When movie stars were new as a phenomenon a hundred years or so ago, chosen by floods of movie patrons going specially to see them, fan magazines that had just started up as a way of telling romantic stories (true or false) about the public’s favorite “players” on film began trying to assess their relative popularity. Most favored across Europe were generally versatile character actors likeAsta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander, both at the Nordisk studio of Denmark, ditto Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine) of Russia; and comedians Andre Deed and Max Linder of France. Hence, art cinema. In America, stars were generally those who played similar characters every time so that winningly sweet Mabel Normand in Keystone comedies was tops, and girl-with-the-curls Mary Pickford would soon become “America’s Sweetheart” championing her country’s entry into World War I. Heroic figure Francis X. Bushman was an early male megastar, joined by bouncy man-about-town Douglas Fairbanks.
By 1913-14 Motion Picture magazine had instituted a poll of its readers, hundreds of thousands of whom replied over a period of many months to the question: “Who is your favorite motion picture star?” These early annual polls were probably the most legitimate ever measurement of actual personal popularity of a star during a particular year. But in the late 1920s and 1930s bids for a more comprehensive polling method were made by a number of movie trade publications, most prominently Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald and its closest rival, Box Office magazine, held by some commentators to be more authoritative. (I will refer to the annual MPH poll here, since its box-office surveys were underway by 1930, the first full year of talkies, so fully covering the classic period I am most interested in. The Quigley company continued its poll in some form well into the 1990s. Its successor, the Fame poll, has recently featured a supposed top 10 box-office draws of whom four I have not heard and another three or four I wouldn’t recognise in the street.) These entailed asking twelve to fifteen thousand of the twenty thousand exhibitors in the USA: “Who were the ten stars that drew most people into your theatre(s)?”
The assessed year was from 1st September through to 31st August and a star who had three to five releases in that time (say singing cowboy Gene Autry or child star Shirley Temple) had a much better chance of rating high in this supposedly “scientific” survey than a Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Mae West rationed to one project a year. At a time when movies were made much more often as a “vehicle” around the star’s talents, with singers and dancers prominent, this was probably still a much better indication of personal popularity than today, when special effects, art work, theme, stunt technicians and pyrotechnics are much more likely to be the real attraction for an audience than the nominal star (such special performers as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis and few others aside). Stars then were held to be largely responsible for the success or otherwise of a movie release and a Johnny Depp and any number of others who today can have four or five flops in a row to their name with few or no repercussions to their career would no longer be stars — long out of a contract at a big studio and on the skids from smaller to smaller production outfits.
The MPH through its Almanac each year published a numbered order of stars down to twenty-five (usually edited fast to a top ten by newspapers) and then unnumbered layers of stars and featured players down in the hundreds who might only attract fans in a certain part of the country or for a particular fetish — but got a vote from someone. It is hard to believe such cultivated tastes as withered upper-crust English gentleman George Arliss, specialising in biopics of Disraeli, Rothschild, Voltaire and the Duke of Wellington would enjoy a broad leverage with audiences today. Yet, he was a fixture in Hollywood for over twenty years, listed in that top 25 until 1934. Similarly, rural-style comics Will Rogers, Joe E. Brown and Bob Burns who rated even higher through the mid thirties. It must be noted that the box-office champion team of butt-ugly and aged Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery (later echoed by Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride) lifted more hearts through the Great Depression than there have been faces lifted in the whole history of moviedom. This is a moral impossibility today, the age of deliberately superficial, skin-deep “beauty”.
The public has long lived with these skewed assessments of popularity. Deanna Durbin, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, who all starred as the central figures of some of the biggest box-office successes of the classic era, never climbed as high as the top 10 for any year. This, while other performers who seemed like no more than part of the ensemble cast (even part of the furniture in comparison), scored effortlessly. And in contrast to the phenomenal exceptions of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe who were able to repeatedly (but not over-frequently) penetrate the top 10 stars list while averaging just one movie a year through their heyday decades, a quick tally of some names of all-time megastars who not once made even the top 25 is impressive: Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Carole Lombard, David Niven, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Richard Widmark, Judy Holliday, Anthony Quinn.And this in the face of some unlikely “stars” who did: the gurgling Dionne Quintuplets, Dane Clark, Barry Fitzgerald, Larry Parks, Francis the Talking Mule, Ernest Borgnine, Sandy Dennis. And more all-time performers — all major stars for a quarter century or more — struggled to make the lower rungs of said twenty-five a select few times: Edward G. Robinson (two), Barbara Stanwyck (three), Loretta Young (two), Jean Arthur (one), Katharine Hepburn (four), Olivia De Havilland (two), Henry Fonda (three), Joseph Cotten (one), Lana Turner (three), Rita Hayworth (five), Danny Kaye (one), Ava Gardner (three), Robert Mitchum (three), Audrey Hepburn (four).
In defining a star’s career, his “popularity” can be spun to suit the writer’s intention. Commentators have forever called Gary Cooper an “instant star” at age 24 when he appeared in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), which actually starred Ronald Colman, Cooper some way down the cast. His position was said to have been bolstered the following year in the William Wellman blockbuster Wings, placing him at a creditable 17th top male in the Quigley box-office survey; further when it was released with sound effects another two years on; still, he was third male “lead” in this aviation saga. By the time of the prestigious A Farewell to Arms (1932) from Hemingway, directed by style master Frank Borzage, Cooper was nominally top banana on screen, admittedly opposite the Oscar-winning performance of Helen Hayes and with stalwart Adolphe Menjou lending panache in strong support. Through this era Cooper’s career was boosted by voluminous press publicity detailing his affairs with a string of glamorous women from spitfire actress Lupe Velez to the Countess Di Frasso. He was enthroned by Paramount in the choice roles of the day, as an adventurer opposite Marlene Dietrich, hottest female in Hollywood (Morocco); City Streets directed by ace Rouben Mamoulian and surrounded by Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas; The Devil and the Deep, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead; If I Had a Million, Laughton, W. C. Fields, directed by Lubitsch; and super-sophisticated Today We Live from Faulkner, surrounding Joan Crawford rivalled by Robert Young and Franchot Tone, under Howard Hawks, and Design for Living from Noel Coward via Ben Hecht, under Lubitsch again. And again Cooper was one of no less than three stars. He made no progress in his power to draw customers to theatres as reported by pollsters until 1935-36 when cast as the all-American good guy with impeccable morals and manners in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. He bobbled between 9th and 11th place (including both sexes) for three years before resting for two years near the bottom of top 20. Cooper was 40 before he started his residency near the very top of polls (1941), though never overtaking Clark Gable until the latter went off to war (1943). Through the war years he was not bothered either by competition from Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, all off doing service; and was still shaded in polls by Bing Crosby and Abbott & Costello, and then by Van Johnson, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable as a new generation ushered in. For several years in the late forties he lay 4th in overall popularity behind a combination of those stars mentioned. Then in 1949 he was overtaken by John Wayne, only for Cooper to bounce back as runner-up in 1952 and box-office champ the next year for his one and only time as el supremo. From there he dropped a couple of spots each year and made his last appearance in the top 20 in 1959, within two years of his death (of cancer). It was the era of almost interchangeable western roles between Wayne, Cooper, James Stewart and the returned Clark Gable, and even so limited a screen presence as Randolph Scott, emulating Cooper, was able to overtake his model template in Quigley’s list of the top 10 stars for the first two years of the 1950s.
In contrast to Cooper, both John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart have been used as prime examples of those actors said to have suffered long, torturous routes to superstardom. Yet, at age 41 and 42 respectively they were undoubted superstars in the public estimation backed up by box-office receipts. And it was a status gained without the preceding 15 years of ballyhooed build-up that Cooper received. Wayne had made quite an impressive showing as sole star in The Big Trail (1930) at age 22, but which unaccountably turned out a flop. He was instantly dropped by Fox, and was 31 before given another real chance at the big time. He was a success in Stagecoach (1939) but United Artists (unlike Cooper’s Paramount) had not the resources to make a star, and Wayne again was forced a step back under the shared aegis of Republic and RKO. Though funded sufficiently to star occasionally with good leading ladies like Marlene Dietrich (at her nadir), Claire Trevor and Martha Scott, it was one-off loanouts to Cecil B. DeMille for Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and to MGM for John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) that got him seriously noticed — and he garnered a mention at 24th (16th top male) in Quigley’s uppercrust of stars. Though this was not quite the status Cooper had reached at age 37 it was way over the odds considering the lack of external resources lent to Wayne’s career.
Like Cooper, Wayne had stayed at home for the war, making hay while a flotilla of Hollywood stars risked everything to safeguard the future of the world. Bogart, little more than a year older than Cooper and Clark Gable, was technically overage like them but might have forced his way into war service as Gable had. (Maybe not incidentally, Gable was the only one of these superstars instantly recognised by the public as such, so striking a presence on screen he featured near the top of popularity polls within a year of first appearing.) Bogart was the only one of these not to be considered for leading roles from the outset. Any number of factors might have entered this collective decision, not least his renowned uncooperativeness with bosses from the Warner brothers down, though not the obvious ones that might first come to mind: Bogart being six to eight inches shorter than Cooper and Wayne, the even more severely vertically challenged and/or pug-ugly Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft hadn’t found this a bar to lead roles and almost instant screen stardom as similar gangster/hard-boiled characters. First on screen at 30, first noticed at 36 for his menacing Duke Mantee on stage and screen in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart was restricted to supporting roles in A’s or lead roles in B’s until the new year of 1941 on release of High Sierra. Nominally second billed to long-established and luscious Ida Lupino, this Raoul Walsh classic written by John Huston rode on his shoulders alone, and it was a matter of months before his similarly dominating performance in The Maltese Falcon under Huston confirmed his superstardom, cemented by Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) the next year. All in the opportunity — those turned down by Raft.