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125 YEARS / HOLLYWOOD -- COMMEMORATIVE EDITION

They stoked the star-maker machine

Hollywood gossip columnists, fan magazines and industry trade papers were the 20th century versions of today's Internet bloggers and 24/7 cable TV coverage.

May 21, 2006|Cari Beauchamp | Special to The Times

WHAT is it about the public's obsession with stars? The media has been enthusiastically covering Hollywood for 100 years, and today's incessant, Internet-fueled celebrity "news" is omnipresent. The distribution methods have been dramatically accelerated, but the focus of the stories hasn't changed much.

Variety began writing about films in 1907 because one-reel movies were shown between acts on the vaudeville stage or as "chasers" to clear out the audience before the next live performance. Within a decade, there were a slew of daily and weekly trades such as Exhibitors Herald, Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World and Film Daily, keeping everyone abreast of the business.

By the late teens, New York was the financial center of moviemaking, but there were more than 100 film companies in Los Angeles and the industry had become the area's largest source of employment. And there was plenty to cover. Columns such as "Inside the Studios" reported on the activities of directors and writers as often as actors and "What This Picture Did for Me" shared information on how films were promoted in the hinterlands.

The first real fan magazine was Photoplay, which began in 1912 to provide synopses of the plots of films. Pictures of actors accompanied the stories as if they were an afterthought, but soon it was the stars themselves who took center stage. There, in the very first issue, was a photo of "Little Mary" in her role as Little Red Riding Hood. And as the allure of the movies caught on, what many readers wanted to know was the real name of the "girl with the curls"; soon pages of photographs of Mary Pickford "happily at home" with her husband, Owen Moore, were what was selling Photoplay.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood history: In the special 125 Years/Hollywood section that was published May 21, a photo of Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter at the 1956 Academy Awards identified the woman taking notes next to them as gossip writer Louella Parsons. The woman wasn't Parsons; her identity is not known.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Hollywood history: In the special 125 Years/Hollywood section published May 21, a photo of Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter at the 1956 Academy Awards identified the woman taking notes next to them as gossip writer Louella Parsons. The woman wasn't Parsons; her identity is not known.

Pickford's real-life drama spilled over into the newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, in March 1920 when they reported the emotionally draining daily progress of her divorce from Moore. There she was in Nevada, claiming she was making "the state her permanent home" (which also allowed the process to take a few weeks instead of a year). The next day she was on the witness stand, "weeping freely" as she told the judge tales of her husband's mental cruelty.

After publicly vowing she would "never marry again," she privately told friends she was tired of being "America's sweetheart." In truth, she wanted to be one man's sweetheart. That one man was Douglas Fairbanks, yet she feared losing her career to the negative reaction of the fans she called "my people." She was the most famous actress is the world, yet stardom was a new phenomenon. Young girls in Kansas City, such as the one who would become Joan Crawford, clipped the articles of their favorite stars and put them into scrapbooks, yet for Pickford, there was no precedent or path to follow.

When she married Fairbanks later that year, Pickford was blissfully relieved to find headlines crowning the newlyweds the king and queen of Hollywood. He was an affable star and Pickford had portrayed the sweet young thing for so long that the power of their image carried over into the press.

On-screen naivete, however, was hardly enough to spare the beloved comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle when he was charged with manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe during a party in San Francisco in 1921. His trials galvanized the attention of everyone who had ever blamed Hollywood for postwar cultural changes or loose morals. The jury eventually found him not guilty and issued Arbuckle an extraordinary apology. Yet the vociferous press coverage of the 300-plus-pound Arbuckle had transformed him from harmless naif to an obscene sexual predator. The studio heads were so afraid of the resulting frenzy that the comedian was banned from the screen despite his innocence.

The conversion from silent to sound films brought growing Wall Street investment to Hollywood, and soon newspapers' business sections were filled with reports of mergers and stock offerings. Personality pieces, reviews and syndicated columns surrounded theater advertisements on the pages of features sections. The first woman to grace the cover of Time magazine was stage actress Eleanora Duse, but it wasn't long before Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth were cover girls as well.

Studio heads saw radio as a potential threat, but instead their movies, and their actors, became a useful source of programming. Beginning in 1931, the Academy Awards ceremony was broadcast across radio waves; a boomlet of programs such as "Hollywood Hotel," "Gateway to Hollywood" and "Hollywood Premieres" focused on the latest from the entertainment capital.

Television's popularity sent similar shivers through Hollywood, yet studios quickly took advantage of the new medium with programs such as "MGM on Parade" and "Walt Disney Presents" as well as selling their films for broadcast.

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