If everyone can agree that "why and how stars came into prominence and what purposes they served for their audiences" is a question of critical import, then exactly which stars we recover and from when remains at issue. (1) It seems logical to begin with the years between 1912 and 1922, a decade coextensive with the first flush of stardom's powerful, public appeal. What happens next is remarkably unclean If we bracket the few familiar names --Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford--coterminous at the start with that of D. W. Griffith, and appraise the vampish Theda Bara as more notorious than illustrative (more infamous, so to speak, than famous), we are faced with a curious lacuna: the conspicuous absence of early women stars. Ineluctably linked to the crisis of the archives and to the paucity of film remnants from the period, with surviving prints in often precarious condition, elisions of all sorts haunt the historical register of early cinema. Yet whatever the outcome of battles that must be waged in the name of preservation agendas, one thing is clear: it would be a serious mistake to overlook the copious documents extant from the media system of early stardom. Here we traverse not a "ruined map" but a densely textured topos. (2) Here we encounter a pantheon of unusual female stars collectively known as "those daring misses of the movies." Agile and dauntless, ready to swim, race, fly, dangle, and fall for the sake of the screen--cinema's first en masse celebrities were anything but ordinary. Indeed, an array of quite extraordinary women typifies the onset of film stardom; extraordinary in the way that people usually are not, but in precisely the way that stars are supposed to be.
Perhaps the most adulated figure of early film fame was Pearl White. Known to her contemporaries as the "Heroine of a Thousand Stunts," White's fearless disposition and exceptional physicality became the emblematic badge of a career that catapulted to unprecedented heights following her 1914 performance as the intrepid heroine of The Perils of Pauline (dir. Louis J. Gasnier and Donald MacKenzie) and careened through approximately 200 films, 11 of which were action serials, totaling over 180 episodes by 1924. Her work during those years was risky business, as the saying goes, especially if we believe accounts tallied by Picturegoer in 1921 that White had suffered--and emphatically survived--"3,750 attempts against her life" while performing for the camera. (3) Other figures are both breathless and lavish: in 1917 the Pathe-Freres company proclaimed that White's four serials to date had profited $24,570,000 at the box office, a lucrative bit of business for the war years. (4) While Pathe executives counted their dollars, public accolades mounted in various quarters. After defying the Clutching Hand and his dastardly death ray in the The Exploits of Elaine (dir. Louis J. Gasnier and George B. Seitz, 1914), White became the darling of European surrealists and an icon of the Ballets Russes. (5) After defeating enemy spies in Pearl of the Army (dir. Edward Jose, 1916), she struck a pose as recruitment model for the United States Army and was elected honorary president of the American Cadets. (6) After exposing the schemes of the one-armed master criminal in The Iron Claw (dir. Edward Jose and George B. Seitz, 1916) and recovering the sacred "Violet Diamond" in The Fatal Ring (dir. George B. Seitz, 1917), she was ranked among viewers' most favorite players. (7) After her caper as the eponymous avenger in The Lightening Raider (dir. George B. Seitz, 1919), she garnered the friendship of Spanish novelist Vincent Blasco Ibanez and the "adoration of Latin America" more broadly. (8) Such honors reveal the technologies of an emergent star system, with its circulation of paraphernalia and its inflated rhetoric, at work; but they also imply a figure in excess of that system, one whose drawing power refuted market demographics and leveled the niceties of gender, age, class, and national appeal. In what seems like nothing short of a rhetorical mirror for the wild expansion of White's fame, trade reporters turned to an enumerative structure, akin to the idiom of lists, when describing the star's ceaseless momentum. "In France French soldiers on furlough idolize her," began one commentator's litany: "In Porto Rico [sic] she crowds the theatres. In Bombay she figures frequently in the newspapers. A Scottish newspaper runs her life on its front pages. Five Australian managers make fortunes presenting her pictures. In South Africa they name babies after her, and in Tokio [sic] they give her name to theatres." (9) Inasmuch as White figured as transcultural icon and embodied a heroic new personhood freed from the laws of physics, she may be seen as the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom--star understood as liminal, transcendent sphere.
Though unanimously declared the queen of courage and daring, White was not alone. In 1917, one commentator announced that Grace Cunard had "started after the `Queen of the Serial' honor with Pearl White" and that "Helen Holmes is right on her trail." (10) In 1919, Photoplay reporter Frank Bruner numbered "Pearl White, Ruth Roland and Marie Walcamp" as stars who "have a following, extending from Oshkosh to Timbuctoo [sic] that surpasses with an overwhelming plurality, the vogue of any of Filmdom's feature stars." (11) To that list I would add Irene Castle, Margeurite Courtot, Grace Darmond, Marie Dressier, Helen Gibson, Texas Guinan, Juanita Hansen, Alice Joyce, Annette Kellerman, Doris Kenyon, Mollie King, Anita King, Florence LaBadie, Anna Little, Cleo Madison, Mabel Normand, Marin Sais, Nell Shipman, and Kathlyn Williams, among other daring players of lesser fame. Each of these star personae stood for a particular synthesis of femininity, athletic virility, and effortless mobility; each was shaped by a complex discursive system that produced a variety of overdetermined metaphors: the "Peerless, Fearless Girl," the "Empress of Daredevilry," the "Temptress of Chance," the "Daughter of Daring," the "Girl with Nine Lives," and, in the case of White, the "Girl with Ninety-Nine Lives." What this catalogue, with its shimmer between the highly individuated and the syntactically programmatic, demonstrates, is that White's fame may have been unique in scope, but it was certainly not in type. Tracing the reducibility of White's celebrated personae to a series of principles reveals an index to the genesis of film stardom per se.
To view the birth of stardom from this perspective demands a fundamental shift in our assessment of the young industry's aesthetic and cultural dictates. Rather than a fixed galaxy of stars associated with "great" auteurs and the bid for bourgeois respectability, we find an entirely different constellation of figures associated with thrilling modern film genres and praised for their superlative physical and psychical stamina. The action serials that structure the careers of Pearl White, Ruth Roland, and Helen Holmes are obvious and crucial indices, as are mystery-crime films, western adventures, slapstick comedies, jungle safaris, deep-sea spectacles, and so on. I cannot do more than gesture toward such genres here, but their presence alerts us to the existence of a competing industrial logic in the period, one favoring the affective sensation of realistic thrills and grounded in the practice of on-location shooting. In fact, if we examine the institutional framework of the burgeoning star system, with its behind-the-scenes interviews, evidential photographs, and personal testimony, we find the contours of a larger discourse of believability built to enhance the realism of on-screen performances, particularly the difficult feats of the female players. (12) The lure of referentiality that underlies the system's epistemological endeavor makes it meaningful in the context of an industrial-urban modernity, not because it calibrates the perceptual realism associated with technological reproduction, but precisely because it does not: the technologies of early stardom, as I call them, flaunt catastrophe, disorder, and disaster rather than continuity and regulation. The successive views disclosed by the machinery of stardom thus promote a phenomenology of performance founded on the concepts of improvisation and unpredictability --the terms of a "realness" set in opposition to what is understood as the archaic, mechanical gestures of the stage.
The historical revision undertaken here also presents a challenge to contemporary feminism. This essay will not discover a historical female subject (much less a hypothetical one), nor will it recover an optical field ready-made for women's viewing pleasure. (13) Rather than support an ontology of either female or male spectatorship, perilous stars invite a vital rethinking of viewing theories because they imperil the very constitution of subjectivity according to categories of gender, as well as those oppositions that govern many basic concepts and modes of self-definition: adult/child, mortal/immortal, nature/culture, body/ mind.
The ambiguity of the word stunt captures this paradox neatly. Etymologically, stunt is traceable to the 1400s, where it refers to a state of diminution or of arrested development -- the state of lack inscribed on the body of the dwarf. Yet alongside the flourishing of industrial modernity in the late nineteenth century, stunting would come to signify a risky endeavor, an act of exceptionalism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Gender conventions familiar to us from Western cultural paradigms might lead us to assign the state of being stunted and the act of stunting to, respectively, the feminine and masculine realms of signification, to the spectacle of the Bahktinian grotesque and the experience of the Kantian sublime. The interrelated emergence of female film stars and the performance of stunting, however, allows us to see the ways in which what this body "is" and what it can "do" link together as terms of a radical and irreducible difference, the terms of a nonnormative, extraordinary, and unregulatable spectacle. This is not an impossible middle ground so much as the historical ground for a new subject--the star--whose sheer popularity testifies to the toppling of a classical humanist subject regulated by reason and sustained by self-will, in favor of a modern subject premised on corporeal spontaneity and flexibility. Early women stars reflect a heroic personhood construed as both nonknowledgeable and unknowable. This historical contrivance is not easily assimilated by contemporary feminism, but it demands understanding as an alternative to those hardened, prosthetic, metallic male bodies elsewhere populating, if not peopling, the horizon of a technologically altered world.
In the following pages, I examine the discursive strategies through which the media complex of early stardom constructed and promoted the body of its star. My analysis of these representations, however, is intended as a step toward rethinking the body in its material variety, the very stuff of the fan whose "mimetic faculty," in Walter Benjamin's sense of the term, is compelled forward and beyond itself by the technologies of stardom. At base, my interest is to widen the conceptual and historical schema used to provide a foundation or basis for accounts of identity. The technologies of early stardom invite us to ask whether the subject's relations with others, its encounter with the screen, and its position in the modern world may be better understood in corporeal rather than conscious terms. Concurrent with such a historical reorientation is my theoretical investment in altering a feminist politics that up to now has presumed the need to rescue "woman" from the intractability of the body.
The Risk of Film Realism
Sometimes, through accidental failure of prearranged conditions of production--often in the definite determination to face conditions of danger for the sake of pictured realism--the moving picture actress faces personal peril and danger of death undreamed of by the audience.
--Chicago Tribune, 21 July 1912
It is well known that comparisons between film and theater dominated the earliest writings about narrative cinema, particularly during the early to mid-1910s. One typically proceeds by noting that writing about film was often a defensive enterprise, so that differentiating film from theater was above all an effort to define film as a worthwhile form in its own right. Commentators often highlighted the rapidity of camera movements, the effect of the close-up, or the dynamic intertwining of action in different scenes as the medium's characteristic (and characteristically modern) trademarks. In addition, what Hugo Munsterberg in 1916 referred to as "the use of natural settings," a practice coupled with the increase in on-location shooting and realistic dramatic enactments, became a pivotal point in such discussions. (14) "In every film that is released to-day are actualities that would have been voted impossible only a few months back" exclaimed The Literary Digest in 1914. In somewhat more detailed fashion, Burr C. Cook observed in 1916 that "Reelism" has become "a new, big, important word in the screen vernacular." "Because of its demands," Cook explained, "movie companies travel half-way around the globe for a proper setting, or buy up a railroad, build a town, or charter a navy, for the sake of a scenario." (15)
From our contemporary perspective, cinema's capacity to dramatize and record an actual event may hardly appear to herald a revolutionary aesthetic, but for social commentators of the day, film realism--"Realism with a big R" (16)--was deemed worthy of extended commentary. "The one great advantage of the moving-picture play over the so-called `legitimate stage' is that absolute realism is possible in it," wrote one reporter in 1916. "One can not shoot a lion at every performance of a stage-play, but a moving picture can show in a hundred places, night after night, the same lion in his authentic death-agonies." (17) Extending this logic, a pictorial insert in the August 1914 issue of Motion Picture Magazine displays a kind of "before and after" or "stage versus cinema" template of representational practices. On the left side of the page a series of images show stage hands performing elaborate behind-the-scenes special effects: they flap a curtain over the fallen hero to create raging waves in a shipwreck scene; they crack coconuts together to signify a galloping horse; they propel a papier-mache engine across the stage for the locomotive scenes. Juxtaposed with the contrived mechanics of the stage, the other side displays a parallel series of simple, stark …