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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Heeding Their Master's Print

When A Fan Press Led The Dance

Lifeblood of film stardom was the fan magazines. They were principal link between personalities and their public. To disdain or ignore them was reckless in extreme. Studio employers wouldn't allow that in any case. Contract talent lost many a lunch hour conferring on set with fan press. At-work, home, and play profiles were compulsory. More time got spent accommodating these than was stood before cameras. Screen vets who are interviewed seldom get asked about plows they pulled for Photoplay, and now there's fewer of them left to ask. A wise player cultivated the monthly ink. Some of tradition is left in pages of PEOPLE and others to worship (or unseat) celebrity, old-timers for most part seen out in "Tragic Last Days" context via The National Enquirer. From a vanished time when scribes walked hand-in-hand with studios, here is Green Light's director and cast recognizing Photoplay's twenty-fifth anniversary in 1937, while Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier acknowledge ongoing dependence on dime and quarter magazines that kept them in cake/ale during uncertain days of Depression. Much of celebrity then, with tickets punched for short term at best, needed and took all the help they could get to keep afloat.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

The guy to the left of Robert Taylor looks weirdly like Larry Flynt.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

It's interesting that you selected a photograph of Errol Flynn reading Photoplay, John, since Flynn wrote a number of articles for that magazine during his early years in Hollywood.

His articles seemed to disappear around 1939 or so, because writing, as much as he craved to do it, came hard for the actor and there were obviously so many other distractions around for a restless, impulsive sensation seeker like Flynn.

Most of Flynn's articles, certainly the early ones, were light hearted in nature, often humourous, a reflection of his carefree spirit at the time.

His last piece of writing for a movie magazine was for Screen Guide in 1950, just after his completion of what would be his final western, Rocky Mountain.

Entitled I Do What I Like, it's quite insightful as to the actor's state of mind at that point in his life, and there are a few indications of bitterness in it. The humour of the earlier pieces is notably absent.

Flynn actually opens up a little in this article, moreso than one might expect for a "light" fan mag piece. It was be 8 years later, in discussing his life with ghost writer Earl Conrad, that Flynn was really began to bear his sometimes tormented soul, for My Wicked Wicked Ways.

12:03 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Photoplay was giving out awards for movies years before Oscar. They also had the first movie-goof-spotting contest for readers, "Why Do They Do It?"
I think it stopped publication around 1980 or so. Not only have checkout-line tabloids like the Enquirer (now published by a successor to Macfadden, Photoplay's publisher) filled the void for celeb news, but so have TV shows like ET, Access Hollywood, and TMZ.

8:29 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

The Media History Digital Library has many of these magazines uploaded online, including considerable runs of Photoplay, Motion Picture, Screenland, Picture Play and others. It's at

9:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on fan press vs. reality (Part One):

The articles written by John Gilbert for the fan magazines also provide a vivid glimpse of the actor, or at least of the way he wanted to be seen, when he was at his best.

These magazines, however, were intended to display actors and actresses to the public as the studios or the actors themselves wanted to be seen. It was a distorting kind of mirror, in which the true image could be discerned only if you knew what it was in the first place or at least the formula used in creating the mirror. When they slipped from grace or had become notorious--when they were no longer protected--then something closer to the truth might be offered.

I came upon this unwittingly very early in my enthusiasm for film stars, when I was quite infatuated with Merle Oberon and wanted to write a biographical piece about her. I pored over reviews of her films in the popular and trade periodicals--she was, after all, an actress of no small accomplishment--but as to the details of her life, I went to the fan magazines. To someone as naïve as I was and as distant from the true sources, there really wasn't anywhere else to go at the time. The story the magazines were telling was of a young girl growing up in India of English parents--her father was an officer and an engineer--being introduced to Anglo-English society and discovering a talent for performance in amateur theatricals, and then being sent to England under the auspices of a wealthy and beneficent uncle to give the stage a try. What puzzled me was how insubstantial these stories seemed, with names and dates and places never given. To look beyond the surface was to find nothing at all, in the way of corroboration. It was as though a common press release was circulating, like the one crafted by the press agent Matt Libby in "A Star is Born" for the soon to be renamed Esther Victoria Blodgett, and the magazine writers applied their own particular style and gloss to it. About the time of her coming under the auspices of Sam Goldwyn, in which she would be presented as a nice, well brought-up young English woman, the emphasis was on how distressed she was by her "Eurasian" appearance in "Folies Bergere," as though this was entirely false to her background. I put the article aside, realizing that I knew nothing about her and could know nothing, if I depended on such articles as these. That I might have reached out to those who might have known never occurred to me, though with my own background and contacts, that would have proven equally futile. Years later, Charles Higham's biography came out, "Princess Merle," and the secret behind that Eurasian appearance was revealed.

7:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

If magazines today like "People" or "National Enquirer" seem much more frank about the celebrities they cover, whether movie stars or not, that is really reflective of our times. Like the so-called "reality" television shows, they do not seek to preserve an image of beauty or glamour, as the fan magazines of the past did. The joke is that we are to celebrate those who are almost entirely unworthy of celebration, or certainly for qualities which are not. The reason a Kim Kardashian or "Snooki" Polizzi is brought to our attention is not for their beauty or accomplishment, their intelligence or talent, but for the absence of anything having to do with that, yet insisting that we should be fascinated with them nonetheless. It is the very absurdity of celebrating anyone so common that is the key to the joke. As for actors or performers who are talented or accomplished, that may be the starting point for our interest, though the articles emphasize how little their intelligence is employed in thoughtfulness, or how readily they ingest the more popular cultural bromides of the day, or how messy their personal lives are.

I suppose that we were not entirely spared this by the fan magazines of the past, but it is at least a matter of degree, as in having freshly cut flowers as opposed to those more than a few days old.

7:45 AM  

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