The quote in title comes from great stage actor David Warfield in "Actors and American Culture, 1880-1920" by Benjamin McArthur. McArthur mentions Warfield, along with other major actors such as Maude Adams, John Drew, Grace George and Frances Starr as actors who would not make the transition from live performance to film.
But many stage stars did either try out or shift over to film, some quite early. The Barrymores stand out, of course, as giants in both fields of entertainment, but then there's also E.H. Sothern, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Marguerite Clark, Dustin Farnum, Robert Edeson, and so many more including George Arliss who was so respected that he's often billed in movie credits as Mr. George Arliss. Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin are such screen legends that one almost forgets they each began on the stage.
Collecting the early theater stars is an area that I only having a passing acquaintance with, largely through buying cards and ephemera lots of early film stars, whose earliest days happened to be spent on the stage.
This got me thinking about the star system. While so many of my film collectibles seem to date no earlier than 1915-16, most of the theater cards and collectibles I've handled predate this by a decade or more. The playing cards shown on this page all name stage stars and the deck is dated 1908.
Since so many early film players had roots on the stage how come it's not until Biograph Girl Florence Lawrence, credited as one of the first film stars with her billing beginning 1910, is named that "movie stars" come into being? Theater players are frequently named on collectibles previous to this, so why for instance didn't a star of the stage come to film prominence and be celebrated as a movie star prior to Lawrence?
The best source I have access to which delves into the development of the star system on film is Richard deCordova's "Picture Personalities" which offers evidence as to why the star system was slow to develop in the movie world along with how and when it developed. I actually discovered McArthur's book through deCordova's, which states:
The theater had, in fact, based its popularity on star performers through much, if not most, of the nineteenth century. According to Benjamin McArthur, a theatrical star system had begun to gain momentum in America with George Frederick Cook's 1810 tour. By the 1870's, certainly, a star system dominated American theater (24).
As I previously stressed stars of the stage were certainly celebrated on collectibles. Again, I point to the 1908 playing cards shown here, but actresses have been pictured on tobacco cards since the late 19th Century. Theater stars can be found inside magazines of this same period both pitching products and as subjects of the articles themselves. The Burr McIntosh Monthly, which has been covered in detail here previously, existed just 1903-1910 and is probably most famed for it's beautiful photographs of stage stars, in and out of costume.
So with film around since the 19th Century and narrative stories impressing audiences since at least as early as The Great Train Robbery in 1903, how come the movie star system lagged behind in comparison to the stage?
One explanation is that the movies of the the 19-aughts were populated by casts of stage stars who were too embarrassed to want billing, in fact refusing it. McArthur writes that James Kirkwood, who the IMDb appoints 239 film credits stretching from 1909 through to television appearances in the 1950's, upon accepting D.W. Griffith's invite to the Biograph "disguised himself with a beard in hopes that his theatre fans would not recognize him" (194). So surely there was some of that, but by the same token there was more of what Anthony Slide writes about in "Early American Cinema" with stars such as John Bunny:
Bunny had been an actor for twenty-six years. His average salary was about $100 a week. He had been often promised more than this, but so unstable was the business procedure and often the engagements were so short and so varied that Bunny fairly jumped at the chance to enter film ..." (137).
Bunny was not a noted stage actor, he was more of a journeyman, as were many early screen stars. There was no stigma for actors such as him.
The key to film stardom appears to occur in 1908. deCordova details the shift beginning in 1902 towards fictional film production with narrative forms (comedy and drama) eclipsing documentaries between 1907 and '08. Furthermore deCordova notes that "the percentage of dramatic production increased from 17 to 66 percent in 1908" (27). That shift led to a natural demand for more acting talent and what better resource than the stage?
There was also the demand for credits from the fans, but this no doubt was spurred on by this increase in film stories requiring actors. The same faces would be seen more and more by virtue of this increase. Conversely, prior to 1907-08 fans would see individual actors less often because of the fewer films calling for them and thus their demand to know who was who would be quelled simply by a lack of familiarity with the players on a regular basis.
These earliest days of the star system are a fascinating period of film history with players culled from vaudeville, respectable theater, and film itself developing its own stars. One humorous tale told by McArthur is of Mary Pickford, who had spent time on stage herself before becoming film's biggest star, leaving D.W. Griffith in 1913 partially because he had chosen Mae Marsh, "a department store clerk without the stage training that Mary valued, for the lead in 'The Sands of Dee'" (201).
deCordova refers to former stage star Dustin Farnum as an evangelist "concerning the pleasures of movieland" helping to convince several stage stars to make the trek West once the movies settled there. deCordova lists the following stage stars as present on the West Coast during the 1915-16 season: "Marguerite Clark, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Maclyn Arbuckle, Robert Edeson, Elsie Janis, Emily Stevens, Olive Wyndham, Constance Collier, Helen Ware, Billie Burke, DeWolfe Hopper, and Willie Collier" (199) leaving one curious as to who was left to play in New York!
In the end I'm left to wonder if the already existing stardom of the period's stage actors and actresses mustn't have had something to do with what I'm left to believe was a naturally developing stardom for film players. After all, if Bernhardt had played Queen Elizabeth on screen ten years earlier than she had (1912), wouldn't she have demanded billing?
The playing cards used to illustrate this page come from a 1908 deck of theater stars issued by the U.S. Playing Card Company out of Cincinnati, U.S.A.
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