons of twentieth-century cinema: Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl. Eisenstadt’s photograph depicts twenties Berlin nightlife at its pinnacle. Here is a young, pre-Hollywood, sexually assertive Dietrich, looking directly into the camera, cigarette holder clenched in her teeth, hands on her hips, displaying an attitude at once defiant and playful. Here, too, is Anna May...

    (pp. 285-296)
    (pp. 297-300)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 301-313)