We are approaching, next year, 2010, the 100th anniversary of movie stars. Motion picture photographic apparatus and film had been devised and developed by at least a dozen different people around the world twenty years before 1910, most famously Thomas Alva Edison in the States, who for twenty years tried to muscle other film producers for using his “patented” designs for equipment to make movies. Short film clips that passed as documentaries proliferated from the mid 1890s in France, Britain, even America: trains coming into stations, boxing matches, royal events… It was never imagined at this early stage by Edison, just one of its ‘inventors’, that film could be used for entertainment purposes.
Narrative fiction on film got underway around 1898, first in France. This was entertainment. But actors, who virtually all came from the stage and already facing widespread moral condemnation for that, were loath to be recognised on screen — for having strayed so far from legitimate acting and sunk to such depths: these early entertainments were mainly appreciated worldwide by poor people, who couldn’t afford to go to The Theatre. By 1909 such brave souls as ‘Bronco Billy’ Anderson, the boss of leading Chicago studio Essanay, and comedian Ben Turpin who worked there, ‘came out’ and allowed themselves to be named in public.
The first international stars were known first by their screen characters’ names — Foolshead, Cretinetti, Max — and personal renown pan-Europe predated the worldwide fame of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin by four years.
The first American star named and promoted as such was New York’s Florence Lawrence, formerly known only as “The Biograph Girl”, in March 1910 lured by Universal Studio founder Carl Laemmle for the huge salary of $200 a week. Nearby, Florence Turner, until now working as “The Vitagraph Girl” crosstown, had started three years earlier for the Brooklyn studio at $18 a week, boosted to $24 a week for including in her duties sewing costumes while off set. Now a month after the other Florence she was heavily promoted as her rival.
The lid was off and new record salaries continued to be set over the next few years. The best-publicized race for loot was between Pickford and Chaplin, who in 1914 earned $2,000 and $1,200 respectively as a weekly wage. It was just a matter of time before they caught and surpassed the leading Vaudeville players, including Annette Kellermann, champion swimmer whose admired form attracted pay of $5,000 a week on stage as early as the Olympic year of 1908. In 1915 stylish clothes-horse Francesca Bertini of Italy set a new mark on screen with $175,000-plus for the year; along with Russian actress Alla Nazimova filming in New York and paid $60,000 for four weeks’ shooting by the Triangle company (who were paying Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks $2,000 a week at the time). Both Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin were effectively on a million dollars a year by 1916. In 1919 and through the early Twenties, with Chaplin, Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks owning and running United Artists, they could name their own price.
But it had all started so innocently, for the love of art. Parallel with the conscious, hucksterish invention of stardom in the States, in 1910 superstardom in Europe was also flourishing. In early 1911 a Russian popularity poll listed:
1. Max Linder
2. Asta Nielsen
3. Valdemar Psilander
Linder is the recognised first comedy stylist of film. Having overtaken in popularity his Pathe studio colleague Andre Deed, who created the first internationally popular screen character in 1905, Max had been popular too for a couple of years and was just becoming known in America. He was Chaplin’s prime influence.
Asta Nielsen was a truly international superstar from Denmark, a small nation that grew instrumental in the new film industry, especially via the Nordisk company that exported films to America, called The Great Northern Company there. The Abyss, about sexual betrayal, made her a sensation across Europe by the end of 1910. She influenced fashions across continents (at first outside America) and became a powerful producer in Germany with her director husband Urban Gad also of Denmark. Known for her androgynous sex appeal, Nielsen went on to play Hamlet convincingly on screen. In different ways she was the forerunner of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
Psilander, a fellow Dane, was the first heroic screen idol of Europe. In a few years, having foregone offers in America, the evermore dominant nation in film, he would sink with the fortunes of his nation’s industry and commit suicide in 1917. In the meantime, Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine in France) of Russia rivalled him in screen magnetism and became the most admired actor of silent film.
American popularity surveys in 1912 had brought Vitagraph veteran Maurice Costello (in 1905 one of the first screen Sherlock Holmeses) to the fore, challenged by newcomer Francis X. Bushman. Bushman’s leading lady at Essanay studio, Dolores Cassinelli, was officially named the top female box-office draw both that year and the following one.
In 1913, according to the first contemporary Photoplay magazine poll, that took eight months to complete, comedienne Mabel Normandof Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio was America’s most popular female star, until overtaken in the early months of 1914 by Margarita Fischer, Topsy in an early Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Kathlyn Williams, who had begun to star in her own adventure serial and now in big western hits The Squaw Man and The Spoilers. When voting ended in April 1914 21-year-old Mary Pickford, former Griffith girl and the new favorite of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company, was on a fast rise:
1. J. Warren Kerrigan (Victor)
2. Margarita Fischer (Flying A)
3. Arthur Johnson (Lubin)
4. Kathlyn Williams (Selig)
5. Mabel Normand (Keystone)
6. King Baggot (Universal)
7. Mary Pickford (Famous Players)
8. Mary Fuller (Universal)
9. Francis X. Bushman (Essanay)
10. Beverly Bayne (Essanay)
Among the beefcake males, representing pre-WWI pre-Hollywood values, Bushman and Kerrigan in particular jostled for supremacy for five years from 1912, closely shadowed by Johnson until his death in 1916, Earle Williams and Maurice Costello, steadily overtaken by middle age (at a time when men did concede gracefully to age). Note the preponderance of females of high popularity (and accordingly high salaries) in an era supposedly of oppressed women — in contrast to today, when women are lucky to have one entry in the top 10.
Earlier, films such as The Count of Monte Cristo (Selig, 1907) had been shot in the Los Angeles area, and The Squaw Man directed by Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille for the Lasky Company in a barn locally popularized the district as a film colony. It was 1915 that a new generation of studios, including Universal and Fox, Famous Players and Lasky — soon joining to form Paramount — relocated from the East Coast to the district centered on Hollywood. Before the close of the decade Pickford and her consort Douglas Fairbanks were Queen and Crown Prince of Hollywood, settled at their palace, Pickfair.