When American movies began, there were no movie stars. In the early 1900s during the Nickelodeon era it was almost impossible to get stage actors and actresses to work in the movies. Salaries were a mere $5-$10 a day and there was no prestige. New York City financiers controlled the industry and they made huge profits casting unknown people who used stage names. Even travel expenses were limited. Fort Lee, N.J., was the site of western filming while dramas were filmed in the Bronx, Brooklyn or downtown Manhattan.
The audience at that time was made up of mostly immigrants who didn’t mind the lack of sound at all. The dark movie theatre allowed them to escape their problems, including their inability to speak English, for a few hours. For the sum of one nickel they could engage in their fantasies, which was why films at that time all had a happy ending.
But even these viewers began to identify with the cast. Letters arrived at studios addressed to “the man with the sad eyes” and similar salutations. This caused alarm among studio executives who were valiantly trying to control the production of films. If actors and actresses learned that some among them were receiving lots of letters from the public, he or she would surely demand more money. And, after all, movies were all about profits.
Another worry was D. W. Griffith, an actor who wanted to go into production. In 1908 he began to direct films for Biograph. Griffith experimented with ways to break the old rules. Through trial and error, he learned how to make the camera move and how to edit film. Most significantly, he kept moving his cameras closer to the faces of the performers. He quickly discovered that flat, harsh lighting and unsophisticated film was cruel to aging performers who did not want to use his new methods of performing. He needed youthful, unwrinkled performers who were not set in their ways.
This set the stage for the emergence of beautiful people – the young and the very attractive. Attendance at movies had expanded to include all Americans, and the public had begun to find out the identities of the people they saw on the screen, despite the best efforts of the studios to keep them secret.
Flamboyant German-born Carl Laemmle created the Laemmle Film Service, which was the first independent film distribution company, to supply his chain of movie theaters. The major studios boycotted his distribution company so he started producing his own films through Independent Motion Pictures (IMP) in New York.
Laemmle is credited with creating the concept of a movie star – a specific young and beautiful performer that the audience expected to see on the screen regularly. Ironically, Laemmle was very concerned that the faces of his performers be recognizable but felt that their real names should be kept from the public. He hired Florence Lawrence for $1,000 a week but referred to her only as the “IMP Girl.” However, both the public and the star would not allow the face of Miss Lawrence to remain nameless. She and Mary Pickford moved on from IMP, and began making public appearances in their real names to promote their films. Laemmle also had bigger and better things in his future. He formed Universal Studios in Los Angeles in 1912, where he reigned until 1936.
The movie stars gave stability to the mass production era that was now taking place in the film industry. Large numbers of viewers saw themselves, or at least a fantasy of himself or herself, by identifying with screen stars like Valentino or Barrymore or Garbo. The movie stars between 1910 and the 1920s were probably unaware of the common chord they sounded within the American people. Yet they were the models for hundreds of stars to follow.
The life of a movie star became a tangled web of reality and fantasy. Movie magazines appeared and they whetted the public’s appetite for details about stars’ personal lives. One of the most exciting things to know was where a favorite star lived.
At this same time in America, postcard collecting was a very popular hobby. Linen postcards picturing the stars and their homes were issued during the 1930s through the 1950s, and were popular with both postcard collectors and movie buffs. By the late 1950s hot television stars put movie stars on the back burner and this type of postcard was no longer issued.
The high prices commanded by many movie collectibles, such as costumes and posters, make them too expensive for many movie enthusiasts. Available today for only $1-$2 each, postcards of movie stars’ homes are an affordable collectible to remember a glamorous era.
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