Dailies Double: The Star System

photo credit: Skitterphoto https://pixabay.com/en/service/terms/#usage Image enlarged.

We hear all the time about “publicity stunts”—actors acting out to gain attention. There’s Britney and Madonna’s kiss. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Oscar Awards crash. And then a variety of fake wars-of-words, sex tapes, and wardrobe malfunctions that—despite and because of their controversial nature—enhanced the popularity of the actors or musical artists involved. (Here’s a list of some famous publicity stunts from the 2000s.) My favourite example from recent years (a movie-music overlap) is Joaquin Phoenix’s purported “retirement” from movies and public declaration to become a hip hop artist. The hoax (covered by the Huff Post and The Guardian) is one of the more elaborate examples, and one of the very few (perhaps aside from SB Cohen’s?) to offer an intelligent statement about Hollywood or the celebrity lifestyle.

In David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film, a book I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there’s a section that discusses perhaps one of the very first of such stunts, though the goal seemed as shameless as (if less salacious than) any in the history of Hollywood.

There was a time, Cook tells us, when “early performers” were known only by their character names, not, as with the “stars” we follow today (Jennifer Lawrence, Melissa McCarthy, George Clooney, Johnny Depp), by their real names. By 1909 profiles of some key figures began to appear, and as the result, producers became more and more aware of performers, whom they sought to attract—or, in the case of Carl Laemmle (1876-1939), steal away from other companies.

Such was the case with Florence Lawrence (1890-1938), who, at the time, worked for Biograph Studios: in 1910, Laemmle, who owned Independent Moving Pictures Company of America (IMP), convinced the actress to join his company. To cover his own ass, Laemmle spread the rumour that Lawrence had actually died, naming her for perhaps the first time (and, no doubt, invoking some pathos for the actress who had been already gaining some notoriety). The producer then had the audacity to denounce the whole thing as a “black lie” generated by the Patents Company to hide the truth of Lawrence’s switch to IMP.

Then (oh, this next part is pure diabolism!) crafty old Laemmle announced that Miss Lawrence would be making her grand appearance at the opening of her next picture, the silent short film The Broken Oath (1910). Thrilled that the actress had not perished but would be appearing in the flesh, safe and sound, droves of people gathered on a train station platform in St. Louis in anticipation of Lawrence’s arrival.

And, as Cook says, “the star system was born.”

So the next time you hear about an actor (or director or producer), acting out, just remember that Florence Lawrence was one of the first. (Coming back from the dead: now that’s a performance.)

Work Cited

Cook, David. A History of Narrative Film. 3rd edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

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3 comments

    1. Yeah, I loved the whole thing; thought it was bloody hilarious. And, yes, I did see the film (“I’m Not Here”): not the finest in cinematic art, but entertaining. (As far as mockumentaries go, “Guy Terrifico” is one of the better ones.)

      New theme? Nah, just a larger font.

      Like

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