restricted access Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology
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Camera Obscura 16.3 (2001) 1-7

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Female Stardom and Early Film History

Diane Negra


Designed to explore specific cases of early female stars and the social, industrial, and ideological economies that underwrite the production of the star system, this issue of Camera Obscura takes a fresh look at early film history and the creative ventures of women performers. No single concept of stardom animates the essays gathered here; rather the stars discussed operate as figures through which the authors reconceptualize feminist film history and historiography. The inquiries made invite enlargement and reassessment of the subjects film studies deems significant for analysis; the assembled essays present the results of tracking alternative patterns, pathways, and modes of film history.

Cumulatively contributing to what we hope will be a more panoramic view of the period between the early 1910s and the early 1930s, a twenty-year span in which narrative cinema first emerged, flourished, and moved to dominate cinematic production, the essays of this volume reflect a new energy in recent star scholarship even while they explore new modalities for excavating film history. The coextensive emergence of stardom in the period in which narrative film practices were consolidated [End Page 1] demands careful critical scrutiny. In the pre-sound cinema, stars were particularly vital anchor points when individual films did not necessarily linger long in the public imagination. Moreover, the unruly realism attributed to early cinema stars may have worked as a necessary counterweight to the continuity and standardization of film language and the formulaic nature of cinema fictions. Importantly, a focus on stars directs our attention to the international lexicon through which narrative cinema generated a vast filmgoing constituency. A fuller appreciation of the densely woven connections between film text and star text is crucial to feminist recovery of obscure figures and to the rereading of well-recognized ones. A number of the essays here focus upon highly significant early female figures who have received only cursory attention in the histories of cinema, including stunt star Pearl White, the iconic French performer Musidora, the imported European vamp Pola Negri, the flapper heroine Colleen Moore, and the Chinese star Xuan Jinglin. Other essays revisit canonical stars such as Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo, whose stardom appeared to be self-evident but proves more complex than previous accounts have suggested.

A foundational premise of this volume is that the critical analysis of stardom should not be considered a separate branch of work in film studies, but rather a fully integrated, indeed necessary and inevitable component of any efforts to understand aesthetic, industrial, and ideological film history. Accordingly, several of the essays here bear evidence of a methodological shift away from the analysis of a single star persona and its operations in accordance with Richard Dyer's famous formulation of the star text as a "structured polysemy." 1 For instance, Lucy Fischer's essay, "Greta Garbo and Silent Cinema: The Actress as Art Deco Icon," broadens the traditional mandate of a "star study" by reading the star text of Greta Garbo in conjunction with the emergence of the Art Deco design style, forcefully establishing that the license and sophistication associated with Garbo were often contextualized within a highly functional Deco mise-en-scène. Fischer finds a mutually explanatory relationship between Deco exoticism and modern female eroticism, one that served simultaneously to aestheticize [End Page 2] and gender new conceptions of modernity. It is, in fact, the very axiom of modern subjectivity that Jennifer M. Bean investigates in "Technologies of Early Stardom and the Extraordinary Body." For Bean, the wide range of female star personae constructed in the period between 1912 and 1920 exemplify an economy of "danger" and "catastrophe" that systematically destabilizes cinema's increasingly regulated visual field. In her study, "star discourse" emerges as a technology built to counter "film discourse." The phenomenology of performance through which the former is calibrated provides, she argues, alternative historical and conceptual schemas for conceiving the relation between women and machines, as well as traditional accounts of identity more broadly. The concern of industrial modernity and its relation to...