- Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression : World War I (1914-1940)
- By Gene Brown
- ©1993 by Blackbirch Graphics, Inc. First Edition
- Twenty-First Century Books A Division of Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
- 115 West 18th Street New York, New York 10011
The Growth of Mass Media and Mass Culture
Movies Become an American Industry
It was between the beginning of World War I and the eve of World War II that modern America was born. American society went through major changes, not only in politics and economics, but also in the way people led their daily lives.
The Americans who elected Woodrow Wilson still thought of themselves as distant from their quarreling neighbors in Europe. And when U.S. soldiers were sent to France to fight in World War I, most Americans saw it merely as a temporary change in foreign policy. The troops would come home when the fighting stopped, many believed, and life would go back to normal.
The country that the soldiers returned to was just reaching the point where more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Statistically, people who lived in the country were just as likely not to have electricity as have it, and indoor plumbing was for many still a luxury. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners had still not appeared in large numbers, even in big cities.
When it came time to relax, Americans were more likely to play ball than go to a ballpark to watch a game. They were also more likely to play an instrument—especially a piano—or sing in groups, than listen to records. The phonograph, however, was rapidly becoming popular. Feature-length movies were new, as was the practice of following the careers and lives of particular “stars.”
Today, famous movie stars are usually in control of their careers. They know that their name on a film can often mean millions of extra tickets sold. The movie companies know it as well. But this wasn’t always the case.
By the mid-1920s, the movies—which were silent then—were wildly popular. Along with cheap newspapers and radio, they were the beginning of what today is called the mass media. The ideas and values expressed in films, even the fashions worn in them, reached into every corner of America and touched the lives of nearly everyone. There was almost no sizeable town that didn’t have at least one movie house. The big cities had many, some of which were called “palaces” because they were so fancy.
The movies were very much a business, with facilities for producing, distributing, advertising, and retailing their product. The movie stars were an important part of this product. Stardom on a national scale was a new thing. Live theater produced some famous names, but almost none got the attention that movie fan magazines paid to movie actors.
These stars were not just professional actors. They were “personalities” and celebrities, such as Mary Pickford (1893-1979), Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), and Lillian Gish (1893-1993). People wanted to know every detail of their lives. When few facts were available, fans imagined the rest.
The men who ran the movie studios knew how important this idea of stardom was. If there was not enough interesting information about the private life of a star, they might feel it necessary to “create” something, such as the “scandal” mentioned in the following selection. Scandal led to publicity and publicity meant more sales at the box office. Here were many of the public relations techniques developed by Edward Bernays in action.
The following account describes Lillian Gish’s dealings with MGM executives. At the time, Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was chief of production at the studio, and “Mr. Mayer” was Louis B. Mayer (1885- 1957), vice-president and head of MGM. David W. Griffith (1875-1948), “Mr. Griffith,” was a movie director and worked with Lillian Gish.
Lillian Gish: A Screen Star Remembers
During my talks with Irving Thalberg over Anna Karenina I was suddenly sent for by Mr. Mayer, who had some papers for me to sign. I explained that I had promised my lawyer not to sign anything without his approval. Mr. Mayer grew angry and said I ought to trust him. He explained that he wanted to take me off salary until they had a story ready for me. I had gone off salary while I was in England, but since then there had been ample time for them to prepare a script for me.
“If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you,” Mr. Mayer said.
It was the second time I had heard that threat. “I’m sure you can, but I gave my word,” I said. “I can’t break that; else how could you or anyone else ever trust me again?”
Irving spoke to me about renewing my contract. “We would like to have you stay with us,” he said, “but there is something we think would be wise to do.”
I knew Irving was my friend, so I listened.
“You see, you are way up there on a pedestal,” he explained, “and nobody cares. If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” He added earnestly, “Let me arrange a scandal for you.”
I was startled. The irony of the suggestion made me want to laugh. What kind of scandal did Irving want to arrange? I wondered. A romantic scandal, I decided—but for what? To sell pictures? Had the public changed so much? All my life I had been taught to keep my name clean. Mr. Griffith had always maintained that one touch of scandal would finish you in pictures. What had happened to change this? And, after the scandal had died down, they would be obliged to dream up another. Could I be on stage constantly—with a prearranged scandal before the release of each new picture?
My answer was a decisive No.
I told Irving my decision, knowing that my days at M.G.M. were numbered.