Deconstructing the Dream Factory

Marta Syrko

Photography by Marta Syrko

The star narratives of silent-era fan magazines

By Chuck Williamson

Throughout the early-to-mid 1920s, a string of high-profile “star scandals” threatened to dismantle Hollywood’s self-created image as the modern-day dream factory. National debate intensified as Hollywood soon became synonymous with moral laxity and sexual indiscretion. Three scandals, in particular,galvanised public opinion and exacerbated a particularly vitriolic strand of anti-Hollywood sentiment: the salacious 1921 murder trial of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (he was acquitted after the third trial), the 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor (still unsolved), and the widely circulated stories of “screen lover” Wallace Reid’s debilitating addiction to morphine and eventual drug-related death in 1923. For the public, Hollywood transformed overnight from innocuous factory town to a veritable hotbed of crime, licentiousness, and moral transgression. These scandals (and many others) threatened to expose the repressed underside of Hollywood stardom, where success hinged less on individual initiative than on sexual submissiveness, and fame always came at the cost of moral ruination.

As scandal-mongering became a national pastime, a burgeoning but short-lived cottage industry of anti-Hollywood publications tried to capitalise on this newly provoked fervor. These works were libelous, largely disposable, and filled with spurious claims and wild speculations that delivered on the promise of their often salacious titles. Perhaps no work better seized upon this virulent strand of anti-Hollywood sentiment than Theodore Dreiser’s ‘Hollywood: Its Morals and Manners,’ a multi-chapter expose published in Shadowland from November 1921 to February 1922. In this series of articles, Dreiser channeled his deep-seated (and long-lingering) enmity for the movie capital in a froth-mouthed harangue. Perhaps one of the period’s most denunciatory and vitriolic attacks on the movie industry, Dreiser’s article emerged from his disastrous (and, by all accounts, impulsive) 1919 relocation from New York to Southern California, after the financially strapped author accepted Jesse L. Lasky’s invitation to submit screenplays to Famous Players. Dreiser’s decision was also motivated by his ongoing sexual dalliance with his cousin, Helen Richardson, who had long aspired to become a famous film actress.  Indeed, Dreiser’s scorched earth campaign against Tinsel Town stemmed less from empirical research than from anecdotal evidence piped in from Richardson.

At times evoking the plot of ‘Sister Carrie’ (1900), where “kept women” manoeuvre their way from the bedroom and into the limelight with shocking regularity, Dreiser paints the “hundreds and even thousands of girls” flooding Hollywood film studios as passive victims, or “sexual prey”, exploited and degraded by hordes of unscrupulous producers, directors, male performers, and casting directors.The aspiring actress faces impossible odds, locked in a war of attrition with other would-be performers. To succeed, she must rigorously maintain and amplify her physical beauty, “decorat[ing] herself so that she might attain some degree of bodily perfection in order to better differentiate herself from the perpetually expanding mob of aspirants.” But Dreiser cautions that this circuitous quest for fame and fortune inexorably ends in either abject failure or sexual submission. They become prey to a horde of high-salaried employers who “can, by any hook or crook, contrive any possible claim upon the time or attention or services of those of the feminine persuasion — the younger and prettier and less experienced, of course — who are seeking to make an ill-page way of life in this, in the main, gruelling realm.”  The self-imposed beautification regimes — of diet, costuming, and cosmetics — through which the aspirant tries to re-fashion herself into “star material” also marks her as sexual prey. All avenues to screen success lead directly to the casting couch.

In direct address to Photoplay’s female readership, these fictionalised narratives catered to the familiar wish-fulfillment fantasies that take on a formulaic fairy-tale structure: underprivileged girls are plucked from obscurity, rescued from extreme penury, and refashioned into marquee idols.
These tropes — reductive even at the time of their inception — coloured much of the discourse on stardom throughout the decade, becoming indelible parts of Hollywood’s self-regulated mythology. Stories of star aspirants working their way to the top of the Hollywood food chain transformed into subtle cautionary tales; the gold-flecked fantasies of stardom were perverted into something far more dangerous. But for film fans, the allure of stardom could not be shaken so easily. These narratives still contained strong elements of fantasy and escapism, resulting in stories that indulged in vicarious pleasures while also acknowledging the dangers and moral compromises implicit in pursuing stardom. In the shadow of scandal, popular magazines lined their pages with fictionalised stories of film stardom that, ironically, purported to tell the “truth” about Hollywood and its odd denizens.

This is particularly noticeable in the serialised fiction found in fan magazines. Throughout the 1920s, fan magazines emerged as the prime source of extracinematic discourse on Hollywood and film stardom, feeding their “movie mad” consumers (predominantly female) a steady diet of gossip, film reviews, and vapid celebrity profiles. Exemplary amongst the myriad fan magazines of the 1910s and 1920s was ‘Photoplay’, which gradually rose to prominence under the editorial control of James R. Quirk. Amongst James Quirk’s most significant editorial policies was his decision to gradually phase out the multi-page motion picture plot summaries — a weak substitute for “fiction” — in order to better accommodate an ongoing series of short stories and serialised novels that gave readers fictionalised accounts of those who lived and worked within Hollywood’s “dream factory.”

These stories, far removed from the one-sided invectives of Theodore Dreiser, targetted consumers of film product and gave them the “insider’s account” they so desperately desired. They tethered to their fantasies a lurid “realism,” engaging in popular fantasies while also illustrating with surprising candor the pitfalls of film stardom: casting couches, in-studio backbiting, the exorbitant time and labour demanded from stars both on- and off-set. In direct address to Photoplay’s female readership, these fictionalised narratives catered to the familiar wish-fulfillment fantasies that take on a formulaic fairy-tale structure: underprivileged girls are plucked from obscurity, rescued from extreme penury, and refashioned into marquee idols. Film stardom becomes the final reward for their chastity and humility, the end goal for a Cinderella dogged by svengalis and sexual predators. The heroines are inconspicuous “everywomen,” convenient avatars through which the reader might vicariously navigate Hollywood’s hidden corridors. Without fail, they are always relatable, unassuming, and come from humble origins: the semi-literate ticket vendors, small-town beauty queens, anonymous “extras,” and failed stage actresses. Through pluck and ingenuity, they work their way into the the upper-echelons of film stardom — and, consequently, come face-to-face with total self-annihilation.

Samuel Merwin’s ‘Hattie of Hollywood’, a serial novel published in Photoplay from July to December 1922, apotheosises the sort of star narratives that emerged from this period. Attracting a significant amount of fanfare and advance praise, Merwin’s novel was the first of major significance serialised in Photoplay since the 1916-17 run of Francis William Sullivan’s ‘The Glory Road’. It tells the story of Hattie Johnson, a sheltered mailing clerk “transition[ing] out of inconspicuous youth into budding womanhood.”[iv] At first blush, Merwin’s novel unfolds as a stock fantasy scenario. A Cinderella stand-in whose blandness makes her the ideal reader surrogate, Hattie captures the attention of Earthwide Film auteur Armond de Brissac and rockets to supreme film stardom. But Hattie’s journey is not an easy one. Merwin pits the novel’s chaste, preternaturally pure star-aspirant against a cabal of sinister film magnates who exploit her for financial gain and sexual gratification.

Chief amongst her tormentors is Armond de Brissac, a studio director with the autocratic zeal of Erich von Stroheim, the lavish extravagance of Cecil B. DeMille, and about a fraction of their combined charm.  According to Merwin, he “is at one moment a slave driver, a tireless dynamo, and the next a suave man of the world.” He is a libertine who lines his walls with intimate photographs of his sexual conquests, hounds Hattie with invasive questions about her sexual experience, and continually makes unwanted sexual advances on his actresses. In some respects, he resembles the straw man of natavist rhetoric: a Pan-European “other” whose sexual perversions are a concomitant feature of his “ethnic” origins.  Or, as one of his assistant directors gravely intones, “You see, de Brissac’s a big man—he’s a wonderful man—but he’s got foreign ideas.” In Merwin’s universe of dualistic extremes, de Brissac’s sexual perversions threaten to sully our virginal aspirant-heroine and compromise her racial-moral purity. The narrative’s dramatic tension hinges on Hattie’s unwavering resistance to his sexual demands, which only falters momentarily when she realises that submission might constitute the most accessible stepping-stone to stardom.

But Merwin’s novel periodically punctures this tension in order to indulge in escapism and frivolity, trumpeting the transformative possibilities of stardom even as it portrays the aspirant’s path as a perilous one. Hattie begins the novel as “a simple-minded, plain little girl,” an insignificant child with low self-esteem who gains fame, fortune, self-confidence, and some degree of autonomy through her experiences in Hollywood. Merwin does not shirk away from the extravagance and sense of elation that comes with stardom, nor does he mince words when describing Hattie’s physical transformation from anonymous nobody to hyper-glamorous movie star. During her screen test, Hattie experiences a newfound sense of pleasure in witnessing her own appearance and begins to see “her slim body in a new light, [sic] as an instrument of expression.”Appropriately, Hattie’s first screen test presents her as an ethereal figure: wan, innocent, and luminescent in the white glow of de Brissac’s light machines. She is rendered into a symbol of purity, a fair and unsullied figure plucked right out of a fairy tale. But in Merwin’s novel (and other stories of its ilk), Hollywood exists as a dangerous space where fairy tales might be contaminated or perverted, where Cinderella’s enchanted gown comes at a ruinous cost.

Chuck Williamson is a film critic for the magazine.