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Learning To Go To The Movies
The great democratic art form got off to a very rocky start. People simply didn’t want to crowd into a dark room to look at a flickering light, and it took nearly twenty years for Americans and motion pictures to embrace each other.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
More and more what drew these audiences was the emergence of the movie star from the ranks of the wholly anonymous players of a decade earlier. Actors in the early story films had borrowed their gestures, poses, grins, and grimaces from melodrama and pantomime. Villains all dressed, acted, and moved the same way, as did the other stock characters: the heroes, heroines, and aged mothers. Any child in the audience could tell who the villain was (the man in the long black coat), why he acted as he did (he was evil), and what he was going to do next. By 1909 or so critics and audiences alike appeared to be growing weary of these histrionics, and players adopted instead a “more natural” or “slower” acting style. As cameras moved in closer to capture increasingly subtle and personalized expressions, audiences began to distinguish the players from one another. Since the manufacturers never divulged their actors’ given names, the fans had to refer to them by their brand names—the Vitagraph Girl, or the Biograph Girl.
It didn’t take long for manufacturers to recognize the benefits of exploiting their audience’s curiosity. Kalem was the first to identify its actors and actresses by name, in a group photograph published as an advertisement in the January 15, 1910, Moving Picture World and made available to exhibitors for posting in their lobbies. In that same year, Carl Laemmle, a distributor who was preparing to manufacture his own films, hired Florence Lawrence to star in them for the then exorbitant salary of fifteen thousand dollars a year. To make sure the public knew that the Biograph Girl would now be appearing exclusively in IMP pictures, Laemmle engineered the first publicity coup. In March of 1910 he leaked the rumor that Miss Lawrence had been killed in a St. Louis streetcar accident and then took out a huge ad in Moving Picture World to announce that the story of her demise was the “blackest and at the same time the silliest lie yet circulated by enemies of the ‘Imp.’”
It took only a few years for the picture players to ascend from anonymity to omnipresence. The best evidence we have of the stars’ newfound importance is the salaries the producers were willing to pay them. On Broadway Mary Pickford had earned $25 a week. In 1910 Carl Laemmle lured her away from Biograph, her first movie home, with an offer of $175 a week. Her starting salary with Adolph Zukor at Famous Players in 1914 was $20,000 a year, soon raised to $1,000 a week and then, in January of 1915, to $2,000 a week and half the profits from her pictures. In June of 1916 another contract raised her compensation to 50 percent of the profits of her films against a guaranteed minimum of $1,040,000 a year, including at least $10,000 every week, a bonus of $300,000 for signing the contract, and an additional $40,000 for the time she had spent reading scripts during contract negotiations. And this was only the beginning.
The stars were worth the money because their appearance in films not only boosted receipts but added a degree of predictability to the business, a predictability that was welcomed by the banks and financiers that in the 1920s would assume a larger role in the picture business. The most reliable, perhaps the only, predictor of success for any given film was the presence of an established star.
The reception accorded The Birth of a Nation marked the distance movies had traveled since their disastrous debut.
The stars were not only bringing new customers into the theaters but incorporating a movie audience scattered over thousands of different sites into a vast unified public. “Stars” were by definition actors or actresses whose appeal transcended every social category, with the possible exception of gender. As the theater and now film critic Walter Prichard Eaton explained in 1915, “The smallest town … sees the same motion-picture players as the largest. … John Bunny and Mary Pickford ‘star’ in a hundred towns at once.”
The reception accorded The Birth of a Nation that same year marked the distance the movies had traveled since their disastrous debut in Armat and Jenkins’s tent just twenty years earlier. While African-Americans and their supporters strenuously protested the film’s appalling portrayal of blacks and succeeded in forcing state and municipal censors to cut many scenes, white Americans of every age group, economic status, neighborhood, and ethnicity lined up at the box offices to see D. W. Griffith’s Civil War epic.
The Birth of a Nation would eventually make more money than any film of its time and be seen by an audience that extended from prosperous theatergoers who paid two dollars in the first-class legitimate theaters to the women, children, and men who viewed it at regular prices in their neighborhood moving-picture houses. Even the President of the United States, as the promotions for the film asserted, had seen The Birth of a Nation and was now a moving-picture fan.