Stars are a specific product of the film industry and of capitalist civilisation in general and the star system can be argued to have been “invented” in Hollywood around 1910 when producers became aware of the economic viability of creating and promoting film stars. From the very beginning, considerable mythology has accumulated about them and these myths, whether true or false, had a significant cultural impact in the way they contributed to shaping human attitudes, behavior and mentality. This essay will discuss the extent to which the “star system” was essential to the cultural and economic dominance of Hollywood in the 1920s and early 1930s by focusing on two female stars: Clara Bow and Greta Garbo.

Film and Television

Greta Garbo

Before cinema came into being, the importance of star names was largely recognized in American theatre as the shift from the stock company system to the combination system brought with it the economic necessity to market star names in order to sell tours. Others saw the advent of stars as a consequence of broader social changes, as a mark of modernity triggered by “a spirit of change – of exhilaration – of excitement, incident to an end of an old order of things”  (Wood 1855 quoted in McDonald 2000:18). But although the theatre offered a model of the economic and symbolic importance of stars, it was only in film that actors could rise to unprecedented heights of stardom, fame, wealth and celebrity. This can be linked with the global availability of the medium which ensured a global audience but also with its intrinsic nature: the perceived parallelism between the paradoxical “imaginary” logic of the moving image and the assumed functional architecture of the mind (Monsterberg 1970: 38). Thus, if the aesthetic domain is conceived, along Kantian lines, as a sensible expression of the complex human mind, the moving image can be regarded as the perfect materialization of the aesthetic function and the most accessible gateway to the core of the human condition.

Although the definition and meaning of stars may change significantly across different historical periods and in different production contexts, the term “star system” refers to the institutional hierarchy established in Hollywood around 1910 in order to control and regulate the use of all actors (Jarvie 1991 in Fischer & Landy eds. 2004:167).Relying on the physical character and “personality” of a figure to circulate value in terms of labour, profit and social meaning, the star system has its own economic and political determinants. Within this system, Clark argues that stars are “a privileged class within the division of actors’ labour” (1995:5) and their economic importance lies in their being absolutely essential at all levels of the film business, from production to distribution and exhibition. Also, the link between the star’s image and screen roles is intimately tied to elements of the national imaginary, values and attitudes. In contrast to the present day when significant portions of the audience may go to see a film because it is directed by such and such director, the Hollywood films of the 1920s and 1930s lured the masses into the theatres based solely on the presence of the stars featuring in them: Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo.

This was not the case from the very beginning however. Though the focus on the exceptional individual as a projection of social, sexual and class aspirations, desires and fantasies is deeply embedded in Western cultural conception of individualism, early film was a cinema without stars. The identity of the performers was deliberately withheld from the audience for fear, the producers believed, that it would drive them to demand higher wages. The actors were equally reluctant to have their names associated with the less prestigious work of appearing in film (McDonald 2000:20).


Clara Bow

In its transition from a mere technology to a full-blown business operating in an industrial capitalist economy, film became a capitalist enterprise to which the Marxist concept of the “mode of production” can be applied, with specific patterns in the arrangement of labour, technology and capital (Staiger 1985 in McDonald 2000:9). This required a clear system for the control and regulation of film actors. Cordova (1990) distinguishes two prior stages in the emergence of the star system in America: 1) “discourse on acting” i.e. the publication, after 1907, of trade press articles on the work of the film actor, raising public awareness of the human labor involved in film performances, and 2) the “picture personality” i.e. result of sectioning off certain performers as worthy of identification and desire. The latter was however an obvious marketing strategy: their names functioned as brands in order to help sell films through their sameness to other films in which the actor appeared previously, thus offering audiences a reassuring guarantee of quality through the “uniformity of the product manufactured” (Bowser 1990:103). It was only after 1913, when the press started circulating stories about the off-screen lives of popular film performers, that the system was fully realized. This new realm of knowledge gave readers access to life behind the screen, to the private existence of actors whose lifestyle exemplified the values of the consumer economy.

Carl Laemmle is generally credited with creating the star system in 1910 when he catapulted Florence Lawrence to fame by originating the ‘publicity stunt’ (Dyer 1998:9). Reacting to a false story of her alleged death in a car accident, he generated a massive publicity campaign for Lawrence who is considered to be the very first American film star.  Laemmle increased her salary to a phenomenal $1,000 a week and she was the first player to receive a screen credit. This encouraged other studios to follow suit and create their own stars.

mary pickford ingenue

Mary Pickford

Dubbed “America’s Sweetheart”, Mary Pickford is another Biograph actress who became universally popular and commanded high salaries: she was paid $175/week at first and then $1,000/week for a five year period. She rapidly became the highest-paid star in the business after accepting the first “million-dollar contract” in Hollywood with Paramount Pictures (Dirks). With the burgeoning careers of such actors as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix and Charlie Chaplin, a full-fledged American system was born.

By the 1920s the basic patterns and foundations of the film industry were established: the studio system came into being with long-term contracts for stars, lavish production values, and increasingly rigid control of directors and stars by the studio’s production and publicity departments. In the early 1920s America was the leading producer of films in the world. Hollywood being a capitalist enterprise like any other, stars held an essential function in its economy. In an acerbic competition with each other, star-building and star-raiding between studios increased. Although awareness of their power led to stars demanding higher and higher salaries, there were many economic advantages in the star system. Stars became negotiable objects that possessed an intrinsic financial worth. By setting a value on a human personality, producers used stars as collateral for a bank loan. The demand for stars was perceived as a factor that could stabilize the industry due to its predictability (Dyer 1998: 11). Stars could make or break producers and “to acquire a star was to acquire instant capital” (Walker 1970:48). They were used as marketing tools in the manipulation of the market and the enormous amount of money, time and energy spent by the studios in building up star images generally paid off in resounding box-office success (Card 1994: 130). Soon the primacy of the stars is firmly established to the extent that everything revolves around these magical creatures: scripts are carefully tailored to their unique charms and personality, camerawork is focused on them to highlight their irresistible beauty and glamour. The publicity around stars (pictures, off-screen activities) led to the establishment of Hollywood as an exotic and permanent playground through which audiences could live vicariously the most extraordinary adventures and glamorous lives.


The star is not only a major economic determinant of the success of a film but it expressed a number of cultural values concerning femininity and masculinity, class position, lifestyle, and national identity. For instance, Clara Bow – a creation of Paramount studio and the most popular icon of youthful sexuality of the 1920s – must be linked with wider social movements such as changing attitudes towards feminine sexuality in American society. In successive films e.g. The Plastic Age (1925), Dancing Mothers (1926), Mantrap (1926), Bow embodied the archetype of the “flapper” which posed a challenge to traditional and passive representations of women. The film It released in January 1927 was a popular phenomenon of extraordinary proportions assuring the star’s status as an idol of her generation and in 1928 she was the highest paid movie star at $35,000/week (Dirks).


Clara Bow

The term “it” was slang for sex appeal and it soon became synonymous with the star Clara Bow whose spirited performance in the film led to social and cultural changes. Betty Lou, the film’s flapper heroine, represents the new type of the socially mobile, modern young woman that stands in sharp contrast with the older feminine ideal of genteel and quiet demeanor. The film displays a visible sexuality and heralds the emergence of new ideals of morality for youth that displaced an earlier ideal: if traditionally women were expected to live with their parents until marriage and to place domestic duties and motherhood above everything else, the “flapper morality” encouraged young women to explore their sexuality freely and to look for partners who offered passion and eroticism in marriage. This also brought profound changes in women’s fashion: whereas in the earlier period women’s clothing was restricted to long skirts, long sleeves, petticoats and corsets that prevented freedom of movement, the 1920s style was designed to accommodate the newly dynamic feminine type that Lucien Lelong, a famous fashion designer of the era, characterized as “predominantly kinetic”, a quality required by modern life (Lelong 1927 quoted in Felando 2004:9). The movies promoted and helped to legitimize a more dynamic feminine style, as well as feminine gestures and postures that were freer and more expressive. The promise of this new freedom was doubtlessly very alluring at the time.

By casting Bow in this film, Paramount proved its intuitive awareness of how the phenomenon of stardom worked, namely that stars need to appear in the right type of vehicle for their already existing image or persona. In other words stars only ensure the success of a film when they are cast in a production that complements the public’s view of them. Thus Bow’s performance in It derived its tremendous success from the parallels between her sexy off-screen persona and her on-screen flapper heroine, an idea that is also highlighted by Richard Dyer’s notion of the “fit” between a star’s image and the character she or he plays (1978:97).

The phenomenal success of the film It resulted in Bow gaining an even larger following of young fans, and inspiring scores of young women to imitate her style. According to feminist historian Lois Banner, It provided the most influential model of femininity for American women in the 1920s (1983:279). As proof of its influence, a direct correlation can be established between the release of the film and significant increases in sales of red henna hair colouring as well as in requests for the “Bow bob” in beauty salons throughout the United States (Felando 2004:21). Goods manufacturers capitalized on her enormous appeal by offering products endorsed by Bow such as “Clara Bow hats”, an advertisement displayed in the 1927 Sears catalogue. Thus Clara Bow is established as a symbol of modernity that brings with it cultural changes in fashion, femininity, youth and morality – crucial elements of her appeal.

As the expansion of a commercial beauty culture relied economically on the promotion of new looks, new faces and new colours (Berry 2000), it becomes clear that the influence of film stars transcends the screen and reverberates through all the spheres of life. By having a major control over the representation of people in society and the definition of social roles and types, stars could influence how people believe they could or should behave (King 1985 in Dyer 1998:7). Hollywood movies became an essential guide to modern living and a “key source of idealized images of femininity” (Stacey 1994:9) which in turn ensured Hollywood’s cultural and economic dominance in the film world, as the manufacturer of the world’s most fashionable, morally-progressive and exciting stars.


One of the most memorable screen legends that was a Hollywood product of the era is Greta Garbo. When MGM imported her from Sweden, the studio executives were unsure of how to use her and her first Hollywood film, The Torrent (1926) testifies to this difficulty (Gronowicz 1990:181). With Flesh and the Devil (1927), a very audacious film for the period due to its passionate love scenes, Garbo’s type becomes apparent: she will come to embody eroticism more intensely than any other star of the period. It is claimed that Garbo released such a heavy erotic change in her films that MGM felt compelled to add a moral or “happy” ending in a few productions in order to avoid censorship. For some critics the “Garbo affect” lies in the paradox between the spirituality of her looks and the powerful physicality of her love-making, her ability to combine the (allegedly) mutually exclusive female archetypes of seductress and Madonna (Szaloky 2006: 196-208). Walker draws attention to the famous Garbo grip “of the woman in love who reaches first” (1970:143) with all its disturbing ambiguities. Her tall, tubular, wide-shouldered, long-legged angular body was unusual as well, and even more so the way she used it. Regarding the rare photogenic quality of Garbo’s face, Barthes describes it in terms of “absolute mask”, an expression of “the Platonic idea of the human creature” (1933:56). Affron points to a systematically recurring visual motif in her films: the framing of her glowing face against the dark contour of a lover’s shoulder, neck and back of the head (1977:158). Her screen lovers seem to function mostly as a graphic framing device for “The Face” (Szaloky 2006:196-208).

Clarence Brown, the director of seven Garbo films speaks about the spiritual dimension of her acting style. Garbo’s exceptional sensitivity to emotion was instrumental in turning her face into the epitome of loss and longing in a turmoil-filled age. She represented a new ideal of beauty, reflecting the strangeness, speed and distraction of the times. If cinema is a mass art whose “objet d’art” is the film star, it can be argued that MGM, for whom Garbo was just a commodity, mass-produced for mass-consumption, achieved something more: the unmatched eloquence of the blank face at the end of Queen Christina and the “ravishing tranquility” of the death scene in Camille have been ranked among the most ethereal moments of cinema (Affron 1977:204).

Also in the 1920s and early 1930s Garbo’s iconic persona is strongly associated with Art Deco, the style that represented the quintessence of modernity. The ubiquity of the Art Deco mode on movie screens helped to popularize contemporary design in America. From set design to film costumes and hair styles, everything bears the mark of this highly eclectic new trend: streamlined, geometric and symmetrical patterns, the association with the machine age, but also a contradictory penchant to the ancient and primitive, a love for the exotic. Even the physiognomy of actors was used, through blocking, to create Deco-inspired designs: “stars became generic Deco works, [and] sculpturesque pieces”. (Winokur 1996 quoted in Fischer 2001:88). In most of her “glamour shots”, Garbo is adorned in chic fashion and inhabits a modernistic space. Moreover, the “new type” of screen heroine that Garbo represents a modern mentality: the independent woman who is unconventional on both the moral and sexual plane. In Wild Orchids, Garbo plays a character who is tempted by adultery but in allowing spectator sympathy for her conflicted desires, the film reflects progressive changes in social attitudes towards female eroticism (Fischer 2001:93). In The Single Standard, Garbo plays a free spirit with a total disregard for social conventions. In Mata Hari, the modern woman is portrayed as decidedly nonmaternal, her androgynous shape reflecting the streamlined Deco aesthetic: “Breasts were reined in so that the feminine would not also mean maternal” (Winokur 1996 quoted in Fischer 2001:94). As in the case of Clara Bow’s It, these films taught women alternative, different ways of being and behavior that had a global appeal.

However, the modernistic excesses of the 1920s manifest in the androgynous, assertive, non-maternal “new-woman” embodied by Garbo came to a halt with the onset of the Great Depression that sparked a new taste for psychological realism. Also the transition to sound posed new challenges for film stars. By 1930, the silent movie had practically disappeared, and by the mid 1930s, film industry studios had become sound-film factories. Many stars of the silent era with heavy accents and disagreeable voices saw their careers shattered e.g. Polish-accented Pola Negri, Ramon Novarro, Clara Bow, John Gilbert, while others like Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson survived the transition. In her first sound role, Anna Christie (1930), Garbo portrays the tribulations of a sailor’s daughter against a grimly realistic social setting and her deep, “husky” voice and exotic foreign accent became as famous as her face.

In an attempt to further exploit the public’s image of Garbo based on her riveting and tragedy-infused performances of the “Grande Dame”, MGM continues to cast her in films portraying exceptional heroines: Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935). After this period it proved increasingly difficult to recreate her look in order to fit the American’s public new taste for human-sized heroes, earthly passions and happy endings. Thus the attempt to Americanize her appeal in the brilliant comedy Ninotchka (1939) and Two-Faced Woman (1941) was a financial failure at the time (Bawden 1976:279).

If, according to Metz, cinema is an institution for the commodification of desire, it follows that films make money so long as they provide pleasure. The crucial role of stars in this equation was in attracting audiences to regular cinema-going due to the fascination and magic they wielded over their public. Ellis, who like Dyer regards stars as intertextual constructions, explains the star phenomenon in the following way: for the spectator, the star image emerges as an “incomplete image” from fragments of subsidiary texts (publicity, gossip etc) and as a result, audiences are motivated to go and see stars by the desire to complete the puzzle of the star’s image. Lacan also gives a plausible explanation in this respect in the metaphor of cinema as “mirror-image”: the spectators relate to stars through a process of identification, the stars becoming ideal selves for the audience.

Thus Hollywood producers proved to have an incredible intuition about the public’s need for stars and also what types of faces and personalities the audience wanted to see. The role played by film stars in the economic and cultural dominance of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s cannot be overestimated. Apart from providing a glimpse into the fascinating world of the dream factory, the star system was essential in the standardization of film products and in its interrelations with other consumption industries and advertising. Also stars were the commodities that consistently drew audiences to the movies: the repetition of standard ingredients in each film created an audience expectation of these elements. The studio system was committed to the deliberate manufacture of stars as a mechanism for selling film tickets, and as a result generated publicity around them. At the height of its operation, the star system provided an ideal version of the self for every member of the audience. Stars became “examples of style”, conscious experimenters with roles, identities and appearances. As trade followed the films, stars were its guides, coaching their fans in the use of new consumer products. Culturally speaking, the stars’ influence was substantial as the fan magazines sustained a discourse on social mores, romance, marriage and sexuality based on their on-screen and off-screen personas, with far-reaching consequences for people’s lifestyles and mentality.


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