Golden days of movie magazines

As early as the 1890s, Americans began reading about the new “moving pictures” in general interest publications. A few short-lived periodicals devoted exclusively to “the flickers” appeared and disappeared in the opening years of the 20th century. The first regularly published magazines about movies – Photoplay, Motion Picture Stories (later, Motion Pictures) and Picture Play debuted between 1909 and 1911.

But the golden age of movie magazines, from the 1920s to the 1940s, coincides with the heyday of Hollywood’s star system. As the number of theaters grew and attendance figures skyrocketed, the public developed an obsessive interest in the personalities and private lives of the larger-than-life figures they watched on the silver screen.

New publications catered to their endless appetite for information and gossip. More and more titles appeared, continuing – despite hard times – all through the 1930s. Among the best were Screenland, which debuted in 1923, Movie Story (1924), Modern Screen (1930), Silver Screen (1930), and Movie Guide (1931)

Their readers were usually, though not exclusively, young and female. For a time, the dedicated fan got anywhere from 80 to 200 pages per issue, including 60-100 photos of stars, both candid shots of them at work and play, and glamorous studio portraits by some of the finest photographers of the time. Some magazines, such as Movie Story, featured novelized versions of current movies, illustrated with scene stills. But most relied on a bubbly brew of behind-the-scenes stories, chatty interviews, reviews of current pictures, beauty and fashion advice from the stars, contests, and photos to clip out and paste in scrapbooks.

Columnists like Hedda Hopper, Louellen Parsons and Sheila Graham became celebrities themselves by providing juicy personal and professional gossip. Once in a while, Photoplay even ran articles about Hollywood by “serious” writers, including H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson.

But the public wasn’t looking for literature when it leafed through the latest movie magazine, which was just as well, because they were more likely to get breathlessly gushy stories with titles like “What Has Success done to Robert Taylor?” and “The Suicide of Her Husband Came Just as the Cup of Happiness Was at Jean Harlow’s Lips.”

Throughout the glory years, the studios provided photographs, access to the films in progress, endless reams of publicity material and the clout to make stars pose for at-home layouts, whether they wanted to or not.

When the studio system began to decline in the 1950s, so did the movie magazines. Many went on publishing for decades to come, but the quality of photographs and paper declined to keep prices low. Their tone grew increasingly shrill.

The product of the golden age of Hollywood hype and fantasy continue to intrigue. Turn the pages of any vintage issue, read the articles, look at the photographs, browse the ads. They are a great reminder of Hollywood’s and the motion picture’s golden past.

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