Famous actors in Hollywood of the 30s and 40s: the star system and stardom.

How cinematographic stardom was born

Famous actors, the Star System and stardom are one of the main phenomena of industrial and commercial cinema which, as opposed to independent cinema and art, ensures the participation of stars in their productions to attract the masses to cinemas.

The eternal conflict between these two very different types of films seems to be re-proposed also in the acting sector. While in independent productions the protagonist who attracts the public is the artist-filmmaker, in mainstream cinema the filmmaker becomes the director-employee and definitely takes a back seat. 

American cinema of the 1930s and 1940s is structured in Hollywood as a vertical system and oligopoly. Studios control films from their conception to writing to production and distribution in theaters. The big movie Studios also own chains of theaters that are built across the United States and that control more than 90% of the entire film market. 

Sound and famous actors

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The studios that controlled the market in the early 1930s were Paramount, MGM, Fox, Warner and the latest RKO. Important budgets are invested in research, development and improvement of sound cinema. The big studios allow a fast transition of silent cinema especially for business interests. In fact, sound cinema expanded the audience that flocked to cinemas even more and made it possible to follow a story with an appearance of reality that was previously impossible, from a more rational and narrative point of view. 

The advertising goal of the Studios is to build an almost supernatural aura of myth on every star. A strategy that requires long-term investments and a well-designed brand for each star, to be associated with a certain film genre and a certain type of film. 

Famous actors, brands and star systems

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Studios literally take common faces and transform them into stars of the big screen. Their faces are always illuminated by an almost divine light so that the public perceives them as gods, real religious icons to which they remain faithful, film after film. Audience retention is the main strategy of the Hollywood film industry and the star system

A process of divinization towards the masses in some ways very similar to the strategies applied by emperors such as Alexander the Great or Augustus. It was necessary to construct a supernatural image of oneself that promised a bridge of communication with the higher paradises. 

The origins of the Star System and stardom can be found many years earlier in France with the films produced by Les film d’Art, an independent production created by the most famous French theater actors to compete with the big films of Gaumont and Pathè, the French studios that were monopolizing the market and putting independent cinema at risk. An experience, however, which had remained isolated and which had not become a system. 

The first famous french actors

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The first Star in the history of cinema is perhaps Max Linder who played a series of short films for Pathé between 1905 and 1911 without realizing over the years that he was slowly becoming a star throughout Europe. He realizes this during a trip to Barcelona when he is suddenly attacked by a crowd of thousands of fans looking for an autograph. 

Realizing his enormous popularity, he returned to France and asked his production company for a much higher pay. Pathé was forced to give it to him because the success of the new films to be made depended on him. The contractual power of the stars in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s was beginning to be of a certain depth. While the director was considered a simple interchangeable employee who had to take care of the technical and artistic packaging of the film, the face of the established star was something that could not be ignored and that ensured the success of the production. 

Max Linder works because there is no distance between the characters he plays and his way of being in real life. He appears to the public as a talented relative or neighbor for whom he has a deep admiration and at the same time is familiar. 

The first famous Italian actors

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Even in Italy in the 10s there are references to the Star System with divas like Eleonora Duse. Characters who are not actors but real stars of the Italian political and cultural scene, such as Gabriele D’Annunzio, appear in the foreground on movie posters, even if they have written only a couple of dialogues. While there is no trace of the director and lesser known faces in the advertising material. In Italy too, cinema is exploited above all for propaganda purposes and as a money-making machine. 

It has therefore been clear since the 10s that films are benefited by stardom, stars and popular faces that are easily recognizable and familiar to the public. A way of conceiving and producing the film that begins to move away from that of the original artists and artisans. The main ingredients of the film become a clearly recognizable genre enjoyed by the public, famous actors and rich productions that allow for spectacular images and sparkling photography. Méliès‘ studio and artisan workshop is now a distant memory: we will have to wait until the Sixties for the artisans of cinema to return to the scene. 

Their ability to handle this movie star lifestyle, their dreamy face, the empathy they manage to establish with the audience are almost always more important than acting talent. If you can have both things it is better, but there are not rare cases of stars who are very popular with the public but do not know how to act at all, almost puppets to be placed on the set as a guarantee for success. 

Famous actors and the film market

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Often the stars were not required to have a particular acting ability, but rather a certain physical prowess, such as in Western films or in certain exotic and adventurous products where they had to show off their physical beauty. In addition to the major studios, there were some independent companies and others that only produced minor and B-grade films, such as La Republic and Monogram. 

The different types of productions divide the market quite precisely: the majors deal with large budget films and schedule shows in the most prestigious theaters: independent productions deal with provincial and smaller theaters; productions specialized in B series films program the last shows of the day. 

The entire organization of American film production takes place from a financial perspective, also involving the banks. Nothing is left to chance and the production studio and the producer are solely responsible for the outcome of the film. In such a profit-oriented context, the creative freedom of directors is very limited. 

There are also cases of very talented filmmakers who are abruptly replaced during the making of a film because they are over budget or because they are making a product that is too artistic and personal. Such as the case of Erich Von Stroheim, from whom almost all of his films were stolen and mutilated for editing. 

The fundamental components, on the other hand, are the cinematographic genres, The stardom and the scenographic and packaging characteristics of the film. In each studio there are highly specialized professionals in the various sectors of the production process. The image quality of classic Hollywood films must always be perfect, and each studio has its own recognizable brand: the mountain of Paramount the lion of MGM the shield of Warner the world of Universal and so on. Even the light and photography of the individual Studios is different and is a means to bring the audience into different atmospheres.

The ties of Celebrities with Studios

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Hollywood producers of the 1930s and 1940s looked exclusively to profit optimization and there is no room for experimentation. But each studio specializes in a certain type of film genre and each studio enters into long-term contracts with certain types that become a second recognizable brand. The public associates their faces with the brand of the studios. Thus they find themselves in some way imprisoned in limited roles that in studies they assign to them based on the successes obtained previously. It rarely happens in Hollywood that a famous actor can experiment with completely different interpretations.

Directors also become specialized in films of a certain genre and with a certain look, also tied up with long-term contracts with the Studios. For example, the films of Raoul Walsh, John Ford or Hawks are films that have as protagonists exclusively men, stories of a certain genre produced by Fox. The public also identifies in MGM the romantic genre of George Cukor or Clarence Brown

This organization of director stars into well-defined genres and codes also affects theatrical distribution. Studios like Paramount cater to a more casual and transgressive metropolitan audience, MGM to a first-run audience in search of glitzy and colossal films, independent productions and B-series films are aimed at small niche theaters or cinemas of the province. 

The decline of art cinema

The entire film production strategy is ordered on the basis of budgets, styles, genres and stars, with a logic of serial and consumer production of the cinematographic product. The concept of film as a work of art with which cinema was born in Paris and spread to Europe falls totally into oblivion in the Hollywood dream factory. A factory that creates and monopolizes the imagination of the whole world. Art and avant-garde films are drastically reduced: it is increasingly difficult to produce and the public 90% prefer to go and see classic Hollywood films. 

As had happened for sound, the affirmation and growth of the Hollywood film industry and the Studio System marks a watershed in the history of films: from those years onwards the conception of the cinema show for the public changed definitively and will continue to be like this to date for the majority of viewers around the world. 

We have confirmation of this through streaming platforms that have inherited the industrial and standardized production of Hollywood through forms of serial entertainment today popular all over the world, TV series, where all forms of artistic experimentation have practically disappeared. They are products that update the films of old Hollywood in a modern way, also eliminating that margin of creativity and ferment that the great European directors forced to look for work overseas brought to the City of Angels. 

Film artisans and artists will be forced to integrate into American industry or change jobs. Lonely characters detached from an assembly line system are now inconceivable and without a market. Many actors will be forced to be stars and play very specific characters and clichés. In exchange for this, Hollywood flows a river of money for everyone. 

Famous actors and cinematographic genres

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The cinematographic genres we are used to today are therefore not a real need of the cinematographic art, but a method of coding and industrial planning inspired by the narrative and literary categories. Hollywood needs to create dynamics, values, cultural stereotypes, fashions and iconographies in an extremely schematic way to target the audience of each film production. 

Without this scheme of cinematographic genres, studios would be forced to move into the territory of pure artistic creation, the unknown and auteur cinema in which it is very difficult to assign a well-defined target and reach it with advertising and marketing campaigns. Artistic creation is in fact a mysterious process that connects to the spiritual world and no predictions can be made. 

The Star System and film genres are closely linked and the productions are planned in a long-term perspective, with specific contracts that prevent the living from moving from one studio to another. Musical, Noir, Western, Horror. Each studio specializes in some very specific genres and offers the public the recognizable faces of the star System, to be found film after film. 

Avant-garde cinema in the star system

Fortunately, thanks to the talent and stubbornness of many directors and screenwriters who work in Hollywood In those years, as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and many others, numerous masterpieces and even rather original films were born. The only margin of innovation is found within each single production, when there is a director interested in carrying out a certain project in a different way, often at the cost of hard struggles with the producer, with the stars, with rigidity. of the mechanism in which it works. 

Some stars of the Hollywood Star System have a really difficult life. Stunned by the scandals that the studies create around their private life and their love life, blinded by success and wealth, they lose touch with reality and in some cases go towards tragic ends. Like that of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe

We will have to wait for a worldwide successful avant-garde movement like the Nouvelle Vague for audiences to begin to accept a different perception of actors in films. Successful actors cease to be those standardized and artificial stars of the Star System. They become professionals capable of transforming themselves from film to film and of working beyond genres. The arthouse, independent and artistic cinema can finally return to meet the great actors, stars who are not just puppets to be placed under the lights of a set. Actors who, beyond their faces and their sex appeal, bring their enormous talent to cinema. 

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