By Justin Gautreau.
Well aware of film’s representational constraints, technologically and politically, these writers told a different story than the one early Hollywood could tell about itself.”
From its earliest days in Southern California, the film industry inspired a body of fiction that helped shape Hollywood as a place of romance and opportunity in the public imagination. While the first wave of so-called motion picture fiction focused mostly on the mystique of the film camera, the genre took shape with the emergence of the industry’s star system in the 1910s. No longer captivated by the technological feat of moving images, audiences wanted to know more about the larger-than-life personalities appearing in those moving images. Such widespread curiosity set the stage for the Hollywood fan magazine, a publication that offered readers a sense of intimacy with film culture on a variety of levels. In addition to featuring exclusive interviews with the stars, for instance, fan magazines promoted the occasional beauty contest that could lead to fame and fortune. It was within these pages that motion picture fiction found its niche.
Photoplay, the most popular of them all, was the first fan magazine to publish fiction about the movies, beginning with a series of short stories in 1912 that defended the cultural legitimacy of film. The following year, perhaps recognizing that these kinds of stories had been preaching to the choir, Photoplay took its promise of intimacy a step further by publishing fiction that encouraged readers to imagine themselves as stars. The magazine’s first serial novel, Robert Carlton Brown’s My Experience as a Film Favorite, purported to be the private memoir of a “well-known photoplay actress,” whose humble roots as a small-town movie fan made her relatable to Photoplay’s readers. (1)
Unlike a short story that could be consumed in a single sitting, My Experience as a Film Favorite’s six-month serialization (from November 1913 to April 1914) fundamentally demanded more of a commitment from readers, who in turn developed a personal relationship with the narrator as they followed her journey to film stardom each step of the way. At the same time, readers couldn’t help but daydream of their own chances at success. If she could make it, Brown’s novel implicitly asked, why couldn’t they? While learning about the personal lives of stars brought readers closer to film culture, then, consuming fiction made readers feel part of film culture, especially when it came in the extended form of the novel. Nearly as soon as the novelty of fan magazines wore off, authors came up with new ways to capitalize on the public’s insatiable appetite for a personal relationship with the movies. Nowhere was this made clearer than in the publication of the 1915 book My Strange Life: the Intimate Life Story of a Moving Picture Actress, another alleged memoir of an anonymous movie star. To elevate itself above the typical coverage of the industry in print, My Strange Life accused fan magazines and newspapers of watering down the hardships of film work. Early on at the film studio, the narrator writes,
I sometimes wonder who writes the stories about actresses who suddenly spring into fame. Always, at least ones I have happened to read, they work away, playing small parts and “under-studying” big ones until suddenly the Star is taken ill, or meets some accident. Called upon at the last minute to play the leading part, they make a sensational success. After that, of course, all is easy. . . . While I have no doubt that this does occur, why does not someone write the story of a young woman who slowly works her way to the top and holds her position because she has thoroughly learned her business from the ground up? (2)
Similarly, once the narrator reaches the level of stardom, she learns that it isn’t as romantic as the press makes it out to be: “Fame? What is fame? It is to have reporters interview you, and motion-picture ‘fans’ write you letters from all parts of the world, and to have articles about you in the magazines, and to be asked to write columns of ‘Beauty Hints’ for an evening newspapers, and to have your picture on the cover of [New York] Dramatic Mirror!” (3)
Despite its seemingly subversive take on the politics of stardom, My Strange Life ultimately boiled down to a text that legitimated film acting as a profession by stressing themes of hard work and determination. Still, as much as these works bolstered the film industry in its infancy, they also suggested that there was more to the picture than what fan magazines revealed. Although now regarded as a work of fiction written by its publisher, Edward J. Clode, My Strange Life’s blurring of reality and fiction anticipated the generic appeal of the Hollywood novel in the years to come: a credible yet unauthorized account of the inner workings of the industry that necessitated some kind of shield, whether in the form of anonymity or the label of fiction, in its divulging of secret information.
After a string of celebrity scandals in the early 1920s, novels like My Experience as a Film Favorite and My Strange Life suddenly appeared outdated and naïve, no longer reflective of the industry’s social climate. Nursing a public-relations hangover while also dealing with ongoing threats of federal censorship, the industry invited former postmaster general Will Hays to help rebuild its image – a decision that determined not only the content of films but also the coverage of film culture in newspapers and magazines. Under Hays’s direction, the industry worked to make the place of Hollywood appear just as idyllic as the romance of the screen. The “morals clause” inserted into every actor’s contract, for instance, closely resembled the Hays Office’s “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” for studio films (an early iteration of the Production Code).
Yet despite the industry’s systematic efforts to maintain its wholesome reputation, the novel as a form remained largely beyond the industry’s direct control and could therefore broach topics that were otherwise concealed. One industry journalist even observed that writing fiction about Hollywood “was the only way in which you could print the truth.” (4) For those working in the industry, then, to publish a so-called Hollywood novel during the hegemony of the studio system entailed a political choice – either to reinforce the studios’ promotional image or to counter it. Several industry insiders (particularly those on the lower end of its socioeconomic hierarchy) opted for the latter, looking to the novel as an exclusive tool to penetrate the industry’s increasingly sanitized façade. Well aware of film’s representational constraints, technologically and politically, these writers told a different story than the one Hollywood could tell about itself.
- Quoted in Ken Wlaschin and Stephen Bottomore, “Moving Picture Fiction of the Silent Era, 1895–1928,” Film History 20, no. 2 (2008): 229.
- My Strange Life: The Intimate Life Story of a Moving Picture Actress, ed. Edward J. Clode (New York: Edward J. Clode, 1915), 67–68.
- Ibid., 201.
- Adela Rogers St. Johns, The Honeycomb (New York: Doubleday, 1969), 136.
The above was excerpted from The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System by Justin Gautreau (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Justin Gautreau is Lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His work has appeared in Genre and Adaptation.