The Star System in Hollywood in the 20th Century

Hollywood is well-known for both massive and successful production of different motion pictures. It always seemed to be a place where dreams come true for millions of young boys and girls who went there in pursuit of their happiness and glory. Many of those who arrived to film production companies were really talented, but only some particular people, usually very good-looking or with something special in their appearance, became stars. In the 1930s-1940s of the 20th century, the tendency became more popular. In the scope of the Hollywood studio system, which included five major film production companies, the “star system” started to increase and dominate in almost all movies. The viewers had a possibility to enjoy films with the actors they know very well from other pictures. Therefore, the star system was the primary orientation in the process of classical Hollywood moviemaking, which, without doubt, affected the movies produced at that time and the American society that was a consumer of the films. However, despite the popularity and wide use, the system declined with the time flow.

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The star system is usually regarded as a method used for creation and the subsequent exploitation and promotion of film stars. Mark Tooms claims that the star system was once among “the key components of the Hollywood studio system” (as well as for many companies these days) (Tooms). As soon as producers or other people from the crew liked anyone, they tried to do their best to change this person according to the desires of the general public, i.e. make them special, attractive, stunning and unforgettable. Since the right person was discovered and checked for the perception of the audience, they became actively involved in the filmmaking industry. Ndalianis and Henry claim that the star system means much to Hollywood film production as it was, and is, the major device that brings success to the film production companies in Hollywood (xi). The authors state that the actors as major stars are now replaced by directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and others. Moreover, they claim that the main privilege directors have is that they do not have to quit filmmaking as they get older, less attractive and when new producers appear on stage. The only things they need are to have enough stamina to embody their talent and remain original so that no one could do what they do in such a good manner.

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Many critics talk about the star system as a notion that is still operating in the United States. As Hollywood produces stars as it did 50 or 60 years ago, it can be assumed that the star system declined but did not disappear completely. McDonald claims that adherence to the star system dogmas is the use of some particular mechanisms for constructing and promoting new works and making them consumed by the audience (1). Though stardom is directed to the massive commercialization and making money, McDonald states that “the star system deals in individualism” (1) since every celebrity is differentiated without being perceived as part of a large group of famous people. They are not regarded as people with certain characteristics but as the separately taken individuals. The perception by the audience and the representation of celebrities in films make the main difference between the present-day star system and that at the beginning of the 20th century.

It is possible to assume that present-day filmmaking is not absolutely centered on actors; the stardom did not disappear as it is represented by the estimation of producers’ work. Many people think that the films produced by Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Walt Disney, or Martin Scorsese cannot be boring, conventional and unsuccessful. Therefore, one may conclude that after the peak of the star system in Hollywood and the following decline, the stars still exist. The major thing is that the focus is different. There is not much orientation on the image created by the famous actor or actress in the modern Hollywood but on the celebrity as an individual. Thus, the star system is used in a different manner and with a different purpose.

There are different ideas of what the star system is. The most accurate and close to the reality definition is provided by Ndalianis and Henry that said that the star system is “a system that has always relied on expanding fascination with its products by developing public interest in individuals who majestically encapsulate the media form they represent” (x). Hayward states that the star system is usually regarded as something that occurred in Hollywood (349). The reality is that at the time the orientation on stardom appeared in the United States, it was already actively used in France (usually in comedy series and ‘film d’art productions’) since 1908 (Hayward 349). When filmmakers understood that some actors were perceived better by the audience, they started employing people that were liked by the moviegoers more often. Richard de Cordova claims that the American star system appeared in the early years of the 20th century and insists that “the star system has been central to the functioning of the American cinema as a social institution” (as quoted in Schmid 107).

Powdermaker claims that despite the fact that the star system played some role in filmmaking, it was not created by the companies (228). At the beginning of the 20th century, there were no names of actors provided before or after the film since the producers did not think them needed. The moviegoers started writing letters to learn who their beloved actors are. At first, produces refused to provide such information because they assumed that the actors will understand that they are popular and will demand higher payment. Nevertheless, they changed their mind, starting exploiting actors’ fame no matter what the actors would have requested as more people tended to watch movies with the actors they adored. That was a small beginning of the system that very soon enabled manipulation by the society (Powdermaker 228).

Hayward admits that by 1919 there had been the establishment of the star system (349). The first star in the United States became Florence Lawrence who played the Biograph girl in 1910, though in reality, she was not the first. Mary Pickford (more known as “little Mary”) is claimed to be named a star earlier than Lawrence. Charlie Chaplin was the next person in the row. The author of the book insists that the film production companies received much profit when they started shooting stars (Hayward 349) and called this type of business “by no means a one-way exchange” since the stars earned money till the company got the profit.

Obviously, there had been a prototype of the typical Hollywood star that was generally liked by the audience. The stars now and then have some distinct features that are not very important. Since the focus of the film production companies is not the same, the celebrities are formed in a bit different way and are more independent than in the period of the Hollywood studio system (the star system was a method of getting profit by the studio system). Overall, it is possible to assume that the star at the beginning of the 20th century had some particular features. Thus, both male and female actors were usually good-looking. Women were represented as ladies and men were depicted as gentlemen.

The star system in filmmaking did not exist on its own. As the films were produced by certain companies, they applied the method to their practice and had some benefit from it. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were a considerably smaller number of film production companies than today. At that time, the American cinematography was directed by five major studios (companies). Some of them, according to Dirks, originated as the rebels against the MPPA (Motion Picture Patents Company). Moreover, they struggled among themselves to gain recognition, attract the bigger audience and, therefore, make more money. These five studios that together comprised the Hollywood studio system were 20th Century Fox (appeared in 1935), MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Paramount, Warner Brothers, and RKO Radio (Dirks). Three more studios that completed the list of all film production companies were Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and United Artists (Dirks). Together they produced films that made that time period memorable as a Golden Age of cinematography.

The first studio that appeared earlier, had already gained some recognition and, therefore, had more chances to survive the competition, was Paramount Pictures. It was founded by Adolph Zukor in 1912 (“History”). The article about the history of the company provided at the official website of Paramount states that the company is “the longest operating and only major studio remaining in Hollywood” (“History”). Since the company was founded at the beginning of the 20th century, it had to overcome all stages of the development, come through all the challenges that the filmmaking industry had on its way and survive despite all failures.

When the star system was in vogue and became regarded as an essential part of the success in filmmaking business, Paramount Company started following the same scheme with the actors loved by people as well. Though the star system came to its decline or, rather, transformed, the studio did not stop using the images of the stars as a means to draw attention of the audience. During the whole course of its functioning, the company cooperated with many film celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, Rudolf Valentino, D.W. Griffith, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn and others (“History”). There is evidence that the Paramount Pictures managed to overcome the crisis that appeared after the star system decline as it was using the changed stardom strategy. In more recent years, the company cooperated with such stars as Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, and others. The filmmakers and celebrities that are now working together at Paramount are reported to put their experience, strength, talent, passion and desire to produce the films that are admired by millions of people and can be easily called artistic works.

In the early 20th century, the stars played a crucial role not only in the filmmaking process but also in the formation of the celebrity system, which, in its turn, influenced public opinion, in general (Tooms). The society was much affected by the people they saw on the screens. Many of them became role models and the embodiment of courage, sexuality, beauty, smartness, originality and passion and were admired not only by the representatives of the opposite sex but also by those of their own gender as they served as an example to them. Such stars were Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and others. The stardom had a bit negative effect on the film production as the studios became more profit-oriented. Therefore, there was a big rivalry between major film production companies, which led to more quantitative and artificial production of movies and deliberate exploitations of the stars.

As film production became more successful, the orientation on the images suggested by the movies was very strong. The actors were the examples of gentleman behavior patterns, courage and strength, while actresses were teaching female part of the audience how to look good and be sexual, stylish, passionate, simple, mysterious, glamorous, unforgettable and successful. Women who watched movies at that time tried to follow in the heroines’ footsteps and copied their hairstyles, clothing, conduct and even manner of speech. The society became “television-oriented” as they learned from it. People watched movies produced by well-known film production companies and performed by famous actors.

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The Hollywood studio system did not need those actors that once were stars but due to their age, lost beauty or substitution by some people that were considered more interesting for the viewers were not that popular as before. These actors were often neglected and forgotten. The actress considered to be the first Hollywood star (Florence Lawrence) died at the age of 52, committing suicide since she could not bear the burden of live in the shadows, being absolutely forgotten and not having chance to earn her living by means of what she did before (“100 years of movie stars: 1910-1929”). It is also reported that 28 years earlier, the producer Carl Laemmle died. The triggering cause of his death was being one renowned and forgotten later. These two cases, along with many others, show the wrong direction in which filmmaking was going to manipulate the audience and make money. It is stated that the incidents like these and the orientation on marketing matters with stardom exploitation had “a lasting effect on Western culture” (“100 years of movie stars: 1910-1929”).

At that time, actor’s career did not last for long. Marlene Dietrich, an actress who was world-famous for her stunning beauty and “unspeakable” sexuality, did not lose her talent but just became older and was substituted by those actresses that showed potential to be loved by the audience. Gledhill states that her exotic accent and foreign elusive manner was substituted by an image of a hometown girl, namely the heroine represented by Doris Day or Judy Holliday (286). The situation described is one more proof that Hollywood filmmaking was not a form of art but the marketing element created to make money by entertaining the audience. It is probably one of the reasons (but not major one) that served for the following decline of the whole star system and image orientation.

It is inevitable that the star system came to a decline one day. The reasons were exploitation of the stars, abandoning them when they did not bring anything new to the images developed for them, and artificial creation of the celebrity’s artistic face without the slightest regard to their individual peculiarities could not last for long. Hayward reports that there is an official date when the star system was over (350). The author claims that the star system stopped to be used by the 1950s as the Hollywood studio system collapsed (Hayward 350). It is also stated that there was still a rivalry between Hollywood and Europe in the sphere of filmmaking business. For instance, Europe presented the world such “sex-goddess”, as Hayward names (350) them, as Shirley Ann Field, Brigitte Bardot, and Sophia Loren, whereas Hollywood tried to keep up with such divas in their films as Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Ava Gardner (Hayward 350). Hayward admits that the collapse of the Hollywood studio system did not mean the end of the star system. The stars were being produced at that time as well but in the smaller amount. With the flow of time, the celebrities and the images they represented changed to more nasty, determined and malevolent (Hayward 350).

The star system is a method of exploitation and promotion of film stars developed to increase the interest of the audience to the film. The technique was actively used at the beginning of the 20th century (originated in 1919). The typical image of a woman comprised the features of a lady. The attributes of the man’s image were gentleman’s characteristics. The major company that occurred at the same time as the star system was Paramount Pictures. Founded in 1912, it managed to overcome all obstacles on its way and saved the leading position till today. The company used the star system as well, cooperating with many celebrities. By the 1950s the system started to decline as the artificial creation of images that are already familiar to the audience and exploitation of the stars was not as efficient as at the very beginning. Finally, the star system changed. The images became different and the individual features of the stars started to be more valued. Nevertheless, the star system contributed to the development of film industry and created the masterpieces that are still valued by moviegoers all over the world.

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