Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity

By Boswell, Parley A. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2003 | Go to article overview

Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity


Boswell, Parley A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity Samantha Barbas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

"The world is movie mad," wrote one early silent-picture star in the San Francisco Examiner in 1915. And indeed, in her fine study of the rise of Hollywood celebrity culture, Samantha Barbas describes how America would become even more movie crazy as the twentieth century progressed. Using an impressive variety of source material, including archival fan clippings from the collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and private fan scrapbooks, Barbas gives us a clear, thoughtful portrait of the American movie fan. She explores the complicated relationships among movie fans, film celebrities, and the film industry of Hollywood from the earliest days of silent films through the late 1940s.

Barbas challenges the caricature of American movie fans as the "frenzied mob and the silly schoolgirl" stereotypes that have been portrayed, ironically enough, in Hollywood films through the years. Movie fans, she argues, have contributed to popular film culture in profoundly significant ways since the days of the Nickelodeon. "The story of film fandom," Barbas writes, "is the story of the way that fans refused to accept mass culture passively and, instead, became actively involved in their entertainment." Film fans have never been controlled by an unseen, all-knowing Hollywood dream factory. On the contrary, film fans have done much more than consume movie culture by trying to "understand, control, and participate in the movies." Barbas identifies fandom aptly as "a quest for authenticity, influence, and involvement" in American film culture. Fans, never simple or inactive, have represented a shaping force-economically, morally, and aesthetically-on the culture of Hollywood movies.

Barbas's characterization of movie fans as active players in the film industry is compelling and convincing. She begins with a discussion of the interests of early moviegoers in the chapter "Reel to Real." In 1911, the editors of the earliest movie fan magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine, began modifying the magazine's content-originally, short novelized versions of movie plots-in direct response to movie fans' requests for information about their favorite actors. Until they received volumes of mail from fans, the magazine editors "did not realize . . . that fans were far more interested in stars than in stories." Within a year, both Motion Picture Story and its rival publication Photoplay included photo layouts and stories about actors. By 1920, fan magazines were devoted almost exclusively to the private lives of movie actors, now celebrities, with the cooperation of publicity departments in the film studios. Editors and the movie community "sensed that fans were far more interested in the personal than the professional," and they were quick to adapt to the needs of paying fans.

Barbas explores other facets of movie fandom with equally convincing documentation and clarity in subsequent chapters. …

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