Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s

Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s

Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s

Idols of Modernity: Movie Stars of the 1920s


With its sharp focus on stardom during the 1920s, Idols of Modernity reveals 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.


Patrice Petro

No one ever leaves a star. That’s what makes one a star.

—Norma Desmond

Billy Wilder’s Sunset 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. You used to be big.” Norma: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Gillis: “Aha. I knew there was something wrong with them.”

Later in the film, Norma and Gillis watch Norma’s performance in a silent film in the private screening room of her cavernous and dilapidated Hollywood mansion. Over the sound of the flickering projector, illuminated by the light cast by the moving images, Norma caustically remarks: “We didn’t need dialogue; we had faces.” These faces from the silent era return to the big screen through the brilliant casting and performances of Sunset Blvd. Former director, now butler Max von Mayerling is played by Erich von Stroheim, among the most eccentric, controversial, and respected directors of the 1920s, whose credits include Foolish Wives (1922), Greed (1923), and Queen Kelly (1929), glimpsed briefly in Wilder’s film. Appearing as themselves are journalist Hedda Hopper and director Cecil B. DeMille, who featured Swanson in such lavish films as Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), Male and Female (1919), and The Affairs of Anatole (1921). There are also the infamous “wax works,” Norma’s card-playing friends from the silent days whom Gillis derisively writes off as has-beens of a forgotten era:

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