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Star System In The Silent Cinema Essay

A few years before the break out of the World War I, modernity in the entertainment sector was characterized by the merger of powerful capitalist and democratic forces into consumerism. In the early 20th century, the cinematography enhanced and the success of better movies resulted in continued opening of theaters in large numbers across America. Filmmakers started making more comedies, chase films, westerns and crime.

Moreover, experimentation with narrative techniques and camera also intensified. The cinematographers of Brighton, England, also laid a foundation for film to develop from a primitive to a more advanced stage (Bordwell, 1999). The introduction of the star system proved to be an outstanding means of earning a profit from not only the production, but also distribution and even exposition of films.

The star system

As the consumerism increased in America, the star system emerged to market the actors as the main attraction to filmgoers. A renowned filmmaker, David Wark Griffith, enhanced the filming techniques such as close-ups, moving camera shots and point-of-view shots (Starr, 1985). The idea of color film also laid a foundation to Griffith’s filming. David Wark Griffith used actors such as Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin.

These stars formed United Artists organization later on (McDonald, 2000, p. 36). United Artists (UA) functioned as a distribution company for the films produced by the star names. The filmmakers were placed in a position where they could extend their economic power by negotiating broadly across the cinema industry. This organization helped enhance the film business impressively.

The strength of star system is evident in Mary Pickford’s first United Artist film release, Pollyanna (1919) by Paul Powell (McDonald, 2000, p. 35). In this film, Mary is featured as little girl in the title role. The film Pollyanna was produced through Mary Pickford Company and distributed by UA. By the age of 23, Pickford had already developed herself as the most influential woman in the motion-picture industry.

Typically, a developed business practice in the exhibition sector was to lease prints from distributors at a fixed fee. However, Pollyanna was made available only on the basis of both a guaranteed base rental fee together with a percentage split of box office income. Despite complaints, the exhibitors reluctantly agreed to UA’s terms. This transformed the business practice for transactions between exhibitors and distributors.

In the 1920s, Pickford’s profession experienced ups and downs in the stars financial and critical status. In spite of taking more adult roles in films, the filmgoers were unenthusiastic about letting Pickford abandon her child-woman image. Since its establishment, UA underwent years of financial predicaments.

These financial recesses were partly attributed to the company’s star management which was ineffective. In 1951, Pickford eventually sold her UA shares and described UA as ‘sick unto death’ (Flom, 2009, p. 224). At the height of her appeal however, Pickford had clearly demonstrated the wide-ranging power that the star could wield across all sectors of the film industry (McDonald, 2000, p. 42).

Pickford’s impact is not only exclusive to the silent era but also to the future. Pickford demonstrated lots of the trends that would improve the Hollywood star system in several years to come (Finler, 2003, p. 192). Specifically, Pickford exemplified the way stars have the ability to use their popular status as leverage to demand rapid increments in salary payments from producers.

Pickford’s profession also encouraged other stars and the upcoming ones to participate in box office earnings from the films they appeared in. Furthermore, her success showed the benefits that stars could gain by choosing to form their own independent production companies.

These trends would all become key characteristic of the star system following the decline of the vertically integrated studio system that dominated Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. Pickford was therefore not only a product of the star system in the cinema but also a role model who displayed how it was possible for stars to find ways to use that system for their own success.

The fundamentals of Hollywood

The star system in American film industry developed through three ways namely: comprehensive division of labor, redefinition of performance space in narrative film, and the widespread marketing of individual film performers. The history of the star system and its emergence between 1907 to 1922 included different types of discourse about film stars and the levels of knowledge relevant to analysis and understanding star images at all stages (DeCordova & Creekmur, 2001).

While film historiographies on acting and actors reveal the general work of film performance, the naming of picture personalities makes individual performers known through their publicly televised professional existence. Naming of stars not only enables the building of the personality’s identity and image through films, but also in other media such as magazines and newspapers.

De Cordova uses star discourse to describe the extension of knowledge about film performers beyond on-screen appearances and into the off-screen lives of performers. With the star scandal, a stars private life becomes further divided between a publicly controlled private-image and hidden secret private-image.

According to De Cordova’s study, a general definition emerges of the star as an actor – professional manipulator of signs; as picture personality – as a personality extrapolated from films and as a star – as someone with a private life distinct from the screen image.

Even though the discourses of actor, personality and star become levels of knowledge, with each seeming to add a further degree of depth to a star’s image, these levels do not operate separately but work together as what Richard de Cordova calls ‘collapsing levels of identity’ (DeCordova & Creekmur, 2001).

De Cordova uses the example of Pickford, which illustrates how the Hollywood industry and the stars themselves were quick to exploit the value of star identity as a personal monopoly (DeCordova & Creekmur, 2001, p. 119). This goes further to claim that naming is important to making that identity into commercial and legal entity.

Moreover, the star system would develop through the use of such mechanisms to construct star identities. Additionally, those identities can be used as a means of promotion in the public domain. Subsequent development phases in the film industry as a whole influenced naming and use of star identities.

Under the star system, Hollywood stardom zealously endeavored to find effective means to exploit the identities of popular artists. As the 1920s ended, the commercial control of the American film industry was concentrated in the hands of the ‘Big five’ leading companies: the Fox Film Corporation, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO and MGM (Monaco, 2010). During this period, the star system worked under the general direction and guidance of these studios.

The studio era in the 1930s and 1940s involved Hollywood working actively to brand and market its stars. Stars became a crucial asset in maintaining the supremacy of the main studios over the whole domestic film industry.This is attributed to the fact that in order to control the film market, the studios required the strong control of their stars.

The five studios controlled the domestic film market. This domination determined the conditions under which all categories of stars would work in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. The studios established mechanisms deliberated on producing and reproducing the star phenomenon. This could be achieved by dynamically working to make and gain legal ownership of star identities. The studios employed stars on contracts in order to maintain control of their talent.

This enabled the studios manage and effectively exploit the images of the top stars. The stars could find it hard to work outside the studio system once they sign the contracts and with the studios controlling exhibition.Nevertheless,the stars could not work without the studios and the studios also needed the stars in order to run business. The stars themselves recognized the power of their identities and so did the studios. This resulted in the period of significant instances of struggles between stars and studios.

While studios dominated the American film market, the star system plays a major role in its success. Individual stars determine the making of a blockbuster deal or breaking it. Mary Pickford of the silent era had set a trend for stars to demand for rapid rises in their earnings.

Thus, the stars became costly making producers express concern over escalation of performer earnings.The life of Pickford and being financially independent through hard work provided a valuable role model for women. On the screen, Pickford had an ultimate appeal of heroines and a middle-class conventionality according to the needs of the film making. The star system is then bound to be permanent part of the film industry in America and any other part of the world.


Bordwell, D. 1999, On the history of film style. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.

DeCordova, R., & Creekmur, C. K. 2001, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. University of Illinois Press: Urbana.

Finler, J. W. 2003, The Hollywood story. Wallflower: London.

Flom, E. L. 2009, Silent film stars on the stages of Seattle: A history of performances by Hollywood notables. McFarland & Company: New York.

McDonald, P. 2000, The star system: Hollywood’s production of popular identities. Wallflower Press: London.

Monaco, P. 2010, A history of American movies: a film-by-film look at the art, craft, and business of cinema. Scarecrow Press: Lanham.

Starr, K. 1985, Inventing the dream: California through the Progressive Era. Oxford University Press: New York.

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