Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s

Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s

Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s

Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s


Today, we are so accustomed to consuming the amplified lives of film stars that the origins of the phenomenon may seem inevitable in retrospect. But the conjunction of the terms "movie" and "star" was inconceivable prior to the 1910s. Flickers of Desire explores the emergence of this mass cultural phenomenon, asking how and why a cinema that did not even run screen credits developed so quickly into a venue in which performers became the American film industry's most lucrative mode of product individuation. Contributors chart the rise of American cinema's first galaxy of stars through a variety of archival sources--newspaper columns, popular journals, fan magazines, cartoons, dolls, postcards, scrapbooks, personal letters, limericks, and dances. The iconic status of Charlie Chaplin's little tramp, Mary Pickford's golden curls, Pearl White's daring stunts, or Sessue Hayakawa's expressionless mask reflect the wild diversity of a public's desired ideals, while Theda Bara's seductive turn as the embodiment of feminine evil, George Beban's performance as a sympathetic Italian immigrant, or G. M. Anderson's creation of the heroic cowboy/outlaw character transformed the fantasies that shaped American filmmaking and its vital role in society.


Jennifer M. Bean

Nothing—nothing—like this had ever existed before. Stage stars were
known only to those who could afford to see their plays…. the movies
offered amusement to the masses.

—William J. Mann, The Biograph Girl

Desire is not simple.

—Ann Carson, Eros: the Bittersweet

There are a number of ways one might go about discussing the origins of American film stardom and the inestimable impact of stars on the growth of a domestic industry through the course of the 1910s. One might feasibly begin by questioning whether or not it is even proper to speak of an origin for film stardom when a theatrical star system, similar in some formal properties although different in tendencies, preceded the invention of motion pictures by at least a century. the answer to this question of origins is both no and yes. No, because before there could be movie stars there had to be a conception of the film actor; and the flourishing of a predominantly narrative cinema after 1906, followed by the practice of hiring a stock troupe of regular players in 1908 and 1909, fostered an understanding among both the public and the motion picture producers that the people appearing on the screen were professional performers. Yes, because the unprecedented intensity of feeling that audiences expressed for their favorite “picture personalities” in 1910, and the rapid acceleration of a multimedia system shaped by mass technologies of communication and representation, hint that film stardom flaunts a difference at once qualitative and quantitative.

I begin with this wobble between yes and no in order to flag the complexity of a phenomenon impossible to pinpoint as a locatable or knowable event, a definite point in time, for it is an origin deeply implicated in a constellation of transformations. Such an approach refuses a dubious thesis much bandied about, still, among those who talk about film and where it came from (most notably, perhaps, in David Cook’s introductory textbook . . .

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